Presbyterian Report Against Drug War: Does It Go Far Enough?

grygielny Drug Education, Marijuana Legalization

Front view of a Victorian church still known as Belmont Presbyterian Church.

When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. held its biennial meeting in late June, that body approved a report calling for an end to the 47-year-old War on Drugs. Stating unequivocally that the “cure has been worse than the disease,” it set forth an agenda of “healing before punishment.”

As clergy and people of faith appalled by the human and social costs of this five-decade-long “war,” we should be encouraged that a mainline denomination with nearly 1.5 million members took this stand.  Yet ultimately this report is a disappointment. On the most important issue related to drug policy today–whether marijuana should be legalized for recreational use–the report hedges and ultimately declares itself “ambivalent.”

Legalization of recreational marijuana will be a central issue this November in state elections around the country. If the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. had taken a strong stand on legalization, this report would have been immediately relevant. Instead, it simply calls for more research. (It also decries the commercialization of marijuana without a balanced consideration of this important question.)

Would more research be helpful? Of course. But is it necessary in order to evaluate the merits of legalization? The answer is clearly no. Advocates of legalization know that heavy adolescent (and into their 20’s) use is potentially damaging to brain development. It is becoming tiresome to hear medical experts repeat what we readily acknowledge to be the case.

We also know that legalization is the best way to limit adolescent use. It is more effective than the half-measure of decriminalization, where marijuana is easily available to young people, delivered by a black market with no regulation or age limits.

To use one of the report’s most far-fetched examples, we know that commercial airline pilots should not be permitted to fly with marijuana in their system. No kidding! Nor should people drive while high. But these are not unsolvable problems. We can safeguard against these concerns on the basis of current knowledge, even as further research will provide more sophisticated techniques.

The report suffers from a second, subtler flaw. In calling for an end to the War on Drugs, the authors say nothing about strategy.  There is no indication that they understand, or have even thought about, how the important goals they espouse will ever be achieved. Their “ambivalence” about legalization assures us that this is the case.

The War on Drugs is doing immediate, concrete damage to our society. The federal drug war bureaucracy has stymied marijuana research by classifying it the Schedule 1 most dangerous category, deeming it as dangerous as heroin.  Only with legalization will this absurd classification — and the barriers to research — disappear.

The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. report contains the seeds of strong ideas. It cites the devastating impact that the enforcement of drug laws has on minority communities. It makes the very good recommendation that those convicted for low-level marijuana possession have their records expunged.

But decriminalization has existed in many states for years, and does not eliminate a black market in drugs. Nor does it expand economic opportunity for the communities and individuals that have been disproportionately harmed by the drug war.

With legalization, most notably in California, white entrepreneurs are becoming wealthy selling a product that African-Americans and Latinos have long been given a criminal record for selling and using. The racial injustice and rank hypocrisy inherent in years of criminalizing marijuana are thus clearly exposed. This has begun a conversation about the need to heal these communities  devastated by the War on Drugs. It has taken legalization for this conversation even to begin.

Finally, the report calls for decriminalizing not just marijuana, but all drugs, accompanied with proper regulations. On this point, the report is profoundly right. Getting to this point is the lynchpin in finally ending the War on Drugs.

What the authors fail to realize is that change occurs step-by-step, and is driven by public perception. When marijuana is legalized the public will see that the myths surrounding its use are overblown. Only then can we progress to educating the public about the fact that decriminalization of all drugs would be far more beneficial to society than prohibition. Merely decriminalizing marijuana only reinforces the stigma surrounding it, freezing the debate in place.

This nation has a long way to go before “healing before punishment” drives drug policy. The Presbyterian Church  U.S.A. has given us a valuable document. But there are times to be cautious, and times to be bold. The authors of this report failed to recognize the difference. They have been careful and safe when they could have been prophetic.

Rev. Alexander Sharp

Kristen’s Law: Life Sentences Won’t Save Lives

grygielny Mandatory Minimums, RI

One of the greatest risks for heroin users is that, very often, they do not know exactly what it is they’re injecting. This danger is a direct result of prohibition, since there are no regulations for drugs sold through a black market. Very often, heroin is laced with fentanyl, an incredibly potent opioid. Users who are unaware of the potency of their purchase risk overdosing and dying.

Not surprisingly, a report from earlier this year stated that “nearly half of opioid-related deaths in 2016 involved fentanyl.” Fentanyl is one of the greatest dangers facing those who use heroin or who are struggling with opioid abuse disorders. Unfortunately, the response from policy makers and law enforcement has been to double down on the strategy that has fueled the failed War on Drugs: instead of helping users, they want to punish dealers.

In Florida, a law went into effect last year that will allow prosecutors to charge dealers who sell heroin laced with fentanyl with first degree murder. Less than a month ago, Rhode Island followed suit, with a piece of legislation titled “Kristen’s Law.” This strategy has also been embraced by President Trump, calling for the death penalty for drug dealers. “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers,” he said, “we’re wasting our time.”

What Trump and the legislators behind the laws in Florida and Rhode Island seem to be willfully ignoring is that the War on Drugs has always been about being tough on dealers, as well as users. The idea that has driven policy is that aggressively punishing drug dealers will result in fewer drug users. Instead, it has only resulted in more prisoners.

Since the 1970s, the government has fought the War on Drugs by locking up as many people involved in the drug trade as possible. The outcome has been a dramatic rise in the US prison population, far outstripping that of any other country, without doing anything to curtail rates of drug use or prevent the opioid crisis from ravaging communities and destroying lives.

Kristen’s Law is named after Kristen Coutu, who died in 2014 after overdosing on heroin laced with fentanyl. Opponents of the bill argue that the bill will lead to “the prosecution of ‘small time’ dealers who trade or sell drugs, and who may themselves struggle with substance use disorder, or those who provide drugs to a friend for a few dollars or in exchange for a bed for the night.” This bill ignores the fact that drug dealers rarely know the contents of their own supplies, and that jailing drug dealers will do nothing to halt the supply of drugs, that there will always be another dealer waiting to take their place.

If the goal of Kristen’s Law, or any similar legislation around the country, is saving the lives of drug users like Kristen Coutu, it will be an abject failure. However, if the goal is adding to the already outrageously large prison population and ruining the lives of people forced into the Prison Industrial Complex, they could not be picking a better strategy.

Should policy makers decide they were serious about protecting drug users at risk of overdosing on heroin, there are policy approaches they could take that have been proven effective. Providing users with a space in which to consume their drugs under the supervision of a medical professional is the best way to ensure that overdoses are quickly and safely reversed. This is not a fantasy. Insite, a safe injection facility in Vancouver, has been open since 2003. Nurses there have reversed hundreds of overdoses, with not a single overdose death.

Deaths caused by drug overdoses are avoidable, but giving drug dealers life sentences, or death sentences, will not prevent the next overdose death. Kristen’s Law is an “eye for an eye” type of punishment that is both barbaric and counterproductive. If policy makers wants to honor the legacy of Kristen Coutu, they should do so by saving lives, not destroying them.

Tom Houseman

“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.