WASHINGTON, D.C. —
Change is also afoot at the federal level, where FBI data show drug arrests are down 18 percent since 2006, and the Obama administration tries to avoid the phrase "war on drugs." The Justice Department is strongly supporting 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 southwestern 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.
And while many of the drug law changes have drawn bipartisan support, some prosecutors are opposing Attorney General Eric Holder's efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The marijuana legalization campaign has also faced resistance from former Drug Enforcement Administration leaders and other critics.
But after a generation of anti-drug messages symbolized by the "Just Say No" campaign of the 1980s and enforcement accompanied by martial metaphors, experts say a broad consensus is emerging around a crucial distinction. Under the new paradigm, they said, traffickers engaged in the business of drugs will still face long prison terms, while lower-level users will increasingly be viewed as addicts with a treatable illness.
"States in particular are starting to make much bigger distinctions between personal use and commercial activity,'' said Adam Gelb, director of Pew's Public Safety Performance Project, who pointed out that some states have recently toughened penalties for large-scale drug sales while relaxing them for drug possession.
Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert on criminal sentencing, 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.''