Rev. Erich Kussman: A Journey from Prison to Pulpit

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Faith Perspectives

Shortly after high school, Erich Kussman, now a Lutheran pastor, was incarcerated for 10 years in the New Jersey prison system.  A chaplain spotted his talents and upon his release helped him gain admission to Princeton Theological Seminary. He now serves as rector of St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in downtown Trenton, New Jersey. Last week we spoke to Rev.Kussman about his extraordinary life.  

Tell me about your background and how you connected with Princeton Theological Seminary.

Eric:  I served 10 years, six months, and 14 days. I was in a prison called Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility.  I was working for the chaplain’s office, and the chaplain’s name is the Reverend Emmanuel Bourjolly. He took me under his wing back in 2004.  He used to call me his son. He’s like, “You’re going to go to the school I went to.” I was like, “What school was that?” And he goes, “Princeton.” I laughed in his face.  He tracked me down when I got out, and he found out I was graduating with my undergraduate degree from Pillar College in Newark, New Jersey. He showed up to the graduation and asked, “Are you ready?”

People get incarcerated that grow up in poverty, made single-parent homes, and eating government cheese and powdered milk. I remember those days. It took somebody outside of my situation to show me that there was life on the other side. There’s something else.

What was it like when you got to Seminary?

It was a little difficult because it’s Princeton Seminary. You’ve got people from all over the globe. I’m this scrappy little kid that grew up in the inner city of Plainfield and here we go. But I was able to hang in there.

Tell us about your church.   

The church is St. Bartholomew’s Lutheran Church in Trenton, New Jersey. I’ve been here since July of 2019, so six months in. And what we do here is we try to provide for the needs of our neighbors in the community. We run a food bank. We do a lot of advocacy. We run a group for people returning home from prison. We do regular Sunday services and we try to be very active in our community.

It’s an integrated church, a very diverse congregation. About probably 70–80% of the people that attend here are living in the poverty line.

We have some homeless members. We try to find them housing and stuff like that.

What do you do for returning citizens, people coming back from prison?

We try to find them housing. We offer counseling sessions one night a week in a group so everybody can talk and discuss their problems. We try to find ways and avenues for job training. We are linked to a program that helps people if they have overdue fines and help them get their driver’s licenses back.

How did you get involved with the cannabis legislation? 

There are 32,000 people a year that get arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey and it costs $140 million. That’s absurd and wasteful, and you’re criminalizing people. Probably 50% or 70% of the people I was incarcerated with had to deal with some kind of drugs. But they were all African American or Latino. If these individuals, these people, these human beings lived not in impoverished neighborhoods, they lived in the suburbs, they would have been going to maybe a drug treatment program or gotten a slap on the wrist. But because of the color of their skin and their nationalities, they get incarcerated and thrown in a cage. 

When you have a drug conviction on your record, it’s hard to get employment. They look at that. No jobs.  They don’t want to hire you.

Is that true with arrests as well as convictions?

Eric:  I’ve learned that with their federal database and state databases, when they run your name it’s not just convictions that come up, but also arrests, whether you’re guilty or not.

When marijuana legalization happens, what do we do next to push back the war on drugs?

We’ve got to continue to advocate and help legislators see through different lenses. The “lock ’em up” mentality is draconian. It tries to separate people as good or bad without looking at the humanity within them. Criminalization persecutes those that the Gospel tells me I need to speak up for.  As Martin Luther King told us, “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Are there effective drug treatment programs for those who need them? 

I haven’t done a lot of research into it.  There are some good programs and a lot of bad ones.  But there is another burden—impoverished people can’t afford treatment. Their insurance doesn’t cover it. If you are assigned court-mandated treatment, what’s that next step? They’re going to incarcerate you.

“People Who Use Drugs are Beloved by God”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Blyth Barnow is a preacher, harm reductionist, writer, and community organizer, and serves as the Harm Reduction Faith Coordinator for Faith in Public Life Ohio. She works to establish harm reduction resources for faith-based communities and has brought her worship service, Naloxone Saves, to several states.

“I try to leverage the power of clergy in service of people who are doing harm reduction work, people who use drugs, people who do sex work.  It matters what clergy say. 

“I remember the first time I officiated at a funeral. An older gentleman had died by suicide. His daughter presumed that I was judging her father as I presided over the service. She never spoke to me. That was her experience of clergy. 

“I went to seminary because people that I loved had never been treated with dignity in the church—as people who use drugs, as people who do sex work, as queer people.  I lost a partner to an overdose. He was condemned to hell at his funeral. All of us were condemned for living the same lifestyle. I sat in the pew with friends. Almost all of them now are dead or locked up. I think the message that that pastor passed on that day is part of how they got there.

“I wanted to be able to provide spiritual care and ritual to my community so that people didn’t have to hide when they were offering and receiving care. I want to figure out how we return something that has been stolen from people—their access to spiritual care.

“Dignity and divinity are related. When you support people in accessing their dignity you are opening up what is divine within them already. When you wound their dignity, you are committing an act of spiritual violence.

“I developed a worship service called Naloxone Saves.  It started sassy: ‘Okay, Jesus saves. But Naloxone really saves.’ It has evolved from there. Naloxone Saves is a very standard order of worship for Christian services: prayers, hymns, and a sermon, which I deliver. 

“We train people to recognize and respond to an overdose in the context of worship. When people come up to receive their kits as if receiving communion, we all together bless the kits as we distribute them. We talk about reversing an overdose as an act of resurrection that Christians are called to participate in.

“If our faith is founded in the power of resurrection, how are we participating here on earth?   I worked with the overdose ministries of the United Church of Christ. We have developed these buttons that say, ‘People who use drugs are beloved by God.’

“I had the chance to offer a version of the Naloxone Saves service for a church in Minneapolis. While we were there, the pastor found out that one of his families in his church lost their son to an overdose. The church decided that it wanted to become an ongoing site in distributing Naloxone and other harm reduction supplies, and to formalize their relationship with Southside Harm Reduction in Minneapolis.

“At that young man’s funeral, everybody was wearing a pin that said, ‘People who use drugs are beloved by God.’ As they walked out of the service, they could access harm reduction supplies like Naloxone, and sterile equipment, putting some resources behind that effort.

“I think about my path from a funeral where someone is condemned to hell to one with the message that people who use drugs are unconditionally loved by God.  I felt the community experiencing this love. That is why we work.”

(These comments are excerpted from Blyth Barnow’s participation on the panel “Having Faith in Harm Reduction” during the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference in St. Louis.)

Changing Minds in Mississippi: How a Conservative Christian Seeks to End the Drug War

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Collateral Consequences

Lifelong Mississippian Christina Dent is a politically conservative Christian who supported a criminal justice approach to drug use until she became a foster parent. As she saw the effects of criminalizing drugs up close for the first time, that support wavered (see TEDx Talks). She now opposes the War on Drugs and actively seeks to share her new perspective with others in Mississippi.  

“I’m a Christian. I’m from Mississippi. I run a nonprofit that I founded there to invite people to change their minds, specifically working with a conservative, largely Christian audience in Mississippi, where we self-identify as the most religious state in the nation.

“For most of my life I had to deal with the War on Drugs. I thought it was helping people. I thought I was supporting laws that were in line with my faith and with my political values. 

“Only through experiences as a foster parent did I become close to … what’s happening with the War on Drugs. I got to know one of the moms of a child that we fostered. I did not know anything about addiction or about drugs. I could not understand why a mom would use drugs while they were pregnant, if they loved their child.

“Her incredible vulnerability in letting me see into her life and into her love for her son deeply shook me. It made me begin to rethink the drug war.

“That was three years ago. Exposing what was in my heart has been the most humbling experience of my life—the judgments I had and the harm I participated in by voting for laws that were unintentionally hurting people.

“Almost every area of our lives is impacted negatively by the drug war. If you’re vulnerable its impact is a hundred times worse. But all of us are living in a world that would look far better if drugs were not criminalized.

“I’m a foster care parent and I want to help vulnerable children. I now think that one of the best things I can do to help them is to work to end the drug war. It’s causing so much destruction to families and communities.

“That is why I started End It for Good. This is difficult work because what I want to do is yell from the rooftops, ‘We’ve got this all wrong.’ It is not consistent with our values as conservative people or Christians.

“I’m speaking to an audience that is where I was five years ago. They don’t understand why people are dying, why is there fentanyl in our heroin supply, why is there so much crime in our city and community, why so many children are growing up without parents in the home with them. 

“Mississippi is the third highest incarcerator of people in the nation, on track to become the highest, because the two states ahead of us have had a decrease in its population.

“Early on I became convinced that the best way to help people change their minds is to apply a harm reduction approach to messaging: start where people are. Whatever it is that they believe, how can I help them take one step to changing your mind. I can’t ask them to take that massive jump from ‘I supported the drug war my whole life’ to ‘I’m totally committed to a legalized regulated market’ in one day.

“I wanted to invite people to change their minds in a way that would allow somebody like me to be able to engage. We schedule community discussions. I travel around the state and host dinners with all the elected officials, pastors, business owners, people in the recovery community, everybody from the community that we can find email addresses for. We invite them to come and engage. They hear a presentation about what’s actually happening—non-emotional, fact-based. I tell the story of me changing my mind.  If you criminalize the market, it goes underground and creates havoc in our communities. If you criminalize the substances, they become adulterated. We see people dying of fentanyl. When we criminalize users we are destroying families.

“Here is one quick story about a man that came to our last discussion in a small town in Mississippi. He is a typical example of somebody you would consider hard to reach: white, mid-sixties, lifelong Republican, evangelical Christian, Mississippi roots for generations. 

“About a year ago he asked me to send him a copy of Chasing the Scream, a book by Johann Hari. If you have conservative friends, reading that book is the best possible thing that they can do. 

“I didn’t hear another thing from him for a year. Then he came to a discussion we were holding in another town. Somebody said, ‘I think decriminalization is enough. I don’t want to legalize anything.’ He spoke up: ‘But if you don’t legalize, you’d have to get rid of all the crime that’s being driven by the illegal market.’ 

“Here’s a man who went from getting curious about whether we might be doing something wrong to wanting to know how can I be an advocate.

“I work on screening that change. Mississippi is kind of a stronghold in the South, for how people think about things. And if we can change [minds] in Mississippi, then there is hope for change everywhere.”

(These comments are excerpted from Christiana Dent’s participation on the panel “Having Faith in Harm Reduction” during the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference in St. Louis on November 9, 2019.)

Legalizing All Drugs: What Would It Look Like?

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Legalization

From Left: Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Professor, University of Toronto, Canada (Moderator); Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst, Transform, London, United Kingdom; Zara Snapp, Co-Founder, Instituto RIA, Mexico City, Mexico; Zoe Dodd, Toronto Overdose Prevention Society/South Riverdale Community Health Centre, Toronto, Canada; and Scott Bernstein, Director of Policy, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Vancouver, Canada

On Saturday, November 9, five panelists convened to discuss the topic “Legalize All Drugs?!  Exploring Options for Legal Regulation in a Post-Prohibition World.” Following are excerpts from the discussion.

Moderator: Why do you think we should legalize and regulate all drugs?  What are the harms that we’re trying to address?

Zoe Dodd: The high number of individuals from black and indigenous communities who are incarcerated disproportionately in Canada is one reason.   The other is the overdose crisis. We have thousands of people who are dying. 

Scott Bernstein: In Canada we have rolled out harm reduction quite robustly. We have over 40 supervised consumption sites in the country now.  But we’re not seeing dramatic declines in overdose deaths. When we decriminalize, we only take care of half of the problem, and legalizing would allow us to actually create a safer supply that could address it.

Steve Rolles: The distinction between legalization and decriminalization can be confusing and unhelpful. They’re all part of the same piece for me.  So many of the harms that people are dealing with are the result of illegal supply and prohibition. So for me, regulation and legalization is part of harm reduction.

Moderator: What would legalization look like?  

Rolles: We can propose four or five options ranging from medical prescription models, like heroin assisted therapy, through a kind of pharmacy sales model. We could have a trained vendor who gives medical advice. Or more conventional licensed retailing like cannabis dispensaries. Or a model with vending and consumption on the premises, like a bar or a cannabis coffee shop in the Netherlands.

We have to look at the risks of particular drugs and the regulatory tools that we have, and try and match them up in a reasonable way. The more dangerous drugs would be more regulated, the less risky drugs less so: we can create a kind of risk/availability gradient. In doing that, we could begin to shepherd people towards safer products and safe behaviors. Prohibition does the complete opposite.

It is crazy that we can get heroin laced with fentanyl on the streets really easily, but we can’t get smokable opium. All of the weed in the U.K. at the moment is super strong. If you want to get milder weed or hash, you can’t. It’s just not there. Prohibition does that. It tilts the market towards the most dangerous products, the most dangerous behaviors. And regulation can tilt the market the other way if we do it sensibly.

Bernstein: We regulate all kinds of harmful or risky activities from driving to sky-diving to foods and drinks and all kinds of things. And so it’s really just drugs and a few other things that are left out of this regulated system. 

Moderator: Are there examples of jurisdictions where specific drugs have been legalized that we can look to as models?

Rolles: The most obvious ones are the medical prescription models. In many countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world, they prescribe injectable heroin. Now, because it’s a medical intervention, it doesn’t have to be legalized as such because it’s legal anyway. 

Dodd: In Canada, we have what’s called “safer supply”—the Canadian Association of Safer Supply, the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs. We have injectable heroin programs. They are very hard to get into. You have to come in every day, so you’re kind of really chained to a clinic. But people like it; it’s changed their lives.

There’s a doctor in London, Ontario who is giving people hydromorphone. She has 190 patients in her program. She’s been running it for three years. She prescribes to them. People can take their doses at home. Nobody has died in her program. We are in the midst of this devastating overdose crisis but none of the 190 people have died of overdose in her program.

Rolles: There are traditional plants that are used in a quasi-legal informal space in many countries, whether in Africa, whether in Southeast Asia, whether it’s some of the psychedelics like mushrooms and peyote in the Americas. They’re regulated much more by social norms than by legal infrastructure but there’s certainly a lot we can learn from those drugs as well.

Moderator: Legalization may be scary to a lot of people concerned about increased use or overdose. So what should be the response to people who have those concerns?

Bernstein: There are a lot of myths around legalization.  I’m coming to think about this as mostly a knowledge translation problem for the public. One myth is that legalization means easy access to drugs or increased use.  Another is government control of all aspects. Government has to set some rules, but there could be a variety of models. We have to move away from “should we legalize all drugs” to how we do it in a way that is very digestible to people and allows them to engage in the planning.

Moderator: What can we learn from already legal and regulated substances? 

Rolles: Big tobacco, big pharma, big cannabis have been responsible for horrible things we need to learn from and not repeat. But there are examples of good practice. Tobacco regulation has moved in the last 20 years towards a much more appropriate level of regulation. We’ve prevented branding and marketing and advertising almost completely in the U.K. You can now buy as much tobacco as you like, but it’s in plain packages with health warnings. There are bans on smoking in public places.

With alcohol regulation, we’re still some way behind. Alcohol brands in the U.K. are sponsoring our Olympic team, which is completely inappropriate. And so we need to be not doing a lot of those things. But we also need to learn from good practice in alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical regulation.

Snapp: In Mexico and Colombia, the public health crisis is around violence. We’re concerned with countries that are having overdose crises, but we’re also concerned about people who are just being outright killed. 

For me, going back to the question of “how do you change, how do you convince people,” you have conversations with them. When you explain to people what’s going on, they get it. They’re not stupid; it’s just that nobody’s talked to them about this. And nobody’s told them the truth. 

Moderator: In the next decade, what you would like to see with respect to legalization and regulation?  

Bernstein: I think the horizon on legalizing all drugs is probably 10 to 15 years away in Canada.  It’s a big lift, but I think we actually have a system supportive of social and racial justice.

Dodd: For me, it looks like people not dying. It looks like getting out of this overdose crisis. It looks like demilitarization. It looks like friends being free. Like some of my friends in prison right now haven’t even had their trials and they’ve been sitting, waiting for 18 months.

It looks like people who also sold drugs getting amnesty. You can’t legalize drugs and say, “It’s okay now, but it was bad then.  You have to sit inside prison and serve out your term.” Black and indigenous people overrepresent the prison population for Canada’s drug users. Those people need out and their communities need reparations.

Rolles: Cannabis has been the first drug to legalize. It is not culturally frightening because it is widely used and relatively low risk. As you move towards more risky drugs, legalization becomes more politically difficult. 

But the big health gains are probably going to be with the more risky drugs. The conversation does now feel like it is beginning. The Abridged Medical Journal and the American Public Health Association now advocate openly for legalization and regulation of all drugs. Amnesty International, one of the largest NGOs in the world, soon will be looking at this through a human rights lens.

So it is entering the kind of mainstream political discourse.  We all need to encourage that to move forward. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that exposure to this debate only ever moves people in one direction—and it’s not towards a War on Drugs.

Supervised Injection Comes One Step Closer in Philadelphia

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization

Advocates stand in support of Safehouse. (Photograph: Christopher Moraff via

We have moved one step closer to the opening of the first supervised injection facility (SIF) in the United States. A federal judge has ruled against a suit by the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania blocking the launch of “Safehouse,” a SIF that is ready to go in Philadelphia.  

SIFs save lives by providing space for individuals to use drugs under medical supervision. Treatment is available but not required. Over 120 such facilities exist in cities around the world, including Europe, Australia, and Canada. The United States has none.  

Three years ago Clergy for a New Drug Policy organized a delegation of clergy to visit Insite, at that time the only SIF in North America. Since then, 44 have been authorized in Canada. In June, we joined the Chicago Recovery Alliance in visiting five sites operating in Toronto.

Advocates in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco have been pressing for SIF’s.  Early this year, it appeared the breakthrough would come in Philadelphia, where political and community leaders, including the mayor, city council president, and states attorney, all support “Safehouse.” 

But last February, William McSwain, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sued to stop Safehouse. He argued that it would be in violation of the so-called “crackhouse” provision of the Controlled Substances Act, which was designed to curtail drug racketeering.  

Clergy for a New Drug Policy joined other religious voices in an amicus brief challenging the U.S. Attorney’s action. The brief invokes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).  It asserts that all humans are created in the image of God and that “all have value and significance and are worthy of others’ time, understanding, and advocacy.”  

In his ruling on behalf of Safehouse, U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh determined that the federal Controlled Substance Act did not apply: “The ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it.”  

It is widely anticipated that U.S. Attorney McSwain will appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers not only a portion of Pennsylvania, but New Jersey, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands. 

The appeal process could take at least a year.  Nevertheless, Safehouse attorneys were pleased. “This is a huge decision in our favor,” according to Rhonda Goldfein.  “It is the first in a federal court that says ‘This is not an illegal purpose.’’ 

Given its broad applicability, the case could end up in the Supreme Court.