Steve Cook’s hardline stance on “criminal justice” was formed as a cop in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, reports Sadie Gurman at the AP. This fanatical drug warrior has now been given the authority to review federal policies.
Drug policy reform activists who were already worried about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ extremist agenda are now even more alarmed at the power being handed to Cook.“Steve Cook and Jeff Sessions are advocating for the failed policies of the ‘Just Say No’ era — policies that resulted in the arrests of millions of otherwise law abiding citizens who possessed personal use amounts of marijuana,” said Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“At a time when the majority of states now regulate marijuana use, and where six out of 10 voters endorse legalizing the plant’s use by adults, it makes no sense from a political, fiscal, or cultural perspective to try to put this genie back in the bottle,” Strekal said. “It is high time that members of Congress take action to comport federal law with majority public opinion and the plant’s rapidly changing legal and cultural status.”
Lock ‘Em Up and Throw Away the Key
The former prosecutor summed up his philosophy: “This theory that we have embraced since the beginning of civilization is, when you put criminals in prison, crime goes down,” he said, displaying a keen ability to ignore statistics. “It really is that simple.”
Cook’s simplistic views are actually widely challenged by criminal justice experts. But the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” philosophy embodied by Cook means he’ll be putting his stamp on a new Department of Justice task force developing policies to fight violent crime in cities.
As such, Cook is already pushing some 20th Century ideas that even some fellow Republicans have dismissed as outdated and fiscally irresponsible. He helped write Atty. Gen. Sessions’ memo this month urging federal prosecutors to seek the harshest prison sentences possible. That move was assailed by Drug War critics as a revival of failed policies that decimated minority communities, at great cost to taxpayers.
Reversing Obama-Era Policies
The reversal of Obama-era policies — under which the federal prison population declined, for the first time in decades — is being “driven by voices who have not only been discredited but until now have been relegated to the fringes of this debate,” according to former Attorney General Eric Holder.
When Holder in 2013 told prosecutors they could leave drug quantities out of charging documents — so as not to charge some suspects with crimes that would trigger long sentences — Cook was horrified, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian said. Killian, meanwhile, embraced Holder’s so-called smart-on-crime approach, which encouraged leniency for offenders who weren’t violent or weren’t involved in leading an organization.
“Steve Cook thinks that everyone who commits a crime ought to be locked up in jail,” Killian said. “He and I have philosophical differences about that, that won’t ever be reconciled.”
‘World Turned Upside Down’
Cook finds any criticism bewildering. His passionately anti-drug stance was hardened even farther one night on patrol, when he came upon a family whose station wagon had just been hit head-on by what he called a “pilled-up drug user.” Two daughters were dead in the back seat.
“Drug trafficking is inherently violent,” Cook said in 2015. “You keep hearing the phrase ‘non-violent drug offenders’ — it’s a misnomer. Drug trafficking is inherently violent and the penalties are necessary.”
“For me, it’s like the world is turned upside down,” Cook said. “We now somehow see these drug traffickers as the victims. That’s just bizarre to me.”
Cook sees today’s crime rates — which are much lower than those of the 80s and 90s, during the height of the Drug War — as somehow justifying the “tough on crime” approach. He is eager for the return of long, mandatory minimum sentences, keeping “drug peddlers” locked up for as long as possible, Cook said.
Cook has been traveling the country with Sessions as the Attorney General trumpets his “tough on crime” agenda. The two are “seeking input from law enforcement” they plan to take to the task force as it writes its recommendations, which are due in July.
Cook Is ‘Out of Central Casting’With Sessions and Cook holding such power, efforts to make the justice system more sane when it comes to drugs are in peril, according to Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
“He is out of central casting for old school prosecutors, and he’s nothing if not earnest,” Ring said of Cook. “I think he is profoundly misguided, but it’s certainly not an act.”
“You’ve put the arch enemies of criminal justice reform in charge of the U.S. Justice Department,” Ring said. “You’ve made the hill a little steep.”
It’s no surprise that a group of federal prosecutors — the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, which Cook led before his new assignment — is just overjoyed at the prospect. They think his rise in the DOJ bodes well for prosecutors who felt limited by Obama’s policies.
“His heart and soul is in everything he does,” crowed Lawrence Leiser, his shining with an unholy gleam at the prospect of sending thousands of people away for lengthy prison sentences. “And he is a strong believer in the rule of law.”
Governors Taking Action
While the federal Justice Department contemplates its next move, state politicians are taking action. Recently, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I) issued a letter to the new U.S. Attorney General and to Secretary of Treasury Mnuchin calling on them to uphold the Obama Administration’s largely “hands off” policies toward marijuana legalization, as outlined in the Cole Memo.
“Overhauling the Cole Memo is sure to produce unintended and harmful consequences,” the governors wrote. “Changes that hurt the regulated market would divert existing marijuana product into the black market and increase dangerous activity in both our states and our neighboring states.”
“Given that Sessions has recently reiterated that the Cole Memo is valid, Steve Cook would be wise to maintain the current interpretation and not interfere with the right of states to set and enforce their own marijuana policies,” Strekal said.\