CNDP has been working with St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago to develop a series of Sunday forums throughout the fall on Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform. Here is Rev. Al Sharp’s presentation at the opening forum on September 10. We urge you to attend future sessions. To see other messages and learn more, visit the St. Chrysostom’s Adult Forum website.
Two Illinois legislators, Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-14) and Sen. Heather Steans (D-7), have recently filed bills that would legalize marijuana for recreational use in Illinois. They are gathering the widest possible public comment. Two weeks ago they held a joint House-Senate committee hearing to elicit the views of law enforcement.
We heard from police chiefs and state’s attorneys from across Illinois. Not surprisingly, they oppose reform. Why not? They’ve spent their entire careers enforcing the status quo. They had a full opportunity to present their views. However, it was the testimony of two individuals from outside Illinois that provided the most useful comments.
Lewis Koski is from Colorado, one of the first two states, along with Washington, to legalize marijuana in 2012. He had designed and enforced regulations for marijuana legalization in Colorado. “Data gets waterboarded to make it say what you want it to say,” he observed. Data is continuing to develop. You need to identify what data points you want.” He warned against anecdotal evidence and finding correlations where they may not exist.
Neill Franklin, who for served with the Maryland and Baltimore police forces for 34 years, also testified. He is now executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), which seeks public safety solutions and includes a speakers’ bureau of retired law enforcement officers opposing marijuana prohibition based on their own field experience.
Franklin’s comments are compelling: “We are funding organized crime syndicates and other criminals with billions every year. As with alcohol prohibition, we have driven a very large profit-generating industry underground and into the shadows, where marijuana peddlers battle each other in the streets of Chicago and other cities for market share.
Press Release from the MPP reports data from a federal government survey showing teen marijuana use declined in 2016.(click above to view report)
“Neighborhoods under siege, cops at war, tens of thousands of arrests (most for mere possession), disparity issues where in this state (Illinois) blacks are 7 times more likely to be arrested than their Caucasian counterparts, and this leads to very poor police-community relations…
“Unfortunately in policing we have become obsessed with numbers and too many of my law enforcement comrades believe that more arrests translate into good policing. That may be true when arresting violent offenders, but not in this case and marijuana possession arrests are the easiest to make. Fact – police-community relations improve when we move away from mass arrests enforcement and focus on violent crime.”
(Click to see full transcript)
Why is this outside testimony so valuable? Because it offers what only someone from the outside can provide. Few of us are very good at questioning the basic assumptions that guide our lives. Police chiefs and state’s attorneys are no less exempt than the rest of us.
The Illinois law enforcement officials asserted three things above all else: marijuana is a gateway drug, that is, using it leads to more dangerous drug use; marijuana causes juvenile criminal activity; and legalization will lead to an increase in teen use. The first two points are based on correlation, not cause. At best, they are misleading. They are not convincing arguments for marijuana prohibition.
Concerning increased teen use, evidence is mounting that just the opposite is the case. One week after the hearing, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released findings that marijuana use nationally by teens is declining, and that no teen increase has occurred in states where legalization has been enacted. As Lewis Koski told us, no single survey should be taken as definitive, but this evidence is promising indeed.
May the hearings continue.
I want to preface my remarks with three comments. First, I see I am the last in a line-up of clergy speaking. I am assuming it is my job to bring the message home. Second, I was introduced as a Baptist minister. I don’t know if you realize it, but that means that I am an evangelical Christian. I hope one of the things you come to appreciate is that not all white evangelicals sound like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham. Third, I brought my Bible with me, and I plan to use it. I was asked to speak here today as a member of the clergy, and no Baptist preacher would think to step into the pulpit without a Bible in hand.
Growing up in an evangelical household, memorizing and reciting scripture came as second nature, even before I learned to read or write. As a matter of fact, I was only three years old when I first stood up in front of the congregation a recited perfectly John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
I am thrilled to see so many of you here today.
I am Incredibly grateful that you took the time to prioritize being here with us, to vision how we collectively shape sanctuary, to ensure that all people hear their names welcomed into loving community and connection.
This gathering is long overdue. It is true we are in the midst of an overdose crisis. In this city alone, we are losing an average of four beloved made in the image of all that is good and love, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, lovers and friends each day. Last year in NYC, we lost over 1,374 wonderfully and fearfully made human beings.
One need not be socially conservative to feel surprise, and even deep skepticism, over the recent call of the Drug Policy Alliance to decriminalize the possession of all drugs, not just marijuana. I expect that many of my progressive friends and colleagues will lift their eyebrows and flinch just a little when I mention the topic to them.
Why? Because, frankly, they haven’t thought very much about this—it’s only just entering public debate in the United States—and they therefore understand very little about the key issues and concerns. Here is what I want them to know.
As a start, we must all be clear that decriminalization does not mean an end to sanctions against trafficking, which would remain illegal. But decriminalization would end the prosecution of those who possess and use small amounts of any drug. It would keep them out of the criminal justice system.
A summary of the DPA Report, “It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession,” lists some of the things that would happen:
“Decriminalization will allow us to more effectively help drug users who want help”: No longer branded as criminals, individuals will be more likely to seek treatment; providers will be able to offer harm reduction as well as abstinence-only forms of treatment.
“Decriminalization will reduce the number of people sucked into the criminal justice system”: A person cannot be arrested for something that is not a crime.
“Decriminalization will help returning citizens successfully reintegrate into society”: Low-level drug use in itself is not an adequate reason for individuals to be returned to jail, forfeit custody of their children, lose their jobs, fail to qualify for business loans, or be ineligible for student aid, subsidized housing, or financial assistance. It is only our pervasive national culture of punishment that has created these barriers to becoming productive members of society. This culture must change.
Two other likely impacts are especially important. First, the evidence is convincing that decriminalization of all drugs will not increase drug use. In June, Pew Charitable Trusts informed the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis that its analysis had shown no relationship between criminal sanctions and drug use or harms related to drug use. Specifically, Pew’s research found “no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and … illicit drug use, drug overdose deaths, or drug arrests. “Moreover, marijuana use has not increased in the 29 states that have passed marijuana; it has not increased in the 21 states and Washington DC where marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized; and it has not increased in other nations where similar policies have been adopted.
Finally, the DPA report predicts that “Decriminalization will decrease negative interactions between individuals and the police.” The War on Drugs has destroyed relations between law enforcement and communities. As James Gierach, a long-time advocate of ending the War on Drugs, has written, “Violent crime has taken a back seat to drug enforcement for too long, and has changed the way police relate to marginalized communities, who no longer see police as protectors, but as aggressors.”
When drivers can be arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana if they are pulled over for a broken taillight, when neighbors are afraid to call police over a minor altercation or domestic violence because they have seen the consequences when minor drug possession is discovered, and when 911 calls to report an apparent drug overdose can expose bystanders to criminal charges, police will not be trusted to serve and protect. In communities where police no longer are directed to “throw the book” at minor drug offenders, they have been better able to offer immediate help and direct those who need it to treatment.
These are some of the things we need to know about drug decriminalization. Let’s start making the case together.