The War on Drugs: Moral Panic and Excessive Sentences

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See all articles by Michael Vitiello

Michael Vitiello

University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law

Date Written: April , 2020

Abstract

The War on Drugs: Moral Panic and Excessive Sentences
The United States’ War on Drugs has not been pretty. Moral panic has repeatedly driven policy when states and the federal government have regulated drugs. Responding to that panic, legislators have authorized severe sentences for drug offenses.
By design, Article III gives federal judges independence, in part, to protect fundamental rights against mob rule. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has often failed to protect fundamental rights in times of moral panic. For example, it eroded Fourth Amendment protections during the War on Drugs. Similarly, it failed to protect drug offenders from excessive prison sentences during the War on Drugs.
This article examines whether it is time for the Supreme Court to rethink its precedent upholding extremely long sentences for drug crimes.
In 1983, in Solem v. Helm, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to terms of imprisonment. There, it found the imposition of a true-life sentence imposed on a repeat offender to be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the defendant’s offense. Whatever hope Solem created that courts might limit excessive sentences proved to be false.
Two Supreme Court cases dealing with drug sentences, bracketing Solem, demonstrate the Court’s unwillingness to override legislatures’ discretion in imposing sentences. In 1982, the Court upheld a 40-year term of imprisonment imposed on an offender who possessed less than nine ounces of marijuana. In 1991, the Court upheld a true-life sentence imposed on an offender who possessed 672 grams of cocaine. The Court’s refusal to curtail such extreme sentences reflects its willingness to accede to the nation’s moral panic over drug usage.
Since the height of the War on Drugs, Americans have changed their views about drugs. Significant majorities of Americans favor legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use. Many Americans favor a wholesale rethinking of drug policy. Despite studies in the 1950s and 1960s, demonstrating beneficial use of drugs like LSD and psilocybin, Congress yielded to moral panic and included them in Schedule I when it enacted the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Efforts are afoot at the state level to legalize the study of and to decriminalize the use of those and other drugs.
This article argues that the Court should rethink its Eighth Amendment caselaw upholding severe drug sentences. The Court’s Eighth Amendment caselaw balances the severity of punishment against the gravity of an offense. In turn, the gravity of an offense turns on its social harm and the culpability of the offender. The Court upheld extreme drug sentences based on the view that drugs were a national scourge. Moral panic led it to overstate the social harm and the culpability of drug offenders. Scientifically based examination of drugs and drug policy should compel the Court to rethink its excessive punishment caselaw because the balance between severity of punishment and the gravity of drug offenses looks different when one has a better understanding of true costs and benefits of drug use.

Keywords: Eighth Amendment, Excessive Punishment, War on Drugs

Suggested Citation

Vitiello, Michael, The War on Drugs: Moral Panic and Excessive Sentences (April , 2020). Cleveland State Law Review, Vol. 69, 2021, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=

Michael Vitiello (Contact Author)

University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law ( email )

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Sacramento, CA 95817
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