U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder finally has made headlines for a good reason: announcing money-saving, life-saving drug enforcement reforms the Obama administration should have imposed years ago.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder finally has made headlines for a good reason: announcing money-saving, life-saving drug enforcement reforms the Obama administration should have imposed years ago.

In a speech to American Bar Association members, Mr. Holder laid out sweeping changes in the way the Justice Department will prosecute nonviolent drug offenders, ending harsh mandatory minimum sentences to shrink the country’s swelling prison population while making violent crime and national security concerns higher priorities.

The country’s chief law enforcement officer all but admitted the decades-long war on drugs is a failure.

“Widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Mr. Holder said. “It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

Amen. Draconian drug sentencing hasn’t stopped drug use. It has put ever more harmless people behind bars, enabled the growth of violent criminal enterprises and turned many communities into police states, where officers break down doors in the dead of night to bust small-time dealers and users. Because of the war on drugs, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 25 percent of the planet’s prison inmates but just 5 percent of its population. Since 1980, the nation’s federal prison population has grown by 800 percent. According to the San Jose Mercury News, nearly 50 percent of some 220,000 federal inmates are behind bars for drug offenses, and 49 percent of drug offenders are serving between five and 15 years.

Mr. Holder aims to reduce those long sentences by ending the disclosure of the amount of drugs defendants were caught with, provided they aren’t tied to gangs or other large organizations. Without that information, judges can’t impose minimum sentences of five or 10 years, which date back to the 1980s. Federal prosecutors will instead recommend drug treatment and community service programs.

“They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins,” Mr. Holder said. “By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while making our expenditures smarter and more productive.”

The only troubling part of Mr. Holder’s plan: As with so many other Obama administration initiatives, it involves ignoring the law to achieve a desired end. Although the attorney general enjoys a great deal of prosecutorial discretion in pursuing administration priorities, executive power is not unlimited. Mr. Holder should work with the president, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican House leaders to repeal federal drug sentencing guidelines. Legislation already introduced by Sens. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., would give judges the flexibility to impose sentences below mandatory minimums.

Then Mr. Holder should take additional steps to limit overzealous prosecutions of nonviolent drug users. First, Mr. Holder should honor Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to cease prosecutions of medical marijuana users and dispensaries in states that have legalized prescription use of the drug. Second, Mr. Holder should demand significant reforms to asset forfeiture laws that allow police to seize the wealth and possessions of drug suspects for use as a slush fund before those suspects are convicted.

It has taken far too long for elected leaders to acknowledge the suffering that has resulted from our drug policies, including mass carnage in Chicago and along the Mexican border. Law-and-order conservatives and timid liberals finally are agreeing with what libertarians pointed out long ago: Legalization, licensing and taxation of the drug trade, along with increased treatment, prevention and educational programs, would be far cheaper and less damaging to the public. Colorado and Washington state voters said as much last year when they legalized recreational use of marijuana. Mr. Holder’s plan applies only to federal cases, so state and local officials need to adopt their own measures to further dial back the drug war.

Mr. Holder’s new policy isn’t perfect. But it’s a darn good start.

— A version of this editorial appeared Aug. 14 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal