Audio and Full Text- Community Healing in the Aftermath of the War on Drugs: Sermon by James Kowalsky

Sanya Singh Faith Perspectives, Marijuana Legalization

  Thank you all for inviting me here to be a part of your service. Thanks to Cathy for bringing this topic, which is near and dear to my heart, to your congregation. My name is James. I’m Jewish and we like questions. So, I’m going to start this sermon with a few questions for you to consider. Many of these questions don’t have absolute answers. They are questions we should ask ourselves so that we know where we stand and try to figure out how these beliefs we hold, impact the action we are willing to take. What does a drug user look like? For many of us when we picture what a drug user looks like we imagine someone looking dirty and disheveled, living on the streets with beer bottles or needles scattered around their body. We picture a desperate and dangerous criminal, willing to harm anyone in order to feed their addiction. We picture a person of color, most likely someone who’s black. Where do these images come from? What drives the belief that this characterizes what a typical drug user looks like? As it turns out, these images don’t match the reality of drug use. In a study published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education in 1995, a survey asked people to envision a drug user and describe that person. 95% of respondents described a black person. This is the case despite that fact that the majority of people who use drugs in our country are white. African-Americans make up about 15% of the people who use drugs, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population. When we picture who a drug user is, we don’t readily think of the successful people who have used drugs—executives, scientists, writers, musicians, politicians, Presidents. It would be inaccurate to say that people who use drugs or have used drugs are bad people, or are unproductive members of our communities. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people who try a drug—any drug—will not have a serious problem with that drug in their lifetime. Yet, this image of a drug user as a failure and threat persists. When we hear the term “drug user” we often think of a small group of drugs: cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine. We don’t think about the complete list of drugs—legal and illegal—that people use. So, it begs the question… What is a drug? In general, we would define a drug as a substance that we put into our bodies that alters our mood or physiological state; the caffeine we use to help us get out of bed at the start of the day; the medicine we take to control our blood sugar, blood pressure, or moderate other symptoms that may prohibit us from taking care of business; the glass of wine we use to unwind after a long day at work. All of these are substances we put into our body to alter the way we think and feel. What impact would it make if, instead of thinking about drug users as “other” or “those people”, we all thought about ourselves as drug users? How would that affect the way we approach drug use in our communities? Why, when we hear the term drug user, don’t we picture a successful white person drinking alcohol? What impact does it have on people’s mindset to picture a black criminal, injecting heroin, and to meld these images together when we hear the words, drug user? If we want to change the way we treat people who use drugs and the impact their use has on them and in our communities, we have to address the internal bias and prejudice that we’ve built up over our lifetime. This does not mean that drugs are not harmful. Certainly, all drugs have the capacity to harm people. Partially, we have a skewed perspective of drug users because the people who are most negatively impacted by their use, are inherently more likely to need help and encounter systems like hospitals, treatment programs, and law enforcement. However, we’ve exaggerated the likelihood of harm in order to scare people away from trying drugs. This approach is effective for some but it leaves all the people who will experiment, without any idea that there are more or less harmful ways of using any drug. A quick story, when a friend of mine was a teenager he decided that he wanted to try marijuana for the first time. He bought $25 worth, a quarter of an ounce, from someone at school. Not knowing any better he put all of what he had bought on a sheet of computer paper, rolled it up like a cigarette, taped it shut, and smoked it. We can agree that smoking computer paper and tape isn’t good for you. I tell this story to say, the risk of harm from using a drug is much greater when you don’t know what you’re doing. The risk becomes even more serious when using a drug that can be lethal if used incorrectly. On the other hand, when a person doesn’t know what they are using is a drug, because it’s legal or provided to them by a doctor, there is also a great risk. Alcohol isn’t a drug, it’s a beverage. Vicodin isn’t a drug, it’s medicine. Marijuana isn’t a drug, it’s a plant. In all these cases, it can be both of these things! Not knowing that also makes harm more likely. But, if any drug can cause harm, why do we still use them? To put it simply, people use drugs for a reason. A rabbi I spoke to once generalized the reasons for using drugs as an attempt to feel more present in a moment or to disconnect. We might use drugs to feel more connected with a group of people, to enhance an activity like a meal or concert, to deepen our thinking or sense of spirituality associated with a religious ritual. Indigenous cultures have traditionally used psychedelic drugs for these spiritual purposes. In Judaism, we have several holidays connected with drinking wine. It is considered a good deed to make a blessing over wine in order to mark the beginning of Shabbat. On Passover we celebrate our exodus from slavery by retelling the story and drinking four full glasses of wine. On Purim, a Jewish scholar Rava was said to have taught that we should drink wine until we cannot tell the difference between the face of Haman and Mordecai, our enemy and our friend. But, we also use drugs to distance ourselves from negative feelings—physical pain, boredom, anxiety, loneliness, despair. The person who uses heroin to seek relief from intense physical pain; or uses alcohol to drown out traumatic memories and racing thoughts so they can fall asleep at night; the person who uses cocaine to overcome their crippling social anxiety and enable connection with other people. Whatever reason we use drugs for, we do not do it as a means to harm ourselves but as a way of obtaining some sort of benefit from our use. Our relationship with any drug—legal or not—can range from harmful to helpful. There are a number of factors beyond the drug itself that impact whether or not we experience harm from using it. Environment matters. Journalist Johann Hari talks about harmful use being a product of disconnection. Dr. Gabor Mate talks about addictions being rooted in painful experiences. Norman Zinberg points to the combination of three sets of factors he calls drug, set, and setting—factors related to the drug and how it’s used, the individual and their circumstances, and the environment they use in. Most people would agree that when we’re using drugs, we are more likely to experience harm from them if we don’t have a strong support system around us. We also know that experiencing trauma in early childhood increases the likelihood that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. Yet, we live in a country that demonizes the drug user—they are a person who has made bad decisions and must live with the consequences. We see drug use as an individual choice and an individual problem. We try to interrupt that problem by punishing their bad choices and isolating people from everything that is familiar to them. But, what child chooses to be neglected or abused? What person chooses to be left without a support system when their parent or caregiver dies? Nobody chooses the circumstances that often precede harmful relationships with drugs. But, it’s far simpler to point to the individual and never consider the environment that they come from. That way, we don’t have to think about how poverty, a poor education system, a lack of economic opportunities, unstable housing, or growing up in a neighborhood where you regularly witness community violence, all make it more likely that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. In fact, it is these circumstances, not drug use, where African-Americans are disproportionately represented. Just as our environment affects our relationship with drugs, our environment is impacted when we use drugs in a harmful way. Responsibilities are ignored—work doesn’t get done, friends and family members are neglected or taken advantage of. But, we’ve tried to punish our way out of the harms caused by drugs for 100 years. And it hasn’t worked. Instead, escalating punishment and extreme isolation have exacerbated the harm. Much like drug use itself, punishment and isolation don’t just impact the individual. They damage the environment as well; they take the parent away from their child, remove brothers and sisters from families. By removing community members, we promote disconnection and thereby increase the likelihood of harmful drug use for the people left behind. Nowhere is the failure of our current approach more apparent than in the dramatic spike in drug overdose death. This issue is particularly timely, as August 31st was International Overdose Awareness Day. We can’t punish our way out of harms like overdose death. We need a better way. We need to shift away from focusing our energy on trying to eliminate drug use altogether. That is and always has been an unrealistic goal. Drugs have been used for thousands of years, across continents and cultures. Drugs are a part of our lives and we all have relationships with them. We need to focus on the harms we consider most egregious and address them instead. We’ve tried, what some would call, a tough love approach for too long. It’s time we just try love. We need to shift from seeing harmful drug use as an individual problem that we solve with punishment, to a community problem that we solve with healing. What does it mean to move away from punishment and to focus on healing? Focusing on healing means that we promote people’s ability to be healthy and safe, connected to a support system and in control of their lives. One approach that does just that, and is gaining traction, is called harm reduction. Harm reduction is the practice of using drugs in less risky ways. When we drink responsibly, we are practicing harm reduction. We eat food before drinking, drink water, we practice moderation and limit our total number of drinks, we don’t drive when we’ve had too much to drink. These are all harm reduction choices we regularly make. As we make harm reduction choices with alcohol, we can make similar choices with other drugs. If you never know there’s a safer way to do something, you’re more likely to make a harmful choice. Beyond this individual practice, harm reduction is a philosophy—a belief in the human rights of people who use drugs. Harm reduction promotes the idea that regardless of what a person puts in their body, they should not be denied their basic human rights. In the programs that I’ve worked for, we use harm reduction in a practice called Housing First. We don’t deny people access to the human right of housing simply because they use …

Community Healing in the Aftermath of the War on Drugs: A Sermon by James Kowalsky

Sanya Singh Drug Education, Harm Reduction, Marijuana Legalization, Racial Inequality

In his sermon “Community Healing in the Aftermath of the War on Drugs” James Kowalsky reflects on drug use in our society and harm reduction as the most appropriate response.  James worked at Heartland Health Outreach in Chicago for seven years and is currently a graduate student at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. The sermon was preached at Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  We provide excerpts here with a link to the full text. I’m going to start this sermon with a few questions for you to consider. Many of these questions don’t have absolute answers. They are questions we should ask ourselves so that we know where we stand and try to figure out how these beliefs we hold, impact the action we are willing to take. What does a drug user look like?… For many of us when we picture what a drug user looks like we imagine someone looking dirty and disheveled, living on the streets with beer bottles or needles scattered around their body. We picture a desperate and dangerous criminal, willing to harm anyone in order to feed their addiction… In a study published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education in 1995, a survey asked people to envision a drug user and describe that person. 95% of respondents described a black person. This is the case despite that fact that the majority of people who use drugs in our country are white. African-Americans make up about 15% of the people who use drugs, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population. When we picture who a drug user is, we don’t readily think of the successful people who have used drugs—executives, scientists, writers, musicians, politicians, Presidents. It would be inaccurate to say that people who use drugs or have used drugs are bad people, or are unproductive members of our communities. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people who try a drug—any drug—will not have a serious problem with that drug in their lifetime. Yet, this image of a drug user as a failure and threat persists… What is a drug? In general, we would define a drug as a substance that we put into our bodies that alters our mood or physiological state; the caffeine we use to help us get out of bed at the start of the day; the medicine we take to control our blood sugar, blood pressure, or moderate other symptoms that may prohibit us from taking care of business; the glass of wine we use to unwind after a long day at work. All of these are substances we put into our body to alter the way we think and feel… This does not mean that drugs are not harmful. Certainly, all drugs have the capacity to harm people. Partially, we have a skewed perspective of drug users because the people who are most negatively impacted by their use, are inherently more likely to need help and encounter systems like hospitals, treatment programs, and law enforcement. However, we’ve exaggerated the likelihood of harm in order to scare people away from trying drugs… Our relationship with any drug—legal or not—can range from harmful to helpful…Environment matters. Journalist Johann Hari talks about harmful use being a product of disconnection. Dr. Gabor Mate talks about addictions being rooted in painful experiences. Norman Zinberg points to the combination of three sets of factors he calls drug, set, and setting—factors related to the drug and how it’s used, the individual and their circumstances, and the environment they use in… We also know that experiencing trauma in early childhood increases the likelihood that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. Yet, we live in a country that demonizes the drug user—they are a person who has made bad decisions and must live with the consequences. We see drug use as an individual choice and an individual problem. We try to interrupt that problem by punishing their bad choices and isolating people from everything that is familiar to them. But, what child chooses to be neglected or abused? What person chooses to be left without a support system when their parent or caregiver dies? Nobody chooses the circumstances that often precede harmful relationships with drugs. But, it’s far simpler to point to the individual and never consider the environment that they come from. That way, we don’t have to think about how poverty, a poor education system, a lack of economic opportunities, unstable housing, or growing up in a neighborhood where you regularly witness community violence, all make it more likely that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. In fact, it is these circumstances, not drug use, where African-Americans are disproportionately represented… Much like drug use itself, punishment and isolation don’t just impact the individual. They damage the environment as well; they take the parent away from their child, remove brothers and sisters from families. By removing community members, we promote disconnection and thereby increase the likelihood of harmful drug use for the people left behind… We need to shift away from focusing our energy on trying to eliminate drug use altogether. That is and always has been an unrealistic goal. Drugs have been used for thousands of years, across continents and cultures. Drugs are a part of our lives and we all have relationships with them. We need to focus on the harms we consider most egregious and address them instead. We’ve tried, what some would call, a tough love approach for too long. It’s time we just try love. We need to shift from seeing harmful drug use as an individual problem that we solve with punishment, to a community problem that we solve with healing… One approach that does just that, and is gaining traction, is called harm reduction. Harm reduction is the practice of using drugs in less risky ways. When we drink responsibly, we are practicing harm reduction. We eat food before drinking, drink water, we practice moderation and limit our total number of drinks, we don’t drive when we’ve had too much to drink. These are all harm reduction choices we regularly make. As we make harm reduction choices with alcohol, we can make similar choices with other drugs… Beyond this individual practice, harm reduction is a philosophy—a belief in the human rights of people who use drugs. Harm reduction promotes the idea that regardless of what a person puts in their body, they should not be denied their basic human rights… As members of a faith community, your congregation has a unique opportunity to offer connection and healing to people in need. Matthew 11:28 tells us, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. The church has long been a place where people have sought out sanctuary. Extend an olive branch to the people who experience the severe consequences of drug use. Too often, people who struggle with their drug use don’t seek out help, because they think that love and support will only be available to them if they are ready to stop using altogether. We need to dispel the myth that belonging to this community is contingent on abstinence from all drugs. Because it’s not. We know that because we’re all here… Instead of focusing on trying to get people to stop using drugs, we can focus on trying to understand how and why they are using drugs. In order to understand people, we need to be willing to listen. Healing happens in relationships. We should focus on building a connection with people. Learn about their lives. Find out about their story, ask them about their hopes and dreams, ask them about what’s missing in their life. Almost certainly, one of the things they’re missing is someone who’ll ask those questions and respectfully listen. Remember, that person who is struggling is likely trying to disconnect from some source of pain. Give them love, give them connection, give them rest, help them heal, and you will help our communities heal. Amen

Ira Glasser: The Case for Repairing the Harm

Sanya Singh Marijuana Legalization, Racial Inequality

The Drug Policy Alliance Conference included a Town Hall Meeting on “The Case for Reparations: 50 Years After the Drug War and Mass Incarceration, What Does America Owe Us? Ira Glasser, board chair of the DPA and one of the panelists, argued that the GI Bill of Rights offers both a model and a cautionary tale in considering reparations as a response to the War on Drugs. Here are excerpts from his remarks. The War on Drugs is just the latest form of racial subjugation. We’re talking really about the history of 300 years, and there is no way of talking about repairing harm without talking about all of that.  When you get to get this age, you get to be a historian.  When you start talking about things, you find out that nobody knows anything. They’re not coming from the same place you’re coming from and they’re not sharing the same premises because they don’t share the same facts. People don’t know what the GI Bill of Rights did.  It provided tuition for college, high school, vocational school, training schools.  It provided living expenses for people going to school. It provided low-cost loans without a down payment, low-cost mortgages without a down payment for people to buy homes when they came back from the war.  It provided low-cost loans for people to start businesses, credit for people to start businesses, for people who had no assets. And it didn’t do that with a means test.  They did it for everyone.  Because everybody had suffered the disadvantage, everybody was going to get the repair.  And they didn’t do it just for the people who were in combat.  They did it for people who were on active duty for 90 days or more.  90 days! And you compare what that repair was targeting with what we’re talking about and you have to conclude that if it was a moral obligation to pass the GI Bill of Rights, that moral obligation is multiplied by a factor of thousands for the people we’re talking about. This [case] has never been made to the white liberal audience who thinks they’re with us.  They don’t know about it.  You have to get past their sense of defensiveness.  They feel like you’re accusing them of racism when you tell them they have a moral obligation. They wouldn’t feel that way if they had had an accident in a car.  The idea of repairing the damage that the state of official law and policy has done is not an alien concept. It’s established in our country.  It’s established in our culture.  It’s established in our law.  So you have to ask yourself: why is it received so radically?  It’s racism in this context.  And the answer has to be that it is very different when you’re talking about people of darker skin color. One more thing.  In order to get the GI Bill passed, Congress needed the votes of southern Democrats.  This is 1945–46. And in order to get it passed, part of the way it was passed was the understanding that the federal government would get it passed, but it was going to be administered locally. Local white folks would get to decide who got these benefits. There were 67,000 mortgages enabled by the GI Bill of Rights in the first year after it was passed, and fewer than 100 went to people who were not white.  There were 100,000 people in the first year, black people, who applied for the education benefits.  Fewer than 20% got them. Looking at the GI Bill of Rights, you get a rationale for what we’re trying to move toward that’s very powerful and compelling.  But at the same time, the way the GI Bill of Rights was administered and played out describes the problem that we have even with the white liberal audience of people that we think should be with us.  We need to find a way to translate that sense of moral obligation to them even if they are not racists.

Michelle Alexander Urges “Victories for All of Us” – Complete Speech

Sanya Singh Marijuana Legalization, Racial Inequality

MICHELLE ADDRESS:  KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA  – October 12, 2017 It is really such an honor to be here with all of you.  I look out and I see so many faces that I recognize, so many people that I deeply admire, people who have inspired me, whose work has guided me and challenged me in countless ways – (names obscured by applause) — the list could go on and on.  People who have made such a remarkable difference in my own life. I’ve been giving some thought to what I might say here today, how I spend my short time that I have with you. I could spend all of it just singing the praises of the people in this room and celebrating the extraordinary accomplishments, the victories that have been won in recent years, as recently as yesterday. But I want to be more than a just cheerleader right now.  I want to speak candidly as someone who, like many of you, considers myself part of this movement but also as someone who is concerned for its future. Standing here I’m filled with such an odd mixture of overwhelming gratitude and some trepidation. In so many ways this is the best and worst of times for drug policy reform.  There has been an extraordinary tidal wave of extraordinary successes – mind-blowing victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization, due in no small part to the brilliant and strategic advocacy of people in this very room.  Public support for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have never been higher – at record highs.  Last November marijuana legalization initiatives prevailed in four states, medical marijuana prevailed in another four states. It seems as though we have reached a tipping point.  And yet, at the same time, at the same very moment, we face an unprecedented drug crisis in this country. Drug overdoses are at a record high, making the crack epidemic seem somewhat mild by comparison.  A recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that drug overdose deaths totaled over 64,000 last year, a 21% increase over 2015. About 3/4th of all those deaths involved opioids.  America has 4% of the world’s population and 27% of the world’s overdose deaths.  And many experts predict that we have not seen the worst of it yet. Already drug overdose deaths are more numerous than HIV deaths were in 1995 in the first year ever of the AIDS epidemic. Drug overdose deaths last year alone outweighed American fatalities in the entire course of the Vietnam War. And, yes, there is an outcry over the opioid crisis but it’s relatively new considering the magnitude of the crisis.  And I know that I am not alone in being struck by the drastic difference between the two recent drug epidemics that have swept this nation — opioids and crack The crack epidemic killed just a tiny fraction of those who are dying of opioid overdoses today.  And yet a literal war was declared on the users of crack – a purely punitive, militaristic war.  Today the opioid crisis is much, much worse.  And yet there is no wall-to-wall media coverage, demonizing and shaming opioid drug users and dealers.  There’s no live TV coverage of drug addicts and dealers rounded up in mass raids. (applause drowned out some words here).  And there are few politicians portraying them as people worthy of care and compassion, not as despicable scum of the earth that have to be gotten rid of by any means necessary. Things are very, very different this time around, and we all know why.  Whiteness makes the difference. If the overwhelming majority of the users and dealers of opioids today were black rather than white, we wouldn’t have police chiefs competing with each other over whose department is showing more compassion for people struggling with drug addiction. I want to be clear that I am very glad that the Executive Police Research Forum is actually bragging in a recent report that many police departments are sending officers to the home of addicts to pay them kind visits and invite them to treatment and offer support.  But I’m not as optimistic as some of my friends about the future of drug policy. I’m told that this new-found tolerance and compassion for white users will translate into a permanent ceasefire for the drug war and that the shift in law and policy will ultimately benefit peoples of all races and classes in the long run. I have my doubts about this.  Clearly, the victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have benefitted people of all colors as arrest rates have declined dramatically in many states, even though severe racial disparities still remain. Discriminatory enforcement hasn’t changed much.  But at least the total number of people arrested and criminalized has declined.  This is a positive development of all peoples of all colors. No, my concern lies elsewhere.  I’m concerned about the cyclical nature of reform and retrenchment in this country, particularly with respect to race. The great legislative victories for legalizing marijuana in several states did not occur in a vacuum.  They occurred on the very same night that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, an election that was made possible in no small part by deliberate and explicit appeal to white racial resentment and anxiety. Some have said this is a very strange paradigm – progressive drug policy sweeping the nation at the very same moment that Donald Trump is elected President of the United States and fierce drug warrior is appointed Attorney General.  How do we explain this crazy state of affairs? Yet from where I sit, there is no paradox, no mystery at all. There is a common denominator underlying both this drug reform victory and the election of Donald Trump. It is called whiteness.  Over and over again in American history, this nation has unleashed a wave of punitiveness whenever a drug came to be associated with black and brown people.  And then predictably – you can set your watch to it – when the color of drug users and dealers fades to white – our nation suddenly reverses course. Attitudes change.  Policies change.  Compassion bubbles to the surface in the public discourse.  Numerous historians have documented this unmistakable pattern.  And by the same token, throughout our nation’s history, there has always been fierce, the overwhelming backlash against even the appearance of racial progress.  Always.  You can set your watch to that one, too. And while some may argue that the racial justice gains of the Obama election were symbolic, the symbolism was powerful, and deeply disturbing to millions, inciting an electoral backlash that we should have seen coming. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the presidential election and the drug policy victories of the last year were solely about race.  But at the same time, can we honestly imagine that the drug reform victories of the last year in all those states would have been possible in the midst of the crack epidemic? Just for a moment try our nation legalizing any drug, of any kind, in the middle of any drug epidemic that was affecting primarily black or brown people.  Imagine pot being legalized near the peak of the crack epidemic.  And then try to imagine that all the newly legal drug empires that are being launched are being led by young black men with wild Afros and tattoos rather than young rich white men with ponytails and beards. Drug reform policies became possible in these years because the media was no longer saturated with images of black and brown dealers and addicts.  The color of drug users and dealers got whiter in the public imagination, so we as a nation got nicer. Now that’s not to say that these changes were inevitable. That’s not what I’m saying at all. An enormous amount of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears went into those victories.  I’m just asking us today to pause long enough to absorb the truth that the white face of medical marijuana in the media, and the white male face of legal pot entrepreneurs, and the white male face of drug users and abusers of the current opioid epidemic, and white face of drug heroes in the media, such as those featured in Breaking Bad, made it possible for mainstream white voters to feel a kind of empathy that was entirely lacking for black and brown folks just twenty years ago. Again, my point isn’t to minimize these legislative victories in any way.  Rather, it is my hope that we will interrogate these victories and consider what they might teach us about the future of our movement. As I see it, the movement convened right here in this room stands at a critical crossroad.  What happens in the months and years to come will likely determine whether our movement succeeds or fails in the long run. And I don’t think it is an overstatement to say the path we ultimately choose may have enormous implications for the success and failure of our democracy as a whole. I hope it is not controversial to say that our democracy is in a state of crisis.  The gravity of the situation can be overwhelming.  And it’s tempting in times like this to narrow our focus and think small.  To think narrowly, very, very pragmatically and even defensively about what can be done to advance a single issue in a complex and worrisome political environment. But I want to challenge all of us here today to think big, to go big – or stay home.  Let’s be reckless, throw caution to the winds?  Not at all.  But I say think big.  We must begin to think bigger.  Much, much bigger.  Beyond drug policy, and consider more carefully how drug policy fits into the bigger picture of American democracy. We must dig deep enough so that our victories truly become truly victories for all of us. All of us. As I see it, any victory that is dependent on whiteness in whole or in part is truly not a victory for us all. When my book The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was first released, and no one was reading it, I had a meeting with a very influential leader and thinker of drug policy reform.  He said to me, “I’ve read your book and I agree with just about everything you say here.  But there’s one thing that bothers me.   It seems like you’re arguing here that we need to end racism in order to end the War on Drugs.  I don’t think so.  I think we can win this War on Drugs without ending racism.  I don’t think we’re going to end racism in our lifetime and I intend to end the War on Drugs with or without ending racism. Shortly after Trump was elected, and a drug warrior was appointed attorney general, with his white supremacist attempted a revolution, I sent an email to this individual: “Remember what you said you didn’t have to end racism to end the War on Drugs? What do you think now?” I was half-joking.  I’m not so naïve to think that we are going to end racism just by having better organizing strategies or by waving a magic wand.  But I do believe that we must be committed to placing race and racial justice at the very center of the drug policy movement. Lately, I find that when I talk to drug reformers and say things like that, racial justice must be central to our movement, people nod, and they say, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, that’s so right, oh yeah.” And for a while, I was just really encouraged by these platitudes until I started asking some follow-up questions.  And then I found that whoever gave this new-found commitment to racial justice was a little thin in practice. For some advocates, making racial …

Michelle Alexander Urges “Victories for All of Us”

Sanya Singh Collateral Consequences, IL, Marijuana Legalization, Racial Inequality

 Following are key excerpts from the full text, available here. In so many ways this is the best and worst of times for drug policy reform.  There has been an extraordinary tidal wave of … successes—mind-blowing victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization, due in no small part to the brilliant and strategic advocacy of people in this very room. And yet, … in the very same moment, we face an unprecedented drug crisis in this country. Drug overdoses are at a record high, making the crack epidemic seem somewhat mild by comparison. America has 4% of the world’s population and 27% of the world’s overdose deaths. … There is an outcry over the opioid crisis, but it’s relatively new considering the magnitude of the crisis.  And I know that I am not alone in being struck by the drastic difference between the two recent drug epidemics that have swept this nation—opioids and crack [cocaine]. The crack epidemic killed just a tiny fraction of those who are dying of opioid overdoses today.  And yet a literal war was declared on the users of crack—a purely punitive, militaristic war.  Today the opioid crisis is much, much worse.  And yet there is no wall-to-wall media coverage demonizing and shaming opioid drug users and dealers.…Things are very, very different this time around, and we all know why.  Whiteness makes the difference. If the overwhelming majority of the users and dealers of opioids today were black rather than white, we wouldn’t have police chiefs competing with each other over whose department is showing more compassion for people struggling with drug addiction… I’m concerned about the cyclical nature of reform and retrenchment in this country, particularly with respect to race. The great legislative victories for legalizing marijuana in several states did not occur in a vacuum.  They occurred on the very same night that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. …From where I sit, there is no paradox, no mystery at all. There is a common denominator underlying both this drug reform victory and the election of Donald Trump. It is called whiteness. While some may argue that the racial justice gains of the Obama election were symbolic, the symbolism was powerful, and deeply disturbing to millions, inciting an electoral backlash that we should have seen coming. … The movement convened right here in this room stands at a critical crossroad.  What happens in the months and years to come will likely determine whether our movement succeeds or fails in the long run. And I don’t think it is an overstatement to say the path we ultimately choose may have enormous implications for the success and failure of our democracy as a whole. … I want to challenge all of us here today to think big, to go big, or stay home.  Let’s be reckless, throw caution to the winds?  Not at all.  But I say … we must begin to think bigger—much, much bigger, beyond drug policy—and consider more carefully how drug policy fits into the bigger picture of American democracy.  Any victory that is dependent on whiteness in whole or in part is truly not a victory for us all. For some advocates, making race central means quoting a lot of racial disparity data. It means posting to social media the latest, most horrific thing that Donald Trump has said. I’m not a fan of this approach.  Nearly all of the available research shows that merely sharing racial disparity data without a great deal of political and social and historical context, and lots of story-telling, only confirms pre-existing racial stereotypes and biases. … Mark Mauer, in his excellent book Race to Incarcerate, provides data showing that the most punitive nations in the world are the most diverse.  The nations with the most compassionate or the most lenient criminal justice policies are the most homogeneous. We like to say that diversity is our strength; it may actually be our Achilles heel. Can we evolve morally and spiritually to learn to care for each other across lines of race and class, gender and sexuality, across all forms of difference?  Clearly, these questions are pressing in the Age of Trump.  These are also the very questions that we must be asking regardless of who is president. The good news is that this drug policy [reform movement] presents incredible opportunities for reimagining what our democracy can and should be. We have the opportunity to educate people of all colors about how our racial history defines us all.  We have the opportunity to demonstrate how the same forms of racially divisive politics that helped to birth the drug war and mass incarceration are playing out all over again in strikingly similar fashion, this time leading to a system of mass deportation on a scale rarely seen in human history. Few issues, few causes, few movements provide a better opportunity to practice reparation. We have a lot to learn.  As a nation, we don’t have a lot of practice repairing historical harms caused to poor people and people of color.  But we can get started in a real way in this movement, right here and right now. Finally, this movement gives us a chance to talk about capitalism, our culture of ruthless competition and individualism, its possible role in creating so much of the despair that makes the United States the world leader in drug addiction as well as incarceration. If we choose to think big, really big, and deliberately align our drug policy with the larger work of building a thriving multiracial, multiethnic democracy that truly honors the lives of all of us, a world of possibilities begins to emerge.  Suddenly we’re not just fighting isolated drug policy reform battles anymore, we’re steadily building the foundation for a new way of life together. I hope and pray that one day when the history of this movement is written, that it will be said that we, those of us in this room today, vowed to do more than win kinder, fairer, more compassionate drug policy.  Instead, we committed ourselves to a revolution, to placing racial justice at the center of our world, and committed ourselves with all the courage we can muster to building a New America.