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.

Initiative to Decriminalize All Drugs Being Considered in Oregon

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization

Last month the Drug Policy Alliance, joined by two other organizations, filed a petition for a ballot initiative in Oregon that, if approved by the voters in November 2020, would decriminalize drug possession. It would mandate treatment rather than arrests as the first response to drug use.  

Those possessing any drug—including heroin and cocaine – would be charged with a civil rather than a criminal offense. They would be subject to a citation, much like a traffic ticket. Drug trafficking would remain illegal.

The ballot measure would require the state to provide $57 million in the first year for the treatment of drug addiction. It would establish addiction recovery centers across the state with funds obtained from revenue from marijuana sales and from reduced prosecution and incarceration costs.  

Whether the proposed measure—called the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act—will actually be on the ballot is far from certain. It would require 112,000 signatures and will face strong opposition from law enforcement and community groups. The sponsors will decide in the next few weeks whether to move forward.  

Yet even the filing of this petition is hugely significant. It is difficult to imagine any single step that, if broadly imitated in other states, could do more to end our failed War on Drugs.

Clergy for a New Drug Policy has long advocated for drug decriminalization of the kind now being proposed in Oregon.  We have pointed out that Portugal adopted this model almost 20 years ago. Drug arrests have declined, drug use has not increased significantly, and hundreds of thousands of individuals have received treatment.  

We Are Witnesses: Chicago

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Harm Reduction

My purpose today is to urge you to watch a powerful and haunting short film called “We Are Witnesses: Chicago.” Through the testimony of 15 individuals, the series captures the tragedy and anguish of violence in Chicago. We hear the voices of victims, police, and court officials. 

It is a story of suffering and pain, systemic cruelty and corruption.  It offers moments of compassion, courage, and forgiveness. It speaks to our hearts, and helps to open them. It makes us cry out for change, especially in our criminal justice system. 

Violence tears our cities apart.  Chicago is synonymous with gun shootings, even though some other cities have numbers worse than Chicago’s.  In CNDP’s advocacy to end the War on Drugs, I have long wanted to argue that this failed War is a primary cause of urban violence.

My problem in making this case is that the topic of violence is hideously complex.  It is what academics call “a wicked problem.” As such, it hard to generalize about. It has so many causes.  “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” helps us to identify and begin to connect them. 

The War on Drugs is certainly key.  It calls for prohibition. As a result, gangs rather than sanctioned outlets become the economic vehicle for distributing drugs.  There are no legal means to settle disputes, so violence, usually with guns, becomes the vehicle for doing so.

Huge amounts of easy cash from drug sales lure kids to the streets rather than school.  This same cash finances the guns that are so plentiful on city streets.

This misguided and unjust war undermines the relationship between police and communities.  How could it be otherwise when officers are trained to track people down in pursuit of often low-level economic transactions that, in poor communities, may be their only way to feed their families?

The War on Drugs feeds upon itself.  When parents are incarcerated for low-level drug possession, their future is obliterated, their families are destroyed, and their children suffer. All of this, in turn, feeds the poverty and despair than can often lead the next generation to escape into drugs. The cycle continues.  

In “We are Witness” Chicago we meet Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, until recently the Executive Director Of The Cook County Department Of Corrections.  At age eight, growing up in North Carolina, she witnessed the arrest and incarceration of her father for possession of marijuana: “I can only imagine being the man in the house and watching your young daughters seeing you arrested,” she recalls. “It’s humiliating.”

After her responsibilities for Cook County Jail, she writes, “When you walk into those doors and you see hundreds of young black men chained together you see the hopelessness in their eyes and it does something to you.  I saw them as my brother. I saw my father in them…We are more than our charge. We are the whole person who can still have the ability to offer good in the world.”

The War on Drugs does not fully explain the tragedy of urban violence in our cities.  There are many causes. But is time that we started to realize what is also true. The violence in our cities will not end until, at long last, we decriminalize low-level drug possession, thereby effectively ending the 47-year-old War on Drugs.  I am grateful that “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” is so effective in helping to make this case.

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director