“CLERGY NEED TO LEAD”: Rev. Bobby Griffith, Jr.

grygielny Faith Perspectives, Guest Pieces, Marijuana Legalization, OK

Rev. Bobby Griffith, Jr.

Guest Blog by Rev. Bobby Griffith, Jr., Pastor, City Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City, OK

Two weeks ago, my home state, Oklahoma, passed State Question 788, which legalizes marijuana for medicinal purposes. As a minister, I was overjoyed at the prospect of beginning to push back against the harm caused by the long War on Drugs and to see kindness unleashed toward the suffering. I did my part by helping with the petition drive, talking to the undecided, giving media interviews and writing in support of this statute.

I did not always hold this view. What pushed me over the edge was sermon prep, of all things. In 2010, I gave a sermon with heavy application that centered on the fact Oklahoma seemed “okay” on the surface, but it was not that way for everyone. My illustration was twofold. First, Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the world. Yes, world! Second, Patricia Spottedcrow.

Ms. Spottedcrow was a single mom, who sold $31 of marijuana to an undercover informant. She did this to feed her family. In turn, she received a 12-year prison sentence and her family was broken up, despite the fact this was her first offense. A grassroots effort ensued, and she served two years, instead of 12. Still, she spent that time without her four kids and had to rebuild her life.

I mentioned these two things in a sermon. The church where I was on staff at the time was mostly made up of Red State Oklahomans. Mentioning something about marijuana, sentencing and, dare I say, social justice, was unheard of for this congregation. I received a few “I never thought about that” comments, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Two years later, I met a man in his early 20s who made most of his money growing and selling marijuana. He lived a few blocks from one of the hip spots in Oklahoma City and lots of folks knew what he did for income. In the course of our short conversation (how many ministers get to hang out with a drug dealer!), I asked him if he was worried about getting caught. He said, “Dude. I’m white.”

That interaction drove me to gain a better understanding of Oklahoma’s sentencing disparity. African Americans are almost four times as likely to be in jail for marijuana than Caucasians. Arrest rates for whites are lower. Sentencing occurs along racial lines. My state now has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. The system is broken.

I look at the enforcement of drug laws, marijuana specifically, and I feel the angst of the Old Testament prophets. There is real oppression. Prohibition creates black markets and opens the door to gangs, prostitution, and human degradation.  Law enforcement has the ability to apply civil asset forfeiture and take from those who barely have anything, especially immigrants and migrants. Mandatory minimum sentences do little by way of treating humans as bearers of God’s image.

It is within this space, I believe, clergy need to lead. Houses of worship need to empower congregations with the realities that are often ignored. No one at that little church where I preached in 2010 knew about incarceration rates or Patricia Spottedcrow.  Some may have thought she “got what she deserved,” but I’m sure many felt it was wrong.

We need to learn how to tap into that sense of injustice to do our part to bring about restorative justice. The issue of drug laws is not as simple as “just say no” or “go to jail”. There are hosts of socio-economic and political factors. There is space to apply Christ’s love for others in the Gospels. There is room to point out oppression. There is an opportunity for religious communities to be compassionate, speak for the voiceless, and open the eyes of the powerful to a better way.  

Fewer Prisoners, Not More Prison Beds

grygielny ID, Marijuana Legalization

“We don’t have the option to do nothing.” Those are the words of Idaho Board of Corrections Chairwoman Debbie Field. She was referring to the proposal made by the Board for a 1,510 bed  Idaho prison, part of $500 million prison expansion for the state. If the state legislature approves the proposal, it will be worse than doing nothing.

Violent crime in the United States has been falling consistently and dramatically since the early 1990s. Idaho is no exception to this trend: while violent crime peaked in 2002, rates in the state have been at or near record lows since 2014. What reasonable explanation could there be for why the prison population in Idaho is rising so quickly that they will need 2,400 new prison beds by 2022?

The answer is simple: drug violations. Idaho has some of the most regressive, outdated drug laws in the country. It is illegal for Idaho doctors to prescribe cannabis to their patients for medicinal purposes. As a result, children suffering from epilepsy and military veterans with post traumatic stress disorder cannot receive a drug that has been proven effective to treat their disorders and improve their lives.

In addition, medical cannabis is an effective alternative to opioid treatment. Since 2012 the opioid overdose death rate in Idaho has nearly doubled, further proving the need for medical cannabis legalization. Efforts to get a medical cannabis initiative on the November ballot in Idaho failed, the fourth time in eight years that such efforts have come up short.

Idaho needs to take the lead of states that are serious about proactive, beneficial changes. On June 26, voters in Oklahoma overwhelmingly approved legalizing medical marijuana by a twelve point margin. Once that law goes into effect Oklahoma will be the thirtieth state that allows doctors to prescribe cannabis.

Utah may be the thirty-first. A legalization initiative is on the November ballot there, and a recent poll showed support for medical marijuana at nearly 75 percent. Idaho is lagging behind some of the most conservative states in the country on accepting the truth about the benefits of medical marijuana.

In order to significantly lower its prison population, Idaho will need to either legalize or decriminalize marijuana. When a person is convicted of a drug felony it can destroy their lives. They can lose access to affordable housing and temporary assistance for themselves and their children. Without a job or support, their risk of a second prison sentence becomes far more likely.

Two-thirds of the people admitted to an Idaho prison in the last year were repeat offenders, with three-quarters of those sentences being for drug possession violations. This is the horrifying cycle of the criminal justice system, which keeps people from rebuilding their lives and drains the state of resources.

Nine states have legalized recreational marijuana, while another thirteen have decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug. By comparison, Idaho’s possession laws are aggressively punitive. Possessing any amount of marijuana is punishable by prison time, and possessing three ounces or more is a felony that carries a five year prison sentence. That is the same sentence that the state gives to those convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.

“We want to be tough,” said Idaho Judiciary Chairman Lynn Luker, “but we want to be smart.” Their version of tough has failed, so it’s time for the Idaho legislature to get serious about being smart. Reforming drug laws, including decriminalizing marijuana possession, would dramatically decrease Idaho’s prison population. The state would save hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of people would not have their lives destroyed by long, unnecessary prison sentences. There is no excuse for not instituting these reforms.

Tom Houseman

Oklahoman Op-Ed: Answering Evangelicals

grygielny Evangelical Perspectives, Medical Marijuana, OK

The following op-ed appeared in the Oklahoman, the newspaper with the largest circulation in Oklahoma, three days before the vote on a medical marijuana ballot initiative.  It was co-authored by Rev. Bobby Griffith, pastor, City Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City; and Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

On June 26th Oklahoma voters approved Proposition 788 by a 12-point margin. This op-ed is republished here with the permission of the Oklahoman.

Voters in Oklahoma will decide next Tuesday whether to approve Proposition 788, which would make medical marijuana available in the state.  Some clergy are urging them to oppose the measure. Though they may be sincere, their opposition denies the very God of healing, compassion, and mercy they claim to worship.

Harsh words, yes, but here is why they are sadly accurate.  Even the most casual reader of the Gospels knows that Jesus devoted much of his ministry to healing the sick and the infirm. That, more than any other reason, is why people flocked to him. On what basis, then, would Christian leaders oppose making a substance that offers healing available to those who suffer? I can think of three reasons.

One reason might be the misguided view that cannabis does not really help people.  But there is simply no room for doubt that it does. The most prestigious medical journals testify to its effectiveness in addressing severe pain of those suffering from cancer; nausea from chemotherapy; multiple sclerosis; epilepsy; degenerative spinal disease; and many other forms of suffering.

Perhaps these opponents fear that medical marijuana will increase use among children, who will raid their parents’ or grandparents’ medical cabinets.  But the evidence is clear on this point, too. Medical marijuana has not led to increased teen use in any state that has adopted it.

Why, then, do these Christian leaders not have eyes to see? Perhaps because they are blinded by penultimate rather than ultimate religious values.  I was stunned to read the words of a pastor from an Oklahoma Baptist Church last week: “The two hallmarks of the Christian faith are sobriety and self-control,” he said. “Marijuana inhibits both of these hallmarks.

These are virtues, indeed. But to call them “the hallmarks” is to overlook the essential Christian message, which is to “Make love your aim.”  Elsewhere in the Gospel: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  And, of course, 1 Corinthians 13: “Faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

Very few things made Jesus angry, but the Pharisees did.  Why? Because they stressed rules over substance. That’s why He was willing to heal, and feed the hungry, on the sabbath, even though it made those Pharisees apoplectic.  

Another reason some oppose making medical marijuana available is fear that legalizing medical marijuana will open the door to recreational use.  This view disrespects how people function in a democracy. With good information, citizens generally make wise decisions. Yes, some states have moved eventually from medical to full legalization.  But this has happened only after full, robust, extended debate. It has not happened quickly or easily in any state. Nor would it in Oklahoma.

At the end of the day, what may drive clergy opposition is a misguided view of sin. They preach personal salvation. Abstinence from earthly pleasures is the only path.  This sense of what constitutes personal wrong conduct is so narrowly constructed that it leads them to think that any use of drugs, even for healing, is immoral. It leaves virtually no room for compassion, indeed, for Jesus.

Fear- and rule-mongering which cause so many to miss the essence of the Christian faith should not guide next Tuesday’s vote on medical marijuana.

“…My World Came to a Crashing Halt.”

grygielny Drug Education, Guest Pieces, Harm Reduction

Kim Brown  stands with a picture of her son, Andy, who passed away from an accidental heroin overdose.

Guest Blog by Kim Brown, President, QC Harm Reduction

On May 25th, 2011 my world came to a crashing halt. My thirty-three-year-old son Andy died from an accidental heroin overdose. We knew he was in trouble, we knew he injected drugs, and most of all, we knew we were at risk of losing him…and then we did. I was a single mom working as a nurse, and I adored my kids. Now one was gone.

The damage done to a family when a child and sibling dies is staggering, especially when the death is caused by a drug overdose. The shame and stigma directed your way after losing a child to an overdose is quite debilitating. In any event, there were no neighbors with casseroles or offers to help and very few condolences.

I was introduced to harm reduction when I sought support for my grief online. I discovered GRASP, Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing, and found other mothers to whom I could talk. GRASP literally saved my life. While pouring out my heart to these mothers I’d met, I was struck by their absolute certainty that our children’s deaths could have been prevented. Had we been able to access harm reduction tools, including naloxone, clean needles, and safe spaces for them, maybe our kids would still be here. With this knowledge, I began to turn my grief into advocacy.

We founded QC Harm Reduction, our 501(c)3, non-profit organization in 2015, but had been seeking allies to support naloxone training and distribution since 2012. Iowa did not have a naloxone access bill, so we began to advocate for one at our state capitol. Finally, in 2016, after four grueling years, our law was passed. As we attempted to build support for training and distribution in our community, we continued to get pushback from many stakeholders. Stigma, shame, and a focus on abstinence were sadly still the rule of the day.

My dear friend, a former Catholic Worker, Michael Gayman, introduced me to some folks in the faith community who operate The Center, Love in Action (LINK). They listened as I explained how a simple harm reduction tool, such as naloxone, could save the lives of people who use drugs. Our mission was well received, and they invited QC Harm Reduction to be a partner organization.

As a result, we have been able to reach those directly impacted by drug use at The Center, in Davenport, Iowa, and through our street outreach. We have partnered with the homeless shelters in our community and have expanded our street outreach and services. QC Harm Reduction, in addition to distributing naloxone, now provides HIV and Hepatitis C testing, all free of charge. Unfortunately, Iowa has yet approved needle exchanges.  We are working to change this.

We also distribute food, clothing, backpacks, and other items necessary for survival, including, importantly, love and acceptance to those who are often discarded and forgotten. I am deeply grateful to The Center and their faith community for the love and support they’ve shown me, QCHR, and those individuals we are helping to serve.

We are trying to get people to connect the dots.  People on the streets are put in jail for low-level drug offenses, and they are often parents. This is disrupting the lives of children and families, and the human costs are too great. The Center and QCHR believe strongly that harm reduction is a human right and that everyone is entitled to safety and compassion.  Love is love. Every life is worth saving.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Blues (and Reds)

grygielny Ending Forfeiture Seizure

Judge’s gavel and stand with US dollar bills on the wooden table.

Civil asset forfeiture should not be a partisan issue. People on every point of the political spectrum should have serious concerns about a policy that allows law enforcement officials to seize someone’s property without having to charge that person with a crime. When the government does not bear the burden of proof for seizures, and law enforcement can keep the proceeds of the property they seized, everyone should be alarmed.

Seizing the assets of criminals is a necessary tool of law enforcement, but the difference between criminal forfeiture and civil forfeiture is enormous. Civil asset forfeiture allows police officers to pull people over under minimal pretenses, seize any cash they have on them, and then claim that it was earned through drug sales. Over the course of the last decade, the Drug Enforcement Agency has seized $3.2 billion from people without any charges being filed, and without any judicial review of the seizure.

Whatever your feelings are about the role of government in people’s private lives and how the War on Drugs is being fought, it is difficult to defend these policies. Yet when looking at our map grading states on their approach to civil asset forfeiture, it is startling how little regulation and transparency most states have in place. This is not just an issue that affects blue states or red states, but a cross-country epidemic that has many policymakers on both sides of the aisle entrenched in their defense of the status quo.

States in the Deep South are some of the worst offenders, almost all of them receiving a D or F grade. Yet within those states many conservative politicians have railed against the policy as a gross abuse of the government’s power. In 2018 two Republican State Senators in Alabama introduced a bill that would require a conviction before any asset forfeiture and would send proceeds from forfeitures to the state’s general fund, rather than to law enforcement coffers. In 2017, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, which would apply similar reforms at the federal level.

But letting law enforcement seize assets with impunity is not a problem confined to red states. CNDP’s analysis graded Massachusetts and Washington, two of the most progressive states on drug policy in general, with F’s on their civil asset forfeiture policies. New Jersey also received an F, Delaware and Rhode Island both earned a D-, and Maine a D+.

Recent attempts have been made in these states to hold law enforcement accountable and limit their power. Unfortunately, these bills are often held in committee, never even getting a vote by state legislative bodies. The Alabama bill passed through the State Senate with a 25-1 vote, but never received a vote in the House.

A similar bill in Rhode Island, introduced by three Democratic State Senators, was recommended “to be held for further study” by the Senate Judiciary Committee, ensuring that it would never receive a vote. In 2017, a Massachusetts civil asset forfeiture reform bill also died without ever receiving a vote. Meanwhile, no action has been taken on Rand Paul’s FAIR Act since it was introduced in 2017.

Not every state has been as intransigent on this issue. In 2016, California outlawed equitable sharing, a policy that allows law enforcement to circumvent state policies by sharing proceeds of civil asset forfeiture with federal law enforcement. In 2017, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature passed a bill requiring a criminal conviction before assets could be seized. Both states are now among only fourteen that we graded C+ or higher.

There is still a long way to go on civil asset forfeiture policies at both the state and federal level. Only three states have outlawed the practice entirely. More than half of all states allow police departments to keep all of the proceeds from the assets they seize. But the more attention we can give to this unfair and destructive policy, the more pressure we can put on states to reform it.

Tom Houseman