In the summer of 1986, Eric Sterling, a young Congressional staffer serving on the House Subcommittee on Crime, was told to come up with a plan to toughen up America's drug laws. "The issue of drugs and crime was really being hyped by the Reagan administration and the news media," says Sterling. "They were all looking at this, saying, 'We need to crack down.'"
The "tough-on-crime" frenzy that ensued would transform America. In their rush to do something about drugs, lawmakers reshaped the U.S. criminal justice system, cementing harsh mandatory minimum sentences. But as Sterling remembers it, back in 1986, most lawmakers were uninformed about what they were doing and unaware of the impact it would have on thousands of lives.
When Ronald Reagan signed the The Anti-Drug Abuse Act that October, he promised nothing short of a "drug-free generation." At the signing, Reagan told the audience of athletes and schoolchildren that addicts would get the support they needed to "live right" and that America's jails would not fill up with drug users. Yet mandatory minimums trigger an automatic enhanced sentence based on relatively arbitrary amounts of drugs. They rob judges of discretion; while empowering prosecutors to threaten decades-long sentences, even life without parole. In short, America's jails filled up – and quick.
"The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was an emotional reaction and not a rational one, so it's not surprising that its effects have not been what supporters claimed," says Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "It was done to reduce crime and drug use, but drug use is the same today. In fact, drugs are even cheaper, easier to get. So it's done nothing in that regard." In 1994, Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which introduced the three-strikes rule, mandating life without parole for three or more convictions for federal violent felonies or drug trafficking. Many states followed suit, passing three-strikes and habitual offender laws.
Under those conditions, there's not much mystery why, despite Reagan's promise to the contrary, America is now the number-one jailer in the world. In 2015, there were an estimated 2,173,800 Americans in local jails, state and federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice. And even though pot is now legal at the state level in many parts of the country, roughly one in eight federal prisoners are serving time for marijuana offenses.
Unlike a majority of Americans, who think marijuana should be legal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly broadcast his antipathy to legalization. He's also opposed to broader reforms that would help rectify the criminal justice excesses of the past few decades.
In the past year, he's cited the current opioid epidemic as a reason to scale back the legalization of pot.
But Eric Sterling, who's seen first-hand how a drug panic can lead to knee-jerk policy with unpredictably cruel outcomes, thinks there's a better way to address addiction. "Our goal should be to save the lives of drug users," he says. "It's not about putting more people in prison."
Mark Osler, whose time as a prosecutor in 1990s Detroit turned him into a criminal justice reformer, says he's sensed discomfort with Sessions' approach, even among some Republicans in Washington. "It's going back to 1982," he says. And by now we should know that putting people in prison for selling drugs does not end drug use.
"People still get pot!" Osler says. "Any of those marijuana lifers, whoever they were supplying, the next week those people were getting pot from somewhere else. That's what makes it really sad."
In 2017, some Americans can walk into a local dispensary and buy marijuana – or even grow it in their own home – without fear of consequences. Millionaire hedge funders have gotten into the legal weed game. Yet other Americans are still in prison for decades for growing or selling the same, or far smaller, amounts of pot.
In the U.S. criminal justice system, people still get locked up for pot even as others profit from it; it's not an easy contradiction to justify.