The likely confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions to be U.S. attorney general is deeply troubling. He believes people who possess marijuana should be arrested. He has recently opposed reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and appears to support privatized prisons. Surely clemency is beyond the pale. But the real difficulty goes far deeper than his views about particular policies. He threatens to take us back to the days before we became aware of our national collective responsibility for mass incarceration. It is only seven years – how much longer it seems – since Michelle Alexander told us in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness that the United States puts more people in prison per capita than any nation on earth and relegates African American and Hispanic communities to third-world status. Her landmark book exposed the War on Drugs, exploding in the 1980’s, as the primary cause.
For those who seek a “health not punishment” response to drug policy in this country, there is much to be thankful for this Christmas and Hanukkah season. Yes, nationally are we more divided politically than at any other time since the 1960’s. But over the past twelve months, there has been a remarkable “coming together” as we seek to end the failed War on Drugs. In the face of a national opioid epidemic, police chiefs, including several in the northern Chicago suburbs, are promising to help those suffering from addiction find treatment rather than arresting them.
For nearly two years, from early 2014 to late 2015, I served as a staff chaplain and graduate fellow at the Cook County Jail, the largest single-entity detention facility in the country. At the time the 96-acre facility detained a daily average of 10,000 men and women, and by way of additional day reporting and electronic monitoring services, maintained oversight over an additional 1,500.
Two influential faith leaders from the south and west sides joined forces last Wednesday to build a base of support in Chicago for harm reduction rather than arrests and jail as the response to drug abuse and addiction. Chief Apostle William McCoy and Bishop Claude Porter, with Congressman Danny Davis, hosted a symposium on “Challenges and Options” for a new drug policy featuring the voices of diverse individuals from law enforcement, government, healthcare, and policy advocacy. Over 50 community residents were present.
Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid is president of Sound Vision, an Islamic not-for-profit organization. “It will lead to the escalation of the social and armed conflict, fail to solve the drug trafficking problem, endanger the peace process, attack indigenous populations’ culture and lifestyles, seriously hamper the Amazon eco-system, worsen the humanitarian and human rights crisis, promote forced displacement, and further worsen the social and political crisis,” wrote a coalition of 73 Colombian non-governmental organizations to the United States 15 years ago. With such dire warnings and dangerous rhetoric, what “it” could they be referring to? None other than the so-called American “War on Drugs.” These far-reaching social implications mirror those of the War on Terror, another example of military rhetoric that some United States officials use to describe social policy agendas.
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