Drug reform activist says how drug policy impacts African Americans

Self-proclaimed “colonel” in the war on drugs shared his experiences, regrets and hopes for the future.
Eric Sterling, former assistant counsel to the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and current drug reform activist, visited MU campus on Nov. 6, 2019 to discuss perspective shifts on federal drug policy. Sterlings presentation was followed by a screening of the documentary film “Incarcerating Us”. Courtesy of Oaksterdam University

MU’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy invited drug reform activist Eric Sterling on Nov. 6 to share his experiences in the war on drugs, incarceration rates and the recent shift in perspective on federal drug policy.

SSDP is an international non-profit organization based in the U.S. that advocates for drug policy reform throughout the world.

“We do a lot of things revolving around education about drug policy … and educating people about the war on drugs and also safe use,” Alex Sapaugh, vice president of SSDP, said. “We don’t condemn or condone [drug use], we just want people to be able to make informed decisions.”

Sterling was a civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activist during the 1960s. He became a civil defense lawyer in 1976. In 1979 he became the Assistant Counsel to the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he helped draft federal laws concerning firearms, money laundering and drugs. His most notable work during this time was his involvement in the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

“I had been, in the 1980s, figuratively a colonel in the war on drugs,” Sterling said. “I quickly figured out that was a very serious policy mistake.”

Sterling resigned from his position in 1989 and established the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation to campaign for repeal and reform of the very laws and policies he helped create. Sterling remains the executive director of the CJPF.

Sterling opened with a lesson on constitutional rights and conduct with the police, practicing phrases such as “I do not consent to being searched” and “Am I free to go?” with the audience.

Sterling then presented data on the dramatic increase in incarceration since 1970, around when the war on drugs began, as well as factors that motivated the war on drugs including race.

“During the half-century [1920-1970], you had punishment not only in prison, you had punishment in segregation, you had the punishment of being second class if you were a person of color in the United States,” Sterling said. “When the civil rights movement triumphs by the end of the 1960s, no longer could you punish people for the status of being black … so that white privilege, which fought to maintain itself throughout the civil rights era, then operates through the justice system and then very much through the war on drugs.”

The documentary film “Incarcerating US” was presented after Sterling’s speech. The documentary expands upon Sterling’s points and features interviews with Sterling himself, who made closing remarks after the film. He spoke about his hopes for the future of federal drug policy as well as the shifting social perspective on drug use — like the introduction of the life-saving drug Narcan to public facilities, which is used to stabilize an overdose.

“I just thought it was really interesting,” freshman Ty Small said. “Prison reform is one of the issues in America that I feel like is one of the biggest issues, particularly for the black community. The biggest thing I took away from it was how policy was more driven by interest in doing things to get re-elected, rather than the effect that it was going to have on the citizens.”

Edited by Ben Scott | bscott@themaneater.com

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