Rabbi Jacob Schram (Ben Stiller in Keeping the Faith) called Yom Kippur the Super Bowl of the Jewish calendar. It’s probably the most coveted ticket of the year for temple-goers, so it makes sense to say that. To me, Yom Kippur is more like a combination of Lent and New Year’s. If you don’t know, Yom Kippur, which occurred just over a week agond, is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the last chance to make yourself right with God before the books are closed for the year. Yom Kippur also falls eight days after Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day on the Hebrew calendar. In addition to repenting for what we’ve done wrong in the past year, Jewish people use Yom Kippur as a time to recommit ourselves to do good deeds in the coming year. Essentially, we’re atoning and making resolutions all at the same time. In thinking about this High Holiday, I realized some of the ways that it’s linked to my thoughts on drugs and drug policy.
I want to preface my remarks with three comments. First, I see I am the last in a line-up of clergy speaking. I am assuming it is my job to bring the message home. Second, I was introduced as a Baptist minister. I don’t know if you realize it, but that means that I am an evangelical Christian. I hope one of the things you come to appreciate is that not all white evangelicals sound like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham. Third, I brought my Bible with me, and I plan to use it. I was asked to speak here today as a member of the clergy, and no Baptist preacher would think to step into the pulpit without a Bible in hand. Growing up in an evangelical household, memorizing and reciting scripture came as second nature, even before I learned to read or write. As a matter of fact, I was only three years old when I first stood up in front of the congregation a recited perfectly John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
I am thrilled to see so many of you here today. I am Incredibly grateful that you took the time to prioritize being here with us, to vision how we collectively shape sanctuary, to ensure that all people hear their names welcomed into loving community and connection. This gathering is long overdue. It is true we are in the midst of an overdose crisis. In this city alone, we are losing an average of four beloved made in the image of all that is good and love, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, lovers and friends each day. Last year in NYC, we lost over 1,374 wonderfully and fearfully made human beings.
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.