Civil Asset Forfeiture: A Path to Reform

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Ending Forfeiture Seizure

“Reform” image via Mark Bonica

Did you think that under the law we are innocent until proven guilty? Not when it comes to civil asset forfeiture. Police are allowed to seize property they suspect is connected to a crime. Usually, they take cars. Cash and electronic equipment are also likely objects of seizure if police decide to search where victims live.

The burden is on owners to court to get their property back. They are not given counsel. Since most of the defendants are very poor, they cannot afford their own. The instructions on where and when they can plead their case are confusing or non-existent. If they don’t act fast enough, their property is auctioned off and proceeds handed over to law enforcement.

It is estimated that a significant majority of individuals whose process is seized in Cook County end up never even trying to prove that their property should be returned. This is not surprising (if painful to watch). Without procedures telling them what to do, the victims of property seizure simply give up.

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Government Theft: A First-Hand Account

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Ending Forfeiture Seizure

Those fortunate enough to see this flyer will have access to legal representation.

It’s easy enough to read about civil asset forfeiture and be angry at a system that seizes property and keeps it until the owners prove they have not committed a crime. Last week we wanted to get a more personal, first-hand view, of how the process works.

All proceedings for civil asset forfeiture in Cook County are held in Room 1707 of the Daley Center. Anyone can go. We sat in on a docket of cases.

Four prosecutors from the Cook County State’s Attorney were present. No one represented the four defendants waiting to be called. All were African-American.

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Celebrating Passover With Pot

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Faith Perspectives, Jewish Perspectives

Seder plate from The Le’Or Cannabis Passover Seder. To learn more about the Seder, listen to an interview with Claire Kaufmann or take a closer look inside the event.

Claire and Roy Kaufmann are co-founders of Le’Or, a Jewish activist organization based in Portland, Oregon. Their cannabis seder on April 15 was their second such event. Over 70 individuals from the cannabis industry, along with drug law reformers, clergy, civic leaders, and others were present. In a recent radio interview, Claire described the connection between Judaism and cannabis, the purpose of this annual event, and its relevance to ending the War on Drugs. Here are excerpts from this broadcast.

“So, what is Passover? The Jewish holiday of Passover is the most observed holiday, more than Rosh Hashanah, more than Hannakuh, more than Yom Kippur. A larger percentage of Jews go to a Passover Seder than anything else.

“The holiday of Passover commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt. We weren’t always slaves. We were actually a very vocal and well-respected minority. The Pharaoh came to power and perceived us as a threat, and he enslaved the Hebrews, as they were called at that time.

The story of Passover is a ritual. Seder is the Hebrew word for order. To commemorate this experience of being slaves over time and of our liberation, the ritual of the Passover seder evolved. The seder is a ritual order of doing particular things that help us remember.

“Passover is not only about celebrating our own redemption, our own freedom, it’s about reminding ourselves of our responsibility to fight for the freedom of all people. In fact, a civil rights seder has been around since the 1960s. There are all kinds of seders –chocolate seders, feminism seders, any kind of seder you can imagine, always overlaid over the traditional stories.

“It all works very well because the stories of the exodus from Egypt, and the end of slavery arc eloquently over the story of cannabis legalization and the end of the War on Drugs. We are remembering how lucky we are to be free while not forgetting the roads we have ahead of ourselves to bring an end to federal prohibition. We must make sure that people are not incarcerated for something that is a healing plant.

“One of the important things about Passover is that we talk not just physically being slaves but what enslaves us mentally, whether that’s money, or whether that’s ego, or whether that’s perfectionism. And cannabis, in a way, is about freedom of consciousness, freedom of thought.

Download the Cannabis Passover Seder Hagaddah (2nd Edition).

“We find a breadth of reactions to the cannabis seder. One of the reasons we founded Le’Or, and felt that we even had a mission to play, is that we spent our whole first year researching why the Jewish community wasn’t coming out of the gate, being more vocal on legalizing cannabis.

“Never mind the fact that Israel is one of the leading medical cannabis research countries in the world; or Ethan Nadelmann, former executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, is the son of a rabbi; or that Seth Rogen made a movie Pineapple Express. People always say Jews and cannabis go together like bagels and lox, and that’s absolutely true.

“As we began to create Le’Or we found that rabbis were not interested in talking about this issue- — at all.  The rabbis basically said ‘There’s no reason why I should touch this issue with a ten-foot pole. It’s a liability for me, my donors are doctors and lawyers, you know, why bother?’ So we realized this had to come from the ground up if it was to be movement that came from the Jewish community.

“Our idea for a cannabis seder began to be pretty well-received in the reformed and conservative and more progressive communities, but not as well-received in the traditional communities. The Passover Seder is such a holy thing that bringing cannabis into it from their perspective feels diminishing, whereas we would see it as elevating the conversation.

“In Hebrew, the word for cannabis is “kineboisin”, which appears multiple times in the Torah. Cannabis actually is part of the holy anointing oils at the Temple. So Jews and cannabis have been friends for a long time. Also, the orthodox rabbis, I believe in New York, just said cannabis is kosher.

“At BDS Analytics, we found that people are using cannabis for very specific reasons, whether it’s for very specific physical ailments, or, in this case, for example, for very specific spiritual needs.

“What we’re discovering is that people aren’t just smoking pot for fun. People do that. But it seems more and more people are finding a role for cannabis to play in their lives. And I believe spirituality is part of that. There’s that nexus between our spirit and the cannabis plant itself.”

Rev. Jamie Washam Testifies for Legalization in Rhode Island

Rev. Saeed Richardson Protestant Perspectives, RI

On April 11, Rev. Jamie Washam, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in America, testified before the House Judiciary Committee in support of legislation to tax and regulate marijuana in Rhode Island.

The following is a transcript of the testimony provided by Rev. Jamie Washam before the House Judiciary Committee of the  Rhode Island General Assembly. Video of the testimony is available via YouTube.


I am a pastor and minister of First Baptist Church in America, the church founded by Roger Williams in 1638, and I’m here in support of House Bill 5555.

When Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, he initiated a lively experiment. He afforded legal protection for concepts that were seen as heretical at the time, which we now embrace as rights in a common and dignified society. In the 1633 colonial charter on display in this statehouse, Rhode Island was established as a place of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. It is in this spirit that I stand in reforming our existing drug policies.

One need not use marijuana or even approve of marijuana to see that our current laws are ineffective and unjust. It is time to move beyond a culture of punishment to one that reduces harm, respects and restores the dignity of all persons, and re-establishes Rhode Island as an example to other communities.

We have the opportunity here in Rhode Island to be the first state in the union to pass legalization through legislative action. I urge you to stop tabling this for further study. It’s been studied. I urge you to bring this to a vote this session.

The War on Drugs has failed in its stated objectives. Its legacy is one of broken communities, missed opportunities, and overextended criminal justice systems. People charged with marijuana charges continue to face lifetime consequences in terms of housing and job prospects.

The proposed legislation in House Bill 5555 would allow for the expungement of criminal records. It would free up people who have already paid their debt to society to get on with their lives.

“It is time to move beyond a culture of punishment to one that reduces harm, respects and restores the dignity of all persons…”Rev. Jamie Washam

We know that institutional racism infects our criminal justice system. From its inception, the War on Drugs sought to conflate race and crime in the public mind for political purposes. Current policies only continue to perpetuate this injustice and these lies.

Black Rhode Islanders are two-and-a-half-times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses even though usage rates are the same across racial lines. Even with the enactment of decriminalization, there were still more than 1400 marijuana-related arrests in the state from 2013 to 2014.

It’s disingenuous to suggest that you can possess something while it’s still illegal to procure it. Even making the argument for decriminalization is nonsensical. We know that if [individuals have marijuana], they have procured it illegally, so there’s always going to exist a market of people who are subject to the criminal justice system.

Legalizing and regulating would address a lot of the issues about access for youth. It would make our communities safer. Illegal marijuana is the foundation for criminal markets that operate in every community in our state. A regulated market will protect our young people and other citizens in ways that prohibition, or even decriminalization, cannot.

When people of any age seek to purchase marijuana in the underground market, they are often exposed to and encouraged to purchase far more dangerous substances. Legalization breaks the link between marijuana and more dangerous drugs by shifting sales of marijuana out of the criminal market and into regulated businesses that check IDs for age and will generate needed tax revenue for health and educational services. Marijuana use is a matter of public health and not criminal justice.

I’m a follower of Jesus, and as I read scripture, Jesus never threatened arrests and jail. He reached out, he listened. He spoke about mercy, about forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. As civil rights author and lawyer Bryan Stevenson observed this past Saturday, here in Rhode Island, “If you saw an alcoholic go into a bar, you wouldn’t call the police, you’d call their sponsor.”

And so I urge you to treat this as the health issue that it is, not a criminal justice issue. It’s time for Rhode Island to move beyond unhelpful and punitive measures and create a more just and effective drug policy. A regulated drug market reduces crime and allows our police and court system to focus on much more urgent priorities.

My faith calls me to pursue the respect and dignity of all persons. It’s time to regulate and tax marijuana in the same ways we currently regulate and tax alcohol, and to stop the shaming that goes along with it.

Marijuana: From Gateway to Gatekeeper

Rev. Saeed Richardson Legalization, Protestant Perspectives, Reflections

“Closed, Forbidden to Enter” Photo credit Marco Michelini

On March 15, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions shared with reporters in Richmond, VA that he was, “astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana.” He concluded that the ultimate responsibility for our country was to declare that “using drugs will destroy your life.”

An article published in March by the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal presents evidence to the contrary. The study found a 23% reduction of opioid-related hospitalizations after nine states passed legislation enabling the use of medical marijuana. Additionally, overall opioid-specific overdoses were reduced by 13%.

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