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Remarks by Congresswoman Waters at Drug Policy Alliance's Press Conference on The 40th Anniversary of Nixon's Declaration of a ‘War on Drugs’

June 16, 2011
Press Release

Congresswoman Maxine Waters was invited to speak before the Drug Policy Alliance's press conference on the 40th Anniversary of Nixon's Declaration of a ‘War on Drugs' today. Rep. Waters delivered the following remarks:

I want to thank the Drug Policy Alliance for the invitation to mark the 40th Anniversary of President Nixon's Declaration of a "War on Drugs."  Indeed, since President Nixon announced the war, billions of dollars have been wasted and millions of lives have been lost in what amounts to an utter failure of public policy.


I also want to thank and commend my colleagues – Reps: John Conyers and Bobby Scott – for their tireless work to address these issues in Congress.  Together, we have led congressional efforts to enact meaningful reforms.  However, despite all that we have learned, we have only been able to achieve incremental change.  The Fair Sentencing Act that was signed into law last year is progress (reduced the disparity from 100-1 to 18-1), but it does not go far enough.  We have to continue the fight! 


It was reported this week, that the United States has spent $1 trillion in the last 40 years to fight the war on drugs, and we have very little to show for such an exorbitant amount of money.

African-Americans and Latino communities have been the real casualties of the domestic war on drugs.  According to U.S. Sentencing Commission figures, no class of drug is as racially skewed as crack in terms of numbers of offenses. According to the Sentencing Commission, 79 percent of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders in 2009 were African American, versus 10 percent who were Caucasian and 10 percent who were Hispanic.

In the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and at the height of the public outcry over crack-cocaine, Congress acted hastily, without sufficient hearings or research, and enacted hard line anti-drug penalties that targeted low-level drug offenders. These statutes included new, long mandatory minimum sentences for such offenders.


Twenty-five years later, mandatory drug sentences have broken communities and destroyed lives.  The result has been the incarceration of thousands of low level drug offenders – most of whom are minorities – and an exponential boom in the Federal prison population. 

According to the Bureau of Prisons, when the 1986 drug law containing lengthy mandatory minimum sentences passed, the prison population was 36,000. Today, the federal prison population is over 215,000 prisoners, an increase of nearly 600 percent in 26 years.  It costs taxpayers approximately $26,000 to keep one prisoner in federal prison for one year.

Mandatory minimum sentences have had an especially devastating impact on the African-American community. The United States Sentencing Commission concluded that "mandatory penalty statutes are used inconsistently" and disproportionately affect African-American defendants.


For this reason, I have worked over the last 20 years to raise awareness and travel across the country to educate communities about cocaine sentencing disparities and mandatory minimums.  I have also hosted many workshops on the subject during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference.  In addition, I have consistently introduced legislation in Congress that would reverse the effects of mandatory minimum prison sentences. 


Today, I will re-introduce the Major Drug Traffickers Prosecution Act of 2011.  This bill is similar to previous legislation that I have introduced since 1999, and it would begin to implement one of the suggested criminal justice reforms recommended by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.  The Major Drug Traffickers Prosecution Act of 2011 will: curb federal prosecutions of low-level and non-violent drug offenders; re-focus scarce federal resources to prosecute major drug kingpins, and give courts and judges greater discretion to place drug users on probation or suspend the sentence entirely.  Under this bill, judges will be able to make individualized determinations and take into account a defendant's individual and unique circumstances rather than being held to a stringent sentencing requirement prescribed by Congress.


We now have the opportunity to identify some consensus priorities regarding the changes needed in our federal sentencing policy, including mandatory minimums.  It is time to take the message to the White House, to the Republican leadership, and across the States.  Let's work together and end this war.  We have the research and empirical, and now it is time to take action!


Once again, I thank you all for your advocacy in advancing criminal justice reforms, and look forward to continuing this very important work with you!