The Midterm Elections: A Very Good Day

grygielny Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana

Let us be grateful for our U.S. federal system. In the face of a Washington bureaucracy mired in inertia and self-preservation, and a U.S. Congress reluctant to act, it is the individual states that will finally shut down our nation’s tragic and failed War on Drugs.

At the federal level, the Drug Enforcement Administration –ostrich-like – still labels marijuana a Schedule 1 drug with “no currently accepted medical use.” National policies are shamefully ambivalent about harm reduction measures such as clean needle exchanges, naloxone, and medically assisted treatment. Private prison expenditures are steadily growing under the Trump administration.  Civil asset forfeiture is still federal policy.

That’s why we must celebrate what happened in Michigan, Missouri, Utah, and Florida on November 6.

As our Drug Policy State Grading Map makes clear, each state has its own story to tell about where it ranks in the effort to end the War on Drugs and what it has just contributed to this goal.

Michigan became the first in the Midwest to approve marijuana for recreational use, joining nine from the East and West.  It raised its drug policy map grade for marijuana to an “A”, thereby achieving a composite grade across our entire agenda of B-, up from C+.  It falls short of a higher grade because of its punitive position on civil asset forfeiture and a limited Good Samaritan law.  

Voters in Utah approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana.  This is remarkable in a state where over 60% of the electorate is Mormon, that is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, a religion which counsels its members to avoid any substance that might be habit forming, including tobacco, coffee and tea.

Even after the ballot initiative, Utah’s grade on marijuana policy remains “C”.  It is unlikely any time soon to join the 30 states that have either decriminalized marijuana or legalized it for recreational use.  

Utah thus provides a significant precedent for those in other states trying to decide whether to move forward with medical marijuana.  I have just returned from recruiting clergy in South Carolina to support medical marijuana next year. When I point out that Mormons, even with their commitment to abstaining from all stimulants, can support marijuana as medicine because it brings healing, clergy get the point.

Missouri also approved medical marijuana, thus raising its marijuana laws to a “B”.  They have yet to decriminalize marijuana, that is, treating low-level possession as a civil offense, like a traffic ticket.

When it comes to “game changers”, perhaps the most remarkable event of November 6 was what happened it Florida.  Voters approved a state constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, including parole and probation.  This will change the status of 1.5 million individuals starting January 8.

Although this measure does not involve drug laws, it is part of our agenda. Why? Because it is the War on Drugs that has deprived so many people of the right to vote: over 6.1 million individuals are disenfranchised across the nation due to felony convictions.  Almost 50% of those in federal and 15% in state prisons currently are incarcerated for drug offenses.

Despite this dramatic step forward, Florida’s grade under this category increases only to a C+.  The state continues to limit access of convicted felons to supplemental assistance under the SNAP program and also operates private prisons. Both these policies harm large numbers of those convicted of low-level drug possession.  

With the state actions in Michigan, Utah, and Missouri on November 6, thirty-three states, encompassing at least 65% of the national population, will soon permit medical marijuana.  Ten have now voted to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use. Florida has decided it will no longer deny 1.5 million citizens their constitutional rights.

All in all, it was a very good day.

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director 

Book Review: American Prison

grygielny Privatization of Prisons

If Fyodor Dostoevsky was right when he said that  “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” then journalist Shane Bauer wants us to know just how uncivilized we are. More importantly, in his new book American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment, he wants to expose the truth of the private prison industry’s inhumane treatment of prisoners for the sake of boosting profit margins. The result might be the most important book about criminal justice in the United States since Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Prison walls are designed to keep people in, but also to keep people out. The prison industrial complex, and in particular the private prison industry, thrives on secrecy and opacity. It is rare when news about what happens inside prisons leaks to the public, usually after a riot, or during the recent inmate hunger strikes. The prison industry seems to think that if it keeps its activity out of sight, it will remain, for most Americans, out of mind.

Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones Magazine, wanted to literally give the inside story on how private prisons are run. He applied for a corrections officer position at Winn Prison, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, which has since rebranded itself as CoreCivic. During the four months he worked in Winn, Bauer covertly recorded thousands of hours of audio, including conversations with prisoners, guards, and supervisors. The results are both sickening and revelatory.

It is obvious how little CCA cares about rehabilitating the inmates it is paid to incarcerate. The company is far more interested in maximizing its profits, often failing to provide prisoners with educational opportunities, recreation, or even adequate nutrition and healthcare. Bauer notes that inmates are not protected from each other, and that inmates who stab other inmates typically are neither charged with a crime nor shipped to a higher security prison.

Even in the case of an inmate suicide attempt, CCA’s priority is monetary, frequently classifying such attempts as “self-mutilation,” a distinction that allows the company to charge the inmate for a hospital visit.  CCA even seems apathetic about the possibility of prisoners breaking out of prison, with one inmate’s escape going unnoticed for hours due to unmanned watchtowers. The only active step CCA ever seems to take is to avoid liability in the case of an inmate death.

Bauer also depicts his fellow correction officers as cruel and callous. The prison is perpetually understaffed and the CO’s are barely paid more than minimum wage. The only seeming benefit of the position is the potential to abuse the power granted to them over prisoners, a power endorsed by those in charge. “If you are an officer and you do something one hundred percent wrong,” says one of the CO’s training Bauer, “I’m going to take your side right on the spot.”

Dehumanizing the inmates is specifically encouraged; at one point the prison’s assistant warden says that the goal of the CO’s is to “institutionalize” the prisoners, and that “We don’t want them to feel as though they are individuals. We want them, for lack of a better term, to feel like a herd of cattle.”

American Prison is a damning exposé, but the most compelling aspect of its narrative is the emotional challenges Bauer relates during his time as a CO. The psychological toll that working in a prison takes is immense, which explains why the rates of PTSD for prison guards is higher than for soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. “This job will drive you to drinking,” Bauer’s captain says to him.

Laced throughout the book is a history of the prison industry in the United States. Penitentiaries began as an alternative to hanging or whipping a convicted felon, and as early as 1825 states were leasing their prisoners out to serve as cheap labor for private companies. But two events, a century apart, were responsible for the two biggest booms in the incarceration rate. The first was the end of slavery, when Southern states began to use prison labor as a replacement for slave labor, and created laws designed to imprison swaths of African-Americans. The second was the War on Drugs of the 1970s.

When incarceration rates skyrocketed due to aggressive policing and extreme mandatory minimums for drug possession, states sought a way to expand their prison systems without taking on new debt, and newly created private prison corporations like CCA stepped in to fill that void. T. Don Hutto, co-founder of CCA, was also the head of the American Correctional Assocation, the largest private prison association in the country, a position he used to push for privatization.

By giving us a ground-level view of the deeply dysfunctional private prison system, as well as giving us the context for its rise to prominence, Bauer helps us understand that mass incarceration in America isn’t interested in rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them for life after prison. In fact, it has always valued profits over people. Equally horrifying and heartbreaking, American Prison is the wakeup call we need to finally reign in the practices of private prisons, and to overhaul our entire system of mass incarceration.

Tom Houseman, Policy Director

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