Drug Policy

The United States is at a crossroads in its drug policy. Over the past half century, in our effort to quell the drug trade, we have stepped up border security, increased arrests, lengthened sentences for drug offenses, stripped various rights away from drug offenders, and introduced drug testing in our nation's schools and workplaces. Overseas, we have poured billions of dollars into anti-drug military and public security operations that frequently commit violent human rights abuses. We have spent over a trillion dollars so far, arrested over 40 million Americans, and created the largest prison population in the world. To eradicate drug crops, we have defoliated over a million acres of land in Colombia alone. An inevitable consequence of our prohibition strategy has been to create economies that sustain gang and cartel turf wars that have claimed thousands of lives in the U.S. and tens of thousands in Mexico. After all this effort, the availability and purity of drugs have steadily increased, hundreds of thousands of Americans remain ensnared in addiction, and people who want help becoming sober cannot get appropriate treatment.

Increasingly, the American people and people around the world are recognizing that by attempting to control the drug market through force, prohibition and incarceration, our policies have created a hugely profitable and increasingly efficient drug trade. Every comprehensive conservation about the problems of violence, poverty, race, health, education achievement and opportunity, community development, the environment, civil liberties and terrorism now recognizes the significant contribution of the illegal drug market to the seriousness of the problem.

Do we now change direction and adopt a new, sensible drug policy that, among other things, acknowledges the differences between drugs and treats different drugs in the most appropriate way? To support a well-designed change of direction, we provide specific policy-related information on each of the following drugs: cannabis (including medical cannabis), heroin and other opiates, crack cocaine and alcohol.

We also discuss areas of the criminal justice system tightly linked to drug policy that are in great need of reform: mandatory minimums, prosecutorial overreach, civil asset forfeiture and clemency.


Human beings have used various substances to affect their mood and feeling for 6000 to 8000 years. The use of alcohol, opium and cannabis precedes written history. Tea and peyote have been used for over 1000 years. Tobacco and coffee-- both addictive, mood-altering drugs-- have been used around the world since the Eighteenth Century.

Controls on the use of these drugs, including prohibitions and taxes, have been implemented only in the past couple hundred of years. These controls arose from a mix of motives, from the laudable to the abhorrent. Certainly there was the concern to protect public health in the recognition of the problems created by abuse and addition to alcohol, tobacco, and habit-forming drugs like the opiates and cocaine. However there was also a reaction to fears of people identified or associated with the use of drugs – whether political subversives meeting in 16th and 17th century coffee houses in London, or the 19th century racist fears of Chinese opium smokers seducing white women and enlisting them into “white slavery.” And there was the odious motivation to handicap the opportunities of populations that appeared to threaten the livelihood of the white majority. Early U.S. labor leaders supported drug prohibition as a way to tarnish the reputation of hard working Chinese “coolies” who worked in mines or building railroads. Southern whites created fears of “cocainized negroes” who raped white women at the time lynching became more common at the beginning of the 20th century. Impoverished farmers fleeing the Midwest “Dust Bowl” for verdant California in the 1930s took advantage of the slander of Mexican-heritage agricultural workers as the vicious users of marijuana, the “devil’s weed.”

Contemporary American drug policy, expressed formally in the nearly half-century old Controlled Substances Act, attempts to control the distribution and prevent the use of stimulant, depressant and "hallucinogenic" compounds that can be "abused." At the same time, the Act seeks to assure that such compounds - when they have a use in medicine - are available to patients through a tightly controlled distribution system.

Despite such attempts at control, Americans spend over $100 billion every year to illegally purchase controlled substances, and roughly 19 million Americans use illegal drugs at least monthly. High school students report that a number of illegal drugs are easily available. The availability and purity of most illegal drugs are greater today than they were 30 years ago.

To curb the illegal distribution of such drugs, the government arrests 1.5 million persons per year. Roughly 4 million Americans are now labeled convicted felons due to drug offenses.[1] There are currently between 400,000 and 500,000 persons imprisoned in the U.S. for violating the drug laws; this is more than all the prisoners in all the Western European nations combined, even though they have a substantially greater population. The federal prison population has grown by roughly 900% since the Controlled Substances Act was enacted in 1970.

[1] Schmitt, John and Kris Warner. “Ex‐offenders and the Labor Market.” Center for Economic and Policy Research Report. November 2010. http://cepr.net/documents/publications/ex-offenders-2010-11.pdf. Accessed January 12, 2016.

BJS. “Felony Sentences in State Courts, 2006 – Statistical Tables.” Bureau of Justice Statistics National Judicial Reporting Program. December 2009. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fssc06st.pdf. Accessed January 12, 2016.

Past Publications

CJPF has been calling attention to the need to reform our War on Drugs for over 25 years.

America's War on Drugs: A Rolling Stone Forum. This commentary was part of a special report on the war on drugs. Mr. Sterling commented on the future of American drug policy, along with celebrities including Dave Matthews, David Crosby, Tobias Wolff, and Peter Jennings.  

The War on Drugs in Context: The Legal System, the Need for Social Change and Personal Responsibility. Drug Policy Letter. This Article was included in the 1999 "Special Awards Edition" of the Drug Policy Foundation's newsletter, acknowledging Eric E. Sterling as the 1999 recipient of the Justice Gerald LeDain Award for Achievement in the Field of Law.  

Comments by Eric E. Sterling at the release of the 2001 Center for National Policy report "The War on Drugs: Do the American People Have Battle Fatigue?" The report was based on findings by the PEW Research Center for the People and the Press.

Drug Policy: A Smorgasbord of Conundrums Spiced By Emotions Around Children and Violence By Eric E. Sterling. Valparaiso Law Review. Spring 1997, Volume 31, Number 2. This article appeared in a 500-page symposium volume, "Juvenile Crime: Policy Proposals on Guns, Violence, Drugs and Gangs." It addresses how drug policy is shaped by concerns about children and public safety. It discusses the availability of illegal drugs, drug use by children, the "right" to use drugs, crack markets and violence, drug dealing by adolescents, the handicap of drug prohibition on urban redevelopment, and issues regarding medical marijuana. It responds to two articles, one by Daniel D. Polsby, and one by Mark A.R. Killeen.

Marijuana Legalization

Why I Changed Careers to Legalize a Drug I Don't Use. A Huffington Post article by Amos Irwin, Chief of Staff, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

Medical marijuana: 

Maryland Medical Marijuana Testimony. Eric E. Sterling's statement before the Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee in Support of H.B. 702: An Act Concerning the Darrell Putman Medical Research Act. March 4, 2003.

NIH Statement By Eric Sterling. In this Statement to the National Institutes of Health workshop on the utility of medical marijuana, Mr. Sterling makes six recommendations regarding medical marijuana. 

Crack Cocaine Policy:

Getting Justice off its "Junk Food Diet" explains the adverse affect of the low mandatory minimum quantity triggers for federal cocaine prosecutions. July 17, 2006.