The False Narrative About Mandatory Minimums

When it comes to arguments critical of the ‘War on Drugs,' more often than not the notion emerges that unfair sentencing based upon ‘mandatory minimum’ laws is prevalent. Mandatory minimums are most often used as evidence of an overly punitive system which punishes drug users as if they were dealers.

Little could be further from the truth.

Recently the issue of mandatory minimums re-emerged as Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed courts to reveal the amounts that drug pushers are caught with at the time of their arrest, triggering the minimums as a result. This was a reversal of a 2013 order by then-AG Eric Holder which instructed courts to keep those amounts a mystery, avoiding the use of mandatory minimums altogether. This order by Holder was a part of the Obama-era condemnation of the War on Drugs, but it refuses to categorize dealers based on their scale of operation.

The fact is, the narrative railing against mandatory minimums needs to stop. It is based on falsehoods and ultimately lets large-scale drug dealers off the hook.

Despite arguments positing that these minimum sentencing requirements are racially motivated or that they penalize addiction, the realities show otherwise.

Those who qualify for mandatory minimums are caught possessing amounts that far exceed what any user would have on them, and even the amounts most petty pushers would be caught with.

Let’s start with the drug that has the least stigma and inflicts the least harm, the drug which is most often used to characterize the ills of the War on Drugs: marijuana.

Almost everybody agrees that being caught smoking or possessing a joint, or even an amount of weed that is plausible for a recreational user, should not result in jail time. The characterization that many punished by mandatory minimums are essentially hippies caught with a small sack of marijuana is simply misleading.

Last year, for example, only 198 people were convicted in federal court of simple possession of marijuana. Of those convicted, the average weight of marijuana which was in their possession was 48.5 pounds. (WSJ)

I don’t know about you, but that’s not exactly my image of a weekend’s worth of pot. That’s big-league pusher levels of weed. To illustrate this notion, most of these cases were reduced to lesser possession charges after the offenders were initially charged with trafficking.

To trigger the mandatory minimum sentence that comes with a trafficking conviction, a pot dealer would have to be caught with 2,200 pounds of marijuana in their possession. That’s more than a ton of the devil’s lettuce. (WSJ)

Some maintain that marijuana is harmless, and thus dealers should not be prosecuted at all. This is an overly simplistic view of the drug trade.

The reality is that that large-scale marijuana trafficking brings with it profits that often constitute the use of violence among its peddlers. No matter how harmless you may consider the drug to be, its inherent monetary value means that many people would be more than willing to rob and even kill over such amounts.

So, I believe prosecution is fair. We aren’t talking about locking up some kid caught taking a puff at Coachella, after all. We are talking about literal tons of weed.

When it comes to heroin, the charge that mandatory minimums punish addiction comes into play. This is also false, as the amounts of heroin which trigger these minimums are also far, far greater than anything a user would possess.

In order to trigger the 10-year mandatory trafficking sentence for heroin pushers, they must be found in possession of 1 kilogram of the drug. This amount is equivalent to 10,000 doses, or at least $100,000 in street value. (WSJ)

Again, not near any amount that a strung-out heroin addict would ever be able to maintain.

These mandatory minimums have always been aimed at locking up those who traffic large amounts of narcotics and marijuana, and this is still the case. Besides becoming part of larger political narratives and thus being treated as a politicized issue, nothing has changed with respect to mandatory minimums.

Even the argument that mandatory minimums, and the war on drugs as a whole, is aimed at locking up minorities can be disputed with facts.

According to statistics provided by the Wall Street Journal, vacating drug-related sentences would have virtually no effect on the racial makeup of prison populations in the United States:

“In 2014, 37.4% of state and federal prisoners were black. If all drug prisoners- who are virtually all dealers- had been released, the share of black prisoners would have dropped to 37.2%.”(WSJ)

It is not drug offenses that vary by race, and therefore have a greater impact on racial disparities in the prison population. It is a statistical tendency toward violent crime among the black community that has proven the greatest disparity by race within the prison population.

Yet, mandatory minimum sentences have been used as another way to push the political agenda that the justice system is a racist one, ignoring the true realities behind what differentiates crime in America. They, like many similarly flawed narratives about American crime, ignore the real issue: violent crime.

Consider this:

“Likewise, it is America’s higher violent-crime rates overall, not drug enforcement, that cause the country’s higher incarceration rates compared with other Western industrialized countries. The U.S. rate is seven times the average of 21 Western developed nations plus Japan…Americans ages 15 to 24 kill with guns at nearly 43 times the rate of their counterparts in those same industrialized nations.” (WSJ)

We must not distract further from this issue of violent crime, mischaracterizing mandatory minimums and pushing the narrative that it serves the government to lock people- specifically minorities- up without justification.

Mandatory minimums not only punish large-scale dealers justly for their insidious crime, but they also create a system of minimum punishment that often incentivizes those caught peddling to turn in their criminal counterparts. Because, let’s not get it twisted, drug traffickers of this scale are nothing if not criminals.

Reinstating mandatory minimums is not racist. It doesn’t signal a war on addiction. It restores a common-sense drug policy aimed at those who perpetrate evil. In a time in which opiate addiction is at an all-time high and shows no signs of slowing, this is a step toward punishing those that engage in the genocide of opiate trafficking, while encompassing those with similarly criminal intent.

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