Four decades after the federal government declared war on narcotics, the prevailing tough-on-drugs mentality is giving way to a more nuanced view, one that emphasizes treatment and health nearly as much as courtrooms and law enforcement, reports the Washington Post. The changes are both rhetorical and substantive, reflecting fiscal problems caused by prisons bulging with drug offenders and a shifting social ethos that views some drug use as less harmful than in the past. At least 30 states have modified drug crime penalties since 2009, often repealing or reducing tough mandatory minimum sentences for lower-level offenses, says the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Change is also afoot at the federal level, where FBI data show drug arrests are down 18 percent since 2006, and the Obama administration avoids the phrase “war on drugs.” The Justice Department supports changes being considered by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that would reduce sentences for most drug offenders, and the Senate Judiciary Committee recently passed a bipartisan bill that would cut them in half for some drug crimes. No one is suggesting that the fight against drugs is over. Federal agents are still battling traffickers on the southwest border, and the administration has taken aggressive steps against abuse of prescription drugs and other illicit substances. Polls show that even as a majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, overwhelming numbers still oppose that step for cocaine and heroin. Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman called the new landscape a strategic shift rather than a “retreat” from the anti-drug war. “We are retrenching,'' he said, “and coming to the view that if we deploy our forces more effectively, that will allow us to win this war and take a healthier approach.''