“I Don’t Want to Come to Your Church, Your Synagogue, Your Circle. I Want You to Come to Ours.”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction


Kassandra Frederique: 
“The Drug War is a manifestation of the things that we have failed at. How do we have a conversation about alternatives? How do we build the capacity for our communities to care for each other?  

“People create hospitals and churches. But sadly, what we also recognize is that both those institutions have failed us miserably.   If those institutions don’t see that they have helped to create the conditions in this moment, then we’re not actually having a conversation about what their true role is.

“For some people, faith and spirituality fill a spiritual void. But if their institutions still traffic in stigma, miseducation, racism, sexism, a prosperity gospel… [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]”


Monique Tula:

“I can’t get away from the fact that the War on Drugs is as much driven by capitalism as it is by racism. Today’s governing bodies and corporate CEOs are overwhelmingly white, wealthy, cis men. Although we’re seeing countries like China and India changing some of those demographics, the endgame looks like colonization and domination of the earth’s resources. This keeps the oppressed in a constant state of struggle: constantly distraught, constantly distracted, constantly divided. All we see is ‘other.’ “

Frederique: 
“You list the Fortune 500 companies. What about the faith community? The faith communities often have the same kind of leadership, the same kind of investment, the same commitment to upholding the status quo of the people that benefit most from capitalism.”

Tula:
“Or to upholding those Victorian values and religious dogma—the idea that abstinence and chastity will keep you off of the road to perdition.” 

Frederique:
“I’m excited for anyone that wants to help us end the overdose crisis. But what I ask about is the purpose of the faith institutions. Is it for control or as an ally towards freedom? Are you trying to control people or are you trying to give people strategies to take down the structure that created the circumstances we are navigating through right now? We can’t save anybody. We’re not going to fix anybody. We have to give folks the resources to do that healing within themselves.”  

Tula:
“I had this spiritual awakening sometime after the last Harm Reduction Conference in New Orleans, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since. I started listening to Eckhart Tolle. His latest book is called A New Earth. He writes about global transformations. One is the global market economy, driven by capitalism.  Another is the reality that people around the world are awakening to a new state of consciousness.  Although we exist in separate bodies in separate forms, the energy that flows through us is the same. At our core we’re actually connected. 

“Tolle talks about how many of us are awakening to the primacy of unconditional love. He says that people are gaining this greater self-awareness.  We’re beginning to understand our symbiotic relationship with the planet which cannot be sustained if we continue to exploit its resources with no regard for the future, for our children. If we’re all connected, then harm to one is harm to us all.

“Have you noticed that there is a shift away from top-down decision making, from those values that are rooted in the patriarchy and in white supremacy?

“The reality is that there are enough resources on this planet for all of us.  It is just a matter of how they’re distributed. Policies that formed the foundation of the War on Drugs are rooted in a dying paradigm fueled by capitalism and criminalization.   

“Let us remember Audre Lorde’s classic quote, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.’ Problems can’t be solved with the same level of consciousness that gave rise into them in the first place. We need a shift—a complete shift—a new way of thinking. Deconstruction of the old world needs to happen in order to make space for this new consciousness to emerge.

“Those of us who practice and believe in the power of harm reduction, we’re the culture makers. We’ve been on the edge, we’ve been on the fringe.  I want to point to my dear colleague Allan Clear, who was one of the founders of harm reduction in this country, the first executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition 26 years ago.

“We were not in churches very much. But I will say that there have been faith leaders and faith communities that low-key supported harm reduction since the very beginning. The first needle exchange program that I worked in was housed in a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

“Harm reduction is often limited to describing public health strategies and interventions to prevent people from contracting infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis or fatal overdoses. But harm reduction is more than a public intervention. Think of these interventions as harm reduction with ‘lowercase HR.’

“Harm Reduction with ‘uppercase HR’ is a local grassroots advocacy effort that bridges public health with civil rights and community mobilization. Our aim is to shift power and resources to people most vulnerable to structural violence. We are challenging the prevailing notion that people who use drugs are bad and that they’re broken.”

Frederique:
“I struggle with ‘lowercase harm reduction.’  We think that the goal is syringe exchange or an overdose prevention center. We see Naloxone as harm reduction. Then abstinence-based organizations say, ‘We’re harm reductionists because we use Naloxone.’  That’s not what it is. 

“Harm reduction is a beautiful thing.  I consider it a part of my ministry because of the church I belong to. But we operate in the framework of capitalism. This causes us to violate the integrity of our framework.

“We are allowing other institutions to judge our spirituality in a way that we never would.  The fact that the academy can take something like syringe exchange or Naloxone and then talk about moral hazards shows that they are claiming the high ground. 

“We have to be clear about who the moral compass is because those institutions are not without sin. They are so ready to tell us that we are the sinful ones. Why is it that we bow our heads down to false prophets? The economy is a false prophet, organized religion is a false prophet, the medical system is a false prophet.

“We are the moral ground, high and low. There are no hierarchies in our morality. And that is why when we have a conversation about what the role of faith groups are in the overdose crisis, in the drug war, if you believe that you are the moral leader, that you will dictate what morality looks like, then keep it.  I don’t want to come to your church. I don’t want to come to your temple. I don’t want to come to your synagogue. I don’t want it to come to your circle. I want you to come to ours.”

(This dialogue has been edited for clarity and length.) 

Recovery Dharma: A Buddhist Path to Recovery

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Anya Lukianov
psychotherapist, clinical social worker

Recovery Dharma is a non-profit organization that uses traditional Buddhist teachings, which we know as Dharma, to overcome addiction through meditation, self-inquiry, wisdom, and compassion. Recovery Dharma encourages full abstinence and renunciation from all recreational mind and mood-altering substances. For those with process addictions such as food, technology, gambling, sex, pornography, of course, complete abstinence may not be possible. 

“Support in navigating the program of Recovery Dharma is available through mentors who have experience in the program, who have a period of renunciation or sobriety under their belt. They are matched specifically with newcomers who are struggling with any specific addiction.

“It is important to take a look at what substance abuse treatment opportunities are available. For many individuals, there is detoxification, which of course is limited to several days. There are inpatient rehabilitation centers, outpatient rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and medication-assisted treatment. It is critical to focus on aftercare. In general, about 75%-80% of individuals who do not remain connected to a sober support community will tend to relapse and struggle greatly with maintaining long-term recovery.

“Recovery Dharma is based and centered on the idea that meditation on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path—most importantly, the support of sangha (community) in our meetings—can foster a journey towards long-term recovery.

“The Four Noble Truths tell us that in life there is suffering. The cause of suffering is craving. The cessation of suffering comes with the cessation of craving. The Eightfold Path leads from such suffering. This includes: wise understanding, wise intention, wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood, wise effort, wise concentration, and wise mindfulness. 

“Why meditation? To pray is to ask and give thanks. To meditate is to listen. It is quieting the mind and calming the body long enough to receive the guidance for which we pray.  There are numerous meditations that focus on gratitude, compassion, and loving kindness.

“Meditation is also an excellent tool for down-regulating the nervous system, especially for those who have survived trauma. Meditation has been proven to be helpful with various medical conditions, stress, burnout, anxiety and depression, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, improved focus, emotional regulation, and perspective.  

“The prevalence of trauma in addiction is astounding. The co-occurring ranks as high as 90%. As a result, trauma-informed care is critical in combating substance abuse disorder. This is one of the greatest differences between Recovery Dharma and many other community sober support programs. Our literature is trauma-informed because we understand the prevalence between trauma and addiction. 

“Non-identification as an addict or alcoholic is something we practice in order to reduce shame and stigma.  In our meetings, it does not matter if you have a substance abuse disorder. It does not matter if you have a process addiction. It does not matter if you show up with a codependency issue. We simply introduce ourselves by our name and our preferred gender pronoun.

“We also provide regular overdose prevention and Naloxone training. We have regularly planned social leisure programming for our in-person and online meetings. And most critically, we are open to people of all faiths and walks of life. Our program does not require belief in a God or higher power. A spiritual program has to be developed by the individual. No one should be stressed into believing something that they are not open to at a particular time.

“We do not ask anybody to give up participation in any other meeting, recovery program, or spiritual practice. Many of us actually combine traditional 12-step or other recovery programs with our Recovery Dharma program. 

“We are easily found on RecoveryDharma.org. This will take you to our major website, which covers national and international programs. We are an international program with an international board and founder that provides us with the support that we need and the resources that we need, whether you’re in the United States or not. 

Faith and spirituality are complicated. As a survivor of religious abuse, it was extremely difficult for me to conform to a 12-step program for quite some time. Eventually it saved my life, but mindfulness and meditation and turning more towards Buddhist practices was critical. Without this option, I do not believe I would still be standing here today.”       

(This presentation has been edited for length.) 

“Saving Lives…by Any Means Necessary”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Rev. Dr. Luis Barrios
Holyrood Church/Iglesia Santa Cruz in the Upper West Side, NYC

“I’m a pastor, that’s my passion. And I’m a community organizer.  I was born in Puerto Rico. I grew up there. My father was a doctor. The church was the biggest shock absorber to keep me going. My biggest passion for harm reduction comes from having this traumatic experience as a priest to bury six of my brothers with HIV and drugs-related issues. I still miss them. That is one of the things that keeps me going. In every single person that uses drugs, I see my brothers’ faces. 

“In 1990, I was the person in charge of the Saint Ann’s crime and harm reduction [program].  That’s when I found Joyce Rivera. A lot of snow, winter, oh god, and I’m passing by. I know all the drug dealers in our community. So, there is this young lady, pregnant, in a car, the trunk of the car is open, and she is giving out something. So, I went there, and I say, young lady, what are you doing here? You’re freezing here. Of course, she can’t close her coat because she’s pregnant. She’s nine months pregnant, okay?

“I see the needles, and the condoms, and everything there. I came out with a stupid question: ‘So what are you doing giving out these things here in this weather and in this place?’ She slapped my face: ‘Because you do not allow me to be inside the church to do it.’ So next day, she was inside. That’s how we started to work together at St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction. It has been 30 years and we are still growing. 

“My brothers and St. Ann’s gave a whole shape to my theology.  When I went to divinity school, I had no idea about saving souls. I still have a problem. But I know God knows how to do that. So I’m going to give that to God.  My biggest responsibility is about saving lives.

“By any means necessary. That’s the whole point. I’m going to save your life. I need to keep you going because I never know when you will want to make some drastic changes. And if you don’t, I will demand exactly what I demand from people who do not use drugs. You have to be responsible.  

“In my pastoral theology, harm reduction is a set of practical strategies to reduce any damage that is going to touch God’s creation.  Starting with Genesis Ch. 1, v. 26, we were created in the image of God. If I manage to see that you are the image of God, I’m going to have a different angle to build a relationship with you. We need to learn how to connect and reconnect with people. The connection with people always reconnects me to God. You are my way to God because you are the image of God. You deserve serious respect.

“Harm reduction is part of the course that I teach at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I’m a human rights activist. We need to understand that people who use drugs have human rights.  Some people in communities of faith say we do not deal with politics. One of my favorite leaders in this field is [Archbishop] Desmond Tutu, who says there is nothing more political than to say that the church is not supposed to deal with politics.  We are always dealing with politics. The only question is what kind of politics we are going to deal with. I want to deal with the politics of the body. These bodies are the image of God.”                   

 (This presentation has been edited for clarity and length.)

African-American, Latinx Clergy Speak on Cannabis Legalization in Connecticut

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp CT, Marijuana Legalization

Rev. Edwin Perez speaks at clergy press conference calling for cannabis legalization at the state capitol in Hartford Connecticut on February 18th. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

On February 18, African-American and Latinx clergy held a press conference on the Capitol steps in Hartford, Connecticut in support of legalization of adult-use cannabis. The Rev. Tommie Jackson, Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Stamford,  presided. Speakers included: Rev. Edwin Perez (shown here), United Church of Christ, Hartford; Rev. Charlie L. Stallworth, East End Baptist Tabernacle Church in Bridgeport; Rev. Stephen Camp, Faith Congregational Church in Hartford; and Rev. Alexander Sharp, Clergy for a New Drug Policy. If successful, Connecticut would become the 12th state to approve cannabis legalization and the second to do legislatively rather than by ballot initiative.

Rev. Stallworth:
“For many years, members of many congregations and communities across our state have been negatively impacted by marijuana prohibition. This year, our governor and lawmakers in Hartford are finally working on a solution. It’s time that we all stand together to end this failed policy and move forward in a way that will lift our communities up and allow our state to move forward.

“One of the key features of the regulated system being discussed by lawmakers is that cannabis will be produced and sold by legitimate taxpaying businesses instead of by drug cartels and criminals. Regulation will also free up resources so that police can focus on more serious crimes and also help improve police-community relationships, and instead of continuing to fuel organized crime, the money spent on cannabis in our state can and should be used to help revitalize communities that have been disproportionately harmed by enforcement of laws against cannabis.

“To be clear, I do not recommend the recreational use of cannabis any more than I would recommend the recreational use of alcohol. We know that both of these substances can be abused, and adults who choose to use them should be expected to take responsibility for their actions. However, it’s clear that our state’s current policy of prohibition is failing everyone, especially our young people. And I also think that we as community leaders need to stand up and demand that those folks most directly harmed by this failed policy be involved in developing solutions. A new policy that is aimed at reducing harms rather than foolishly seeking to eliminate all cannabis use. Thank you.

Rev. Perez:
“I remember in 2018 in New Haven in the month of August, seeing bodies drop on the green. Looking out to buy marijuana and getting something else that was unregulated, something else that isn’t natural marijuana. What we’re not doing here is telling people to use marijuana, but what we are saying is that we need to control what people are setting out to get. We need to control how people seek out what they’re trying to look for instead of getting what they did not bargain for. We cannot regulate what is illegal, but what is legal we can regulate. 

“We’ve known that forbidding substances does not help, but instead creates negative issues and problems across racial divides. Our Latinx community, our black and brown communities, are suffering much more, are four to seven times more likely to get arrested for just possessing marijuana, according to the ACLU in 2010. Forbidding a substance doesn’t work. You can ask any of these clergy about the story of the Garden of Eden, but allowing people to make educated choices and allowing people to be shown mercy and dignity is the way to go.”

Rev. Camp:
“I stand before you to say that I’m tired of our young, black and brown children, young men and women, having their lives disrupted when we can regulate cannabis, when we can make it available so it doesn’t penalize their lives. I don’t see in the scripture where this prohibition makes any sense. It should be the people understanding that they have to be responsible. And so we need to help people to be responsible, but prohibition is not the way. I applaud this effort and support it and it is my hope that this state will move into the new century and support a new way.”

Rev. Sharp:
“We’ve heard a lot about regulation this morning, and I’d like to say one small thing that’s so obvious, we overlook it. Critics of what we’re trying to do here today say, “The marijuana, the cannabis today, isn’t what our grandparents used. It isn’t what our parents used. It’s so much stronger today.” If that’s true, what we ought to do is regulate so that we can control, and people know what they’re getting. I’ve been working around the country but I can report from Illinois, which is my home state, that we became the 11th state, and we fervently hope that Connecticut will be the 12th, to legalize cannabis for adult use.

“What we’ve done and what you have the opportunity to do here, what we’ve done in Illinois, is build social justice and social equity into the program. I know you have parts of the bill that are calling for that. We have done that in Illinois. I can tell you that it’s possible. It will work. We’ve set aside 25% of the revenues from cannabis sales to be spent in communities that were ravaged by the War on Drugs. We are creating opportunities for minority businesses to get into the cannabis industry, and one very important thing that I’m seeing happen already is that our community colleges are now offering courses in cultivation and growing. It’s providing training opportunities for kids that very recently were in back alleys selling unregulated marijuana to people who certainly don’t need it.

“I urge you to follow the lead of 11 other states that have done this. Godspeed. We wish you well.”

Unitarians Support Legal Marijuana in New Jersey

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp NJ, Unitarian Universalist Perspectives

On December 12, 2019, Rev. Rob Gregson, Executive Director of UU FaithAction New Jersey, appeared before the New Jersey Senate Commerce Committee on the proposed ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for adult use. We provide his testimony here. 

Since 2015 when my predecessor, Rev. Craig Hirschberg, gave what we believe was the first denominational testimony in favor of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey, Unitarian Universalists of Faith Action New Jersey has consistently supported the safe, regulated, socially just legalization position.  

While Unitarian Universalists in general, and UU FaithAction in particular, would have been happier with a legislative solution rather than a ballot question, on balance we agree that from an ethical and justice perspective, it is better to have ballot legalization than continue with the current system which largely allows people who look like me [white] and live in suburban neighborhoods like mine to escape being caught up in the criminal justice system for smoking or healing.  Black and brown residents of more urban or poorer neighborhoods don’t have that same luxury.

The only broadly compelling reason we, as a faith-raised body, decided to take a stand for marijuana legalization is because it would end the ill-conceived and horribly racially biased “War on Drugs.”  

Looking forward I hope you will support future legislation like the expungement bill currently before the Legislature that attempts to make some small reparations—and I use that word advisedly and deliberately—aimed to address the grossly unethical place we may find ourselves in if and when the ballot is successful:  well-heeled, largely white business men and women begin making dollars hand-over-fist only weeks after others have been fined or even imprisoned for the same exact act.  

When reparation, or legislation—or come up with a more palatable word if you like—comes before you over the next few years, I hope you will take these disparities very, very seriously.