Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Clemency, Faith Perspectives

University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Mark Osler.

Those of us who have grown up attending church  can recall at least a few familiar Biblical passages. For attorney and law professor Mark Osler, these passages have guided his life.  

In 2011, he was a federal prosecutor in Detroit.  His job was to send those accused of dealing, or even possessing, crack cocaine to prison, sometimes for life. Under the law, those with crack, usually African Americans, faced sentences 100 times greater than those, mostly Whites, with powder cocaine.

One day Osler remembered Jesus coming upon a group of pharisees who were about stone to death a woman caught in adultery.  When they asked him what they should do, Jesus answered, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” All the men present dropped their stones, and walked silently away. (John 8:7-8)  In the courtroom, Osler realized, “I was the guy with the rock.”

Osler resigned his position and took a teaching job at Baylor Law School, where he and legal colleagues successfully challenged the 100 to 1 crack-to-powder disparity. In 2011, he moved to St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis and founded the first law school clemency clinic in the United States. He was instrumental in the creation of the Clemency Initiative at the end of President Obama’s second term.

Osler’s work continues to attract national attention. Last week he spoke with Clergy for a New Drug Policy about the Obama Clemency Initiative and prospects for clemency under the Trump administration.

Q: Of the 1,715 individuals who received clemency under the Obama Clemency Initiative, how many of their convictions were in some way related to the draconian laws of the War on Drugs?

A: Nearly all of them.

Q: In light of this, what changes would you propose in our drug laws?

A: I would argue for changes in our tactics and strategy, as well as in our drug laws. One of the biggest drivers of unfair sentences is that we use the weight of the drugs at issue as a proxy for culpability.

That’s just wrong. If I hire somebody for $500 plus expenses to go down to Laredo and pick up some kilos of methamphetamine, I’m going to make tens of thousands of dollars once I sell those kilos.  If we both get arrested, we are going to face the same sentence because we’re involved in the same activity. But we are not equally culpable, or anything close to it.

We should not be addressing people at all.  When it comes to interdiction, the most we can hope for because of the laws of economics is to marginally and temporarily raise the street price of drugs. It’s supply and demand. As long as the demand is there the supply is going come back.  Labor is especially easily replaced.

What they should go after is the cash flow because you’re never going to close down a business by sweeping up low wage labor but you can close down a business by denying them cash flow and credit.  The FBI have become real experts at grabbing money going back to terrorist groups. We can apply that expertise to narcotics, and shut them down that way. This would demonstrate a whole new model: The guy who’s selling crack isn’t going to be in prison, he’s just not going have that job anymore.

Q: Concerning drug laws, I thought you would say that we need to get rid of mandatory minimums and three strikes.

A: Absolutely. The First Step Act is starting to move towards that.

Q: If we had proportionate, fair sentencing laws, would we still need clemency?

A: You wouldn’t need it as much, but we would still need clemency to take into account people who received long sentences, even if they had serious involvement in narcotics or other crimes, who have changed their lives, who aren’t the same person.

You take Rudy Martinez. That was not a case where someone got racked up for a minor role. He was transporting  a lot of cocaine, but the person he was when he did that is fundamentally different than the person he is now. That idea of redemption is that there can be a transformation in a person’s life. You would always need clemency to account for those people whose lives have changed, whose souls, and hearts, and minds, are different.

Q: How does that argument apply to the hardest core crimes? Let’s take first degree murder. No matter how repentant, no matter how much one changes, isn’t there degree of retribution needed for some crimes?

A: Certainly there is a role for societal retribution. It helps to avoid vigilantism. As long as people are assured that the state is going to take an approach that ensures punishment, they are not going take action into their own hands. But, even for the worst crimes, we can’t rule out the possibility of redemption. King David was a murderer. Paul was a murderer in a conspiracy. They were redeemable. They were given a role.

We visit those in prison with the goal of there being a role, a vocation, even for those people who have done terrible things.

Q: The Obama Clemency Initiative chose to look only at individuals on a case-by-case basis.  Are there categories he could have used? For example, the ACLU report A Living Death argues that we should review all non-violent offenders who have been given life sentences without parole.

A: You could look at people who received really long sentences before they were 22 years old.  We know the brain science which tells us how much people change after that age. We are not serving public safety by spending millions of dollars to incarcerate those people.

One thing we could do is go to the warden of each prison and ask “Who doesn’t belong here?” They will tell you. My students go into the prison to interview their clients and the guards say, “This is the guy who should be getting out.”

Q: Mark Mauer of The Sentencing Project has argued for no sentences longer than 20 years.  

A: I don’t think that’s politically feasible. We’re a long way from that.  There’s an ongoing argument within the advocacy community: Do you go for incremental changes, or do you try to have everything change right now? Even the briefest analysis of our political history will tell you that everything’s incremental. That’s how things change. Look at the civil rights movement.  There wasn’t a before and after. There was a movement toward what’s better. It’s that gradual arc towards justice.

Q: Are there other nations with better drug laws?

A: Portugal is a reasonable model to look at. It has decriminalized all drugs.  But they also have treatment on demand. One thing that we have to take into account is that the United States is a much greater consumer of narcotics than a nation like Portugal. Our usage rates outstrip those of any other country. The social costs are significant. Most of us know someone who is consumed by opioids and the tragedy that goes with that. We’re going to have to put more resources towards treatment, for example, than a country with a lower rate of consumption.

Q: Why do we consume so much more?

A: I think it’s in part because of our individualism. We all believe that our lives have to be significant, important, and exciting. Drugs do that. In the same way that Americans all want to be on television, we all want to see things in an exciting way. Selling or doing drugs provides that.

Q: What is your assessment of the First Step Act brought forward and passed under the Trump Administration?

A: I wrote a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune supporting it.

It’s an incremental step and frankly, it’s a lot more than people expected to come from this administration. I think the response is, “That’s great. Let’s keep moving. Let’s get to that next step.”

Q: Who is going to implement it?  Attorney General Barr does not seem sympathetic. In his first term as Attorney General, he said, “We have a choice between more prisons and more crime.”

A: I think that there is some real opportunity in this administration. In the past, the bar to reform has consistently been the Department of Justice.  Politicians and presidents tend to defer to DOJ. This President does not. This brings a remarkable opportunity We saw that with the First Step Act.

The First Step Act includes a lot of things we did not get from the Obama Administration, and the reason was because DOJ said, “Don’t do that.” Well, Donald Trump doesn’t care what DOJ thinks.  On that score, we’re better off. Also, there is a remarkable advocate for reform within the inner circle of this White House. That’s Jared Kushner. Because of the experience of his family due the incarceration of his father, I think he’s really motivated to take action in this area.

The third thing is that Attorney General Barr is a believer in the unitary executive theory: the president has to re-claim from the bureaucracy the power that is given to him or her by the Constitution.  This is completely consistent with our argument on clemency: the president has to claim that power and take it back from DOJ.

Q: Our discussion thus far pertains to the 181,000 people in the federal prisons system.  This is a small percentage of the over 2.1 million individuals in state prisons and jails.  Is there anything federally that can affect what happens in the states?

A: Not directly.  But hopefully, we will see some “leading by example.” It helps that there are some conservative Republicans leading the charge at the national level.  This gives conservatives at the state level permission to do the same thing. When you’ve got Senator Mike Lee and the Koch Foundation arguing for this, it sends a signal to the states. Harsh punishment across the board is no longer entirely a core Republican belief. That’s a game changer.

Q: In the introduction, we commented on your Christian faith. Are there other scripture passages that have guided your work?  

Micah 6:8 is common to a lot of people.  I remember first coming across that when I was a prosecutor. On the surface, it seems almost glib. You have three values:  justice, mercy, and humility. They are all good, but in criminal law they are in tension with one another.

If justice is viewed as treating similarly situated people the same way, it’s fairness.Mercy cuts into that.  In a way, it is an argument for unfairness. What we learn is that the criminal justice system can’t be all mercy or all justice. It has to have aspects of both if it’s going to be principled.

Our tendency in the United States is to have all justice and no mercy.  The active push from people who take those principles seriously has to be towards mercy because we are too far towards the other pole.

We also need to learn humility. Consider juvenile life without parole. We are saying someone is irredeemable.  We are playing God when we have such certainty about something that is ultimately unknowable, namely the chance of redemption for someone we barely know.

Christ also told us, “When you visit those in prison, you visit me.”  This is transformative for me. There is an imperative to visit all those in prison, not just innocent people, not political prisoners, not our friends, but all those who are in prison.

The power of that directive is shrouded until people actually do it. I have students who have generally had fairly privileged lives. My clinic students are required to go a prison and spend two days with a client.  They come back transformed. Taking down someone’s life story as they sit in a cell is something that alters the way they see the world. That is exactly what Jesus is after when he tells us to visit those in prison.

Finally, those of us who are Christian usually believe Jesus’ life wasn’t just a series of random events. He was born into poverty so that we would understand the importance of poverty and that great things can come from poor people.

For that same reason, so much of what happens to Jesus, especially during the Holy Week, is about criminal law, being judged, being condemned, being convicted, and being executed. We are being told that this is important. The way we judge and sentence is crucial to the Christian mission just as the way we address poverty is important.

Q: What would you say to Jeff Sessions about clemency?

A: I would bring a Bible and say, “We have this in common, Mr. Sessions. Let’s start in these four Gospels and talk about justice and mercy and what it means.”

Having a common faith with people is an advantage because we are starting from the same place. I often talk to people about the need to go to conservative Christians to talk about these things because If we can convince them, we win.

[This interview has been edited for clarity and length]

The War on Drugs is a War on Families

Tom Houseman Drug Education

Last month, Clergy for a New Drug Policy partnered with Unbound, an online journal and community that examines, expresses, and provokes social justice as inspired by the prophetic gospel of Jesus Christ. Policy Director Tom Houseman wrote about how the War on Drugs tears apart families and undermines communities. With their permission, the full piece is reprinted below. It can also be read here.

Drug use is often framed as a personal issue, one of choices and consequences. “Do the crime, do the time.” Supposedly, harsh penalties aim to reduce irresponsible use of drugs. In reality, however, the War on Drugs has not succeeded in “protecting individuals” from their own choices. Instead, it has systematically incarcerated people of color (especially Black Americans) and devastated the family structures of entire communities.

When considering the punishment for a drug violation, whether it is prison, probation, or mandated treatment, we tend to only think about the impact that a conviction will have on an individual. Far too rarely is the impact on their families and their dependents considered.

After the investment of over $1 trillion dollars, drugs are as plentiful as ever, with seemingly little impact on drug use rates. While failing to win the war, we have, as Michelle Alexander tells us in The New Jim Crow, found a new way to enslave people of color. We send them disproportionately to prison for even minor drug offenses.

As we examine the collateral damage of this unjust war, two figures hit us between the eyes:

  1. At current rates of arrest, one out of every three African American males born today will spend time in prison.
  2. Approximately 2.7 million children have at least one incarcerated parent and over 10 million have lost a parent to prison at some point in their lives. (These figures affect 1 in 9 African Americans, compared to 1 in 57 White children.

The War on Drugs is a major driver of these disparities. Drug policies have had far more negative impact in terms of social justice, of family justice, than they have had any sort of impact on drug consumption and abuse. Urban neighborhoods have been ravaged by mass incarceration, leaving young men to rely on gangs for support, protection, and economic opportunities.

The people in prison for drug violations are not just people with drug use disorders or who had to sell drugs because they lacked any other source of income. They are heads of households, breadwinners for families, caretakers for children. Their prison sentences do not operate inside a vacuum, but have consequences that last for generations. And children do not choose to grow up with their parent incarcerated.

When examining the War on Drugs, it is also crucial to acknowledge how unevenly these laws are enforced. Black people are multiple times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than White people, despite the fact that countless surveys show the two groups use drugs at the same rate. Black people also receive lengthier prison sentences than White people for identical violations. Families of color and those living in poverty are over-policed and over-imprisoned. They are also the most vulnerable to the damage that a prison sentence can do to a family when it loses a breadwinner or a caretaker.

Whether prisons are merely meant to serve as a form of punishment or to help rehabilitate those who enter them, it is crucial to understand the ramifications of removing somebody from their family and community and placing them behind bars. Several studies have documented the impact of incarceration on families, both in the short term and long term.

In their essay, “Incarceration in Fragile Families,” Christoper Wildeman and Bruce Western write about how imprisonment “diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup.” This effect is particularly acute for families already living in poverty. Putting a parent in prison not only takes them away from their children, but impacts their ability to provide structure and support for their long after they have served their sentence.

Growing up with a parent in prison has profound, long-lasting effects on children. In a report from The Nation, Sociology professor Kristin Turney detailed how “children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety.” It is not surprising that students who have at least one prison in parent are more likely also less likely to finish high school or go to college.

These negative effects last even after a person is released from prison. Those with felony convictions are often barred from housing assistance, federal loans for education, and safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In states that do not prevent employers from asking about felony convictions, even a conviction for non-violent drug possession can make it almost impossible to find a job or housing.

In Paternal Incarceration and Support for Children in Fragile Families, Amanda Geller, Irwin Garfinkel and Bruce Western examine how “the negative effects of incarceration on fathers’ financial support are due not only to the low earnings of formerly incarcerated men but also to their increased likelihood to live apart from their children.” When a parent is not present—or not able to support their children—because of a drug conviction, the effect is deeply damaging.

There are other collateral consequences of drug violations that can impact the family of people who are caught possessing or selling drugs. Considering that there is a drastic public housing shortage in the United States, it is very easy for someone to be disqualified from public housing, or even evicted, because of a family member with a drug conviction. For example, In 2002 nearly 50,000 public housing applicants were rejected because of a policy that excludes people with criminal records from public housing.

There are no winners in the War on Drugs, but there are millions of victims. That number will only grow until these policies are changed. The War on Drugs has failed. Both for the sake of the families already torn apart and for those that will be torn apart in the future, we must end the war.

We are reaping the consequence of what our nation has sown. And although we cannot choose to unilaterally end drug abuse, it is our choice to end the needless suffering of America’s “Other Vietnam”.

Tom Houseman, Policy Director

A ‘Quiet Revolution’ Gains Momentum

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Diversion

Diverting individuals from drug use to treatment rather than arresting them is becoming increasingly common in the United States. In this interview, Jac Charlier, co-founder of the Police, Treatment, and Community Collaborative (PTACC), describes this “quiet revolution” and brings us up-to-date on its progress.

Jac Charlier, Executive Director, TASC Center for Health and Justice

What are police diversion and deflection?

Pre-arrest diversion is what happens when police direct individuals to treatment or other services when facing criminal charges that will be held in abeyance instead. Deflection is when police connect individuals into community-based treatment, housing, and services without involving the criminal justice system.

Why did you start focusing on diversion and deflection?

Diversion is the right thing to do. It’s hard to work in law enforcement and see that the tools we have on our belt — a gun and badge — aren’t solving the problem of addiction and mental health, the two largest drivers of justice involvement in the United States. Diversion is a way to say, “Let’s get these folks into treatment in the community, which will then stop them from having encounters with the justice system in the first place.”

Should police ever arrest someone for low level drug possession?

How often do we hear the phrase “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”  That’s the wrong statement. What we say in deflection is, “Do we really need to arrest in the first place?” Sometimes police drive away from someone when there are no other charges but they know the person needs help. They have compassion: Deflection says, “We need to be trained in how to work together with behavioral health to say, “I’m not driving away.  I know how to connect you up with treatment. No need to wait for a crisis to act.”

What is PTACC?

PTACC stands for Police Treatment and Community Collaborative. We are the national voice of the emerging field of deflection and pre-arrest diversion. PTACC represents a field that’s about seven years old, sitting at the intersection of law enforcement, first responders, community-based behavioral health, mental health, trauma, housing and other services. PTACC is made up of 31 national sponsoring organizations.

When it comes to deflection, the vast majority are rural or medium-size departments, and so you’re getting 30 people a year, you’re getting 15 people, 10 people per department. We also still don’t have a lot of departments doing the deflection. 18,000 law enforcement departments, we think we’re at about 750 right now, up from 400 two years ago.

What are your greatest accomplishments?

We are demonstrating that police and drug treatment providers can work together. In the past they have had a kind of indifference to each other, not knowing that to reduce crime, they actually need each other. Police would go sit outside methadone clinics and wait for people. Those days are behind us and now police are carrying naloxone.

The second big thing we’ve done at PTACC is to save lives, whether it’s in response to the opioid epidemic or to other mental health issues.

Third, we have advanced the conversation at the federal level.  In 2019, for the first time, the Office of National Drug Control Policy included the words “deflection” and “pre-arrest diversion” as a formal strategies to combat drug use. That’s a big deal.

You give police five pathways when they encounter drug users.  Which are the most successful?

You have to look at what problem you’re trying to solve, and what resources you have. If you have opioid overdose, you’re going do Naloxone Plus.  Self- referral happens more in rural and medium-size area where the amount of investment needed to start deflection is light. Treatment is mostly what you need to get self-referral going.  

Active outreach starts with the idea that we have a group of folks that our officers are running into over and over. About 10 percent in this group consume 80 to 90 percent of public health dollars in emergency room costs, repeat visits, and other chronic issues.  Under active outreach, you target proactively people to connect them to treatment.

Officer prevention and officer intervention give officers what we call third option, which is the power of deflection while working their beat or on patrol. Everybody gets the first option: the power to arrest. They forget the second option, which is police can drive away and do nothing. In deflection, officers can instead take people directly to treatment, housing, and services.

Since deflection started, how many people have actually been deflected?

We estimate we are over 40,000 people.

Aren’t we really just asking police to be social workers?

About 80% of police calls have some amount of social service component to them. They’re not just getting called to go after the bank robbers. People are calling them because they don’t know what else to do.

In officer training, I’ll say “We don’t want you to be drug counselors or social workers. We do want you and your counterpart in drug treatment and mental health and housing to know each other and know how to connect people between each other.”

We want police out of the business of social services and into “Well, I don’t know. It’s not my thing, but here, wait five minutes. We’ll have someone come over, he’ll take you to drug treatment center.” The police would love that. They could get back to catching the bad guys.

What are the barriers in getting police to divert and deflect?

Police law enforcement is a paramilitary culture. You need the chief to give the command that the department is going to do this. You absolutely need leadership.  Number two is the broader culture, meaning the line officer and the sergeant. You need them saying, “This is what I expect you to do. I want to see what you’re doing on your shift.” The third thing is pressure from the public. They might say, Where did you take that guy? You got to take him to prison.” You have to learn how to respond to this so the crime reduction aspect of deflection is what happens.

Much of this work depends on the availability of treatment.  How much treatment is available?

Nationally, about 22 million people in the US are active users of drugs.  Against that, it is estimated that there are about 2.5 million drug treatment slots.

My daughter is an emergency room doctor. She says she does not have any place to refer opioid overdose “deaths.” What are the pathways to address that?

There is in the United States a huge and massive disconnect between emergency rooms at the hospitals and behavior health. The payment structure for services in hospitals includes a form that lists a discharge plan. But the case management to ensure that you do what the plan says is needed is rarely funded once you walk out of the ER. We need to find a way for hospitals to sit down at the table with local behavioral health, insurance companies, and the State Medicaid office, to develop a payment structure for follow-up to happen. We need specialized case management that bridges these worlds together.

Are the five pathways confined pretty much to smaller cities and towns?

San Francisco, New York, and even Chicago have small versions of it underway now. San Francisco has a small officer prevention approach that they are starting. New York City has someone.  Chicago has both mental health — down in Roseland, they have the mental health drop off center, and they have the west side triage and wellness center over on Madison and Pulaski.

Baltimore has begun an officer prevention approach. Officers are trained to deflect in the high drug areas. Boston is underway with that. San Francisco. Spokane, Washington has a whole behavioral health unit fully integrated between officers and treatment.

What impact does deflection have on communities?

It can aid in police-community relations. Consider the normal scenario: Squad car drives down the street. Person is arrested, put in the squad car and driven away. Twenty-four hours later, he calls home from the jail and says he has been arrested. That cycle is repeated over and over.

With deflection, squad car drives down the street, person goes in the squad car, two hours later he calls, he says, “Hey, mom and dad, I’m in drug treatment.  I’m in housing. I’m in a mental health center. Hey mom, I’m back home and Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. I have to report to treatment.”

Deflection changes the script on how police are viewed. We have anecdotal evidence, especially in high drug use areas, that that is in fact happening. The recovery community is beginning to come alongside police and say, “We’re spreading the word about what you’re doing.” That’s powerful.

Can churches and faith leaders be helpful?

What I really want churches to do is, first, be advocates for deflection and the funding of community-based treatment. Advocate for funding and resources.  Second, let’s recognize that congregations have people in recovery who could help others in recovery. If you had seven churches in a small community, those seven churches might have thirteen folks in those congregations who are in recovery.  What a calling in response to the Gospel it would be to say, “I’m going to use my recovery to help somebody else who is struggling. If you need someone, call me at 2:00 in the morning and we’ll set up a tree, we’ll figure out who to call and we’ll be there.”

Clergy Support Medical Marijuana in South Carolina

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Faith Perspectives, Jewish Perspectives, Medical Marijuana, Muslim Perspectives, SC

On Wednesday, March 20, more than a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Islamic clergy voiced their support of legislation to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina. Four spoke at press conference, joined by Rev. Alexander Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy. Here are their press conference statements. The South Carolina Compassionate Care Act (S-366) is expected to be taken up by the state senate within the next several days.

Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, United Church of Christ

“I come to Columbia this morning to stand with my interfaith colleagues in support of the Compassionate Care Act, which will help those who are suffering with chronic and terminal illnesses. I’m here because my faith compels me to care for the suffering.

In my seventeen years in congregational ministry, I’ve been present to many suffering with illness. My vocation before church work was that of professional hospital chaplain and bioethicist. In that work I was often at the bedside of someone who was dying, and I worked closely with their doctors and families as we tried to ease their physical and emotional pain.

In that work I almost always saw the best in people. Regardless of our many differences, we always came together in the hospital to care for someone and do everything we could to help. And that’s what the Compassionate Care Act does. It brings us together across the lines of faith and partisanship that too often divide us to do something to help each other.

I dare say that in these polarized times a bill like this is good medicine for us all. It shows that we can still work together to make a difference. And have no doubt, this bill will make a difference. If we work together to pass it then real people will suffer less. With access to medical cannabis under the direction of their doctors, real South Carolinians will have less pain.

Some have suggested that those of us who support this bill have been put up to it somehow, or there are, perhaps, some special groups or secret interests are behind it. But I would like to say very clearly that no one has put me up to this. I traveled to Columbia today to speak for myself about an issue that effects many who suffer with chronic and terminal illness. I am here because I believe the act is aptly named and really is about compassionate care.

I’m here because my Christian faith taught me the Golden Rule, that we should treat others in the way that we would want to be treated ourselves. And all of us, were we in pain, would want to have our pain addressed and managed by our doctors.

Most South Carolinians, I think, understand the Golden Rule. According to a benchmark research poll taken last December, 72% of us support medical cannabis. This may explain why the bill is bipartisan and why representatives of such diverse faith traditions stand together in support of it. We know that we should care for those who are suffering.

Before I close I would like to tell you why I am really here, why this issue cuts close to home for me, and why I am grateful to all who have worked so hard to bring the Compassionate Care Act to South Carolina.

When I was in college my father was diagnosed with cancer, and I left school for a time to return home and help my mother take care of him. He became a hospice patient in our home, and I remember the doctors and the nurses working so hard to help us manage his pain, which grew worse and worse over time. It was incredibly difficult to see someone we loved so much in so much pain.

In my father’s case we relied on morphine, not cannabis, yet under the supervision of his doctors, the medication was able to ease his pain enough that he could rest. Friends visited. Family sat by his bedside. Everyone came together to help, and we created a place for him that was loving and dignified.

As this bill moves through the process I offer my own prayers that it will pass and that our state will embody the golden rule when it comes to those who suffer with illness. May we treat our neighbors with the kindness and compassionate and care that we would all want for ourselves. Thank you.”

Rev. Ivory Thigpen, Baptist

“When we look at the name of this bill, Compassionate Care Act, there could not have been any better name given to it. For, indeed, we should as a civilization, as well as humanity and legislators, always teach ourselves to care for others and have compassion.

When we look to the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ example is very clear. Not only does it say “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,” but at every miracle and every turn of Him engaging and caring for the lives of those that he so dramatically changed, the scriptures read that He had compassion. And in this day and age, where we really need to be our brother and our sister’s keeper, when we have individuals who have illnesses that debilitate them, illnesses that are terminal, illnesses that reduce their quality of life, let alone their quantity of life, we must have compassion.

And so, as we look to pass this legislation, I want you to think about if it were your family member that was suffering, if it were your family member that was in debilitating pain and there was something within your means to care for them, then you would, by all means, have compassion.

So as we seek to encourage others and educate them on the benefits of what this type of legislation can do, we will see a lot of people across the state of South Carolina helped because we were, as our scriptures say, called to be compassionate. Thank you so much.”

Rabbi Eric Mollo

“In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses, “I’ve heard the cry of my people, I will save them with an outstretched hand.” We are made in the image of God, and being made in the image of God we have the opportunity to extend our hand, too, in compassion, in love. We have the opportunity to lift up the fallen. That’s what the Compassionate Care Act can do. It can lift up those in pain. It can lift up those who are suffering and provide them the relief they need. It’s not a “can we do it, it’s a must.” We must do it.

The medieval rabbis taught, “Men are stood well,” but we are still debating today. They wrote, “Where there exists a possibility that a certain cure or medicine is administered and the patient may have a quality of life or it may have the opposite effect of hastening his death, it is permissible to provide the medication.” Those words are five hundred years old, surely we can do better today to provide care and a better quality of life to those who need medical cannabis to quell their suffering. We are behind the times. There can be no sufficient excuse to believe otherwise. Thank you.”

Rev. Terry Alexander, Baptist

“On almost a daily basis I know of friends who are suffering from chronic pain, whereas if they take prescribed medicines that they have now, it would have them all discombobulated, addicted, particularly our veterans. They do not take the medicine. They walk around or they cannot walk around because of the excruciating pain that has grabbed their body.

Medical cannabis is an alternative for the opioids, and it’s an alternative to pain. Alternative, another option, just as you would go to the store and get Aleve or Excedrin, why is it or why can’t an individual who are suffering from pain not have an option, as well?

This bill gives relief to those who are hurting.  Not only does it relieve the sufferer, but it also helps to relieve the caregiver. Sometimes miss that point: the caregivers, who see their family member suffer because they do not have the medication that would give them relief. What kind of state or what kind of country is this? We have the assistance, the medication, have the know-how to provide relief for its people and we refuse to do so.

And until it hits home, we will probably have a different posture, but I’m here because I’ve seen it. I’ve been approached by those who are hurting, who are saying, “Terry, we need that bill. It relieves me, it helps me, it comforts me.”

So I encourage you who are watching, I encourage you to call your legislator and encourage them to support this bill, get it out of committee so we can move it to the governor’s office for signature. Thank you very much.”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, United Church of Christ

“Clergy for a New Drug Policy seeks a health, not punishment, response to drug use.

I am delighted to be here with a genuinely interfaith, interracial gathering on behalf of this bill. If you look at the folks who are supporting and signing on, you will find Christian, Jewish, and Islamic voices coming together for all the reasons that you’ve heard.

I’d like to support what has been said, but, perhaps, not been said clearly enough. Scientific evidence supports this bill. That is not in doubt. If you can oppose this bill you maybe have your private, somewhat, cramped reasons for doing so, but you can’t oppose it because there isn’t scientific evidence.

In my state, we have passed a bill that provides medical cannabis as a substitute for opioids. Think of that. In the midst of an opioid crisis, a response that is less expensive, has less side effects, and relieves pain.

Thirty-three states have approved this bill, it’s time for South Carolina to do likewise.”

“Of course addiction leads to crime…We have made it illegal”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Faith Perspectives

Rev. Howard Moody in front of Judson Memorial Church Circa 1965.

Every generation has its icons. When it comes to drug policy the Rev. Howard Moody belongs at the top of our list.  As pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village from 1957 through 1992, he opposed the War on Drugs even before Richard Nixon declared it.  

When most in society responded to drug addicts—then called “junkies”—as modern-day lepers, Rev. Moody embraced them.  He founded the first drug treatment clinic in Greenwich Village. He called out a society that to this day condemns as criminals those who use drugs.  

We know—above all else—that criminalizing drug use is immoral.  As we work to end the War on Drugs, lost long ago (although its bureaucratic generals in Washington D.C. do not recognize this), we can  learn and be guided by insights Howard Moody gave us. The following texts are excerpted from sermons, from a book, and from articles published in the journal Christianity and Crisis.

“It is important that we finally recognize that cures and prescriptions for ending drug use by the intimidation of harsh legal penalties are much more dangerous than the drug itself.” [CAC, Nov. 24, 1969]

“Attempts to control social behavior by legal fiat, as in the case of our attitude toward heroin addicts, leads to certain immorality.  We judge that the addict’s ‘sickness’ or ‘personality weakness’ is morally or legally wrong and then we deny the patient relief by making his medicine illegal and its acquisition a felony punishable by imprisonment.”  [CAC, Nov. 15, 1971]

“It is evidence of our pharisaical self-righteousness that we, a people who manufacture, pre-package and sell escapism as a salvation, at the same time label a portion of our population… as dangerous, criminal types, ‘dope fiends’ and ‘insanely sick’ people.”  [Voice]

“The problem is not drugs as pharmacological agents, it is people—not only people who take certain drugs, but people who are prejudiced about those who use certain drugs and people in authority who pass laws against certain drugs.”  [CAC, Nov. 15, 1971]

“Of course addiction leads to crime because we have made it illegal to carry or use the drug.  I wonder if the diabetic who was deprived of insulin and had to acquire the next shot illegally would seem any less a criminal type in the extent to which he might go in acquiring it.  

“The trouble with most of our policy in the past 15 to 20 years is that it has not recognized that control, prevention, and treatment cannot be dealt with separately…Every attempt to isolate a human problem from the social milieu that produces it and nurtures it is doomed to failure.  

“For this reason those of us who stand on the other side of the law from the addict and the drug user should take a serious look at ourselves and the society out of which illegal drug addiction has grown.  It might prove a helpful exercise in humility to confess the collective immorality of a society that spawns these social ‘miscreants.’

“For a culture that legally spends millions on betting, booze, and beauty, it seems incongruous (if not morally reprehensible) to condemn to everlasting shame and dehumanization the bewildered and frightened ones who choose to get lost in the netherworld of a heroin high.” [CAC, June 14, 1965]

“Drug use is natural and universal, found in all times, all places, and in many societies.  So it is a little ridiculous to treat drugs as the ‘Enemy,’ whether it’s the church treating drug use as a ‘sin’ or the state treating it as a crime.”  [Sermon]

“The Church has been and will be, consciously or unconsciously, unwitting accomplices in ‘scares’ and ‘wars against drugs’ because drug hysteria always indicts individual behavior and morality rather than the endemic social and structural issues that are at the heart of a form of social disintegration in this country.” ([CAC, Nov. 15, 1971]

“I think church people, and perhaps many people, love the ‘just say no’ campaign; but that was the concoction of an administration that had just said ‘no’ to every program aimed at creating alternatives for kids in the ghettos.  Unfortunately these kids can’t say no to poverty. They were born and bred in it.  They can’t say no to not working.  There aren’t any jobs.” [CAC, Nov. 15, 1971]

“The greatest beneficiaries of the outlawing of the drug trade are organized and unorganized drug traffickers.  More than half of all organized crime revenues come from the illegal drug business.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990]

“Interdiction is supposed to reduce street sales by raising the price of drugs through increasing the cost of smuggling the drugs.  But a recent Rand Corporation study showed that ‘smuggling cost’ accounts for one percent of the street price. That will scarcely affect sales.  Interdiction accomplishes almost nothing.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990]

“Why is it that the more money and personnel we put into interdiction, the more drugs we have on the streets?  Decades and billions of dollars later, we are worse off than ever.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990]

“The $10 billion a year spent on interdiction hasn’t done much to stop the flow of drugs.  But we have managed to clog our prisons with drug offenders and bring to a stand-still the criminal justice system in our large metropolitan areas.“ [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990)]

“The attempt to prevent, regulate and control drug-taking is always greeted with protest and evasion…During Prohibition, people still got drunk, became alcoholics, and menaced the highways—but some things were worse.  Contaminated ‘rotgut’ whiskey caused blindness, paralysis and death.“ [Fentanyl is today’s version of a prohibition-induced drug. —Ed.]  

“If Congressman Rangel knew history better, he would not add to the hysteria by taking up the sword in the drug war against a spurious enemy, for he will be impaled on his own sword and the people of the black and Hispanic ghetto will be the victims.“ [U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel served five primarily African American districts in New York City from 1971 to 2017.  He supported the War on Drugs in the 1980s—Ed.]  [Sermon]

“What is the role of the churches in this troubled area?  First, to educate themselves about the facts and fictions of addiction… perhaps the most important and immediate task is to help create a new climate of public opinion whereby our laws may be liberalized so as to deal realistically and humanely with the victims of addiction.“ [CAC, June 14, 1965]

“Unless we are willing to evaluate the options, including various legalization policies, we will likely enlarge the catastrophic consequences of our present policies.”  [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990]


Christianity and Crisis. Vol. 25, 1965-66; Vol. 29, 1969; Vol. 31, 1971; Vol. 50, 1990-91. [CAC]

History as Antidote to Drug Hysteria. Sermon. March 1990. [Sermon]

Moody, Howard. A Voice in the Village. New York: Howard Moody, 2009. [Voice]

I wish to thank Abigail Hastings, long-time friend and parishioner of Rev. Moody, for compiling this material.

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director