Diversion: A Landmark Bill

grygielny Diversion, IL

On May 31, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation that will assist police in diverting individuals, including low level drug users and the mentally ill, into treatment programs rather than jails or prison. The bill is the first of its kind in the nation.

Senate Bill 3023 formalizes a process called “diversion” which first gained national attention three years ago. The Police Chief of Gloucester, Massachusetts posted on Facebook that if drug users came directly to his office he not would arrest them but would steer them to treatment. The message went viral.

Illinois’ legislation should serve as a roadmap for police and treatment providers. It authorizes them to establish diversion programs. It offers immunity from civil liability for participants and establishes eligibility for funding. It also requires the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority to gather program data and measure performance.

Since then, Jac Charlier, National Director for Justice Initiatives at Illinois Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), has worked with police chiefs and social service providers to organize programs around the country based on this concept. Charlier helped to establish the PTAC Collaborative (Police, Treatment, and Community). This organization reports that over 500 out of 1,800 police departments in the U.S. are now practicing what he calls “deflection” in some form.

Clergy for a New Drug Policy has been working to publicize and advocate for diversion programs since their inception. Progressive activists in the Quad Cities with whom we met last week expressed strong interest in advocating for this measure. They felt that the cost savings of treatment compared to incarceration should be persuasive to community leaders.

The greatest obstacle to wider implementation is the lack of treatment facilities. In the May 24 issue of Chicago Reporter, Curtis Black wrote that “many existing programs… stabilize communities and prevent violence. But they are never brought to scale or funded sustainably. Instead we continue to pour money into arresting and imprisoning people.”

Nationally, drug and mental health treatment is available for only about ten percent of those who need it. In the Chicago Reporter, Jack Charlier noted that “No community in the United States has sufficient behavioral health services.” About 1,300 police forces do not yet include deflection in their array of services. SB 3023 is intended to encourage them to do so.

Reverend Alexander Sharp 

Understanding My State: IL

grygielny Drug Education, IL, State

I live in Illinois. My state has received a B- in its approach to the War on Drugs and how it aligns with a “health not punishment” response to drug use. This grade tells me that we have some important changes we can and must make.

We must move to taxing and regulating marijuana, legalizing low level recreational use. I am pleased that we have decriminalized marijuana so that low level possession is treated as a civil offense, like a traffic ticket. However, marijuana arrests continue, especially in poor neighborhoods of color. The illicit drug market encourages gang activity and violence. Prohibition of marijuana breeds a War on Drugs mentality. Police continue to be seen as a hostile presence just over marijuana. 

We must seek to do more than reform civil asset forfeiture.  We must abolish it. With the ACLU taking the lead, Illinois has reversed a laughable part of a bad law. When police seize property allegedly related to a drug crime, the burden of proving guilt now rests with the government rather than the accused. But our grade is still a D+. The standard of proof is too low: “preponderance of evidence,” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The government does not even have to establish that a crime has been committed. Police retain and fund their budgets with the proceeds they seize. Conflict of interest continues almost unabated. 

I am heartened that we are finding ways to ways to save lives, ease suffering, and help people restore their lives through harm reduction policies. We no longer insist upon the “abstinence only” demand that has dominated this country’s approach to drug use and recovery. But I do not understand why we do not provide Medicaid coverage for access to methadone. This could permit many people struggling with a heroin abuse disorder to work and remain with their families while receiving treatment. 

Fortunately, we do not have private prisons in Illinois, nor do we send prisoners to private prisons out-of-state. Thus, we do not support an industry that lobbies for laws that wants as many people in prison as possible. But even after those convicted of drug felonies have paid their debt to society and been released from prison, they are denied access to key benefits, including nutrition assistance. If we can change this, our grade will be an A rather than a B+. 

Our state map does not yet track some important things we are working in Illinois. Sentencing reform is critical.  We are hoping for a bill that would reclassify most low-level drug offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies. We are about to become one of the first states to pass legislation that provides a roadmap for police departments to divert drug abusers to treatment rather than jail or prison. And we may well be the first state to make it possible for our medical marijuana program to help those suffering from opioid abuse. 

We are making progress in Illinois. This new map shows me where we should concentrate our efforts.  What does the map tell you about what you can do in your state? 

Reverend Alexander Sharp 

A New Frontier for Medical Marijuana

grygielny Drug Education, Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana

The medical marijuana program in Illinois is one of the most restrictive in the nation. It covers only a fraction of the illnesses for which cannabis is an effective treatment. Those who apply are fingerprinted—yes, fingerprinted. And the review process, even for those suffering from cancer, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis, typically takes more than 90 days, longer than in any other state.

Given these tight restrictions and an indifferent administration, it is remarkable that Illinois might become the first state to use its medical marijuana program to combat the opioid crisis.

Last year, more than 68,000 Americans died from drug overdose, including 45,000 from opioid abuse. For the first time in US history, because of the opioid crisis, life expectancy has declined. Drug overdose deaths in Illinois increased by more than 70 percent between 2013-2016.

There is no simple answer to the opioid crisis, but research is showing that cannabis as medicine can make a difference. Two recent studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (which can be found here and here) found a lower level of opioid use and fewer overdose deaths in states where medical marijuana is legal. Researchers at DePaul and Rush universities have also determined that marijuana worked faster to relieve pain than other prescription medication, and had fewer side effects.

We applaud state senator Don Harmon (D-39th) for sponsoring legislation in Illinois that would translate this evidence into action. The bill—SB 336 —would expand the existing medical marijuana program to allow individuals to use medical cannabis as a substitute for prescription opioids. Patients would do so under the supervision of a physician who could “limit the length of time a patient may receive the opioid that would have been prescribed.”

This makes sense. I remember one of the “poster patients” during the medical marijuana debate. He suffered from degenerative spinal disease. He carried through the halls of the Illinois statehouse a bag of prescriptions that had cost him $50,000 a year and caused horrible side effects. After years of struggle, he was near death in an Episcopal hospital when a nursing nun said to him, “You are going to die if you keep this up. I shouldn’t tell you this, but you should try medical marijuana.” He took her advice, and is now able to live a normal life.

Medical marijuana helps opioid victims by reducing the pain that drove addicted individuals to overuse opioids. It also eases the agony of withdrawal as they seek to overcome their addiction. There is simply no comparison when it comes to opioids versus medical cannabis. Opioids are physically addictive, and they can kill. There have been no recorded deaths due to cannabis overdose.

Senate Bill 336 will soon reach the Senate floor, and then, hopefully, will be sent for consideration to the Illinois House. We urge all Illinois residents to use the opportunity we provide here. For those in other states, we urge you to commend this bill to your legislators as a model. It will take unified action on many fronts to cope with our national opioid crisis. We believe the use of medical marijuana can be a key part of the solution.

Reverend Alexander Sharp 

Medicinal Cannabis and the Opioid Epidemic

grygielny Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana, Uncategorized

There is no silver bullet for solving the opioid epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that every day more than ninety people in the United States die due to opioid misuse. Opioid overdose is now the most common cause of death in the US, responsible for more annual deaths than vehicular accidents or homicides. Two recent studies add to the mountain of evidence that medicinal cannabis can be a part of reversing that trend.

When President Trump declared the opioid epidemic to be a Public Health Emergency, it was a sign that the government was willing to get serious about tackling this problem. Even as federal funding has been increased to deal with the opioid crisis, Trump and Attorney General Sessions have rejected one of the most important steps that they could take: removing cannabis from the list of Schedule 1 drugs.

The Controlled Substances Act was signed in 1970 as President Richard Nixon was ramping up the War on Drugs. This act created the Federal Drug Scheduling System, which classifies drugs by both their medical value and potential for abuse. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, signifying that it has no medical value and high potential for abuse.

Scientists and doctors have spent the ensuing decades proving the federal government wrong. Despite restrictions on how cannabis can be used in research, evidence has continually demonstrated the medical value of cannabis. As a form of pain management, a way to lessen symptoms, and, in some cases, a way to aid in recovery, cannabis has been proven to be able to treat or help in the treatment of HIV, arthritis, asthma, epilepsy, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis.

Now, new evidence indicates that cannabis can be used to fight the opioid epidemic. Two recent studies have examined the impact that legalizing medical cannabis at the state level has had on rates of opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths. In Association Between US State Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Prescribing in the Medicare Part D Population, researchers found that in states with medical cannabis laws there are significantly fewer people being prescribed opioids under Medicare than in those without. In states with medical cannabis dispensaries that enable even easier access to the drug, those rates are even lower.

A second study, Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010, demonstrates that states with medical cannabis laws had rates of opioid overdose mortality nearly 25 percent lower than in states where medical cannabis is illegal. This difference was more pronounced the longer a state had allowed doctors to prescribe cannabis to patients.

Despite this evidence, those fighting against cannabis legalization continue to deny its health benefits. A South Carolina medical cannabis bill never received a vote in the state house, despite the fact that in one poll nearly 80 percent of respondents supported its legalization. Opponents of a similar bill in Kentucky have demanded more research on the drug’s long-term effects and questioned whether legalization actually would reduce opioid use.

In Utah, a ballot initiative will give voters the opportunity to decide this November whether or not medical cannabis should be legal in their state. A recent poll by The Salt Lake Tribune found that more than three-fourths of Utah voters support the initiative, indicating that it is likely to pass. However, the bill faces considerable pushback. Governor Herbert has voiced his opposition, demanding more research before he would be willing to consider the medical benefits of cannabis.

Because of its federal Schedule 1 classification, cannabis is technically illegal even in the twenty-nine states that permit doctors to prescribe it. To save lives we need every possible tool at our disposal, but with a ban on cannabis, and severe restrictions on even studying its benefits, the federal government is stunting its ability to help those most in need. The more we learn, the more the need to legalize cannabis and remove it from the list of Schedule 1 drugs becomes clear. What remains to be seen, however, is if those in power will continue to ignore that evidence, or if they will finally make things right.

Tom Houseman

Privatized Prisons Fuel the War on Drugs

grygielny Privatization of Prisons

Almost two years ago, I was in Arizona supporting a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana there. I learned that the largest contributor in opposition was the Catholic Church. A prison food service industry, supporters of privatized prisons was a close second. Why? The fewer people in prison, the fewer meals they would be able to sell.

I don’t agree with the Catholic position on marijuana, but at least I can understand where it comes from: Catechism 2291 opposes all drug use “except only on strictly therapeutic grounds.” (Presumably that includes alcohol and cigarettes.) I am far less sympathetic to the privatized prison industry, and its suppliers. At the end of the day, it is greed that drives their bottom line.

Above all else, Jesus opposed “hard-heartedness.” Surely all people of good faith excoriate all those who profit from human misery. Since our founding three years ago, Clergy for New Drug Policy has pursued an agenda that would end the War on Drugs. The privatized prison industry thrives, indeed, depends upon mass incarceration, driven in no small measure by harsh drug laws.

That is why today we are adding opposition to privatized prisons to the CNDP agenda.

In 2015 twenty-one states had contracts with private prisons. Texas leads all states with about 14,000 incarcerated in prisons owned or run by corporations. Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Arizona all have more than 7,500. Six states have banned the use of private prisons since 2000.

Privatized prisons house only about 8% of our 2.1 million prison population, but the industry wields a  disproportionate impact. It contributes in powerful and sinister ways to our national “culture of punishment.”

Launched in 1983, the private prison industry peaked in the mid-1990s after President Clinton dramatically increased federal funding for prison construction. The industry’s power was on the decline after 2010 in the face of national concern about the costs of mass incarceration, and was on the verge of disappearing in August 2016, when the Obama administration issued a memorandum terminating federal use of private prisons.

The industry has found new life, however, in the “law and order” stance of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Their desire to reinvigorate the private prison industry was no secret. On November 9, 2016, the stock of CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of American, rose by 20%. The value of the two biggest private prison providers doubled in the six months after election day.

The highly volatile industry has demonstrated its ability to adapt, like a virus, to new markets. Responding to national policy criminalizing immigrants, it began to build detention facilities for this population. The private prison industry now manages 62%—over 350,000 individuals—of all beds in detention facilities run by ICE.

Government Accounting Office studies have never substantiated the industry claim that it cuts costs and operates more efficiently than publicly-operated prisons. Nor is it difficult to find horror stories of poorly trained and unsupervised staff contributing to violence within prisons.

The industry works with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit trade group through which conservative state legislators and corporations develop model legislation that is shared and often adopted by states. “Three strikes” laws and mandatory minimum sentences with virtually no opportunity for parole are among ALEC’s legislative products. For several years, a leader of the for-profit prison industry was the chair of the ALEC’s policy task force.

The most compelling argument against private prisons is that investors gain only when individuals are put in jail. The industry is driven by the financial incentive toward punishment that destroys individual lives. It is a lobbying force that shapes our “culture of punishment” by pushing national policy toward greater mass incarceration.

Clergy for a New Drug Policy endorses the abolition of the privatized prison industry and the termination of all state and federal contracts with for-profit companies for the building of prisons and the housing of prisoners. We urge you to join us in this goal and will provide you with opportunities to make your voices heard in the months ahead.

Reverend Alexander Sharp