Responding to Addiction through Faith, Not “Fixing”

grygielny Faith Perspectives, Guest Pieces, Harm Reduction

Bob Feeny is a third-year student at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He is seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ. 

I am never sure where to begin the story of my brother Jeff’s addiction. This is largely due to the fact that his story is not mine; I can only tell my story of his addiction.  I did not know it then, but I think that my story of my brother’s addiction began on Christmas Eve, 2007.  We were in the apartment where my mom and brother lived.

My mother had recently stabilized after a few years of erratic bipolar swings and isolation worsened by an abusive relationship, and my brother had moved in with her after living with extended family for a few years.  We were spending Christmas together like a normal family. Things were good. We spent much of the evening with my aunt and uncle—both “functioning” alcoholics. At some point a bottle of vodka came out, and my 18-year old brother started drinking.  A few hours later he stood over the sink, violently ill. The next morning, instead of the up-at-dawn Christmas of our youth that I had hoped for, I sat around with my mother wondering when Jeff would emerge from upstairs.

Fast-forward to Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016. It has been 4 months since I learned that my 27-year old brother had become addicted to heroin—and he has just sent me a text that reads, “I’m sorry man, I am too sick to come out for Thanksgiving.”  I had been out to see him as he had gotten clean. He was confident, we had a vision for his future, I was so hopeful for him. Clearly, he had relapsed.

I could not begin to understand how this had happened.  He seemed so determined to change his life. But over time it became clear that willpower was not enough to keep my little brother clean.  His confidence began to seem foolish to me; my own hope, hubris. If I’m being honest, I resigned myself to the fact that my brother’s life was essentially over.  Given our family’s history of addiction and the staggering statistics surrounding this country’s opioid epidemic—this seemed like a warranted stance.

Addiction seems to be a demon that America simply cannot cast out.  Decades of the War on Drugs have done nothing to mitigate the problem.  We’ve spent an unfathomable amount of resources telling people to “just say no,” and trying to convince them along with ourselves, that if they just find something to be hopeful about, they are going to drum up the confidence it takes to beat addiction.  Our response has been in vain.

I wonder, however, if faith may offer us a unique perspective, one that has not yet been attempted.  It’s easy to mix up faith with hope. And certainly, the two are interrelated in many ways. However, as someone who loves an addict, I must admit that I am not capable of responding hopefully to every situation.  

But what if faith really isn’t about hope?  What if faith is less like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and more like just standing knee-deep in sludge, in a tunnel that seems to go on as far as we can see in either direction?  What if faith is simply being willing to stand in that hopeless place, and know that somehow, God is present?

I don’t know what the future holds for my brother.  I don’t know what to hope for, and quite frankly, I’m not sure that hope is really the best thing that people of faith can offer.  There are people everywhere willing to offer hope. Medical professionals, rehab centers, community health initiatives- these things all offer hope.  Some offer hope as a commodity, others are genuinely confident that addiction can be overcome. The truth is, all of these things are necessary at one point or another in recovery.  

But all of these things look past the person suffering, into the person they can be if they just believe in themselves.  I want to believe that when Jesus tells his disciples that they lack faith, what he’s really telling them is that they’ve failed to see the child for who he is.  In their excitement about the possibility of ‘fixing’ him, they’ve refused to bear witness to his brokenness; they haven’t stood in the dark and the muck.

I often struggle to imagine what it is that’s ultimately going to save my brother.  But maybe I don’t need to. Maybe faith doesn’t require me to visualize the positive ending.  Maybe it doesn’t require me to find a solution, or even to think that there is a solution. Maybe my mustard seed is having the courage to admit that I love my brother, Jeff, the addict, just as he is.  The person who may never hold a steady job. The person who may never find true love. The person who may die younger than I’d hoped.  

My prayer for the Church is that as a people who have been transformed by God’s grace, we would never give up hope that lives shattered by addiction can be redeemed.  I pray that we would never lose our confidence that our God is a God who keeps transforming lives, opening up possibilities that we could never have imagined.

With this hope, I pray that we will speak up about addiction, and champion research-based approaches to prevention, treatment, and policy reform regarding addiction.  But more than that, I pray that we as the Church would realize our truly unique contribution to casting out the demons of addiction: faith. Not the Hallmark version of faith, the one with the rosy flourishes and the sappy endings, but the faith that looks the demon square in the eyes, and refuses to stop seeing the soul that it tortures.  

A Choice That Must Be Widely Available

grygielny Guest Pieces, Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana

I was pleased to see in Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s April 2018, Open Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in which he addressed how medicinal marijuana could help us work our way out of the opioid epidemic. It was Dr. Gupta’s plea to Attorney General Sessions that inspired me to share my own story. If I had known in 2009 and 2014 what I know now about cannabis, my recovery from brain surgery would have been much different.

In 2005 the onset of migraines, vision problems, and pituitary dysfunction led to the discovery of a Rathke’s cleft cyst (RCC) in my brain. A Rathke’s cleft cyst is a benign growth that develops between the parts of the pituitary gland and the base of the brain. In 2009, after four years of increasing migraines and worsening symptoms, I decided to have the RCC removed by a neurosurgery team at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver.

The recovery was painful and took longer than I anticipated. My doctor prescribed me Oxycontin (oxycodone) for pain management. The Oxy successfully took the edge off the pain, but it also made me itchy, nauseous, constipated, irritable, and wholly unable to function normally. I had also heard stories of how addictive the medication could be as well as stories of accidental overdoses, and these concerned me.

After about one week, I decided that the side effects were too much to manage, and I stopped taking it, only to be met with overwhelming pain. The Tylenol (acetaminophen) I was taking was not enough to manage the level of pain I was experiencing. I went back on the Oxycontin for another two weeks and battled through the side effects before finally deciding to quit Oxy once again and push through the remainder of my recovery with Tylenol only.

By 2015 the hardest part of my recovery from this, and a second surgery, was behind me.  I was able to move away from relying on prescription pain medications to manage my migraines. I returned full-time to my position as a health and special education teacher at an alternative high school in Colorado, where I worked with youth ranging in age from 14 to 18 years.

In 2014 the sale of recreational marijuana began in the state of Colorado, and when I returned to work after surgery my students had a lot of questions about marijuana. They did not understand the differences between medicinal and recreational uses or products, and quite frankly neither did I. One student asked if a child who was using cannabis for treatment of epilepsy was also getting high, and I didn’t know the answer. I was frustrated by the lack of updated and accurate curricula to address all of these issues appropriately.

My coworker and I set out to create science-based youth marijuana prevention curricula that addressed marijuana as a legal substance and differentiated between medicinal use and recreational use as well as recognized the important differences between adult use and use during adolescence when the brain is still developing. We spent a year learning from and working with specialists in various fields to develop our programs. What we learned reshaped our educational approach to prevention but also reshaped my personal approach to pain management. We were able to move away from the egg-and-frying-pan scare tactics into the world of science- and research-based educational practices.

In 2016, still suffering from periodic migraines largely a result of my previous brain surgeries, I decided to put to use my knowledge about cannabis, the endocannabinoid system, and the compounds THC and CBD to see whether I could find a better form of migraine prevention and migraine pain management.

Not a fan of smoking, I researched tinctures and edibles, working to find a THC and CBD balance that was effective for me. Ultimately, I found a form of cannabis-based pain management that works better and more consistently than any of the prescription painkillers I have taken since 2005. By and large I am able to treat my migraine pain with high CBD cannabis-based products without suffering any side effects.   

I have two teenage daughters, and I don’t hide from them the fact that I use medicinal marijuana to treat my migraines. Instead, I use it as an opportunity to talk with them about the important differences between my brain (as an adult) and their brains, which are still developing. We also talk about the medicinal uses of cannabis such as in treating childhood epilepsy and how that differs from recreational use. Had I known prior to my brain surgeries what I know now, I would not have had to choose between extreme pain and extreme Oxycontin side effects. I could have used cannabis as a form of pain management instead.  This is an option that should be afforded to everyone.

Sarah Grippa is a high school teacher in Colorado and the Co-Founder of the Marijuana Education Initiative.

What Clergy Need to Know About Legalizing Marijuana

grygielny Marijuana Legalization, MI

(This blog speaks to clergy considering Proposal 1 which would legalize marijuana in Michigan. The main points are pertinent to clergy in North Dakota who will have the opportunity to support a similar measure next Tuesday.)

On November 6, voters in Michigan will decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Many clergy, especially those in affluent white neighborhoods, will choose to remain silent. Who needs controversy? Drug use is a complicated issue. But across all faiths and races, we should be supporting  Proposal 1. Here is why.

The first reason is that arresting people for low-level marijuana possession can mangle their lives. Those who cannot afford bail, most often minorities, sit in jail for days, sometime months, waiting for their cases to be heard. Marijuana convictions limit job and housing opportunities, and loss of public benefits. Legalization changes this dramatically. Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize in 2012. Arrests have fallen by 46% and 75% respectively.

Legalization will at long last help our nation atone for past racial sins. New Jersey and Illinois are considering the expungement of records for those, mostly African American, who have been convicted of marijuana possession, and directing funds from taxes on marijuana sales to communities damaged by the War on Drugs. California has already moved in this direction. This will not happen without legalization.

While the ballot initiative in Michigan does not call for such measures, if it passes the General Assembly can consider them as they decide how to implement Proposal 1.

As clergy, we should care about public safety. Under the status quo, illicit markets have a monopoly on marijuana distribution. This makes regulation impossible. Legalization will permit labeling, dosage measurements, age limits, and quality control. Playground and back alley distributors do not care about such safeguards.

Just as it did with alcohol, prohibition of marijuana contributes to urban violence as gangs fight to protect their turf. The easy cash that comes with black market prices gives kids an alternative to school that is too often a lure too strong to pass up.  

Opponents of legalization talk about the dangers of marijuana becoming a big business. They hold up a vision of pot shops concentrated like liquor stores and cigarette billboards in poor neighborhoods. They ignore the biggest business of all – drug cartels – with distributors on virtually every block in some neighborhoods. Again, as they implement Proposal 1, Michigan legislators can introduce regulations that limit the concentration of marijuana dispensaries and control their appearance.

Finally, clergy who remain silent on Proposal 1 are kidding themselves on how best to guide our children. They think that prohibition is the way to convey the message that youth should not use marijuana, especially while their brains are still developing. A prominent Detroit pastor said just the other day, “How do I tell young people about the dangers of drugs if it’s now legal?”

The answer is honest and effective education, which is just what we are seeing in Colorado and other states that have legalized marijuana. Kids need to know the real facts. But they do not believe us when we support a policy of prohibition implying marijuana is dangerous for all who use it. They know this is not the case. Clergy have a moral responsibility to guide our youth, and we must do so in a way that rings true.   

For all these reasons, clergy in Michigan should unite in supporting Proposal 1.   

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director 

Midwestern States: The Battleground For Reform

grygielny Marijuana Legalization

Looking at any map of state marijuana policies in the United States–including our own–it becomes clear that certain regions have openly embraced marijuana legalization, while others lag behind. Only nine states have legalized recreational marijuana: six on the West Coast; three in the Northeast, plus Washington DC. The reach of medical marijuana is much larger: thirty-one states allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medical conditions, although some states are far more restrictive than others.

Of the twelve states in what is defined as the Midwestern United States, only Illinois, North Dakota, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes. In all twelve states, prohibition of recreational marijuana is still the law of the land.

But that might change this November, when voters in four states will get to decide whether to continue the failed War on Drugs or to loosen restrictive and damaging policies. The cannabis revolution is coming to the Midwest, and it could change the face of drug prohibition in America.

On November 6, voters in Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, and Utah will be asked whether they want their state governments to loosen restrictions on cannabis use. Currently, Missouri and Utah have total prohibitions in place on marijuana use. The ballot initiatives in those states will, if approved, allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medicinal purposes. Missouri and Utah will be the thirty-second and thirty-third states to lift the prohibition on medical cannabis.

Both states desperately need these reforms. Recent research has shown the profound impact that medical cannabis can have on rates of opioid prescription rates and opioid overdose rates. In Utah, the opioid prescription rate in 2015 was 73.1 per 100 people, and the 2016 opioid overdose rate was 16.4. In Missouri, those rates were 90 and 15.9. Both states were in the top 40 percent in the country for opioid overdose rate.

For patients in Missouri and Utah, medical cannabis will provide much-needed relief and treatment to which they have not had access. Conditions for which research has shown cannabis to be an effective treatment include HIV, arthritis, asthma, epilepsy, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis.

Having access to medical cannabis will save lives and improve the quality of life throughout Missouri and Utah, but voting to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes will also serve a second purpose. These votes can send a message that it is finally time for the United States to abandon the failed, dangerous war on marijuana, to move past prohibition and pursue real, evidence-based solutions to medical issues, pain management, and the opioid crisis.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly spoken out against marijuana legalization, instead advocating for harsher punishments for those who use cannabis. While the Department of Justice currently does not interfere with states that have chosen to legalize marijuana, that could change tomorrow, especially since Sessions rescinded former Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Cole Memo.” In addition, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that research on its medicinal benefits is severely restricted.

There is no evidence that the Trump Administration is going to reverse course on marijuana. In fact, it seems that the federal government’s Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee is seeking to undermine state autonomy on marijuana legalization. The most effective way to fight back against these attacks is by sending a message that the American people want to end prohibition now.

Tom Houseman, Policy Director

Clergy Explain Their Support For Marijuana Legalization

grygielny Catholic Perspectives, Faith Perspectives, Jewish Perspectives, Marijuana Legalization, MI

On November 6, Michigan voters will be asked to vote on a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. We are grateful to the following five clergy – from Flint, Detroit, and Ann Arbor – who tell us why they support this measure.  


Rev. Deborah Conrad, Woodside Church, Flint, MI.
“…Legalizing marijuana, fully legalizing it, is, I think, a sensible thing to do. ‘Most of what we hate and fear about drugs – the violence, the overdoses, the criminality – derives from prohibition, not drugs’ wrote Dan Baum, Harper’s Magazine, April, 2016.  Another writer noted that if marijuana is a ‘gateway drug,’ though that hasn’t really been established, maybe it really is more about the people users must associate with when they buy it illegally. If we take away the underground marijuana market, maybe we actually help keep people away from the harder stuff.”

“At our meeting last week, the Woodside Board of Directors affirmed this resolution (Proposal 1 Marijuana Legalization Initiative), as a key piece of our advocacy for mass incarceration reform…But, while the board agreed that legalization is the desired goal, we also agreed that the language of the referendum isn’t perfect. ” 

“We were especially concerned that the stipulations of the legislation would still provide loopholes for targeting people of color.  It is restrictive, far more than I think necessary, given what we know about the relative dangers of alcohol and tobacco, and I’m not convinced it would still become a mitigating factor in the ‘piling on’ that prosecutors like to do – heaping lesser charges onto a defendant to increase penalties for a primary offense. The proposed law isn’t perfect, but it is a start.

So I recommend we vote yes, and then continue to work of learning to see racism, advocating for better law that benefit us all.”

NOTE:  These comments are drawn from the October 4 issue of Pastor Conrad’s church newsletter. She makes clear the deeper implications of legalizing marijuana: with this measure in place, we will finally be able to consider other reforms  that, taken together, will finally end those parts of the War on Drugs that have inflicted so much damage upon our society.  We commend the entire newsletter to you.


Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, Rabbi, The Birmingham Temple, Birmingham, MI
“For too long our society has ignored the lessons of Prohibition by imposing the same regressive policies on marijuana. What have we gained from it? We’ve reaped violence in our streets through black market dealing. We’ve generated a social justice crisis through inequitable enforcement of the law in African-American communities. And we’ve prevented sensible research into the many real benefits of cannabis. Approval of Proposal 1 will allow law enforcement to turn its attention to the real problems plaguing our state while generating a new stream of tax revenue to benefit our children, infrastructure, and municipalities. We talk a great deal about learning from the mistakes of history. When presented with this opportunity, let us do just that.”

 

Rev. Kevin Johnson, Presbytery of Detroit, Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
“I support the Michigan Legalization Initiative to legalize the recreational use and possession of marijuana for persons 21 years of age or older. My hope is that if passed, this legislation would remove the element of criminalizing individuals for possession and stem the tide of arrests and incarceration rates of people which clearly show imbalanced racialized characteristics as reflected in statistical analysis. I also hope that the passage of this proposal will lead to additional legislation to expunge the convictions for individuals previously prosecuted for the use and possession of marijuana.”

 

 

Rev. Thomas James, Grosse Ile, MI
“I endorse the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative because: Rather than spending enormous sums of taxpayer money punishing users of a drug that has minimal adverse effects on individuals and society, we should be supporting programs that reduce harm and encourage constructive participation in the economic and civic life of our state.  As a clergy person, I am especially concerned with the morality of our current practice of prohibition and incarceration because it imposes disenfranchisement, barriers to employment, and family disruption with disproportionate severity on people in Michigan who already face more than their fair share of economic challenges.”

Rev. Alexandra McCauslin, Ann Arbor, MI
“I believe the regulation and penalty system for marijuana possession has created grave injustice, increasing debt and incarceration unnecessarily, especially for already vulnerable populations, like people of color and the poor. “