“…My World Came to a Crashing Halt.”

grygielny Drug Education, Guest Pieces, Harm Reduction

Kim Brown  stands with a picture of her son, Andy, who passed away from an accidental heroin overdose.

Guest Blog by Kim Brown, President, QC Harm Reduction

On May 25th, 2011 my world came to a crashing halt. My thirty-three-year-old son Andy died from an accidental heroin overdose. We knew he was in trouble, we knew he injected drugs, and most of all, we knew we were at risk of losing him…and then we did. I was a single mom working as a nurse, and I adored my kids. Now one was gone.

The damage done to a family when a child and sibling dies is staggering, especially when the death is caused by a drug overdose. The shame and stigma directed your way after losing a child to an overdose is quite debilitating. In any event, there were no neighbors with casseroles or offers to help and very few condolences.

I was introduced to harm reduction when I sought support for my grief online. I discovered GRASP, Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing, and found other mothers to whom I could talk. GRASP literally saved my life. While pouring out my heart to these mothers I’d met, I was struck by their absolute certainty that our children’s deaths could have been prevented. Had we been able to access harm reduction tools, including naloxone, clean needles, and safe spaces for them, maybe our kids would still be here. With this knowledge, I began to turn my grief into advocacy.

We founded QC Harm Reduction, our 501(c)3, non-profit organization in 2015, but had been seeking allies to support naloxone training and distribution since 2012. Iowa did not have a naloxone access bill, so we began to advocate for one at our state capitol. Finally, in 2016, after four grueling years, our law was passed. As we attempted to build support for training and distribution in our community, we continued to get pushback from many stakeholders. Stigma, shame, and a focus on abstinence were sadly still the rule of the day.

My dear friend, a former Catholic Worker, Michael Gayman, introduced me to some folks in the faith community who operate The Center, Love in Action (LINK). They listened as I explained how a simple harm reduction tool, such as naloxone, could save the lives of people who use drugs. Our mission was well received, and they invited QC Harm Reduction to be a partner organization.

As a result, we have been able to reach those directly impacted by drug use at The Center, in Davenport, Iowa, and through our street outreach. We have partnered with the homeless shelters in our community and have expanded our street outreach and services. QC Harm Reduction, in addition to distributing naloxone, now provides HIV and Hepatitis C testing, all free of charge. Unfortunately, Iowa has yet approved needle exchanges.  We are working to change this.

We also distribute food, clothing, backpacks, and other items necessary for survival, including, importantly, love and acceptance to those who are often discarded and forgotten. I am deeply grateful to The Center and their faith community for the love and support they’ve shown me, QCHR, and those individuals we are helping to serve.

We are trying to get people to connect the dots.  People on the streets are put in jail for low-level drug offenses, and they are often parents. This is disrupting the lives of children and families, and the human costs are too great. The Center and QCHR believe strongly that harm reduction is a human right and that everyone is entitled to safety and compassion.  Love is love. Every life is worth saving.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Blues (and Reds)

grygielny Ending Forfeiture Seizure

Judge’s gavel and stand with US dollar bills on the wooden table.

Civil asset forfeiture should not be a partisan issue. People on every point of the political spectrum should have serious concerns about a policy that allows law enforcement officials to seize someone’s property without having to charge that person with a crime. When the government does not bear the burden of proof for seizures, and law enforcement can keep the proceeds of the property they seized, everyone should be alarmed.

Seizing the assets of criminals is a necessary tool of law enforcement, but the difference between criminal forfeiture and civil forfeiture is enormous. Civil asset forfeiture allows police officers to pull people over under minimal pretenses, seize any cash they have on them, and then claim that it was earned through drug sales. Over the course of the last decade, the Drug Enforcement Agency has seized $3.2 billion from people without any charges being filed, and without any judicial review of the seizure.

Whatever your feelings are about the role of government in people’s private lives and how the War on Drugs is being fought, it is difficult to defend these policies. Yet when looking at our map grading states on their approach to civil asset forfeiture, it is startling how little regulation and transparency most states have in place. This is not just an issue that affects blue states or red states, but a cross-country epidemic that has many policymakers on both sides of the aisle entrenched in their defense of the status quo.

States in the Deep South are some of the worst offenders, almost all of them receiving a D or F grade. Yet within those states many conservative politicians have railed against the policy as a gross abuse of the government’s power. In 2018 two Republican State Senators in Alabama introduced a bill that would require a conviction before any asset forfeiture and would send proceeds from forfeitures to the state’s general fund, rather than to law enforcement coffers. In 2017, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, which would apply similar reforms at the federal level.

But letting law enforcement seize assets with impunity is not a problem confined to red states. CNDP’s analysis graded Massachusetts and Washington, two of the most progressive states on drug policy in general, with F’s on their civil asset forfeiture policies. New Jersey also received an F, Delaware and Rhode Island both earned a D-, and Maine a D+.

Recent attempts have been made in these states to hold law enforcement accountable and limit their power. Unfortunately, these bills are often held in committee, never even getting a vote by state legislative bodies. The Alabama bill passed through the State Senate with a 25-1 vote, but never received a vote in the House.

A similar bill in Rhode Island, introduced by three Democratic State Senators, was recommended “to be held for further study” by the Senate Judiciary Committee, ensuring that it would never receive a vote. In 2017, a Massachusetts civil asset forfeiture reform bill also died without ever receiving a vote. Meanwhile, no action has been taken on Rand Paul’s FAIR Act since it was introduced in 2017.

Not every state has been as intransigent on this issue. In 2016, California outlawed equitable sharing, a policy that allows law enforcement to circumvent state policies by sharing proceeds of civil asset forfeiture with federal law enforcement. In 2017, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature passed a bill requiring a criminal conviction before assets could be seized. Both states are now among only fourteen that we graded C+ or higher.

There is still a long way to go on civil asset forfeiture policies at both the state and federal level. Only three states have outlawed the practice entirely. More than half of all states allow police departments to keep all of the proceeds from the assets they seize. But the more attention we can give to this unfair and destructive policy, the more pressure we can put on states to reform it.

Tom Houseman

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