Jeff Sessions will double down on failed drug war

Code Pink protesters at Sessions confirmation hearing
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With Jeff Sessions’ inching closer to becoming the next attorney general, concerns continue to mount that Sessions will use his newfound powers to escalate the failed war on drugs if confirmed. 

These concerns are predicated on the fact that Sessions has shown an unflinching devotion throughout his career to drug policies that have fueled mass incarceration, gross racial disparities in the criminal justice system and the criminalization of people who struggle with addiction.

{mosads}Sessions has long been a leading advocate for vigorous enforcement of harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws that have exacerbated mass incarceration. As a federal prosecutor in Alabama, the Brennan Center for Justice found that 40 percent of his convictions were for drug related crimes, double the rate of other Alabama federal prosecutors

Although in 2010 Sessions supported reducing the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, he opposed broader sentencing reform efforts 

Sessions has also impeded popular bipartisan efforts in Congress to strengthen re-entry programs for incarcerated people returning to society. 

In 2008, Senator Sessions used his privilege as a member of the Senate to hold up passage of the Second Chance Act, landmark re-entry legislation first proposed by President Bush, for weeks, and as recently as 2015, Sessions remarked that, despite solid evidence to the contrary, “(his) observation over the years of attempts to have education and other kind of character-building programs in prison before they are released doesn’t seem to have much benefit.”

Believing that the way to reduce demand for illicit drugs is by sending more people to prison, Sessions has long staked out a hardline position in favor of pushing aggressive law enforcement approaches over emphasizing treatment and recovery. “Having tough sentences is not bad,” said Sessions in 2008, “we have had a significant reduction in drug use in America …and violent crime is down, and a large part of that is tough sentences.”

Sessions applied the same logic to the opioid epidemic despite emerging political consensus that law enforcement should not arrest their way out of the opioid addiction issue. Sessions admonished colleagues for failing to lead with drug war tactics. “We can wish that we could just turn away and reduce law enforcement,” said Sessions speaking about the opioid epidemic in 2016, “But I do believe that we’re going to have to enhance prosecutions. There just is no other solution.”

Sessions has also hinted that people who struggle with addiction are better served by the criminal justice system than treatment and recovery programs. “You have to be able to arrest people and then you’re intervening in their destructive habit,” said Sessions in 2014. 

“We can talk about making sure we have treatment and recovery for people who have been addicted, although many people never ever recover from addiction – except by the grave,” said Sessions during remarks given before a Senate vote on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a 2016 bipartisan opioid bill signed by President Obama epitomizing a shift away from failed punitive policies. 

Even in a statement intended to praise CARA Sessions criticized the bill for not including tough-on-crime policies saying it “falls far short” and opioid legislation “must also eliminate the drug supply.”

Comments suggest Sessions sees drug use as a moral issue rather than a health issue, putting him out of step with science. He has said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and draws no distinction for people who use marijuana for medical purposes. At every opportunity Sessions has defended the war on drugs and his role in it. 

“When I became a part of this Department of Justice as U.S. attorney in 1981,” said Sessions in 1999, “we did commence a war on drugs, and some said it failed, but it did not fail. It was a success.” 

Senator Sessions’ solution to drug use isn’t an emphasis on treatment but the “tremendous victory” that was the “Just Say No” program of the 1980s.

Sessions may have a reputation in the Senate for being nice, but his record shows us that as Attorney General he likely won’t be a friend to lawmakers and others who are working both to pass criminal justice reform and advance drug policies that treat drug use as a health issue.

Grant Smith is deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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