When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. held its biennial meeting in late June, that body approved a report calling for an end to the 47-year-old War on Drugs. Stating unequivocally that the “cure has been worse than the disease,” it set forth an agenda of “healing before punishment.” As clergy and people of faith appalled by the human and social costs of this five-decade-long “war,” we should be encouraged that a mainline denomination with nearly 1.5 million members took this stand. Yet ultimately this report is a disappointment. On the most important issue related to drug policy today–whether marijuana should be legalized for recreational use–the report hedges and ultimately declares itself “ambivalent.” Legalization of recreational marijuana will be a central issue this November in state elections around the country. If the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. had taken a strong stand on legalization, this report would have been immediately relevant. Instead, it simply calls for more research. (It also decries the commercialization of marijuana without a balanced consideration of this important question.) Would more research be helpful? Of course. But is it necessary in order to evaluate the merits of legalization? The answer is clearly no. Advocates of legalization know that heavy adolescent (and into their 20’s) use is potentially damaging to brain development. It is becoming tiresome to hear medical experts repeat what we readily acknowledge to be the case. We also know that legalization is the best way to limit adolescent use. It is more effective than the half-measure of decriminalization, where marijuana is easily available to young people, delivered by a black market with no regulation or age limits. To use one of the report’s most far-fetched examples, we know that commercial airline pilots should not be permitted to fly with marijuana in their system. No kidding! Nor should people drive while high. But these are not unsolvable problems. We can safeguard against these concerns on the basis of current knowledge, even as further research will provide more sophisticated techniques. The report suffers from a second, subtler flaw. In calling for an end to the War on Drugs, the authors say nothing about strategy. There is no indication that they understand, or have even thought about, how the important goals they espouse will ever be achieved. Their “ambivalence” about legalization assures us that this is the case. The War on Drugs is doing immediate, concrete damage to our society. The federal drug war bureaucracy has stymied marijuana research by classifying it the Schedule 1 most dangerous category, deeming it as dangerous as heroin. Only with legalization will this absurd classification — and the barriers to research — disappear. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. report contains the seeds of strong ideas. It cites the devastating impact that the enforcement of drug laws has on minority communities. It makes the very good recommendation that those convicted for low-level marijuana possession have their records expunged. But decriminalization has existed in many states for years, and does not eliminate a black market in drugs. Nor does it expand economic opportunity for the communities and individuals that have been disproportionately harmed by the drug war. With legalization, most notably in California, white entrepreneurs are becoming wealthy selling a product that African-Americans and Latinos have long been given a criminal record for selling and using. The racial injustice and rank hypocrisy inherent in years of criminalizing marijuana are thus clearly exposed. This has begun a conversation about the need to heal these communities devastated by the War on Drugs. It has taken legalization for this conversation even to begin. Finally, the report calls for decriminalizing not just marijuana, but all drugs, accompanied with proper regulations. On this point, the report is profoundly right. Getting to this point is the lynchpin in finally ending the War on Drugs. What the authors fail to realize is that change occurs step-by-step, and is driven by public perception. When marijuana is legalized the public will see that the myths surrounding its use are overblown. Only then can we progress to educating the public about the fact that decriminalization of all drugs would be far more beneficial to society than prohibition. Merely decriminalizing marijuana only reinforces the stigma surrounding it, freezing the debate in place. This nation has a long way to go before “healing before punishment” drives drug policy. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has given us a valuable document. But there are times to be cautious, and times to be bold. The authors of this report failed to recognize the difference. They have been careful and safe when they could have been prophetic. Rev. Alexander Sharp
Guest Blog by Rev. Bobby Griffith, Jr., Pastor, City Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City, OK Two weeks ago, my home state, Oklahoma, passed State Question 788, which legalizes marijuana for medicinal purposes. As a minister, I was overjoyed at the prospect of beginning to push back against the harm caused by the long War on Drugs and to see kindness unleashed toward the suffering. I did my part by helping with the petition drive, talking to the undecided, giving media interviews and writing in support of this statute. I did not always hold this view. What pushed me over the edge was sermon prep, of all things. In 2010, I gave a sermon with heavy application that centered on the fact Oklahoma seemed “okay” on the surface, but it was not that way for everyone. My illustration was twofold. First, Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the world. Yes, world! Second, Patricia Spottedcrow. Ms. Spottedcrow was a single mom, who sold $31 of marijuana to an undercover informant. She did this to feed her family. In turn, she received a 12-year prison sentence and her family was broken up, despite the fact this was her first offense. A grassroots effort ensued, and she served two years, instead of 12. Still, she spent that time without her four kids and had to rebuild her life. I mentioned these two things in a sermon. The church where I was on staff at the time was mostly made up of Red State Oklahomans. Mentioning something about marijuana, sentencing and, dare I say, social justice, was unheard of for this congregation. I received a few “I never thought about that” comments, but nothing out of the ordinary. Two years later, I met a man in his early 20s who made most of his money growing and selling marijuana. He lived a few blocks from one of the hip spots in Oklahoma City and lots of folks knew what he did for income. In the course of our short conversation (how many ministers get to hang out with a drug dealer!), I asked him if he was worried about getting caught. He said, “Dude. I’m white.” That interaction drove me to gain a better understanding of Oklahoma’s sentencing disparity. African Americans are almost four times as likely to be in jail for marijuana than Caucasians. Arrest rates for whites are lower. Sentencing occurs along racial lines. My state now has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. The system is broken. I look at the enforcement of drug laws, marijuana specifically, and I feel the angst of the Old Testament prophets. There is real oppression. Prohibition creates black markets and opens the door to gangs, prostitution, and human degradation. Law enforcement has the ability to apply civil asset forfeiture and take from those who barely have anything, especially immigrants and migrants. Mandatory minimum sentences do little by way of treating humans as bearers of God’s image. It is within this space, I believe, clergy need to lead. Houses of worship need to empower congregations with the realities that are often ignored. No one at that little church where I preached in 2010 knew about incarceration rates or Patricia Spottedcrow. Some may have thought she “got what she deserved,” but I’m sure many felt it was wrong. We need to learn how to tap into that sense of injustice to do our part to bring about restorative justice. The issue of drug laws is not as simple as “just say no” or “go to jail”. There are hosts of socio-economic and political factors. There is space to apply Christ’s love for others in the Gospels. There is room to point out oppression. There is an opportunity for religious communities to be compassionate, speak for the voiceless, and open the eyes of the powerful to a better way.
“We don’t have the option to do nothing.” Those are the words of Idaho Board of Corrections Chairwoman Debbie Field. She was referring to the proposal made by the Board for a 1,510 bed Idaho prison, part of $500 million prison expansion for the state. If the state legislature approves the proposal, it will be worse than doing nothing. Violent crime in the United States has been falling consistently and dramatically since the early 1990s. Idaho is no exception to this trend: while violent crime peaked in 2002, rates in the state have been at or near record lows since 2014. What reasonable explanation could there be for why the prison population in Idaho is rising so quickly that they will need 2,400 new prison beds by 2022? The answer is simple: drug violations. Idaho has some of the most regressive, outdated drug laws in the country. It is illegal for Idaho doctors to prescribe cannabis to their patients for medicinal purposes. As a result, children suffering from epilepsy and military veterans with post traumatic stress disorder cannot receive a drug that has been proven effective to treat their disorders and improve their lives. In addition, medical cannabis is an effective alternative to opioid treatment. Since 2012 the opioid overdose death rate in Idaho has nearly doubled, further proving the need for medical cannabis legalization. Efforts to get a medical cannabis initiative on the November ballot in Idaho failed, the fourth time in eight years that such efforts have come up short. Idaho needs to take the lead of states that are serious about proactive, beneficial changes. On June 26, voters in Oklahoma overwhelmingly approved legalizing medical marijuana by a twelve point margin. Once that law goes into effect Oklahoma will be the thirtieth state that allows doctors to prescribe cannabis. Utah may be the thirty-first. A legalization initiative is on the November ballot there, and a recent poll showed support for medical marijuana at nearly 75 percent. Idaho is lagging behind some of the most conservative states in the country on accepting the truth about the benefits of medical marijuana. In order to significantly lower its prison population, Idaho will need to either legalize or decriminalize marijuana. When a person is convicted of a drug felony it can destroy their lives. They can lose access to affordable housing and temporary assistance for themselves and their children. Without a job or support, their risk of a second prison sentence becomes far more likely. Two-thirds of the people admitted to an Idaho prison in the last year were repeat offenders, with three-quarters of those sentences being for drug possession violations. This is the horrifying cycle of the criminal justice system, which keeps people from rebuilding their lives and drains the state of resources. Nine states have legalized recreational marijuana, while another thirteen have decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug. By comparison, Idaho’s possession laws are aggressively punitive. Possessing any amount of marijuana is punishable by prison time, and possessing three ounces or more is a felony that carries a five year prison sentence. That is the same sentence that the state gives to those convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. “We want to be tough,” said Idaho Judiciary Chairman Lynn Luker, “but we want to be smart.” Their version of tough has failed, so it’s time for the Idaho legislature to get serious about being smart. Reforming drug laws, including decriminalizing marijuana possession, would dramatically decrease Idaho’s prison population. The state would save hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of people would not have their lives destroyed by long, unnecessary prison sentences. There is no excuse for not instituting these reforms. Tom Houseman
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
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. From my own experience, when I visited the closest dispensary to utah it was obvious how the legalisation of Medical Cannabis had positively impacted those patients able to gain access to the dispensary. Without question the more we learn and experience, 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