The administration of President Barack Obama witnessed the first change in the direction of drug policy since the administrations of Ford and Carter.
Sentencing reform was influenced by the need to curtail ballooning prison populations and federal and state budgets, along with the recognition that the 40-year old drug war strategy that had largely prioritized incarceration had yet to result in lower drug consumption or better treatment for addicts. The shift was also part of a broader change in global attitudes towards drugs and drug policy, underscored by the decriminalization of all drugs in Portugal in 2001. Medicinal marijuana became legal in 16 U.S. states by 2010, Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, and Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014.
Additionally, in 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act that reduced the prior disparity for federal criminal penalties between crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for possession of crack. In an effort to focus on violent drug offenders, and those guilty of simple possession, in 2013, the U.S. Attorney General issued new guidelines that instructed prosecutors to eliminate references to the amount of drugs confiscated that would have triggered mandatory minimum sentences under the previous regime. Federal prosecutors can now adapt sentencing guidelines to those used at the state or local level, and have more flexibility to determine when federal charges should apply.
In order to qualify, offenders cannot belong to any drug trafficking organization or previously have been charged for a violent offense. While certainly far from Portugal’s Decriminalization of all drugs, it seems that the U.S. federal government is now open to depenalizing the use and possession of drugs at some level where violence is not involved. Additionally, President Obama commuted the sentences of more than 1,000 non-violent drug offenders, more than double the number granted by the last six granted U.S. presidents combined.
Lastly, driven by the unabated prescription opiate and heroin crisis, the U.S. Congress passed the first major legislation geared toward addiction in 40 years with the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) in 2016. CARA seeks to address the opiate crisis by focusing on prevention, treatment, recovery, overdose reversal, law enforcement, and criminal justice reform. The bill provides $181 million in annual federal funding that must be approved each year through the regular appropriations process.