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Jeff Sessions 'appears intent on taking us back to the 1980s' and the 'War on Drugs'

March 17,2017 06:24

John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University in New York who recently published a book on the causes of mass incarceration, told Business Insider in an email that Sessions is probably not trying to specifically revive the "War on Drugs," but ...and more »

General Jeff Sessions.
Press/Susan Walsh

Sessions wants to crack down on drug offenders

Says violent crime is rising nationwide

Experts say Sessions wants to take us back to '80s and
'90s style punishments

His comments about marijuana may be the most

Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed on Wednesday to ramp up
enforcement of drug crimes to combat what he says is a nationwide
increase in violent crime, a move some experts say channels the
"drug war" era of the 1980s. 

Sessions delivered a speech to law enforcement officers in
Richmond, Virginia, where he touted the effectiveness of Project
Exile, a two-decade old program that enforced mandatory minimum
sentences on felons caught carrying firearms. 

"All of us who work in law enforcement want to keep people
safe," Sessions said,
according to prepared remarks. "That is the heart of our
jobs; it is what drives us every day. So we are all disturbed to
learn that violent crime is on the rise in America, especially in
our cities."

While Sessions admitted that crime rates in the US were at
"historic" lows, he pointed out that, according to the FBI,
incidents of
violent crime rose by more than 3% between 2014 and
2015. Sessions tied this increase in violence to the
"unprecedented epidemic" of heroin and opioid abuse. 

"My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not
a 'blip,' but the start of a dangerous new trend," Sessions said.
"I worry that we risk losing the hard-won gains that have made
America a safer and more prosperous place."

Sessions outlined three main ways to fight the "scourge" of
drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment, and prevention. He
highlighted prevention campaigns — including Nancy Reagan's
say No" efforts — as effective tools for bringing down rates
of drug use. 

The results of "Just Say No," and similar abstinence-oriented
prevention campaigns like D.A.R.E, are mixed.
A 2007 study from the University of Missouri, St.
Louis found that the programs are mostly over-funded and

However, a 2011 study,
cited by Scientific American, from the University of Texas
School of Public Health found that certain abstinence programs
can be effective, provided they reinforce the lessons over a
multi-year time period. 

Taking it back to the '80's 

Drug Enforcement Administration officer patrols outside of a
medical clinic in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, May 20,
AP Photo/Danny

Criminal justice and drug policy experts say that Sessions'
focus on cracking down on drug offenders is an unwise strategy
borne out of the "War on Drugs" era of the '80s and

Michael Collins, the deputy director of the Drug Policy
Alliance, called Sessions' emphasis on sentencing and enforcement
as a response to the opioid epidemic "deeply

"He appears intent on taking us back to the 1980's with his drug
war rhetoric," Collins told Business Insider. "Locking up
more people exacerbates the problem." 

Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy
Institute, criticized Sessions support of Project Exile, which he
called "political will" to remove black and brown people
from communities. The program heavily
penalizes gun offenders, according to Schindler, but does
nothing to stem the flow of guns into cities and neighborhoods.

"The approach to addressing violence in our communities
being put forth by AG Sessions is not based on research, and
lacks the context that should be considered to inform sound
policy decisions,"  Schindler told Business Insider in an

The research on Project Exile is far from clear. FiveThirtyEight has
the rundown: A 2003
study found that in Richmond, Virginia — where Sessions gave
his speech — the city would have experienced a similar reduction
in homicide rates with or without Exile.

But, a 2009
study found evidence supporting Exile's
efficacy. Among the sample group, cities with high levels of
federal prosecution for federal gun crimes experienced a 13%
decrease in violent crimes, compared to an 8% increase in cities
that didn't, even when controlling for other factors like
incarceration rates and poverty. 

However, "none of this stuff is as neat as even the
peer-reviewed publications put it," John Klofas, a
professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of
Technology told FiveThirtyEight. 

John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University in New
York who recently
published a book on the causes of mass incarceration, told
Business Insider in an email that Sessions is probably not trying
to specifically revive the "War on Drugs," but rather looking to
justify "harsh punitive responses to crime more broadly."
Incarceration would be an easy sell politically for Sessions and
the Trump Administration, even if its an inefficient way of
controlling crime, he added.

"Sessions' insistence that the recent uptick in violent
crime is not just a blip but the start of a longer trend (which,
to be fair, could be the case — but also may not be so at all)
seems to be part of a rhetorical push to make non-prison reforms
riskier to adopt," Pfaff said.

variety of medicinal marijuana buds in jars are pictured at Los
Angeles Patients & Caregivers Group dispensary in West

Sessions vs. marijuana 

Sessions honed in on
his opposition to legalizing marijuana on Wednesday,
saying that he "realizes this may be unfashionable
in a time of growing tolerance of drug use."

Pfaff suggested that Session's comment on marijuana may
have "the biggest short-run impact."

Sessions railed against medical marijuana, and the
notion that increasing access to the drug can be a tool to
help counter opioid and heroin addiction. Research has shown that
in states that have legalized medical marijuana, addiction and
opioid overdose rates have dropped, reports
Business Insider Kevin Loria. 

Though he's opposed to marijuana legalization, Sessions did tell
reporters after his remarks that he may keep the Obama-era Cole
Memo — which directs the Justice Department to place a low
priority on prosecuting legal marijuana businesses that comply
with state laws — though with some modifications, reports

MassRoots' Tom Angell. 

Sessions indicated that the federal government may not have the
ability to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have

Mason Tvert, the communications director for the Marijuana Policy
Project, told Business Insider in an email that Sessions'
comments do not seem like a "call to shut down" licensed and
regulated marijuana businesses.

"It sounds more like a call to go after unregulated
marijuana producers and dealers who are operating in the illicit
market," Tvert said. 

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