Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed more aggressive criminal prosecution of drug dealers and people who illegally possess firearms, called for cracking down on recreational marijuana, and also called for a return of the “Just Say No” era of the 80s — the years in which crack cocaine ravaged nation’s inner cities.
“We have too much of a tolerance for drug use,” Sessions said. “We need to say, as Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just say no.’ There’s no excuse for this, it’s not recreational. Lives are at stake, and we’re not going to worry about being fashionable.”
The Attorney General, speaking in Richmond, Va., at a meeting of law enforcement officials as he praised Project Exile, a program that began in Richmond in 1997, but was picked up by other cities. It teams up police and prosecutors to bring gun crimes to federal court for the intention of resulting in longer prison sentences for offenders.
Although the level of Project Exile’s success has been debated President Trump has been a supporter of it and the White House has been vocal about its intention to become more focused on reducing crime and prosecuting criminals. But critics of the program said it disproportionately affected African-Americans with its five-year mandatory minimum sentences.
As Sessions spoke about this, he said the solution was to “hammer” those involved in the illicit drug trade and used recreational marijuana as an example of a substance that the federal government would watch more closely.
“I reject the idea that we’re going to be better placed if we have more marijuana, and you can just go down to the corner grocery store and get it. Give me a break,” he said. “This is high-purity THC content marijuana and it’s not a healthy substance, particularly for young people.”
However, the very era that Sessions called for a return to were some of the worst for those who live in urban areas as far as crime is concerned. The 80s and 90s were the height of the crack epidemic. By 1986, emergency room visits linked to the drug increased by 110 percent, from 26,300 to 55,200, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Also, according to a Harvard University study, between 1984 and 1994 homicide rates for Black males between ages 14-17 doubled and nearly as much for Black males between ages 18-24.
Further, federal laws enacted to get tough on crack did little more than make things worse for communities affected by the epidemic. There were significant racial disparities between Blacks who were caught with crack and Whites who were caught with cocaine. In other words, possession of crack could carry the same sentence as possession of cocaine that was 100 times larger. That was changed in 2010 when President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, making the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1.
If Sessions brings federal drug policy back to the days of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” mantra, then could it be possible that we will also return to the draconian measures enacted that were intended to combat drug related violence, but only served to heighten incarceration for Black and Brown people?
He has already reversed the order of former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates that allowed government contracts with private prisons to expire possibly in favor of expanding the federal prison system. That falls in line with bringing things back to the days of the former First Lady’s slogan which conservatives embraced, but which frankly, the street laughed at.
“President Trump gave us a clear directive,” Sessions said during his address. “It’s the policy of this administration to reduce crime in America, not preside over an increase in crime, but reduce crime.”
But if crime reduction is his aim, a return to the drug policies and legislation of the 1980s — and the attitudes that poor people who live in cities could be locked up en masse as a solution to violent crime — is a backwards way to go about it.
Madison J. Gray is Digital Managing Editor of EBONY.com. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.