America Relaunches Drug War Based on an Assumption

Jeff Sessions suspects — but doesn’t know — that a softer approach to drugs has led to higher crime.

Republican senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama
Republican senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Has there been a worse government failure in American history than the war on drugs? At least Prohibition was abandoned after thirteen years.

Despite governments around the world and states across America recognizing that drugs are better treated as a public health rather than a law-and-order issue, Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s attorney general, is determined to give repression another go.

The staunch social conservative, who is also known for his hardline anti-gay and anti-immigration views, has announced he is rolling back Barack Obama’s policy of avoiding triggering mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

These laws take decisions out of the hands of prosecutors and judges and impose arbitrary and hard sentences on drug users who pose no harm to anyone.

Sessions maintains they are nevertheless needed to control violent crime, but he has no proof for this.

He argues in The Washington Post that the Obama policy of fewer drug prosecutions and lower sentences has led to an increase in crime:

Before that policy change, the violent crime rate in the United States had fallen steadily for two decades, reaching half of what it was in 1991. Within one year after the Justice Department softened its approach to drug offenders, the trend of decreasing violent crime reversed. In 2015, the United States suffered the largest single-year increase in the overall violent crime rate since 1991.

Which is technically true, except we don’t know if the two are related.

Sessions admits as much when he writes:

My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a “blip,” but the start of a dangerous new trend.

But he doesn’t know. There might as well be another reason for the increase in violence. The spike could be a fluke. It’s too early to tell. Sessions is making policy based on an assumption.