Eric Sterling, president and co-founder of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, came to speak at Drexel Law School March 24 about the complicated and contradictory legislation behind marijuana.
Sterling, whose past activist involvement includes the anti-Vietnam War movement, believes that the United States’ current drug policy is counterproductive. A graduate of Haverford College and Villanova University School of Law, he has been an adviser for Students for Sensible Drug Policy since 2000 and the chair of the Alcohol and Other Drug Advisory Council in Montgomery County, Md.
According to Sterling, hearings about the decriminalization of marijuana were held in Pennsylvania in 1976. To this day, marijuana has not been decriminalized in the state. He noted, however, that 40 percent of the Villanova law students he surveyed at the time used or had used the drug. He said that people are against the legalization of cannabis now because they see a “historical flashback in which [they’re] not looking at what [they] really know” about marijuana. “[It’s] a form of cultural persecution,” Sterling said.
During the talk, Sterling shared several facts about the legality of marijuana. For example, there are 7,000 pot-related persecutions by the federal government each year, and 800,000 people have been persecuted. Article Six of the Constitution refers to federal law as “the supreme law of the land,” yet 20 states allow medical cannabis usage; a contradiction exists. 40,000 people are in jail on the state level for marijuana charges. Growing pot without a license, whether for medicinal or recreational purposes, is considered a felony. “What justifies [punishment] is that your conduct is unlawful,” he said. “In terms of marijuana, where is the wrongfulness?”
In a comparison to alcohol, Sterling noted that the nation takes legal action against those driving impaired, and yet alcohol is not banned because of drunk driving. Sterling said that only nine percent of people who use marijuana develop an addiction, compared to 15 percent who use alcohol.
Another issue to consider is that there is no longer a clear majority on the subject of cannabis. “How [does] 51 percent of the public get to say 49 percent of the public belong[s] in prison?” he asked. “[In] most of what we think of as the law, there is a clear consensus.”
Other prejudices come into play against pot as well, according to Sterling. In all of the states, the majority of marijuana persecution is against African Americans. “It’s about maintaining white privilege,” Sterling said. He compared cannabis laws to the “Swiss Army knife of a cop,” because they use the pretense of looking for marijuana to investigate African Americans whom they consider “suspicious.”
The matter becomes more complicated when it comes to medical cannabis. Sterling talked about a 2012 visit to Venice Beach, Calif., when he was approached five times in 20 minutes by “doctors” offering easy-to-get marijuana and believed that “bona fide patients” get lost in the crowd.
“The public health sector would probably be okay [with] medical uses [of marijuana], but [regular usage] leaves more to consider, like addiction, second-hand smoke and a gateway to alternative lifestyles,” Viren Doshi, a second-year Juris Doctor-Master of Public Health student, said.
The difference between the two types, Evan Gooberman, a first-year Master of Public Health student, said, is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol. Also known as THC, this chemical is concentrated in substances designed for medical use (such as pills). Medical marijuana is often milder than its street counterpart.
The future of cannabis as a cash crop is also dismal. “Legal marijuana is going to be inexpensive marijuana. It is not that hard to produce,” Sterling said. “Profits would be short-term.” He theorized that free joints would even be offered at restaurants, to encourage patrons to buy more food.
Overall, the event proved to be enlightening for the students in attendance. “The way he stated the way there isn’t much opposition to [marijuana] as there used to be … astounds me,” Gooberman said. “They try to target the high-end dealers, but they go against the low-end dealers.”