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Eric E. Sterling Discusses the Disparity between Marijuana Criminalization and Legalization

Eric E. Sterling

March 24, 2014

Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, an organization that educates the public, lawmakers and criminal justice professionals about the impact of drug policy on the criminal justice system, visited the law school to talk about contradictory policies on marijuana use. The event was presented by the Health Law Society.

Sterling, who has been involved in crafting drug policy since 1979, when he was counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, claimed that we are entering a peculiar period in U.S. history where there is an enormous disparity between how the federal government enforces drug policy and how states treat marijuana use.  For example, last year alone there were about 7,000 federal marijuana related prosecutions while, at the same time, over 20 state legislatures said it could be used legally, Sterling said.  Therefore, as marijuana policy evolves, legal professionals are constantly faced with the dilemma of reconciling the federal government's staunch prosecution of the drug with the increased licensing of growers and dispensaries in individual states. 

Traditionally, a drug policy lawyer would focus mostly on drug criminalization laws, Sterling said.  However, given the changing legal environment surrounding drug policy use, contemporary counsel has to consider a myriad of other subject matters.  For example, for marijuana dispensaries, modern drug policy professionals must consider the zoning implications of dispensaries, regulatory concerns, tax implications as well as corporate structure and financing. 

Despite the evolution of marijuana drug policy in recent years, broad stereotypes still remain, Sterling said.  In criminal laws too much focus is still placed on regulating use of the substance rather than regulating behavior, he said.  Analogizing to alcohol use, Sterling argued that when we craft policies around drunk driving, we regulate the behavior, that is, driving while under the influence of alcohol, rather than outright banning the use of alcohol.  Yet, with marijuana, an exaggerated focus is always on the substance rather than a behavior that may lead to harm and, thus, prosecution still focuses on use and possession, he said. 

Marijuana criminalization is also one of those rare circumstances where there is not a majority of individuals that believe it should be criminalized, Sterling said.  In situations of theft and murder, there is always a general consensus that such behavior should be criminalized.  However, just as much effort is spent prosecuting marijuana use without much of a consensus among the public that it should be criminalized. 

State legislatures are starting to recognize the disparity between drug criminalization and other forms of criminalization and starting to respond, Sterling claimed.  Although, even those who wish to reform the laws surrounding marijuana use, will face a difficult task until a comprehensive system of drug policy is in place on both the state and federal level, Sterling concluded.