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Eric Sterling on the De Nieuwe Wereld

Sterling discusses numerous atrocities of the 'war on drugs' on this Dutch television show. The episode was not aired in the United States. 
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Eric Sterling on PBS Frontline: Snitch

Sterling provides a thorough and insightful look at mandatory minimums, explaining their creation as "an incredible conjunction between politics and hysteria."
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Sterling discusses the unintended consequences of conspiracy drug laws.
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Sterling questions why the majority of drug cases target low-level offenders, rather than major traffickers.
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Sterling explains the pervasiveness and acceptance of perjury in the US justice system.
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Sterling explores how the "presumption of innocence" does not exist in the courtroom.
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Eric Sterling on PBS Frontline: Drug Wars

Sterling explains how the death of basketball superstar Len Bias led to a boom of drug legislation in 1986.
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Eric Sterling on 60 Minutes

Sterling discusses the tragedy and haste of drug laws in America.
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Eric Sterling on 60 Minutes

(Photo of US Rep. Charles Rangel, a fellow critic of the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity) 
Sterling describes the crack-cocaine disparity in sentencing as a result of "ignorance, cruelty and political pandering."
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Improving the Bottom Line: Shadow Convention Speech

Improving the Bottom Line 
Remarks at the Shadow Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 
By Eric E. Sterling, August 1, 2000 

Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests, Honored Colleagues, Brothers and Sisters, good afternoon. Tonight, thousands, tens of thousands of Americans and their families will hear the horrifying sound of gunfire echo in their neighborhood. Today hundreds of thousands of American kids were offered illegal and dangerous drugs. Last month, well over 1000 persons died, poisoned by black market drugs or from AIDS from sharing needles. This violence, these out-of-control drug markets, these deaths, are the bottom line of our war on drugs. This bottom line is not inevitable from the use of drugs. But as long as absolute prohibition of drug use prevails; as long as the $40 billion market for illegal drugs in America remains uncontrolled, then these tragedies, these threats to our communities and our families are inevitable.

What America has been doing to fight drugs is a monumental failure, and the American people know that. In fact, the managers of our bi-partisan prohibition drug policy are spending a fortune trying to sweep that failure under a rug. In the National Drug Control Strategy, the White House drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, insists “National Anti-Drug Policy is Working. “ [Open 1999 National Drug Control Strategy and point to pages 8 and 9]. He may believe this, but the scorecard he shows us is as fudged as those Bill Clinton routinely offers up after eighteen holes. In this March 1999 strategy, for example, he claimed that coca production is declining. [Point to page 9] He quietly repudiated that claim five months after it was published.

McCaffrey’s judgment of the bottom line is so warped that his concluding evidence that the anti-drug policy is working is that the Federal government’s spending on anti-drug efforts has been going up steadily. [Point to page 9]. The Federal anti-drug spending has grown from $13.5 billion in FY 1996 to $19.2 billion in FY 2001. State and local anti-drug spending is now more than $33 billion. Think about that – over $52 billion a year to fight drugs and it is climbing steadily.

Think about this. The government has the audacity to claim that the problem is getting better because it is spending more of the taxpayers’ money fighting the problem. If politicians said this about any other government program, they would be laughed out of office. This preposterous assertion reminds us of Harry Shearer’s book about the Clinton Administration entitled, It’s the Stupidity, Stupid.

I have been following closely, if not helping to develop, our national anti-drug strategy since 1979. For more than nine years, I was the House Judiciary Committee’s counsel principally responsible for anti-drug matters. I can tell you, when it comes to Congress and the war on drugs, “it’s the stupidity, stupid.” But it is not only stupidity, but cruelty and racism as well.

It’s time for us to call it what it is, and time for all of us genuinely concerned about the problems of drugs to join this growing movement for fundamental change.

In the1980s, when Congress was in an anti-drug legislative frenzy, I was a principal aide in developing the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988. Infamously, those laws created the mandatory minimum sentences that have filled every Federal courthouse with the stench of injustice, blatant routine perjury, and rampant racial discrimination. Those laws have filled every Federal prison with drug offenders -- over 85,000 today – most them, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, low-level offenders, and overwhelmingly black, Latino, or Asian. When the 1986 law was written, the entire Federal prison population was less than 40,000. These numbers are an unacceptable bottom line for our drug policy.

What should be our bottom line for anti-drug policy? It’s fairly simple. (1) Save lives, (2) keep the most dangerous drugs out of the hands of kids, and (3) keep as many people as healthy as possible. It’s not about keeping medicine out of the hands of sick people. It’s not about sending young people to prison who use drugs. It’s not about denying a college education to kids who smoke pot or experiment with drugs. It is not about stopping people on the highways because they are black, or brown, or young. It’s not about imprisoning drug dealers for half of their life.

The bottom line delivered by Reagan, Bush and Clinton has been a deadly disaster, and it is growing worse. Deaths from drugs have more than doubled since 1979. The number of dead has increased every year for twenty years.

Prohibition and the war on drugs are not keeping drugs out of the hands of kids. In 1998, heroin and marijuana were more available to high school seniors than at any point since 1975. Availability of heroin to high school students has increased by 62% since the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed.

Ecstasy availability has almost doubled since 1989. LSD is easily available to half our high school seniors.

Among 8th graders, past month use of marijuana, cocaine and LSD tripled from 1991 to 1997.

In the street drug markets, the purity is rising – to the highest levels recorded. High purity is sending more people to hospital emergency rooms – drug-related ER admissions in 1998 were the most recorded. The bottom line – heroin street purity increased from less than 5% in 1981 to almost 25% in 1998. How can the White House say that “drug policy is working” when there has been a 500% increase in heroin purity?

There is now such an oversupply of drugs that the street prices of heroin and cocaine in our neighborhoods are near historic lows. A pure gram of cocaine was $44 in 1998, down from $191 in 1981. The price of heroin fell from $1200 per gram in 1981 to $318 per gram in 1998. Falling prices mean traffickers are finding it easier to get drugs to our streets, not harder. This is an unacceptable bottom line.

Why are drugs so widely available? The principal reason is that among the medieval qualities of our drug policy it is like alchemy. Almost 1000 years ago, alchemists tried to figure out how to turn common materials into gold. Gold – there was nothing more precious than gold. These days gold sells for about $9 per gram wholesale, about $9. Cocaine, at $44 per gram is now more than four times more valuable than gold, and that’s after the price has dropped like a stone. During the Reagan war on drugs, cocaine was worth 20 times more than gold. And today, heroin, at more than $300 per gram, is worth more than 30 times the value of gold.

Take a vegetable, process it, and you’ve got a product that is 30 times more valuable than gold. This is alchemy. This tells us why prohibition can’t control drugs. Think of the gold rushes in California or Alaska. Men abandoned their families, quit their jobs or farms, and headed across the continent to make their fortunes. Here was the great opportunity for anybody to “strike it rich.” But the reality of the gold fields was violence, drunkenness, prostitution, lawlessness of every kind. Drug prohibition – alchemy -- has created thousands of gold rushes in every corner of America. It is the great opportunity to make money for any kid who thinks he or she has nothing to lose. And prohibition has brought with it the inevitable violence, the inevitable craziness, and the inevitable corruption.

So, what is the solution? As a nation we’ve got to end the black magic of alchemy, that is, drug prohibition. We must mobilize to convince our neighbors, our colleagues at work, our fellow students, and our elected representatives that we reject the war on drugs and demand a system of real control and regulation.

In the short term, treatment, not jail or prison, is the best answer for those who are addicted. There are about 3 million untreated hard core addicts. We must demand that the government build the capacity so that they can get treatment when they are ready, without having to go to jail. While our prison population doubled during the 1990s, the number of untreated drug addicts also grew.

If our drug policy were any other government program, there would be a clamor in both political parties for new solutions, for a positive bottom line. But the only clamor from Bush, Gore and their parties is for more of the same – tougher laws, more police and prosecutors, more prisons, and new forms of surveillance.

Thomas Edison, while he was trying to invent the light bulb, was interviewed by a reporter without much vision, according to a story I’ve heard. “Mr. Edison, you’ve tried thousands of materials to find a filament for your so-called light bulb, and none of them have worked. How does it feel for you to have failed so many times?” Edison replied, “I’ve conducted thousands of experiments that have successfully demonstrated that none of those materials are suitable for my design of a light bulb.”

Prohibition has been an experiment. Its failed to provide a suitable drug policy. Over the years, generations of officials tried to demonstrate that through prohibition we could prevent abuse, save lives, and protect children and families. The experimental data is in. We must not allow politicians to try the same failed experiments over again. Whether they call it “user accountability,” or “zero tolerance,” or “Plan Colombia,” they won’t get different results -- they will replicate the failure. Now is the time for new experiments designed to control and regulate the use and sale of drugs.

Improving our drug problem bottom line involves you. You need to commit yourself to changing that bottom line – socially, politically and personally. People like us must join and support financially organizations like mine, or the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation, or Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation, or the Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation.

We all need to do what we can do best. We need to write letters like Tom O’Connell and his colleagues of Drug Sense in California and organize like Al Robison and his colleagues of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas. We need to commit ourselves give speeches to civic groups, like Cliff Thornton of Efficacy in Connecticut or Peter Crist of ReconsiDer in New York. We must organize our business colleagues like Joe White of Change the Climate in Massachusetts. We must organize people in our situation, like Nora Callahan of the November Coalition in Washington. We must organize our neighbors like Lennice Wirth of Virginians Against Drug Violence. We must connect to the media like Arianna Huffington and Ethan Nadelmann and Kevin Zeese.

We must become one-issue voters. We must engage groups like the League of Women Voters and the Rotary and our local party organizations: Democratic, Republican, Green, Reform and Libertarian. We have to fire them up. We must support courageous public officials and candidates for public office, no matter what party, when they make ending prohibition part of their platform.

We must realize that this struggle is not simply for the good of the nation, or for the good of our neighbors, or for the good of the poor and the downtrodden. Ultimately, this is a struggle about the health of our national spirit and our individual soul.

We must throw off the despair, the inequality of wealth and opportunity, and the iron grip on politics of the monied interests that has prevented reform.

Between now and November 7, let’s get out there, raise money, organize, politick, and kick some butt. And then, on November 8, let’s reorganize and prepare to confront the new political reality that we have helped create.

# # #

Eric E. Sterling, an attorney, was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee from 1979 to 1989, where he was principally responsible for anti-drug legislation and other anti-crime matters.  Since 1989, he has been President of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a non-profit center that educates the nation about criminal justice issues.