But what if that weren’t the whole story? What if our culture of criminalization had far-reaching, unintended consequences we rarely even see or acknowledge, including forcing innocent people to suffer the loss of their homes, their families, their dignity, even their lives? This is what our culture of mass criminalization has produced. Its impact extends far beyond those who actually use or sell drugs.
Endorse the Drug Policy Alliance’s report It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use!
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What is drug decriminalization?
Drug decriminalization refers to the elimination of all criminal penalties for drug use, drug possession and the possession of equipment for consuming drugs. Under this legal framework, drug production, trafficking, distribution, driving under the influence, or other conduct that goes beyond simple possession or use – particularly conduct that might harm others – remain criminal offenses.
How does decriminalization differ from legalization?
Legalization includes the regulation and control of legal drug production and sales to adults without a prescription (as is the case with alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana in some parts of the country). We are not advocating for legal production and sales here. We are proposing a system in which drug use and possession are addressed wholly outside of the criminal justice system.
What does decriminalization look like in practice? Read More
Few advocacy organizations have the sophistication and credibility of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). Therefore, when the DPA publishes a new report entitled “It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession” including – yes – hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, it is time to stand up and take serious notice.
“Drug decriminalization is a critical next step toward achieving a national drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration,” according to the July 10 report. This is not legalization. Drug use would still bring civil sanctions, much like a traffic ticket, and trafficking would still be a criminal offense. Still, a serious proposal to decriminalize all drugs, not just marijuana, constitutes a milestone.
When I heard the news, I was so happy I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. At its annual meeting in mid-June, the American Medical Society endorsed the development of safe injection sites as a harm-reduction informed response to the drug opioid crisis. This has received almost no national coverage, so I hasten to share it with you now.
In safe sites, addicts can use their drugs in a medically supervised setting. Treatment is available but not required. The purpose is to save lives of those who would otherwise die from dirty needles and overdosing in back alleys with no one to help them.
It’s been over a year since I helped to organize a clergy visit to Vancouver, Canada, site of the only safe injection facility in North America. Participants in the visit from around the U.S. were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about what they witnessed.
Two months later I traveled to Ithaca, New York, to meet with clergy over the mayor’s proposal to create the very same kind of facility there. An interfaith group of over 30 clergy listened carefully. We didn’t take a poll. My sense was that the group was divided, some already in favor, others wanting to know more.
In the aftermath of these two visits, I had no doubt that someday such facilities would become an accepted way of responding to dire human need.
What I didn’t expect was that the often conservative American Medical Society would provide its endorsement so resoundingly and so soon. It took at least five years to pass medical marijuana in Illinois with doctors citing lack of AMA support.
Safe injection sites first appeared in Germany in 1988, and at least 100 facilities now exist in 9 countries, including Austria, Spain, France, and Switzerland. The HIV-AIDS epidemic in early 1980’s that provided the impetus. It was clear that providing clean needles saves lives. The development of facilities in which to use them under supervision was a logical extension of that concept.
The fact that 30 years later Vancouver is the only site in North America testifies to the how difficult it is to overcome prevailing social attitudes about drug users as immoral, and abstinence as the only road to recovery. But just as the AIDS crisis led to a breakthrough in the use of clean needles, the opioid crisis is prompting consideration of safe injection sites in the United States.
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick hopes that the New York State legislature will authorize him to proceed this fall. California has approved plans for three sites. The Seattle City Council took similar action with respect to two facilities this spring. And plans are proceeding in Boston, and well as in Maryland and New Mexico.
The opposition is both predictable and may take time to overcome. It boils down to the notion that safe injection sites, and the concept of harm reduction more broadly, enable and sanction drug users.
In response – and at the risk of proof-texting (which is why I don’t use Biblical verses in these blogs very often) – the words of Jesus bear repeating: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Mark 2:17)
Safe injection sites are mercy, forgiveness, and compassion made manifest. This is the response that will prevail in the U.S. as it has elsewhere. It’s just that I didn’t expect the American Medical Association come around so soon. Their endorsement is worth shouting about.
Civil Asset Forfeiture
Over the past three months, many of you responded to our TAKE ACTION on civil asset forfeiture reform in Illinois. We are delighted to report that HB 303 and SB Al, sponsored by Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-39th) and Sen. Don Harmon (D-39th) passed the Illinois Senate unanimously and the House with one dissenting vote, and now awaits Governor Rauner’s signature.
Most importantly, the bill requires that the burden of proof rest with the government in cases where an individual’s property is seized when law enforcement claims it has been involved with illegal activity. Until now, property owners have – contrary to U.S. standards of justice – had to prove their innocence.
The bill also requires police and prosecutors to collect data and report on seized property and the use of proceeds. It exempts small sums of cash and mere possession of small drug amounts from seizures, and it makes it easier for “innocent victims” to claim the return of their property.
This is not a perfect bill. Proceeds from seizure still go to support the budgets of police and prosecutors, a clear conflict of interest. Six states, including Indiana, Missouri, and New Mexico, keep agencies from keeping forfeiture proceeds. But the Illinois legislation is an important step forward.
Taxation and Regulation
Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are poised to join the eight states that have already legalized marijuana for recreational use. CNDP staff has developed strong clergy support in each of these three.
They are especially significant because anyone could become the first to take this step through legislative action rather than a ballot initiative.
Procedurally, Vermont is the closest. In mid-May, the house and senate approved adult possession of small amounts of marijuana. After initially vetoing the bill, Governor Scott supported a compromise, including a commission to recommend a tax and regulation system. This bill awaits legislative action when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
Connecticut introduced a tax and regulate bill in March. While neither chamber voted, the draft budget forwarded by the Senate and House contains a $180 million revenue total from marijuana sales. The session ended without budget approval, but action, including marijuana legalization, could take place in the next few weeks.
Rhode Island has been on the cusp of tax and regulation for the past two years. Advocates are confident of majority support in both the House and Senate and note that three out of five Rhode Islanders support ending prohibition. The key task is to convince leaders in both chambers that the time has come for a vote.