My name is Eric E. Sterling. From 1979 to 1989, I served as Counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary. In this role, I was a principal aide in developing the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 as well as the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988. Some of these laws created mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes as part of the government’s “tough on drugs” and “just say no” approach at the time.

I left Congress in 1989 to change our drug laws. I became President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a small Washington think tank. We work on many issues related to drug prohibition, such as how our policies negatively impact the American economy and environment. I have played a key role in helping to create or lead many drug policy reform organizations, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Marijuana Majority, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and I work with establishment organizations such as the American Bar Association and the New York City Bar Association.

I have taught drug policy and criminal justice at Washington, DC Universities and lectured at numerous law schools, and I have publicly debated drug legalization with Joe Biden, former Congressman Bob Barr, former Attorney General Ed Meese, and many others. Currently, I'm featured in How to Make Money Selling Drugs, a documentary about the failings of our drug policies.

I'll be starting to answer questions around 2 PM ET. AMA!

*Proof: *

EDIT: Thanks all for your informative questions. It's 4 PM, and I need to run to a meeting. I will continue to look through and respond to questions later on. Please message me if you are interested in getting involved or for a speaking engagement, or call the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation at 301-589-6020. -- Eric

Comments: 379 • Responses: 49  • Date: 

machinekillsfascists73 karma

What made you decide to now work for the legalization of the drugs that you once worked to make harsh laws against?

EricESterling122 karma

First, I believed in marijuana decriminalization before I started working for Congress. (In law school in 1976 I testified for marijuana decriminalization before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. President Jimmy Carter supported marijuana decriminalization in 1977. This was not a strange position to hold.)

I started working as a lawyer for Congress in 1979 when there was still a bill to decriminalize marijuana pending in Congress. Members of Congress and the Judiciary Committee were my clients. My job was to serve them. Reagan came in in 1981, and the war on drug rhetoric heated up dramatically. I wasn't comfortable with that, but I had to serve my clients. (When I was a criminal defense lawyer defending accused burglars did not make me an advocate for burglary!)

By 1984 I was working on a bill to make robbery of pharmacies a federal crime. I realized that persons addicted to opiates or who wanted to sell opiates would rob pharmacies because the inventory included high quality drugs packaged so that users knew what they were getting and how strong. This was more dependable and thus more valuable than heroin sold in packets on the street. If drugs were legally available to people with addiction, pharmacies would not be robbery targets very often. So I saw a different logic in how legislation should be developed.

I also saw the politics around drug enforcement and feeding drug hysteria and found it disgusting.

This was during the time that AIDS was first being identified with injection drug use. At a hearing I heard a Member of Congress say that the AIDS problem will go away by itself because all the heroin addicts would die from AIDS, implying that this would be a good thing. I was revolted by this attitude.

I came to feel that I had enough knowledge and sufficient skills to work full time trying to legalize drugs and end the drug war. I found funding in 1988 and started the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in January 1989.

irondeepbicycle52 karma

At a hearing I heard a Member of Congress say that the AIDS problem will go away by itself because all the heroin addicts would die from AIDS, implying that this would be a good thing.

Tell me this member isn't in office anymore. Please.

EricESterling2 karma

I regret that I have forgotten who this Member was. I really wish I could remember. I am sure that he is no longer serving in Congress -- that was a long time ago, and there are literally only two handfuls of such Members still serving.

loondawg16 karma

I wasn't comfortable with that, but I had to serve my clients. (When I was a criminal defense lawyer defending accused burglars did not make me an advocate for burglary!)

There is a big difference between those two things. In one case, you are defending someone accused of a crime. In the other, you are helping to create the circumstances by which someone can be made into a criminal for causes that you did not believe in.

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate your current efforts. But I wanted to point out that I see working for your clients as weak defense for working to create laws with which you did not believe in.

I am just curious if you are at ease with those actions or if you harbor some regrets.

EricESterling6 karma

I certainly have mixed feelings. And I directly defend my conduct below.

But I want to challenge the premise that there is a big difference for an attorney representing a client in a criminal case or assisting a congressional committee in writing a law he does not agree with or believe in. I believe that the overwhelming majority of my criminal clients were actually guilty of a crime and often the crimes they were charged with. Nevertheless I represented them proudly and zealously. There are many people who question the morality of that, although you do not. Lawyers don't only work for money. I think I could have had better paying legal jobs. Repeatedly I was able to try to influence the legislation in ways that I thought were better for civil liberties and public policy. I regularly brought to the attention of Members of Congress a perspective that I thought was important that they would not hear from a traditional source. For example, I was able to get Harvard professor Lester Grinspoon to testify before the Crime Subcommittee about designer drugs. He was later the plaintiff in the First Circuit case that struck down the emergency scheduling of MDMA.

Would you really prefer that only anti-drug zealots work for Congress writing drug laws???

Also, I did not only work on drug policy. I worked on gun control and wrote the version of the Brady Bill that passed the Judiciary Committee in 1988 that included privacy protections that I thought were important that I was able to get added. I worked on money laundering, organized crime, and pornography, and many other small bills.

I had and then and still have enormous admiration for the Chairman of the House Crime Subcommittee for whom I worked. He was very hardworking, completely honest, extremely intelligent, and a complete gentleman. He did not engage in political or media pandering. I was glad I worked for him for 8 years, even though we did not control the legislative or political process. Given the political times and the political process, I am overall proud of what I accomplished.

Certainly, it was an extremely exciting job.

But it was emotionally hard. I have great regret that I was not a better, more informed lawyer and that I could not have more effectively ameliorated the worst of the mandatory minimums.

I am terribly upset that so many people have served and are serving prison sentences that are unjustly long and that I played a role in that. I never forget that.

But I also know who some of the other people are who could have had the job I had. I am confident that they would not have tried to improve the law the way that I did.

bootnish64 karma

I am an honest, hard working, tax paying American who commits no crimes other than smoking marijuana occasionally. Will there come a time in my life where I can claim that I break no laws?

Edit: I am 30. I plan on living 60 more years. Thanks.

EricESterling57 karma

Dear Bootnish, I have no doubt you will, as far as marijuana goes. If you live in Colorado and Washington, you will be very close to that. If the U.S. Department of Justice cooperates with Colorado and Washington next year when legal marijuana production and sales are rolled out, you will be pretty close to that.

Sadly, it is likely that there are other laws that you break, perhaps unknowingly. But I admire your desire to be as law abiding as possible. That is really commendable.

Pianoplunkster3 karma

Thanks for the wonderfully detailed answers. I appreciate the AMAs where the poster takes the time to type out paragraphs.

Regarding Washington and Colorado, what do you anticipate in terms of federal crackdowns on dispensaries, growers, etc? There is always that fine balance between state and federal jurisdiction-- I'm from California and when legalization was on the ballot a few years ago, the question was on everyone's minds. We have the dispensaries here already, but full legalization failed once before...

EricESterling1 karma

By waiting so many months since the vote early last November, the Department of Justice has much less political room to obstruct Washington and Colorado than I think they had then. Authorities in Washington and Colorado have spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars developing detailed regulations for implementing the new laws. The Attorneys General of both states have become invested in the new law.

It may be wishful thinking (or hubris since I have been advocating this idea) but I think that the federal approach will ultimately be an offer to cooperate with Washington and Colorado to try to stop export of marijuana from those states to their neighbors, falling back on their basic authority to "regulate interstate commerce."

I think a federal effort to try to block state authorized retail sales of marijuana in Washington and Colorado will bring a lawsuit from each state pointing out that the Constitution does not give the federal government any direct authority over Cannabis, and the 10th Amendment reserves to the States and the people any powers that are not explicitly given to Congress. I suspect that such arguments could win a majority in the U.S. Supreme Court.

But if the Department of Justice uses its criminal powers to go after the companies that actually get the state licenses, DoJ won't have to bring many cases before most of those who have licenses will shut down. If DoJ takes that approach, though, it will create a lot of chaos in those states and create a lot of political trouble for the Justice Department.

Spec8740 karma

Why do so few politicians support drug reform and how do you think this can be changed?

EricESterling80 karma

I am certain that many more politicians support drug policy reform than do so publicly. I have had several politicians tell me this privately.

Almost every politician wants to be re-elected. They know that campaigning is hard and tricky. They pick themes that they identify with: "pro-environment," "anti-tax," "pro-Israel," "anti-abortion," "pro-schools," etc. They don't want their campaigns to be distracted or diverted away from issues the issues they are choosing to run on. They don't want to face questions at a campaign stop about campaign irrelevancies. But when lots of ordinary citizens start asking the question, it is no longer an irrelevancy.

Encourage everyone you know in your district to write to your local, state and U.S. reps and Senators about the drug policy you want.

At this point, there is little political risk to simply ignoring drug issues, but being pro-reform is highly newsworthy. It might not be a problem, and has not been any kind of a problem of Members or former Members like Ron Paul, Barney Frank, Steve Cohen, Jared Polis, Dana Rohrabacher.

The way to get more support is to make it safe in your district. Write letters to the editor of local papers supporting drug policy reform issues. Write after there are news stories. Use talk radio. Encourage discussions on drug policy. Provide financial support to Students for Sensible Drug Policy (do to their webpage and click Donate) and encourage the support of chapters on campuses in your district.

Every time U.S. Rep Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) gives the Attorney General or some other witness a speech about legalizing marijuana, I make a small contribution to his campaign and write a note that tells him why.

This is not complicated!

dazmo7 karma

What is complicated is the fact that a lot of people use these drugs. A lot of the people who would be in favor of reform use them, in fact. And if you are caught with them, the penalties are stiff. Who would actually join a group to support the decriminalization of a currently illicit substance when they have a life to think about? And with all the recent stories about the NSA and the implication that could very possibly have on the private lives of these people, do you really think they are likely to speak out?

EricESterling2 karma

What is complicated is whether you think you live in a freedom-loving society or not. Do you think you have political liberty? Do you think you have any political responsibility as a citizen to shape the laws of the society in which you live.

I have known hundreds of people over the years who wanted to change the drug laws who never tried drugs and had no desire to do so, but who understood how harmful these laws are, how expensive and wasteful these laws are, how fundamentally stupid these laws are. And they acted on those convictions because they wanted a better society, they wanted to use the resources of the society more wisely.

My strongest supporters have never used drugs. But they are convinced that drug prohibition leads to corruption of the police. They are extremely afraid of police corruption -- as anyone other than a gangster ought to be. Because they want to protect the integrity of our police and our criminal justice system they favor legalizing drugs to end prohibition and prevent corruption.

Sadly, many people are not afraid of the NSA, they are afraid to put their name at the bottom of a letter the editor of the local newspaper. They are even afraid to write to the elected representatives to support or oppose legislation. This is a lack of faith in the Bill of Rights at its simplest level.

Are you afraid to go to church, temple, mosque, ashram, coven, etc.? If you are not afraid to go to worship, then why do you think the other parts of the First Amendment of the Constitution don't protect you?

tomansari38 karma

I am president of SSDP at my school. Are you available to come speak at college campuses? The fall semester is approaching and would love if you could speak at our campus, how can we make that happen? Also can we present your film at our campus?

EricESterling24 karma

I love speaking to SSDP chapters!! Simply contact the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation to suggest some dates [email protected] or 301-589-6020

To show the movie, How to Make Money Selling Drugs, contact Tribeca Films, the distributor. [email protected]

Arandy0532 karma

Who do you think is the biggest Opponent/road block to legalization?

EricESterling122 karma

(3) When marijuana is legalized, the cops will lose their "Swiss army knife" for getting into a suspect's car. If a cop has a hunch that someone they've stopped has stolen property, burglar's tools, illegal weapons, evidence of a crime, or drugs, they might not have probable cause to make an arrest and they may not have the basis for a search to seize something that is "in plain view." They may make an illegal search. The law requires the evidence seized illegally not be admitted into evidence. But if the cop says, "I smelled burning marijuana, and therefore had probable cause to search for ILLEGAL marijuana," the search is legal, even if no marijuana is found, and the other evidence is found. How credible is the suspect who says, "No, I wasn't smoking marijuana! The cop is lying, he's made it up!" The suspect may be telling the truth, but in the balance between he said/she said, the cop will usually win. When marijuana is legal, this tool to justify illegal searches will be lost to the police.

music4mic36 karma

Even if marijuana is legal, won't driving while smoking or smoking while in the car still be illegal? Doesn't that nullify that argument?

cellularfunk10 karma

It would be akin to drinking and driving (DUI). You get pulled over but your car is not searched for alcohol because it isn't illegal to posses alcohol (unless there is an open container [plain view] or you're underage). I think you could be pulled over by a cop if they "smell marijuana burning, but even if you were in possession of it, it wouldn't be illegal and they would have no right to go through your car. It would, however, be illegal to be smoking it, presumably. If your reek of weed like you might alcohol, you would get in trouble.

Edit: Spelling

EricESterling1 karma

I think you analyzed this correctly.

dazmo6 karma

Even people who drink alcohol tend to agree that drinking and driving should be illegal. Why should it be any different with marijuana? It can be legalized and regulated just like alcohol or tobacco. What I think is interesting about this is that a lot of people, when confronted with the possibility of legalized marijuana, tend to automatically assume that there will be no regulation at all. They believe that decriminalization means that marijuana will become as unregulated as air is. Education is a priority when it comes to trying to decriminalize.

EricESterling1 karma

The Colorado and Washington laws legalizing marijuana have very strong provisions against driving while "stoned."

Your observation that a lot of people have a very superficial idea of what marijuana legalization looks like is true. But I think this is often a kind of feigned ignorance. Of course driving under the influence will be a crime. Of course we will not authorize the Bloods and the Crips to be licensed marijuana dealers.

EricESterling1 karma

And, as others have noted, the "smell" of vegetable marijuana, and the alerts by "drug-sniffing" dogs for marijuana, will no longer serve to justify searches.

EricESterling31 karma

Good question!! (1) The belief among many drug policy reformers that legalization is a weirdo position, not a common sense and respectable position that can be safely and openly advocated without risking arrest.

EricESterling25 karma

(2) The vested interest of the law enforcement bureaucracy in the status quo. So many people use drugs it is relatively easy for the police to make a possession arrest. You would be amazed how many people don't know their rights and simply give them up by consenting to a search of their car, their bag, their pockets. Once a cop has made a drug arrest, there is usually many hours of overtime pay ahead in processing the arrest and showing up in court for the various proceedings.

EricESterling25 karma

(4) There is a lot of fear among parents that their kid -- as well as they have raised him or her -- is at greater risk to become a drug user and a drug addict if drugs were legalized.

Drug policy reformers need to work harder to develop truthful and effective education about drugs to discourage young teenagers from using drugs. When drug are legalized, we will need to develop new cultural patterns to minimize harm. We will need to continue to enforce new drug laws to discourage legal sellers from selling to minors, from advertising to minors, and to develop opportunities for young adults to learn drug use and experiment with drug use in safe contexts and environments.

EricESterling3 karma

(6) The prison industry, at least at this point the prison labor unions. In California in 2010, the prison employees union spent money against Proposition 19.

I suspect that the private prison industry also opposes marijuana legalization. That industry depends on a steady supply of prisoners to stay profitable. The number of persons in prison on the charge of marijuana possession is pretty small. Out of 2.3 million or so in prison, the number there for marijuana possession has been estimated to be about 40,000 persons. That is not a trivial number. That total is more than the prison populations of many states, but it is a small fraction of the total.

A harder number to measure is the fraction who have been sent to prison for violating parole or probation because they used marijuana in violation of the terms of release. There is a wide variety of practices in violating probationers and parolees. Officers know that prisons are overcrowded. But a very large number of persons are sent to prison on parole and probation violations -- in some states, as many as a third of new prison admittances. How many of them are violations in which the sole violation is a failed drug test only for marijuana is very hard to estimate. How significant this number might be for the private prison industry is impossible to estimate at this time.

EricESterling2 karma

(5) To some extent, certainly the alcohol industry. In California in 2010, that industry helped finance the attack on Proposition 19.

It is not clear from the studies whether marijuana use is purely a substitute for alcohol use or if they are complementary. Some analysts of marijuana policy fear that if marijuana is legalized, it will lead to a net increase in the amount of alcohol consumed. Some fear that because the social, health, criminal and economic costs of alcohol are so great, that if legal marijuana produces a small increase in alcohol use, those additional costs could outweigh all the considerable benefits of legalizing marijuana.

It may be that the opposition of the alcohol industry to legalizing marijuana is shortsighted. It is not likely it was purely in the public interest.

Kerrai18 karma

What sort of time frame do you envision for Marijuana's (general) legalization and taxation for adults?

EricESterling3 karma

This is a great question for speculation. Key to answering your question is estimating when Congress would vote to legalize marijuana.

When would you estimate that a majority of Republicans in the House and Senate would support marijuana legalization?

I think we could be a decade away. What issues would be most persuasive? I believe the economic cost to the society, i.e. the argument that businesses are being hurt because so many people get a criminal record that interferes in their earning. The most frequently cited estimate is that someone with a criminal conviction earns 40 percent less than they would without the conviction. I think we need to mobilize the business community and investors. See my comment on

UniformCode18 karma

I studied criminal justice and then became a lawyer and was convinced that I would never live to see marijuana legalized for recreational use at the federal level.

It seemed to be that the root of it all was drug asset forfeiture laws. I read about small rural police departments getting a lucky score of cash or other assets and buying things like police helicopters (that they later could not afford to maintain), luxury cars for the department brass, speed boats, new buildings, you name it.

My question is whether, in light of asset seizure as well as the sheer number of people employed by the war on drugs, has the drug war become too big to fail?

EricESterling1 karma

Thank you for this observation. Asset forfeiture is a powerful factor in steering the police to support the status quo of drug prohibition.

I can't think of another class of government agency that gets to supplement its appropriated budget by raiding the public like Sherman's army in Georgia in 1864.

AllezCannes15 karma

What would you say is the biggest misconception you held about drug laws? And what is the biggest misconception that current policymakers currently hold?

EricESterling18 karma

I think the biggest misconception that policymakers have about the drug laws is that they are effective in some way in saving lives, and reducing use, preventing crime. And if the laws don't accomplish those goals, then THEY DO NOT UNDERSTAND JUST HOW COSTLY THESE LAWS ARE, BEYOND THEIR FAILURE TO WORK.

I think most white policy makers completely fail to understand how CATASTROPHIC THE DRUG LAWS ARE TO PEOPLE OF COLOR. I encourage you to read the book, "The New Jim Crow," by Michelle Alexander. It is an outstanding book. Even when you think you understand the issues, you will learn many things that you did not know or fully understand.

EricESterling18 karma

In the mid and late 1970s, the biggest misconception I had was that marijuana decriminalization and legalization was going to be decided on the basis of the facts and simple rationality, or on principles in the Constitution such as a 5th amendment right to liberty or the foundational principle of the Declaration of Independence regarding "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

I did not anticipate the role of political exploitation of fear or the enormous bureaucratic drive of the law enforcement agencies to keep drugs a problem that they are the ones to address.

Just recently in a Washington Post news story about a local District of Columbia bill to decriminalize marijuana, the Chief of Police is quoted talking about the HEALTH effects on children. When did the Chief of Police become the expert on health effects? If this were a significant problem, why aren't local pediatricians the primary opponents to decriminalization? Because pediatricians see a whole lot of other disease and public health problems needing public resources (not police overtime pay, or the costs of courts, prosecutors and the jail system!) to address teen pregnancy, low birth weight babies, malnutrition, fetal alcohol effect, VIOLENCE, etc.

jxj2414 karma

What would you say was the worst decision made in implementing these laws? I hav always suspected that it was mandatory minimum sentencing.

How great a factor have the drug wars been on the incredibly increasing disparities between races?

How should the income from drug sales be apportioned (causes and percentages)? How will his change drug education (certainly couldn't make it more ineffectual)?

EricESterling31 karma

Mandatory minimum sentencing -- triggered by very small quantities for federal crimes -- was the worst policy choice in the outcome for federal prison population expansion, and injustice for those they were applied.

There are only about 25,000 federal drug cases a year. There are about 1.5 million state and local drug cases a year. But probably about 80 percent of the federal cases are effected by the mandatory minimum sentencing provision which lead to wholly unjust long sentences for relatively low level offenders.

EricESterling27 karma

You may be surprised that one of the greatest factors in the racial disparity of drug enforcement is the complete mismanagement and indifference of the Attorneys General and the top leadership of the Justice Department. Whether it was Janet Reno or Eric Holder, they know that three out of four federal drug defendants is black or Hispanic and that the quantity of drugs in 85 percent of the cases is relatively trivial.

I am shocked that a significant effort in the Congress has not developed calling for the resignation of the Attorney General on racial justice grounds.

Everyone knows that these sentences are for unjustifiably small quantities of drugs. Even 5000 grams of cocaine, which triggers the 10 year mandatory minimum is tiny when you think of the kingpins who arrange for millions and millions of grams to shipped to the U.S.

millchopcuss2 karma

Do you really believe that Mandatory minimums are a driver of this travesty? Don't you think asset forfeiture might be more the reason for the staying power of this problem?

EricESterling1 karma

Asset forfeiture is important.

But you want to look at the criteria for job promotion. If you are a federal prosecutor getting a large number of convictions is important. (Almost everyone pleads guilty, so your risk of losing a case is low. Indeed losing a case is so rare, you are taking an exceptional risk to bring a case to trial.) One way to measure the significance of your defendants is how many years in prison they were sentenced to -- is serves to measure the big fish. Mandatory minimums enable prosecutors and DEA agents to claim they caught much "bigger" fish.

Again for DEA agents, a key metric is the number of cases. Mandatory sentences are like a medieval torture device that makes defendants name names of potential co-defendants.

EricESterling1 karma

The only way to shake off a mandatory minimum sentence is to cooperate in the prosecution of other people. The 1986 law authorizes the prosecutor to ask the court to impose a sentence BELOW the mandatory minimum sentence if the defendant provides "substantial assistance" in the prosecution of somebody else. (18 U.S.C. 3553(e)).

The somebody else does not have to be a king-pin or higher up; it can be anybody. Since this power rests with the prosecutor, you have to satisfy him or her. So providing many names of little fish is as good or perhaps better than naming just one kingpin.

Little fish have no money; they need a public defender who is certainly overworked. Big fish and king pins can hire expensive counsel who will fight back with legal motions and defenses. I was told in 1980 or so that there was an old saying in the Justice Department: "Big cases, big problems. Little cases, little problems."

Mandatory minimum sentences help generate lots of little cases for little effort by forcing the accused to cough up their family, friends, and associates in an effort to avoid the long mandatory. If a defendant gives up the name of a kingpin, the defendant runs the risk that the kingpin will kill his wife, children, parents, etc. Don't snitch on the kingpin!

tddr12114 karma


EricESterling1 karma

I had a sense in the early 1970s that the marijuana law was wrong, illogical and unjustified. In the fall of 1982 I read the outstanding book, "Ceremonial Chemistry: The ritual persecution of drugs, addicts, and pushers," by Thomas Szasz (Anchor Books/Doubleday 1974). I thought my thinking about drugs advanced by about a light year!

It was in 1982-1983 when I realized that the drug laws were failing and would always fail to prevent the traffic. I was involved in helping to write the law to allow U.S. military units to enforce the drug laws on the high seas, and thinking about the ineffectiveness of drug interdiction. It was about that time I started calling our drug laws alchemy -- the magical property of turning a cheap, common material into Gold! A kilo of cocaine while in Colombia is worth $1000 but becomes worth $5000 or $10,000 in a matter of hours when you get it across the U.S. border. Doesn't that sound like magic? When I realized that the Coast Guard and the old U.S. Customs Service were estimated to be seizing about 10 percent of what is smuggled, I realized that the economic guaranteed that drug prohibition would never succeed and that our policies were doomed to perpetually fail.

There were two goals of DEA and drug enforcement: arrest drug traffickers and smugglers, and therefore drive up the price of drugs by increasing the risk of smuggling and dealing. It is a fundamental law of economics that the more profit that an activity generates, the more people will pursue that activity. This means that the more successful DEA is in arresting people, the more the price goes up, which means that more people will try dealing drugs. Drug enforcement is one the best examples of a government program that tries to defy the laws of economics and certainly defies logic. This was all pretty clear to me by 1984, and I started talking to lots of people about legalizing drugs, including Members of Congress and staff.

hanni907 karma

are you focusing on just marijuana? what about other drugs? also, do you smoke marijuana yourself? if so, what activities do you like to do when stoned?

EricESterling31 karma

I am not in this issue because of what I like or do not like!!

I think that from the perspective of saving lives, the most important drug to legalize and control would be heroin. We need to work closely with Mexico and Central American governments to break up and defund the drug trafficking organizations that are killing so many (over 100,000 in the last 6 years), and to reduce the huge number of overdoses.

I want to see a new profession of "addiction management" to help people who are addicted but not ready to quit to more effectively manage their lives legally.

I am working on writing heroin legalization legislation.

rainator3 karma

I must say I admire your ambition, how much support do you have, among politicians and the public?

EricESterling12 karma

I have a test of public support. When I am on an airline flight by myself I often strike up a conversation with a person next to me. What do you do, I ask? And usually I find that there is something about their business or interests that is related to drug policy in some way. In the course of the conversation I explain about the need to legalize drugs and my work to make that happen. Almost universally when we are about to deplane, the person says something like, "God bless you! I wish you well in your work."

I don't pick the person who sits next to me. This tells me that across a wide variety of the air plane flying public there is support for drug policy reform.

EricESterling10 karma

A while back a local legislator asked me what drug would I legalize first. I said that marijuana was not important if the issue is dealing with death and disease and the role of street crime and addiction. The most important drug to legalize would be heroin, and he strongly agreed, and asked me to draft legislation for him.

In 1984, there was a bill on the floor of the House of Representatives to legalize heroin for medical purposes (as in Britain and Canada). That's amazing for that era!

I think the public is quite open to these ideas once they are being discussed seriously and not mockingly.

DSPGerm7 karma

What made you want to create such strict laws in the first place? Was it a lack of information, external or internal pressures, personal experience, etc?

EricESterling26 karma

The title of the AMA is something of a tease. I was not a Member of Congress. These laws were not my idea. I was an attorney for the House Judiciary Committee. The idea for the strict laws in 1986 was a primitive one. Many Members of Congress thought that "punishment works," without thinking much more about it. They think that if a crime has a long sentence, people won't commit the crime, as though most criminals engage in complex cost benefit analyses of their behavior.

Members of Congress are typically highly ambitious and engage in unusual long range planning. Run of student government president, then run for university senate and president of the fraternity. Run for city council and then state legislature, then Congress, and then Mayor or Senator. They have a Plan!

Criminal are highly impulsive. They rarely engage in complex planning -- primarily in crime novels, not in real life. They primarily look around and figure, Will I get caught? Often they are drunk, or maybe high on drugs. Long sentences are not a deterrent, and so the thinking of Members of Congress was utterly wrong in thinking about "what works."

Of course long sentences SOUND tough, and Members wanted to SOUND tough.

I tried to minimize the reach of these long sentences, but I was staff and I did not have a vote.

BecomingDitto6 karma

Why do you think so few Representatives and Senators at the federal level support decriminalization bills, while an increasing number of states are passing laws to allow Marijuana usage for various purposes? What do you feel is the best way to convince these Representatives to support their respective states wishes on the federal level?

EricESterling18 karma

Considering the U.S. House Because the House is controlled by the Republicans, the committees are controlled by the Republicans. And the Republicans who control the House Judiciary Committee are among the most conservative Members. Most of them have a visceral, social conservative view of drugs. Drugs are associated with "liberals." They don't think of members of their base as drug users who are hurt by the consequences of the drug laws. They think of themselves as "pro-family," and thus they are knee-jerk anti-drug. Even if the consequences of harsh drug laws man that the social services agencies take the minor children away from pot smokers, or put drug users in prison, their view of the world is that a drug user cannot be a good parent. These are badly informed stereotypes.

So no drug policy reform bill is going to get a hearing or move. Since there is no likely action in the House, there is little payoff for a Member to co-sponsor a reform bill. Since there is little likelihood that a bill will move in the House, the advocacy groups realistically say, "Let's not put a lot of energy to get co-sponsors for a House bill that's not going anywhere." Unfortunately that can be self-defeating, can't it?

EricESterling15 karma

Considering the U.S. SENATE: In the Senate there is no strong political payoff to support decriminalization right now. Because we have not built strong enough pressures at the state level, there are no decriminalization bills in the Senate that I am aware of. This is pretty amazing, isn't it? You have 18 states with medical marijuana laws. Each of those states' laws has trouble operating. Each of those states has 2 U.S. Senators whose job is to help the states operate in the federal system. How can it be that not one senator has introduced a bill to protect the state medical marijuana programs? Because our movement has not focused enough pressure on the Senators.

EricESterling11 karma

Excellent Question.

Most Members represent "gerrymandered" districts. If they are not challenged in their primary, they are highly likely to be re-elected. They like to associate with other Federal officials. If they are with the President's party, that's easier to have the Attorney General come to their district or to get picture with the Secretary of Homeland Security, etc. But if you are a political opponent of the President, then associating with non-partisan officials such as the heads of the FBI, DEA, ICE can also be positive.

Natural_One4 karma

I love how all the reasons for illegalization at this level are political and monetary. Humanism, compassion, and fairness dont even factor into it.

EricESterling1 karma

Yes. But I am perhaps too cynical. Certainly there are some Members of Congress who think that prohibition deters kids from using drugs, and in the spirit of the argument, "If this measure, saves JUST one life, it is worth it!!!" they support prohibition notwithstanding its very high price in lives and tragedy.

DudeMan5134 karma

Have you seen the documentary "The House I Live In"? Thoughts?

EricESterling10 karma

I think the The House I Live In is the best documentary that has been made about the war on drugs. Eugene Jarecki is a brilliant filmmaker. I don't think this takes anything away from Matthew Cooke who wrote and directed a fabulous move, "How to Make Money Selling Drugs."

IronicAlbatross3 karma

God damn that is clever. You pretty much legislated your future job into existence. Talk about career security.

EricESterling3 karma

Yeah! I was brilliant. I was the brains behind electing Ronald Reagan. I got Strom Thurmond to become the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was my idea to name Ed Meese Attorney General. Some people say I invented crack cocaine, but that's not true.

coreof92 karma

  1. Why is marijuana illegal?

Thank you for doing this AMA.

Edited: TIL marijuana is classified sched 1 and is not classified with cocaine and heroin.

cherrygarciamayne3 karma

  1. It's not. Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug (no medical benefits).

Cocaine and heroin are Schedule 2 and 3, respectively (medical benefits, but addictive and highly addictive).

EricESterling13 karma

None of the drugs in schedules II, III, IV, and V are legal for the social or recreation purposes of adults the way tobacco and alcohol are legal for adults.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), has a bill that would legalized marijuana for adults, H.R. 499. It would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and let it be controlled by the same agencies that regulate alcohol and tobacco. I think that's a good way to go.

EricESterling7 karma

There are federal schedules and each state has its own schedules that may differ. (There are also international schedules under the treaties.)

In federal law, heroin is in schedule I, along with LSD, Peyote, mescaline, and many other drugs.

Cocaine and methamphetamine are in schedule II because they are used in medicine.

Marijuana remains illegal primarily for political reasons. In 1988, after several years of taking evidence, the DEA's Administrative Law Judge concluded that marijuana should be moved to schedule II. His recommendations were not binding on the Administrator. The Administrator, appointed by President Reagan, and confirmed by a Senate controlled at the time by the GOP, decided that the evidence the Administrative Law Judge found was inadequate.

I think that if the DEA Administrator got a signal from the President and the Attorney General, another review of the evidence could come up with a different conclusion.

But all of this is about marijuana as medicine.

druglawsthrowaway2 karma

Are there others like you?

EricESterling9 karma

There are hundreds of thousands of people who believe what I believe down to the details of legalizing drugs like heroin and cocaine.

There are tens of millions who agree with me on legalizing marijuana. Simply recall the more people voted for legal marijuana in Colorado than voted for Obama. In Washington State, legal marijuana got more votes than every candidate for statewide office that was contested (Governor, Attorney General, etc.) other than the U.S. Senate race.

There are 1000s of people like me in the U.S. who work very hard every day to end the tragedy of drug prohibition.

MinimalTech2 karma

Why haven't we pushed forth to create a system like the Dutch where-by users can have their drugs tested at labs without fear of incrimination? If we're to keep drugs illegal, this would at least help by keeping dealers in check, a central database system for the DEA to easily track new and used formulas of drugs, and create a margin of safety for users.

EricESterling14 karma

One reason, sadly, is that too many people don't think of drug users as human beings.

If you think about the first goal of any drug law, it ought to be to save lives. Whose lives are we talking about? Drug users' lives.

Those who should benefit first from a drug law are drug users, right?

ZMild2 karma

  • How likely do you think a substantive shift in drug policies is, given the political climate?

  • What do you think will be the state role in the near future?

  • Do you see public pressure to change laws for harder drugs, such as heroin or methamphetamines?

  • The gap between writing these laws and working to repeal them has been short -- what led to your relatively quick change in priorities?

EricESterling1 karma

(1) We are seeing a substantive shift in drug policies all around us. We are seeing reforms of drug laws and lower sentences in conservative states and Republican dominated states because these folks recognize that money is being wasted, families are being broken up and liberty is being lost. I think drug legalization is inevitable.

EricESterling1 karma

Drug legalization is a bipartisan issue. Some of the most prominent names in drug legalization have been conservatives and Republicans. When I have debated this issue, I was as vehemently opposed by Senator Joe Biden, then Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee as I was by U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, a leader of the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton.

I think our strongest arguments are ones that appeal to the broadest spectrum. See this op-ed at

I wrote a paper, "Eleven Ways the War on Drugs is Hurting Your Business," which you can find at Every American investor is being hurt by the war on drugs.

EricESterling1 karma

The public will support changing the laws for heroin and methamphetamine when it recognizes that legalization increases control, minimizes the illicit distribution, weakens the stigma that is a huge obstacle to getting treatment, and helps transfer funds wasted in imprisonment to easier to access effective drug treatment. Ending the prohibition of heroin and methamphetamine are key to undermining the economics that make these illegal drugs widespread and that requires those who are addicted to commit crime to afford the drugs. I want a system where drug addicts can be assured that they can get their drugs and not get "dope sick" from withdrawal without having the steal or prostitute themselves, and then can stabilize their lives.

I think folks can understand that just as it is not immoral to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, or get drunk or get addicted to cigarettes, it is not immoral to be addicted to hard drugs. Once we get false notions of morality out of the picture, we can focus on what makes sense economically and for the public health.

EricESterling1 karma

Regarding my "policy" timetable. 1976 -- I testify for marijuana decriminalization while a law student. 1976 -- Carter campaigns for president, marijuana decriminalization part of his platform. 1976-1979 -- Work as a public defender and work with NORML. 1979 -- Hired by House Criminal Justice Subcommittee to work helping to rewrite the federal criminal laws. Carter is president, in a first term. 1980 -- Set up a congressional hearing on DEA, start working on drug laws for Congress. 1980 -- Carter defeated, Reagan elected. 1981 -- Reagan sworn in. Senate goes Republican. Traded from House Criminal Justice Subcommittee to House Crime Subcommittee, continue working on drugs. 1981-82 -- Setting up hearings on drug issues. Congress passes drug czar provision in bill I worked on. Work on military assistance to war on drugs. 1983 -- Reagan vetoes bill with drug czar. Creates South Florida Anti-Drug task force with military. Travel to Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Jamaica with Members of Congress. President's big crime package passes Senate. 1984 -- working on organized crime, money laundering, cop killer bullets, Firearms Owners Protection Act, many drug bills. President's big anti-crime bill passes Congress, out maneuvers Democrats, Reagan re-elected. Start talking about drug legalization. 1985 -- More legislation -- money laundering, gun control, drugs. Crack comes on the scene. 1986 -- Big firearms bill passes House. Len Bias dies from cocaine. Big anti-drug bill of 1986. Mandatory Minimum sentencing. Money Laundering Control Act. Senate goes back to Democrats. 1987 -- Investigate CIA, Contra Cocaine Scandal. Trying to figure out how to work full time in drug legalization. 1988 -- Identify potential funder. Work on 1988 anti-drug bill. Work on Brady Bill. 1989 -- Start work full-time in drug legalization.

That wasn't so quick was it?

devildetails2 karma

Do you have limits on which drugs you feel should be legalized, or is prohibition in all its forms a problem for you?

EricESterling1 karma

We need to legalize drugs that have large scale public demand. We may use law and social factors to try to minimize use of some drugs more ardently than others. Once some drugs are legal, the demand for others may diminish and "legalization" may not be necessary.

For example, when marijuana is legal, and people are no longer being tested for marijuana use, the market for K2, Spice and "synthetic marijuana" is going to go away. You never hear about people who say they prefer "synthetic marijuana" to the real thing.

Similarly, as safe psychedelics are legal, the market for less safe ones will diminish. The only reason that "bath salts" are being sold at gas stations and convenience stores is because safer legal drugs are not being sold.

To use some of the harder drugs could involve more subtle regulation. Think about a kid who wants to go to summer camp to swim, climb ropes and rocks, live in cabin or tent, etc. The camp owner wants them to take a physical exam to make sure that they are healthy enough for the experience.

The person who wants to try harder drugs might be required to have a physical. Maybe a psychological evaluation. Maybe required to have health insurance. Maybe the person who provides the drugs will need to have insurance too.

I have a problem with prohibition because it interferes with a fairly profound liberty -- the liberty to control your mind and your body. But society can help you protect your body in various ways. For example, if you want to sky dive, you need to go up with a licensed pilot. The airplane is federally approved airframe. The parachute rigger is federally licensed.

A second factor is that prohibition produces criminal markets and they have lots of adverse consequences the spread across the society, the economy, the government, the system of justice, local neighborhoods and families.

drunkennova2 karma

Is it true that one of the reasons marijuana became illegal is because the wood industry lobbied the government to ban the use and growing of hemp?

EricESterling2 karma

I used to wonder about this ever since Jack Herer started telling me about it.

I have seen archival records obtain by Don Wirtschafter that suggest that it was the paper industry that relied on wood pulp, I believe, that took an interest in the 1937 legislation to block hemp as a paper source.

I have also heard that DuPont wanted to kill hemp rope in order to expand its market for Nylon fiber, but I don't think I have seen documentation about this. It is plausible, but I need to see some evidence.

I distrust theories that attribute broad policy actions to very small interests that have secret agendas, even if they are plausible, because that has not been my experience working in Congress.

For example, in the 1980s, I never saw any role of the private prison industry (or the pharmaceutical industry) in pushing for tougher sentences for marijuana or other drugs.

tehmlem1 karma

Was there an awareness of the immense potential for social and economic damage here and abroad when congress was writing and passing these laws? I'm curious to know what (beyond a simple knee jerk reaction to a perception of crisis) motivated the laws that have come to define drug policy in America and have made a significant impact on policies abroad.

EricESterling6 karma

No. Congress did not think much about the unforeseen consequences of the drug laws. Part of this was a knee jerk response, meaning a very hasty response.

The story is told very well in the books, "Smoke and Mirrors" by Dan Baum (Little Brown & Co., 1996) and "Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias" by Dave Ungrady (2011).

SuperNixon1 karma

I guess my biggest question is why did you make marijuana a schedule 1 drug in the first place? You must have known the racist history behind it. Was there any outside pushes? Why did you feel compelled to originally make it illegal?

EricESterling14 karma

Friend, I did not make marijuana a schedule I drug. Congress did that in 1970 when I was 20 year old and just a college drop out protesting the war in Vietnam. Earlier Congress made marijuana illegal in 1937 using the tax laws, before there was scheduling.

Congress was pushed into it by the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a unit of the Treasury Department (which had 4 years earlier lost the need for so many prohibition agents when alcohol became legal again after the 21st Amendment was ratified).

The pushes to make drugs like cocaine and marijuana (and crack) illegal all had strong elements of racial stereotyping and antipathy. For crack, though, many Members of Congress thought that punishing crack dealers harshly would protect Black communities from the "plague" of crack cocaine.