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Originally published Monday, August 12, 2013 at 4:09 PM

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Editorial: Obama administration de-escalates ‘war on drugs’

Attorney General Eric Holder announced a plan to rework federal policy to back away from mandatory minimum prison sentences for drugs.

Seattle Times Editorial

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ATTORNEY General Eric Holder’s speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco was a bit like hearing from a stockbroker after trading has closed.

“Well, of course the market went down.” Well, of course the U.S. needs to rethink drug laws and enforcement.

Decades after America righteously declared a zero-tolerance policy toward all drug crimes and nonviolent crimes involving drugs, Holder and others want to stop the abuses.

Seize the belated insights whenever they come along.

Support for being “Smart on Crime,” in the AG’s words, is aimed at undoing laws that maintain “a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration” that “traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.”

Under the policy proposal, fewer drug offenders would face long sentences, fewer would go to federal prison and judges would have more discretion.

Substantial credit for this change of heart might truly go to the bloated, unsustainable expense of a federal prison system bursting at the seams and concentric circles of prison costs the policies impose on local jurisdictions.

These policies are on a path to end in the same way they began, with broad bipartisan support. Republican President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” took shape in a heated competition with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass. Neither party wanted to be seen by voters as weak on drugs.

As a result, Holder described a federal prison system operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity, with nearly 219,000 inmates.

The American Civil Liberties Union viewed Holder’s policy directives to change practices for low-level, nonviolent offenders as crucial steps toward reducing harmful federal prison overcrowding.

The country has come a long way in three decades. Changing laws and attitudes about marijuana have been in the forefront. The benchmark for change is a quote by Reagan’s drug czar Carlton Turner, who said, “marijuana leads to homosexuality, the breakdown of the immune system, and therefore to AIDS.”

Holder’s policy direction has stirred questions about the need to replace U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, formerly Seattle’s police chief, as he leaves the post for another federal job.

Holder has bipartisan support in Congress for change. Maybe something actually will happen to reform laws that have ruined lives and budgets.

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