Illinois Cannabis Bill Resets the War on Drugs 

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Marijuana Legalization

On Friday, May 31st, 2019, the Illinois House reset the War on Drugs for an entire nation. It passed legislation approving adult-use cannabis and sent it to the Governor for his signature. 

Our nation’s drug laws were founded in racism. The major reason this bill passed was because it will begin to repair what such racism has wrought. 

When Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, few members knew what “marijuana” was. A virtually self-appointed federal drug czar named Harry Anslinger had brainwashed the members with claims  to the effect that “Negroes under the influence of that crazy drug will molest our women,” and “Lazy Mexicans smoking weed will take our jobs.” 

With the help of William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow journalism” chain, Anslinger created a stigma around marijuana use that has infected the national consciousness for over 80 years. This stigma has given police license to break into the homes of people of color and round them up on mere suspicion of possession.  Marijuana laws have always been at the forefront of our national War on Drugs.  

Finally, Illinois is effectively repealing these marijuana laws. Their legacy is written in the lives lost to racist and unjust prison sentences. It will take many years to undo even a portion of this damage. Fortunately, this bill is a start.

Prohibition is misguided. In trying, and failing, to stop people from using drugs, it turns them into criminals. Treating people as criminals simply because they use drugs is cruel and immoral.

So, thank you, Governor Pritzker. Thank you, Sen. Heather Steans, and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, the lead co-sponsors of SB 7 and HB 1438. Thank you, Marijuana Policy Project staff, who helped to craft a hideously complex piece of legislation under extreme time pressure.

Thank you to the 58 religious leaders who supported this legislation with a letter to the General Assembly. You have shown that clergy can speak out against the stigma that has blinded too many of their colleagues to racial injustice and misguided prohibition.  

With the Cannabis and Regulation Tax Act, Illinois has demonstrated that it is possible to regulate cannabis through legislative action, something no other state has yet been able to do. All of you have brought us to the point where a national reset on the War on Drugs is not just a dream. At long last we can see the way.  

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

SB7: Letter in Support

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Marijuana Legalization

May 24, 2019

To the Illinois General Assembly: 

As clergy, we care deeply about social justice. The criminalization of cannabis, even for simple possession, has crippled the lives of people of color disproportionately for more than four decades. This is why we – the undersigned – believe it is time to move to a system of legal, regulated and taxed adult-use cannabis in Illinois. 

Current cannabis laws, fines, and arrests are carried out with staggering racial bias. The illicit market, which prohibition makes inevitable, continues to breed violence in our poorest communities all across Illinois. 

Regulation would make Illinois a safer state.  It would allow us to educate adults, informing them about what a product contains and enabling them to make informed decisions. Banning sales by law to those under 21 would help to limit access to our youth.  Under prohibition, these measures are not possible. 

Legislation being considered in Springfield would permit the expungement of cannabis arrests and convictions and allocate funds to communities ravaged by the War on Drugs. It would provide valuable business opportunities to minorities. 

We cannot wait any longer to make this the law of the land in Illinois. We urge you to vote yes on a regulatory system that works for all of Illinois.

Signed,  

Reverend Scott Aaseng

Reverend Lee Barker

Reverend Robert E. Biekman

Reverend Barbara Bolsen

Reverend Danielle J. Buhuro

Reverend Fanya Burford

Reverend Julian DeShazier

Reverend Randall Doubet-King

Reverend Dr. Russell Elleven

Reverend Emily Gage

Reverend Franklin Gamwell

Reverend Edward Goode

Reverend Joy Grainge

Reverend Larry L. Greenfield

Reverend David Gregg

Reverend Allen Harden

Reverend Alice Harper-Jones

Reverend James A. Hobart

Reverend Darrick Jackson

Reverend Sarah Jay

Reverend Dr. Matthew Johnson

Reverend Veronica M. Johnson

Reverend Jonathan Knight

Reverend Jesse Knox III

Reverend Mike Lesperance

Reverend Sarah Lusche

Reverend H. Scott Matheney

Reverend Lucie Macfarlane
Minister Darren Calhoun

Reverend Florence Caplow

Reverend Tom Capo

Reverend Jason Coulter

Reverend George W. Daniels

Reverend Roger Dart

Reverend Kevin J. McLemore

Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva

Reverend John Modschiedler

Reverend Richard Mosley Jr.

Reverend Karen Mooney

Reverend Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks

Reverend Christopher Powell

Reverend Mary Rawlinson

Reverend Thomas Rawlinson

Reverend Kathryn Ray

Rabbi Frederick Reeves

Reverend Saeed Richardson

Reverend Vilius Rudra Dundzila

Reverend Pamela Rumancik

Reverend Alexander Sharp

Reverend Robert Trask

Reverend Kathaleen Valek

Reverend Colleen Vahey

Reverend Amy Wharton

Reverend Gunnar Williams

Reverend Eileen Wiviott

Reverend Ronald Young 

Don’t Wait to Legalize Marijuana in Illinois

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Marijuana Legalization

State of Illinois Capital Building

Finally, we have the opportunity to legalize marijuana in Illinois.   Senate Bill 7, now before the General Assembly, would permit and regulate marijuana use for adults over 21.  Our new Governor is committed to the measure. Over 60% of Illinoisans are in favor and have been for a long time.  Yet some are still saying, “Let’s wait another year.” Here’s why they are wrong.

Let’s start by looking at what this bill does.  First, it begins to reverse social injustices that our marijuana laws have quietly and cruelly inflicted over the past 80 years.  Most of Governor Pritzker’s May 4 press conference announcing the bill was dedicated to this point.

Illinois will allocate huge anticipated revenue from cannabis sales to restoring communities the War on Drugs has done so much to destroy. It will expunge the criminal records of hundreds of thousands of residents convicted of minor marijuana offenses that would not have been illegal under this legislation.  It offers jobs and access to capital to minorities now operating in an illicit market that too often leads to their arrests.

Governor Pritzker and his staff have given us a bill that can be a model for the nation when it comes to repairing past wrongs.  Other states will look to Illinois as they did when the state passed what is widely recognized medical marijuana legislation in 2013.  We should not wait another year to act when it comes to social justice.

Moreover, SB 7 reflects the best way to respond to the potential for all substance abuse, including by young people.  We know that teen use has not increased in the 10 states that have legalized adult-use cannabis. Why? Regulation and education work; prohibition does not.   

Education and, when necessary, treatment are better responses than arrests and incarceration.  It has taken us far too long to figure this out. But as a society we now know this is the way to go. Changing our marijuana laws is a critical part of this long-overdue national transformation.

We constantly hear that marijuana today is more potent than in the days of Woodstock. That’s precisely why we need a legal market that is taxed and regulated. When purchasing in a black market, potency and possible adulteration are threats. But in regulated markets, content and amount are clearly labeled.  This protects against exactly what opponents of legalization say we should be afraid of.

We also know that taxpayers in Illinois continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year enforcing cannabis laws. Yet prosecutions for possession have dropped significantly in most states that have legalized it.  The changes proposed in SB7 will relieve an overburdened criminal justice and court system and save taxpayer money.

Cannabis policy has been a serious discussion in Illinois for years, and we used that time to hear from other states, look at their example, and build on our own experience with regulated medical cannabis. Waiting another year just perpetuates a system we know is a failure.  But this year, Illinois has the opportunity to pass a meaningful law that draws from those lessons, improves on them, and provides the nation with a model of social justice and drug policy reform. This is a critical moment. We should seize it.

Rev. Alexandar Sharp, Executive Director

How Prosecutors Are Stuffing Our Prisons

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Mandatory Minimums

As a nation, we are beginning to change our draconian laws. Seventeen states have developed alternatives to criminalizing at least some drug users. But barriers to change remain, most notably prosecutors across the country who continue to insist on the need for criminal sanctions.  

In a superb new book Charged, Emily Bazelon tells us why. She shows how county prosecutors, often unconsciously, exploit the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era drug laws described in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to their own professional advantage.  

Mandatory minimum sentencing and “three-strike” laws enable prosecutors to threaten long prison terms, and then coerce a plea bargain agreement that nevertheless leads to incarceration. Can we believe in the fairness of our criminal justice system when 95% of all cases are now plea-bargained, usually in secret?

Bazelon is right to focus on prosecutors as obstacles to change. By demonstrating what prosecutors can and will do, she helps us see that we can never end the War on Drugs as long as criminal sanctions against drug use exist.

Consider my home state of Illinois. In January, reformers filed HB 2291, a bill that would reclassify low level drug possession offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies. They did so because felony convictions are far more likely than misdemeanors to wreck lives.

The bill got a respectable hearing even as it was opposed by the Illinois States Attorneys Association, composed of county prosecutors. Why? The states attorneys argued that only with the threat of felony sanctions can they force drug users into treatment. In other words, society needs criminal sanctions to keep people from becoming criminals.

This view sounds illogical, and it is. It also contradicts convincing research that prison sentences do not reduce drug use.  In fact, people who go prison once are more likely to go back. In 2015, the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform found that “long sentences have not had the desired deterrence effect, but have consequences that can be disproportionate and counter-productive.”  

If incarceration does not deter drug use, is it at least effective as a threat against those who might not otherwise belong in prison? Prosecutors and judges use it that way, often stipulating that charges or convictions will be set aside upon successful completion of treatment. This, too, often does more harm than good.

Since the possibility of treatment is not widely available for those who need it, many will, in fact, end up in prison solely for this reason. Further, using prison as a threat ignores the possibility of relapse, at which stricter punishment will kick in. Criminal penalties stigmatize those who use drugs so that they avoid treatment they might otherwise seek. Finally, programs that divert individuals too often engage in “skimming,” offering treatment only to the “easiest” cases.

It will be a tough to convince prosecutors not to oppose HB 2291 in Illinois and similarly compassionate programs in other states. When I asked Bazelon about this last week, she commented, “Oh, we charge people with crimes, so we can coerce them into treatment? That’s not what the criminal code is for.”

We should be profoundly grateful to Emily Bazelon for helping us to understand prosecutorial behavior. But we must go further even than she takes us. As long as a drug possession is a crime, the justice system will harm people who do not deserve to be treated as criminals. At the end of the day, decriminalizing all drug use is the only sane and decent path.

Rev. Alexander Sharp, Executive Director

Charged: A Damning Portrait of The Role Prosecutors Play in Mass Incarceration

Tom Houseman Mandatory Minimums, Uncategorized

Mass incarceration didn’t happen overnight. Since 1980, the prison population in the United States has increased by more 500 percent, and only in the last few years has the number of people imprisoned at either a state or federal prison leveled off. There is certainly enough credit to go around for the rapid expansion of America’s incarceration system. Between the War on Drugs policies of the seventies and eighties and the “tough on crime” initiatives of the nineties, the blame is largely placed on policy makers, and with good reason. But in her recent book, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration, journalist Emily Bazelon asks us to shift our gaze from the people crafting the policy to the people enforcing it: prosecutors.

Most people imagine the court system as being a triangle in which prosecutors and defenders are, as Bazelon writes, “points… on the same plane, with the judge poised above them.” The evidence laid out in Charged shows that this is clearly not the case.

Prosecutors play a crucial role in determining what crime a person will be charged with when they are arrested. This decision is largely arbitrary, but it can mean the difference between a multi-year prison sentence and never having to spend a night behind bars. Prosecutors also have control over the other two most crucial factors that will determine whether and for how long a person will spend time in prison: plea deals, and bail.

Bazelon points out that by demanding excessively high bail (a point on which judges virtually always defer to the prosecutor), prosecutors can push somebody to plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit. As a result, the number of people who never get their day in court is staggering.

What is most troubling about the work of prosecutors is the adversarial role they take against the defense in criminal cases. Despite how they are presented on TV and in movies, the goal of prosecutors shouldn’t be winning cases, but rather seeking truth. Yet when prosecutors are rewarded for winning cases, and are trained to view defendants as the enemy, they become willing to subvert justice in pursuit of victory.

Sometimes this effect is subconscious; Bazelon describes the “tunnel vision” that prosecutors get as they become unwilling to examine evidence that could exonerate a defendant. This psychological effect is reinforced by the culture of prosecutors and district attorney, and the politicization of their jobs. If a prosecutor lets somebody off with a light sentence and they reoffend, it could destroy their career or cost them reelection. Better, it seems, to err on the side of overcharging.

Often, however, prosecutorial malfeasance is more direct and deliberate. Charged goes into detail about the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to share evidence beneficial to the defense. That was not always mandatory, and the lengths to which prosecutors go to get around the Brady rule is astonishing.

If Charged simply rattled off statistics about how prosecutors stuff prisons with people who may be innocent, it would be sufficiently damning. But it is Bazelon’s journalistic abilities and storytelling prowess that elevate it to a truly haunting call to action. The book’s throughlines are two stories that reveal the two major problems with America’s prosecutorial system: one exemplifies the structural flaws of a punitive institution that is unforgiving and arbitrary; the other is a horror story of an overzealous prosecutor who will go to any lengths to secure a conviction.

Kevin is a young black man living in a Brooklyn public housing project who took credit for possessing a gun as a way to protect a friend. The prosecutor handling the case had complete control over whether the state charged Kevin with criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree (mandatory minimum sentence three and a half years), third degree (two years), or fourth degree (a misdemeanor, no jail time).

Bazelon follows Kevin through the kafkaesque New York City gun court that is meant to expedite these cases, but instead merely strips nuance from complex situations. Through the youth diversion program YCP, Kevin is allowed to stay out of prison, but the lengths to which he must go to appease judges and, more importantly, prosecutors, is absurd. Constantly forced to toe the line and with the fear of a lengthy prison sentence hanging over his head, Kevin’s case stretches on for years.

Noura, by contrast, is a white teenager in Memphis, who becomes the target of District Attorney Amy Weirich. After her mother is found murdered, Noura becomes the only suspect, despite nothing but circumstantial evidence tying her to the case. Weirich’s methods are ethically and constitutionally dubious, showing that she prioritizes defeating Noura in court over finding out who killed Noura’s mother. As Bazelon shows, this behavior is not anomalous, and not only is it rarely punished, but it is often rewarded.

The stories that unspool in Charged—and the data behind them—reveal just how broken our criminal justice system is. But while Bazelon offers no happy endings or tidy resolutions, she does show the promise of a new generation of District Attorneys determined to reform the prosecutorial landscape.

Winning elections on waves of support, progress has already been made in Chicago by Kim Foxx, in Philadelphia by Larry Krasner, and in other cities around the country. Every proposal by these firebrand reformers is met with resistance by a system designed to defend the status quo, but while progress is slow, they are already making a difference.The prosecutorial system is deeply ingrained in America’s courts, and the Supreme Court has given District Attorneys stunning amounts of power and leeway in how they handle cases. In Charged, Bazelon lays out the facts unflinchingly, but also offers a way forward, as well as realistic alternatives that can drastically reduce the prison population without sacrificing public safety. Bazelon’s book is more than an indictment of a dangerous and broken system, it is a call to action that nobody who reads it will be able to resist.

Tom Houseman, Policy Director