A Review By Dr. Mary Nelson We are in the midst of an opioid crisis. In 2016 there were an estimated 64,000 fatal drug overdoses across the US. Our response has been inadequate and unsuccessful, but the work of activists in Vancouver provides paths for action. Travis Lupick tells the stories of those who paved that path, interspersed with insights into the effort to replicate that model in the US, in his book Fighting for Space. In 2016, I was able to visit the pioneering Vancouver treatment program, Insite, and to meet the people involved. I can attest to the power of a more humane and life-giving approach. Lupick offers a moving introduction to harm reduction and describes how it can be a model for the US. “Our government and police have waged war on people that use drugs,” says Lupick, resulting in bloated prisons and rising death rates. He depicts the effort to find a better way in Vancouver over the period 1990-2014 through the eyes of service providers who came to understand that criminalization and abstinence don’t work for many struggling with addiction, and that new approaches need to be tried. One of these health workers was a nurse, Liz Evans, who left a hospital job focused on the immediate medical needs of addicts to manage a last-resort housing complex, the Portland Hotel. Under Evans’ leadership, the Portland accepted drug addicts and mentally ill people as they were, asking, “How can we help?” The result was a hectic but caring “community” of residents. Other staff brought their own strengths and perspectives to this work. Mark Townsend identified creative ways to convince politicians to increase funding for alternative approaches to drug treatment. Organizer Ann Livingston, committed to engaging addicts themselves in shaping and advocating for their own solutions, facilitated their involvement in designing a more effective and humane response to addiction. Frustrated by the indifference of politicians, and society more broadly, to the HIV/AIDS crisis and escalating deaths in Vancouver’s downtown, an organization of drug users took shape, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, or VANDU. They began with a demonstration in a major downtown park, where activists and addicts bore 1,000 crosses inscribed with the names of victims of drug overdose, and a large sign reading, “KILLING FIELDS.” A year later the network organized an international conference in the same park, with speakers from Europe who ran safe drug injection sites and other humane efforts sharing their experience, expertise, and validation. Their testimony opened the eyes of some government and medical officials and created the opportunity to push for harm reduction approaches in Vancouver. Lupick describes harm reduction as “strategies all about keeping people alive and as healthy as possible until they can arrive at a place in life where treatment or abstinence works for them.” Drug users who lived in the Portland Hotel could shoot up in their rooms, and staff became equipped to deal with overdoses. But many users were still on the streets and in dark alleys, and too many were dying. Several times temporary injection sites popped up only to be kicked out by landlords. Slowly, HIV/AIDS activists, enlightened health care practitioners, police, and politicians frustrated by the failing status quo came together around a four-pronged approach to addiction: prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction. Finally in 2003 a single drug injection site was approved as a 3-year pilot to test the harm-reduction approach. It provided a safe space where people who bought their drugs outside were welcomed, provided with water and sterile equipment, and supervised by a medical professional in case of overdose. A second room provided post-injection “cooling spaces,” and a friendly community coffee pot humanized the place. Statistics showed a significant reduction in deaths from overdose and HIV/AIDS. This safe haven also opened the door for connections to other forms of health assistance and care. Research on Insite validated anecdotal findings of significantly reduced deaths from overdose, people moving into more stable living situations, and healthier action. These findings have been documented and published in countless journals. Insite and its housing components (Portland Hotel, etc) are still operating today, but expansion has been glacial. Lupick recounts how opposition from downtown business associations and, city officials have threatened the pilot model. VANDU and its allies continued to organize for decriminalization of drug possession, harm reduction efforts, and legal drug injection sites. Aided by lawyers, a court case went to the Supreme Court, which rendered a narrow decision that applied only to the existing drug injection site. The struggle continues, but there is hope, and lives are being saved in the process. What can we learn from the Vancouver experience? It takes the selfless commitment and compassion of pioneers like Liz Evans. It takes creative efforts to raise awareness and destigmatize drug use in the minds of politicians and voters. It takes outreach to allies, including HIV/AIDS advocates, public health advocates, communities of faith, families of drug users, and politicians. It takes involving drug users in organizing and action, both for better results and to empower them to take charge of their lives. It takes persistence and resilience for the long journey with small successes along the way. As people of faith, we know all are created in the image of God, including drug users. God calls us to work for justice for all God’s people. God gives us infinite hope that sustains us in the struggle for a more humane and life-giving approach to drug addiction. Mary Nelson was the founding President and CEO of Bethel New Life, a faith-based development corporation on Chicago’s West Side. Over 45 years in that community and 27 years in that role, she brought a perspective of faith and hope to a community many considered beyond redemption. Nelson holds a doctorate from Union Graduate School and has taught asset-based community development to pastors and community leaders. In April 2016, she visited Insite as part of a pastoral delegation organized by Clergy for a New Drug Policy.
Religious views matter when it comes to drug policy in this country. That’s why it was significant when Rev. Franklin Graham, who inherited his father’s evangelical network about 15 years ago, came out strongly against marijuana legalization three weeks ago. The timing of his announcement is no surprise. In the last two years, four states have voted to tax and regulate marijuana, thereby eliminating sanctions for low-level possession and use. Voters in five more states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada) will consider similar ballot initiatives on election day November 8. Rev. Graham intends to campaign across the nation in the next two months to urge people of faith to vote “No.”
As the political conventions get underway, we have the opportunity to test our tolerance for partisan, sometimes offensive, rhetoric. We also will be able to review the party platforms — which may or may not bear any resemblance to what is being said on the podium. As the platforms are released, we can analyze individual policy recommendations. But perhaps it would be more helpful to consider the underlying assumptions that explain what we hear from each party. Ten Years ago, George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California, Berkeley, tackled the puzzle of what explains the constellation of issues for each: how can conservatives be simultaneously “pro-life” concerning abortion even as they support the death penalty? Why do liberals support a social safety net, protection of the environment, gun control, and affirmative action, while conservatives argue for just the opposite?
By Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Have you ever known something to be true, and then felt that you were discovering it again for the first time? Grief can be like this: you think you have come to terms with a loss, and then realize you have not. This happened to me last week as I reread Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. What struck me was not just the absurdity and cruelty of our drug laws. It was the degree to which we have created an entire criminal justice system that conspires against those who are black, brown, and poor. All parts work in relentless sequence against whoever has been drawn in.
Our guest blogger, Rabbi Dr. Rachel S. Mikva, is the Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary and Director of the Center for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies. Suddenly there’s bipartisan enthusiasm for criminal justice reform. Forty years after liberal and conservative forces joined to restrict discretionary sentencing, thirty years after launching a futile war on drugs, twenty years after a Democratic president signed the “three strikes” law, the winds are shifting. It is still politically dangerous to be seen as soft on crime, but “smart on crime” is in. We now talk about public safety rather than law and order.
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