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. “

 

Dopesick Offers Harsh Truths and a Path Forward

grygielny Drug Education

For nearly forty years a perfect storm has been building to create an opioid epidemic. Economic instability has plunged huge portions of the country into poverty with no escape in sight. An evolution in the way doctors considered patient pain–egged on by profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies–has flooded the country with opioids. Those in power turned a blind eye to the increased risk of addiction, and those who spoke out were ignored.

Journalist Beth Macy has become the great chronicler of Mid-American turmoil through her books Factory Man and Truevine. In Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, released last month, she turns her gaze to the opioid epidemic. The stories she uncovers are shocking and horrifying, but the most surprising thing she finds amidst those whose lives have been ruined by opioids is hope.

It can be easy to think of the opioid epidemic or the War on Drugs theoretically. Many people do not personally know anyone who uses heroin or who is incarcerated for selling drugs. They might not have ever spent time in former mining towns or rustbelt cities devastated by economic depression, high unemployment, and skyrocketing rates of opioid overdose deaths.

In recent years, books such as In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and Dreamland have offered readers a ground-level perspective. Their stories help us understand how addiction can consume and destroy lives, and how many government policies in the name of the War on Drugs only make things worse. Dopesick is the latest addition to that pantheon, explaining the rise of opioids in America and why it has been so difficult to break their hold.

What makes Macy’s exploration of the opioid epidemic so effective is its comprehensiveness. She begins by digging into the origins of the epidemic, shining a harsh light on the tactics of pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma in promoting OxyContin. Bribing doctors and lying about data, Purdue relentlessly pushed the prescription of opioid painkillers, making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

Ultimately, Purdue was sued for blatantly untrue claims that the opioid painkillers they marketed were non-addictive. After failed attempts to bully the plaintiffs and get the lawsuits thrown out, Purdue was eventually forced to pay over $600 million in fines. It amounted to a drop in the bucket for the wildly profitable company, and Macy pulls no punches in painting it as a hollow victory. The damage was already done.

Next, Macy looks at the War on Drugs, following a group of law enforcement officers tracking high-profile traffickers in Virginia and Maryland. Men like ATF Agent Bill Metcalf embody the worst instincts of law enforcement, attempting to stamp out opioid addiction through aggressive policing.

Even with good intentions, the police officers and federal agents who think that we can arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic are only making things worse. Their tactics play out like a bad TV procedural, dehumanizing both addicts and dealers, all of whom are victims of a broken system. By shining a light on how law enforcement views and treats those caught up in drugs, Macy makes it clear why the War on Drugs has been such a fiasco.

If Macy is far more concerned with harsh truths than easy answers, it is because there are far more of the former than the latter. But in following a group of those struggling with opioid use disorders, and those who love them, she helps us understand why some are successful and others aren’t. It almost never has to do with the individual, and far more often is about the opportunities and support provided to them.

Medication-assisted treatment typically involves treating addiction with an opioid substitute such as methadone or buprenorphine. It is by far the most effective form of treatment for opioid use disorder, yet it is heavily stigmatized. Many rehabilitation programs refuse to accept those on MAT, demanding complete abstinence from drugs. There is a reason Macy chose to title her book Dopesick: those forced to endure the brutal symptoms of opioid withdrawal are driven to relapse, while medication provides much-needed stability, increasing the likelihood of recovery.

Fortunately, MAT is becoming more common. Doctors and public health advocates are learning to treat people where they are, rather than enforcing unrealistic standards of behavior. Dopesick does not offer a happy ending, though. There are still too many people dying because they cannot get the help they need.

What it provides, instead, is a path forward. There are alternatives to opioids, to opioid addiction, and to overdose deaths. The strategies are not easy or simple, requiring coordination between multiple levels of government and the public, as well as a complete reframing of the causes of and solutions to addiction. There are going to be more stories like those told in Dopesick. Maybe someday soon, those stories will end in triumph.

Tom Houseman

Social Justice and Marijuana

grygielny Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization

This fall is an exciting and pivotal time for us at Clergy for a New Drug Policy.  Progressive national reforms often first gain a foothold in the eastern or western regions of the country. This has been the case with legalizing marijuana. Now we can ensure that this reform will come to our nation’s heartland.  

Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Nevada, California, and Washington D.C. have already stepped forward. Now, an initiative to legalize marijuana is on the ballot in Michigan for a vote on November 6. In Illinois, there have already been three statewide hearings on a bill that will be introduced in January for the next legislative session.

Over the next two months I will be traveling extensively to speak with clergy in these states about all aspects of legalization.  I will raise with what I believe is a deeper and more fundamental message concerning marijuana and social justice than is often brought forward.

Since the War on Drugs began in earnest in the 1980’s, arrests for low-level possession of marijuana, and all drugs, have fallen disproportionately on African-American and Latinos. Even when not resulting in prison, having a marijuana arrest record is a ball-and-chain of a different kind when it comes to access to jobs, public benefits, education, and, eventually, keeping families together.

Opponents of legalization argue that “decriminalization” (treating marijuana possession as a civil, not criminal offense, like a traffic ticket) stops police from arresting and charging anyone for drug possession. This is not true. States that have transitioned from decriminalization to legalization have seen their rates of marijuana possession arrests drop by as much as 80 percent, including for Black and Hispanic residents. (That police continue to discriminate disproportionately against minorities is a matter of police conduct.  Legalization does not end discrimination.)

Why does legalization result in fewer arrests? Perhaps because the thresholds for the amount that can be possessed are higher under legalization than decriminalization, and because legalization can lead to a change in police behavior. It makes it harder to use suspicion of marijuana possession as a pretext for stopping people.

Regardless of arrest statistics, the deeper social justice message is that “decriminalization” does nothing to limit illicit markets for marijuana.  In fact, it reinforces them. It doesn’t create gangs, which in areas of economic devastation and little or no hope, would exist anyway. But it further destabilizes neighborhoods and recruits young people into an underground world of criminal activity. Prohibition nurtures gangs by providing them with cash from the black market, and incentivizes violence as the only way for illicit drug sellers to resolve disputes and establish market turf.

Illicit markets do not exist in the same way in white neighborhoods. The War on Drugs has always been primarily a war on black and brown people. Marijuana is a significant commodity in this war – at least 30% of total dollar volume. Only by establishing a legal and state-regulated market, can we erode the illicit drug trade which creates such pernicious and disproportionate harm in minority communities.

When it comes to social justice, the current state-by-state debate about marijuana legalization, now unfolding in the Midwest, is about much more than marijuana.  It is about violence in our cities, and the continued marginalization of minorities. I hope as many of you as possible will join me as we bring this perspective to Michigan and Illinois in the next two months.

Rev. Alexander Sharp

Marijuana: A Safer Alternative to Opioids

grygielny Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana

Two weeks ago, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed into law the Alternatives to Opioids Act. Effective immediately, doctors are authorized to prescribe marijuana to any patient who would qualify for an opioid prescription.

The Illinois legislation allows doctors to test the extent to which marijuana can be used as an effective alternative to opioids for managing chronic pain. For a state that saw nearly 2,000 narcotics-related deaths in 2016, any opportunity to mitigate the risk of opioid addiction is a positive step.

Many of our Illinois readers took action on behalf of this legislation. We are grateful for your support.

“This is a great step in the right direction,” said Suzanne Carlberg-Racich, Director of Research for the Chicago Recovery Alliance. “I’m pleased to see an alternative for pain management that doesn’t have any potential for a fatal overdose.”

Illinois is the first state to pursue such a policy through the legislative process, but it is not the first to take marijuana seriously as a tool with which to fight the opioid epidemic. In July, the New York State Department of Health filed emergency regulations that add “any condition for which an opioid could be prescribed” to their list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana.

In making the announcement, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said that “adding opioid replacement as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana offers providers another treatment option, which is a critical step in combating the deadly opioid epidemic affecting people across the state.”

Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is taking a different approach. In May, the state’s Department of Health approved temporarily adding opioid addiction to its list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine believes that the change will both “give physicians another tool for treatment of this devastating disease,” but also “allow for research to be conducted on medical marijuana’s effectiveness in treatment.”

More rigorous research is needed before we can fully understand how effective marijuana can be as an opioid substitute or as a treatment for substance use disorder.  Opponents to marijuana as an opioid substitute regularly cite a July study in The Lancet. The study indicated that patients with severe chronic pain who used both opioids and marijuana for pain relief over several years reported more pain than those who had used only opioids.

It is somewhat disingenuous, however, to cite the Lancet study in this way. The study followed 1500 patients using opioids for severe chronic pain over four years, a subset of whom used both opioids and marijuana simultaneously. The Illinois legislation, and other comparable measures, provides for marijuana as a substitute for opioids, thus reducing the possibility of combining marijuana with a far more dangerous drug. The Lancet research does not address what the Illinois legislation will permit – the substitution rather than complementary use of marijuana.

The Lancet research has two additional difficulties.  It offers no way to assess why those who reported greater pain after four years were experiencing it or whether their pain would have increased no matter what they used. Moreover, because the patients were self-medicating in a jurisdiction where marijuana is illegal, there was no way to assess or control for the quality or quantity of the marijuana being used.  

Medical cannabis proponents understand that there is significant nuance in how marijuana should be used to treat chronic pain. Dr. Mark Wallace, an anesthesiologist who conducts research on marijuana, has said that low levels of THC can reduce pain but high amounts can actually increase it. When pain patients self-medicate, as they are more likely to do when they get marijuana through the black market rather than from a doctor, they are more likely to abuse the drug and less likely to experience pain relief.

Of course, conducting research on the medicinal qualities of cannabis is a challenge considering its Schedule 1 status, as we’ve noted before. As researchers and doctors learn more they will be able to more effectively prescribe cannabis, either instead of or in addition to opioids. Multiple medical companies have already begun developing cannabis-based painkillers.

There is still a long way to go in lessening our country’s dependence on opioids and lowering the rates of opioid overdoses. Since legalizing medical marijuana in 2015, Illinois has approved 42,000 patients for the program. In 2017 alone, 2.3 million patients in Illinois received a prescription for an opioid painkiller. Recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find no evidence that opioids are effective for treating chronic pain, and that as many as 1 in 4 patients who take opioids long-term struggle with addiction.

Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania are leading the way in using cannabis as an alternative to opioids, and as a way to fight substance use disorders. Hopefully other states will follow suit, and across the country we will see fewer opioid prescriptions, fewer opioid addicts, and fewer opioid-related deaths.

Tom Houseman

What if Medical Marijuana Were the Only Way to Help Your Child?

grygielny Guest Pieces, Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana, TX

Christy and Mark Zartler are the parents of an eighteen-year old child, Kara, who has multiple disabilities, including autism. Rev. Alexander Sharp had the privilege of meeting them while participating in the Texas Marijuana Policy Conference in Austin.  They have been fighting a heroic battle for many years, at huge personal cost and risk, to help their daughter. They are advocates for legalizing medical marijuana. Please read their story here.

Photo: Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News

Dear Friends of CNDP,

My name is Christy Zartler. My husband Mark and I are parents of a severely autistic daughter. Eighteen years ago, I gave birth to premature identical twins. One of my twins, Kara, has multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy and autism. Unfortunately, her primary mode of communication is self-abuse. She has had these behaviors since she was four. The worst of these behaviors is that she repeatedly hits herself in the head and face with close fists.

She has been recorded in one school day to punch her face and ears 3,000 times. We had to do something for her. We’ve been to many physicians and she’s been on many different medications. Nothing worked. We’ve been trying to help her for 14 years. When Kara was 11 years old we found that cannabis in the form of an edible brownie stops these self-injurious episodes.

After the discovery that cannabis was a very effective mood stabilizer for Kara, my husband tried a Cannabis vapor treatment.  We blow up a cannabis vapor balloon and give it like a nebulizer treatment; it takes about 5 minutes to work. Like a light switch, her brain shifts, her mood changes abruptly, and she’s back to more acceptable behavior. She can do activities that she enjoys like walking, playing with her rice bin, and eating.

After the treatment she expresses joy and happiness. We believe it’s good medicine for her and it helps relieve pain in her legs. It works a hundred percent of the time. It’s not the only medicine she takes, but it’s a vital part of her program. It’s a medical necessity. We use it for rescue purposes, when she’s having these dangerous meltdowns.   

In February 2017, my husband Mark released a treatment video to promote awareness for conditions like Kara’s. It shows that cannabis is an effective treatment. The video went viral. It’s been seen worldwide. We had no idea this would happen. Pictures and videos of her can be seen on her fb page “Kara Zartler”.

Kara has always had a team of doctors. She is currently a patient at the Autism Center at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. We haven’t given up on modern medicine. We can’t. She currently takes three pharmaceutical prescriptions. They help her, but nothing stops these severe episodes once they start. Once they get rolling, her mind gets into this loop.

We’ve always told her doctors about the treatment. We take whatever legal risk we have to take because of drug interaction issues.  Our doctors can’t offer us advice back, except to look for interaction precautions from what they know. It would be a blessing if we could actually have a two-way conversation with them about the use of cannabis for her conditions.

Families like ours need legal access to whole plant cannabis and recourses so that we can feel safe and sleep better. Cannabis oil possession carries stiff punishments. If you live within 1000 square feet of a school a six-month supply of cannabis oils for one person is 10 years to life in prison.

Everyone tells us that we should just move, but the reality is that we can’t. Kara has been thriving in the Richardson School District since she was three years old. It’s been a long process, and now we finally have an excellent program going at her school. The chances of us replicating that in a different district are zero. We also have our social services here. We’re on the Texas Medicaid Waver programs so we have in home help that helps us care for Kara so that we don’t have to institutionalize her.

Many families in our autism community who live in legal states believe that cannabis works for their autistic children. These parents have shared videos of their children. After cannabis treatment the children are interacting with people, making eye contact, doing tasks and activities, smiling and enjoying their surroundings. I believe that the sick children here in Texas deserve to have access to this less harmful medication.

What we really need is for Texas lawmakers to recognize that cannabis is medicine.

Sincerely,

 

 

Christy Zartler