Two influential faith leaders from the south and west sides joined forces last Wednesday to build a base of support in Chicago for harm reduction rather than arrests and jail as the response to drug abuse and addiction.
Chief Apostle William McCoy and Bishop Claude Porter, with Congressman Danny Davis, hosted a symposium on “Challenges and Options” for a new drug policy featuring the voices of diverse individuals from law enforcement, government, healthcare, and policy advocacy. Over 50 community residents were present.
The event grew directly out of Chief Apostle William McCoy’s visit in April to Vancouver, Canada, the site of the only supervised safe-injection site in North America in April. Upon his return, he enlisted the support of Bishop Claude Porter. Congressman Danny Davis convened the symposium.
For over four hours the panelists and audience engaged in conversation on the present state of substance abuse in Illinois, diversion programs and interventions occurring across the state, and strategies for continuing the work of this newly formed coalition.
“The West and South Sides (of Chicago) are hiding in plain sight,” stated Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. She keynoted the conference with startling statistics on the lack of resources for drug treatment available in predominantly Black communities in Chicago.
Willis observed that these communities had experienced over a 50% funding reduction for treatment even before budget cuts in Illinois under the Rauner administration. She noted historically that the absence of treatment funding has long been a problem in the Black communities. Only upon being labeled an epidemic for the White communities has the heroin crisis become a national concern.
Captain Jerome Sanchez of the Santa Fe, New Mexico Police Department, shared the importance of training law enforcement officials as first responders. He described a growing national program, pioneered in Santa Fe, called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), in which police divert low-level drug offenders directly to treatment services, bypassing the criminal justice system.
Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli observed that of the 149,000 cases she had to represent last year, 105,000 were for low-level, nonviolent crimes. She predicted that she could reduce her current staff to 300 from the current level of 700 with more sensible drug laws.
Hon. Michael Nerheim, Lake County State’s Attorney, described how his office, along with other local officials, is implementing “A Way Out” as a response to the national heroin crisis. Individuals are permitted to walk into a police station, turn over any drugs they may possess, and immediately receive transportation to local treatment services without being arrested.
Bishop Porter and Chief Apostle McCoy concluded the event by promising quarterly summits in different parts of the city to raise awareness and further engage the public. Clergy for a New Drug Policy (CNDP) and Treatment for Alternative Safe Communities (TASC), are partners of the Coalition.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently shared the words, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” It is a welcome sight to see a “first step” such as this initiated by members of the faith community. As I look toward the next phase of this endeavor, I am eager to see what happens as we ascend the stairwell before us.
The symposium was held at the Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park, IL; special acknowledgment to Tumia Romero for her extensive work in planning/managing logistics for the event.