Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream: Civic and Economic Justice

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Racial Inequality, Reparations

  Almost 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is only natural to wonder what he might teach us in these profoundly troubling days.  It is worth remembering that, especially in the last three years of his life, his most strident calls were for economic justice. “I have a dream today that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As the minister and scholar Michael Eric Dyson reminds us, these 34 words are more famous than anything else King ever said.  These are the words we carry in our hearts.  But this was far from the full message. It is now commonplace to observe that the United States is the prison capital of the world.  We incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on earth, with Russia a not so close second.  This monstrous reality has fallen most heavily on African Americans and Hispanics. While he did not live to see that our criminal justice system would become perhaps the leading civil rights issue of our day, Dr. King knew intuitively what must happen if we are ever to move beyond Jim Crow: civil rights laws alone could not address three centuries of racism and economic exploitation. He was killed in Memphis, where he had gone to lead a strike of sanitation workers, and his next destination was to be Washington D.C. where he was mobilizing a Poor People’s Campaign. Three weeks before the end of his life, he spoke of how in the 1860s Americans had been given land if they moved west to build their economic future even as blacks remained slaves.   Listen to Martin Luther King in this video.  He is tired, impatient, even close to anger. Anticipating a Poor People’s Campaign, he said, “Now when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”  Is this not a call for reparations? For most Americans, the idea of reparations is a non-starter.  It seems at best impractical. But consider the perspective of African Americans who cannot get a job due to a marijuana arrest on their records as we move to the legalization of marijuana. They are witnessing young white men creating businesses to sell a substance that blacks went to jail for possessing. The growing marijuana industry as an argument for reparations is a small slice of a much deeper problem. Even if we cannot devise a clear-cut reparations policy as such, it is worth keeping front and center the idea of helping people overcome the challenges of almost three centuries of oppression.  Ta-Nehisi Coates tells us why: “Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America…But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much – if not more than – the specific questions that might be produced.” In this, he is surely right.  Let us remember today that as King called for the brotherhood and sisterhood of us all, he knew this could not be achieved without economic justice. If only to help us discuss this fundamental truth, it worthwhile to discuss what society can and should do in the way of reparation. Dr. King surely would have approved.        

Why Leading Physicians Urge Legal Marijuana

Sanya Singh Decriminalization, Legalization, Medical Marijuana

Three nationally prominent physicians have just spoken out in a prestigious journal in support of marijuana legalization.  The November issue of the American Journal of Public Health features an article by Dr. H. Westley Clark, Dr. Joyce Elders, and Dr. David Nathan titled “The Case for Marijuana Legalization.” Dr. Clark has a distinguished record as the Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment SAMSHA for 16 years.  He is currently Dean’s Executive Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University. Dr.  Elders is well known as the former Surgeon General under President William Clinton; she is now professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Dr. Nathan is a psychiatrist in Princeton, New Jersey and serves as the Director of Continuing Medical Education for the Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS).  In 2015 he joined with colleagues to found Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (DFCR), described in the article as “the first and only national physicians organization dedicated to the legalization and regulation of the adult use of cannabis.” “The unjust prohibition of marijuana has done more damage to public health than has marijuana itself,” according to these three experts.  They point to the high number of marijuana arrests—about 575,000 every year in the United States; the disproportionate impact of marijuana laws on African Americans; and the fact that the implementation of current marijuana laws leads to increased poverty, itself a public health issue. The authors argue that prohibition has failed: “over 22,000 million Americans use cannabis each month.” They note that “both marijuana and alcohol can adversely affect brain development in minors.” But they point out that prohibition has not prevented underage use; in fact, it misleads by sending a message that marijuana is dangerous for everyone, which youth “know is not true.” The authors believe that decriminalization (treating low-level marijuana possession as a civil offense, comparable to a traffic ticket), is a welcome step.  Decriminalization does not, however, end the need for regulation, which enables individuals to know what they are using, protects against a contaminated product, and can constrain bad marketing practices, such as targeting youth. The article offers a set of recommendations about how marijuana should be legalized, including government oversight of production, testing, distribution, and sales, rigorous standards of labeling, clear information about amount and content of what is being consumed; and other measures. Here is the full text of the article.

Timing is Right for Decriminalization: Part 2

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization

One need not be socially conservative to feel surprise, and even deep skepticism, over the recent call of the Drug Policy Alliance to decriminalize the possession of all drugs, not just marijuana.  I expect that many of my progressive friends and colleagues will lift their eyebrows and flinch just a little when I mention the topic to them. Why? Because, frankly, they haven’t thought very much about this—it’s only just entering public debate in the United States—and they therefore understand very little about the key issues and concerns.  Here is what I want them to know. As a start, we must all be clear that decriminalization does not mean an end to sanctions against trafficking, which would remain illegal.  But decriminalization would end the prosecution of those who possess and use small amounts of any drug.  It would keep them out of the criminal justice system. A summary of the DPA Report, “It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession,” lists some of the things that would happen: “Decriminalization will allow us to more effectively help drug users who want help”:  No longer branded as criminals, individuals will be more likely to seek treatment; providers will be able to offer harm reduction as well as abstinence-only forms of treatment. “Decriminalization will reduce the number of people sucked into the criminal justice system”:   A person cannot be arrested for something that is not a crime.  “Decriminalization will help returning citizens successfully reintegrate into society”:  Low-level drug use in itself is not an adequate reason for individuals to be returned to jail, forfeit custody of their children, lose their jobs, fail to qualify for business loans, or be ineligible for student aid, subsidized housing, or financial assistance.   It is only our pervasive national culture of punishment that has created these barriers to becoming productive members of society.  This culture must change. Two other likely impacts are especially important. First, the evidence is convincing that decriminalization of all drugs will not increase drug use.  In June, Pew Charitable Trusts informed the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis that its analysis had shown no relationship between criminal sanctions and drug use or harms related to drug use.  Specifically, Pew’s research found “no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and … illicit drug use, drug overdose deaths, or drug arrests. “Moreover, marijuana use has not increased in the 29 states that have passed marijuana; it has not increased in the 21 states and Washington DC where marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized; and it has not increased in other nations where similar policies have been adopted. Finally, the DPA report predicts that “Decriminalization will decrease negative interactions between individuals and the police.” The War on Drugs has destroyed relations between law enforcement and communities.   As James Gierach, a long-time advocate of ending the War on Drugs, has written, “Violent crime has taken a back seat to drug enforcement for too long, and has changed the way police relate to marginalized communities, who no longer see police as protectors, but as aggressors.” When drivers can be arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana if they are pulled over for a broken taillight, when neighbors are afraid to call police over a minor altercation or domestic violence because they have seen the consequences when minor drug possession is discovered, and when 911 calls to report an apparent drug overdose can expose bystanders to criminal charges, police will not be trusted to serve and protect. In communities where police no longer are directed to “throw the book” at minor drug offenders, they have been better able to offer immediate help and direct those who need it to treatment. These are some of the things we need to know about drug decriminalization.  Let’s start making the case together.

Endorse the DPA Decriminalization Report!

Rev. Saeed Richardson Decriminalization

Endorse the Drug Policy Alliance’s report It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use! Use the icons below to share this report with your congregations, communities, and local networks!        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?

Timing is Right for Decriminalizing Drug Use

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Harm Reduction, Legalization

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.