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.
As we celebrate the second year of Clergy for New Drug Policy, this is a good time to bring us all up-to-date on the central issue that lies at the heart of our work. Our mission is to seek a “health not punishment” response to drug policy. We will be successful when all non-violent, low-level drug users are not treated as criminals and steered to treatment if they are struggling with addiction. One nation does this with great success. Sixteen years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, not just marijuana. Police refer all non-traffickers to “dissuasion commissions”, consisting of a doctor, social worker, and a lawyer. Selling drugs is still against the law. If the user is deemed a recreational user, the commission issues a small fine, or perhaps community service; in other words, a civil sanction.
Regardless of our politics, surely we can agree that 2016 was a brutal year. What made it so ugly were the steady expressions of hatred against every imaginable group – African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, Middle-Eastern refugees, Asians, LGBTQs – and a litany of others. It is not an exaggeration to brand 2016 as “The Year of the Scapegoat.” We use here theologian René Girard’s definition of scapegoating: “the strange process through which two or more people are reconciled at the expense of a third party or who appears responsible for whatever ails, disturbs, or frightens the scapegoats.”