Who started the war on drugs

These laws were first introduced in individual states with the aim of containing drug epidemics. In 1986, Congress passed a nationwide law. Masses of street vendors and "mules" carrying drugs were locked away. Both posts can easily be refilled by the bosses.

Lawrence Garrison, the former convict, says, "We are the dead in the drug war." But the war on drugs has failed and America is rethinking. In early August, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered prosecutors across the country to refrain from requiring minimum sentences. Democratic MP Steve Cohen is delighted: "This is an extraordinary moment in American legal history. Congress has penalties by law defused."

Still, nothing changes for those who have already been brutally punished. They are in the drug war what Guantánamo's "enemy combatants" are in the "war on terror". Because Holder's instruction only applies to future trials, as he made clear in a memorandum to the federal prosecutors. This creates a new contradiction, believes Cohen: "Now people are sitting in jail and serving sentences that are no longer in the law."

"I've missed a lot"

Many politicians have realized that for 25 years too many people have been going to prison for too long for small deals - they are missing from families. Garrison, who graduated with a degree in political science shortly before his arrest, says, "I'm not married. I have no children. My brother is not married, has no children. I've missed a lot." In 2009, after a tough legal battle, the two were waived a few years. Freed again, Lawrence now holds two jobs in his hometown of Washington.

The long sentences were originally intended to deter dealers and consumers. The opposite happened. There are few better places to become a criminal than American prisons. Even the Republican Newt Gingrich calls them "colleges of crime" today. Garrison says: "Everything that is on the street is also in jail: drugs, weapons, gambling." And murder. He saw how a prisoner stabbed another in the heart with a self-made knife because he had switched to another TV channel: "I would never have thought that people could be so brutal."

The reasons for Holder's reform course are not only moral, but also financial: A prisoner costs taxpayers about $ 30,000 a year, as much as a year of tuition at a good university. In 2010, a court ordered California to reduce the occupancy of the prisons to 137.5 percent of their capacity - because they were almost twice the occupancy that was originally planned.

Growing consensus between Democrats and Republicans

The consensus is cross-camp: Conservative southern states like Texas now prefer to save rather than lock up. They avoid many of the harsh penalties to avoid building expensive prisons. That makes it easier for the Democrats to finally stand behind reforms without being immediately soft on crime to be considered - as weaklings who want to cuddle up the drug problem.

America is in the process of steering the war on drugs into a more moderate direction, at least on the home front. Attorney General Holder's instruction signals a rethink in Washington; several states have started decriminalizing marijuana. Meth, crack and cocaine are still on the streets, but drug violence has fallen dramatically.

Euphoric activists

Tony Papa says, "It's a great time for us activists." He sits in the simple office of his organization in Manhattan Drug Policy Allianceadvocating criminal law reform. Papa knows what he's talking about. His head is shaved and he wears a beard. Under his purple shirt you can still see the broad cross that he began to train in his garage in the Bronx in the 1980s. But he was never a tough boy, says Dad. He had a wife and a daughter, money was tight. That's why he played the messenger in a friend's coke deal in 1986. The buyers were undercover cops who arrested Papa. The verdict: "15 years to life". This is also the name of his most famous painting (Papa was convicted under the "Rockefeller Laws" of the state of New York, the blueprint for the national mandatory laws).

He began to paint in the notorious Sing Sing prison, later museums exhibited his pictures. That helped him win a pardon from the New York governor. He was released after twelve years in prison, and since then he has campaigned for the abolition of the penal sentences.