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.
It was evident before he was appointed Attorney General that Jefferson Sessions’ drug policies are ill-informed and wrong. It took watching his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last Tuesday to understand just how this is the case. I had a “eureka” moment. He closed his statement with a self-serving peroration that had no relation to why he had been called before the Committee: “… Just last week, it was reported that overdose deaths in this country are rising faster than ever recorded. The murder rate is up over 10 percent—the largest increase since 1968. Together, we are telling the gangs, the cartels, the fraudsters, and the terrorists—we are coming after you. Every one of our citizens, no matter who they are or where they live, has the right to be safe in their homes and communities.”
In the previous post, former police officer Brian Gaughan describes why he resigned after 11 years rather than perpetuate the War on Drugs. Here Executive Director Rev. Alexander Sharp reflects on what his experience might tell us about law enforcement in the future. Several years ago I asked a distinguished Illinois suburban police chief whether he might support medical marijuana. I still remember the hiss in his voice as he replied: “It’s not medicine, it’s just a weed.” Since that day, 29 states including Illinois, covering over half the U.S. population, have legalized medical marijuana. The same thing is happening with other drug laws: 21 states have either decriminalized or legalized marijuana. The decriminalization of all drugs was introduced in one state legislature this year.
How did I shift from being “pro-drug war” to realizing that it was totally wrong? I watched people who were addicts being arrested, taken into custody for mere possession of an “illegal” drug, when in reality, they were being put into a cage for possessing something they may or may not be addicted to and were doing no one any harm, except perhaps their own self. I struggled with the idea that I was part of an organization that was punishing people, often times severely, for being addicted to something. Not only would we put them in a cage, we would oftentimes financially ruin them. Their cars were towed, they needed to find bond money to post if possible. More times than not, they would lose their jobs for not being able to show up at work, they had to spend thousands and thousands of dollars for legal representation, families were split up, homes were lost. It slowly began to weigh on my mind.