In a stroke of brilliance, Eric Holder, Obama’s former attorney general, has pivoted his stance on cannabis decriminalization.
Bringing a final resolution to views he had expressed whilst in office, Holder stated in a February interview with PBS Frontline that he would support dropping cannabis from its status as a prohibited Schedule I substance.
Referencing his history of sentencing reforms in regard to harder drugs, Holder said, “You know, we treat marijuana in the same way that we treat heroin now, and that clearly is not appropriate.”
For the most part, the former A.G. had always had a fair reputation as a drug policy reformer, though he had specifically gone on record in the past with some questionable statements and actions – while he was still in office; when it mattered most.
Accurate and scientific information about the safety and medicinal properties of cannabis has become much more readily accessible as of late, making it hard to blame Holder for switching his public stance on the issue so late in the game.
Holder’s crack and powder cocaine sentencing reforms are not to be overlooked. He vouched for the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, and in a speech to the American Bar Association in 2013, came out in support of abolishing “mandatory minimum” sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and working to close the “school to prison pipeline” – all part of his Smart On Crime initiative to make the justice system more economically and morally sustainable.
“Of the more than 216,000 current federal inmates – nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes,” said Holder in a 2014 testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission. “This focused reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable – it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
This philosophy, that felony and incarceration should be reserved for only the harshest drug criminals, eventually served as the cornerstone for his change of heart on marijuana as well.
Judging by the tone of his public statements, when the upswing in cannabis business and legalization began in 2012 is when the attorney general’s views began to change. The radio silence from the justice department in regard to widespread medical and recreational legalization had many activists holding their breath.
One can only hope that he was presented some new information that caused him to change his mind, like the amount of individuals treating cancer, epilepsy, PTSD and dozens more conditions with some form of medical cannabis.
Many entrenched in the movement of cannabis activism criticized Holder on his way out of office, saying that he didn’t do enough to upset the status quo. Regardless, his recent stance still shouldn’t be taken as hypocritical. It’s actually quite on-trend in the context of the reforms he was able to make with information available to him at the time, and the political climate in which he served.
How much influence does the former attorney general’s opinion have on public policy? Probably none – but it could hold some water in the court of public opinion for people who respected Holder.