“Broken Windows” or Healing Lives?

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Debate, Decriminalization

Dear Friends and Colleagues, On election day, Oregon became the first state in this country in which individuals possessing small amounts of any drug are no longer treated as criminals. Instead, they are now being charged a small fine – a civil offense – and offered the opportunity for treatment. It’s called “decriminalization.”   Illinois has just filed legislation to “defelonize.” Unlike the Oregon legislation, it does not eliminate criminal penalties.  But individuals can only be charged with a misdemeanor, not a felony. For people seeking to rebuild their lives after prison with a job, housing, and basic social benefits such as unemployment insurance or Medicaid insurance, this is critical. That is why the Illinois bill – HB 3447 – is titled “Reducing Barriers to Recovery.”   If the Illinois bill becomes law, it will become the 29th state to defelonize, a measure only one step away from what Oregon has done. Does this mean that Oregon was simply the first state in a national movement? Yes. Is Illinois on the right path?  One way to answer that question is to look at the best arguments against decriminalization and see if they hold up. Eight years ago, James Q. Wilson, professor of Criminology at UCLA, formerly of the University of Chicago and Harvard, opposed drug legalization in a debate with Ethan Nadelmann, founder and then head of the Drug Policy Alliance and formerly a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University. In taking this position, Wilson was, in effect, also opposing decriminalization. (Legalization means that both using and selling drugs are legal. Under decriminalization, selling remains illegal.) Wilson was perhaps the most prominent conservative criminologist of his day. In 1982 he brought forward the “broken windows” theory of policing, which argues that strict enforcement of minor offenses prevents more serious crime. That theory, which was embraced by public officials notably in New York City, morphed into the “stop and frisk” policies that began in the 1990s. In opposing the motion, Wilson argued that legalizing drugs “will increase [their use] by a factor of four, or five, or six.” Why did this matter? Because for him, drug use is inherently wrong.  Elsewhere he had written that “… it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul.” In the debate with Nadelmann, Wilson cited “…the lives of the people I have watched in the skid row areas of Los Angeles, hopeless victims of drug abuse, who live on the streets because they cannot live anywhere else.” Wilson then argued that limiting the supply of drugs does not work. The only way to limit drug use is to reduce demand. And the only way to reduce demand is through some form of prohibition.   Here is Wilson’s argument in a nutshell: “If there are no penalties for the private possession, then it would be difficult to see how we could punish private transactions. If there is no punishment for what people consume, I don’t see how there can be a punishment for what people buy….drug consumption in this country will increase.”   Everything Wilson says starts with punishment. He even sees punishment as essential to treatment:  “our treatment programs….work only when the person subject to them is constrained… Ethan’s policy of avoiding punishing people for anything they consume means the end of our effort to reduce the impact of psychoactive drugs and the end of most treatment programs.” (Yes, he actually said this. Listen to the debate.) These statements about treatment are simply wrong. Many people, probably the large majority, seek treatment without being coerced. As a practical matter, Wilson ignores the fact that drug treatment is available for only about 10% of those who need it. Shouldn’t those voluntarily seeking treatment be given first claim?  Finally, he fails to ask the extent to which treatment that is coerced actually helps.  Wilson acknowledges that many people who use drugs do not abuse them and do not harm others. Beyond this, he says nothing. He simply embraces them in his call for punishment. His failure to speak to this population is, by omission, itself an argument for decriminalization.  Finally, let us revisit Wilson’s take on Skid Row: “You see these absolutely destroyed human beings, and what they were destroyed by? Well, a lot of things usually, not one simple thing, but in most cases, they were destroyed by drugs.” Did Wilson, who died in 2012, know nothing about mental illness, trauma, joblessness, lack of housing? Of course he did. How then, could he have argued that our Skid Rows across this country would diminish significantly if it were not for drugs? His insistence on a false morality based on punishment blinds him to the complexities of human fragility.  Ethan Nadelmann won this debate. We can move forward toward decriminalization without reservation. The arguments against it simply do not hold up, even when advanced by as formidable an opponent as James Q. Wilson.  Sincerely,  Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy

Am I the One With the Stone?

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization

Dear Friends and Colleagues, Over the past several months, some ideas have come together for me concerning addiction, churches, the War on Drugs, punishment, and blame that had originally emerged as separate themes. Let me summarize: Most mainline Christian churches act as though addiction does not exist despite the pain it brings all around them to those they seek to serve. They may host a 12-step group in the basement, but addiction is rarely the topic of sermons, educational programs, service and outreach, advocacy, or any other congregational activity.   With their silence, these same churches perpetuate the stigma that accompanies addiction.   Even though a majority of the public considers it a failure, the 50-year-old, War on Drugs fuels this stigma through its basic message that punishment in the form of criminal prosecution is the primary response to drug use and addiction.   There is ample evidence that punishment, including jail and prison, is fundamentally the wrong way to help people overcome addiction. It does not work. We must hold people accountable for what people do when abusing substances. But we must not blame them. This is possible. It is what Jesus did.  As these themes have come into focus, I have been delighted to lend my support to a new organization which addresses most of these themes, and I am now eager to bring it to your attention. I first heard of the Center of Addiction and Faith 18 months ago and attended its second annual conference. I described this event for you here. In a short time, CAF has come a long way. In 2019, an annual conference was the group’s only activity. The Rev. Ed Treat, a Minneapolis Lutheran pastor, had organized the first two conferences as a volunteer with modest back up help from church staff.   Attendance grew significantly in the second year with over 250 attendees representing 34 states and 12 denominations.  Encouraged by this expression of interest and unfilled need, Ed took a big step six months ago: he resigned from his church after 25 years as pastor to work full-time in establishing the Center.  Since that time, CAF has developed a website, named a board, gained its 501(c) 3 status, and launched a broad base of activities including podcasts, webinars and daily devotions. I am committed to the work of the Center, and hope you will look closely at what it has to offer. It can educate us about addiction. It can help our churches learn how to welcome those struggling with addiction. It has material to help clergy respond to the needs of individuals in their congregations.  The possibilities for preachers are vast.  Addiction brings illness and death.  Jesus healed throughout his ministry.  We can learn much about what He said and did by trying to understand addiction – psychologically, sociologically, physiologically, not to mention theologically.  Finally, I am hoping the Center will guide congregations in advocating for an end to punishment as society’s response to drug use.  Last week I had the opportunity to conduct a webinar for the Center – Addiction and Advocacy: The Role of the Church. Here are the video link and full written text. Let me close with one excerpt: “Mark Osler, a lovely man, is a professor at St. Thomas School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a renowned expert and advocate on clemency and pardons for the wrongly convicted. As someone who grew up in a church environment, he could cite at least a few familiar Biblical passages. They stayed with him. For many years, Mark Osler was a federal prosecutor in Detroit. His job was to send those accused of dealing, or even just possessing, crack cocaine to prison, sometimes for life. Under the law, those dealing crack, usually African Americans, were 100 times more likely to be convicted than those, mostly whites, using powder cocaine. One day Osler remembered Jesus saying to the pharisees who were about stone to death the woman caught in adultery, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  “I realized,” he recalls, “I was the guy with the rock.” Sincerely, Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy

Webinar Text: Center of Addiction and Faith, January 21, 2021

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization

I want to talk this morning about “Addiction and Advocacy: The Role of the Church.”  Let me say at the outset that I have what might be called a Don Quixote feeling.  Addiction and Advocacy.  Can we ever really get at the heart of addiction?  Do most churches care about advocacy?  Can we bring the two together?   In mainline Protestant churches, you don’t hear a lot about addiction.   I’ve visited many congregations across the country. It’s been my experience that you can go into almost any mainline church and not see a hint that addiction exists, in our families, our friends, even in ourselves. That’s why I was so excited to learn of the Center of Addiction and Faith, and feel privileged to support it in any way I can. The Center will help us stop ignoring a reality we have too long failed to acknowledge and have an obligation as faith communities to respond to.  “Advocacy” – it means taking a stand and raising our voices on issues that affect us as individuals and communities.  Many churches don’t do advocacy.  Why? First of all, it’s hard.  I’ve often felt that the problem is not that clergy lack courage, but that they don’t know where to start:  how to structure the conversation, choose priorities, develop strategies for being heard.  They don’t teach that in most seminaries.  But they should.  There are a lot of good models in churches around the country to draw upon, and secular organizations with vast amounts of information on drug use and addiction:  The Drug Policy Alliance, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, and many others. I hope you will get to know them.   For some congregations, advocacy is too controversial.  When I was in divinity school, I worshipped at a church near the campus. It was during the time of intense public discussions about health care during the Clinton administration. I suggested to my own pastor that she invite experts on a Sunday after the sermon to debate the pros and cons of universal coverage.  She turned to me with a pained look in her eye and said, “Al, you’re scaring me to death.”   So, it’s not surprising that not many churches talk about advocacy. As the name implies, Clergy for a New Drug Policy does reach out to clergy and congregations.  We advocate for a health –healing, not punishment–response to the reality of drugs in our society.   Our advocacy goal is to end the tragic War on Drugs, which over the past 50 years has failed to reduce the availability of drugs even has it has wrecked countless human lives at a cost of over $1 trillion.   As Michelle Alexander made so clear ten years ago in her book The New Jim Crow, it has been especially devastating to communities of color. Advocacy assumes an agenda.  What I’m hoping you will consider this morning is  the urgent need to change our drug laws and to advance what is called “harm reduction,” helping people limit the harm of their drug use rather than insisting they abandon drugs altogether, an approach this world calls “abstinence only.”  Examples of harm reduction include administering naloxone, which revives people on the brink of overdose death; providing clean needles and syringes to limit the spread of diseases such as hepatitis and AIDS; medically assisted treatment, like buprenorphine and methadone, to assist in managing withdrawal; and, yes, safe consumption sites. In such facilities, individuals can bring their drugs, and self-administer them under medical supervision.  I’ll say more about these later. Let me be clear.  None of this, or what follows, is intended to encourage the use of drugs.  What we are saying is that drugs are a reality. Our focus should be not on drug use but on drug abuse and the harm to individuals and society that results. Prohibition is not the answer. Regulation, which can take many forms, and education, the right kind of education, is the answer.   If I could recommend one source of information on both regulation and education, it would be a book titled Regulating Vice by James Leitzel of the University of Chicago.  He defines “vices” as pleasures that can become harmful–certainly drug use, but also drinking, gambling, pornography, and other potentially dangerous behaviors.  In our battle against the Drug War, Clergy for a New Drug Policy also opposes mandatory minimum sentences, civil asset forfeiture, private prisons, cash bail, and the collateral consequences of drug convictions. Under current law, drug offenses can carry with them the denial of public housing, food stamps income assistance, education grants.  (These may not seem directly related to addiction, but they can make addiction seem like a rational option if you are one step away from living on the street.)  How does this agenda connect to addiction?  Again, our mission focuses on healing not punishment.  The voices fueling the War on Drugs call for punishment, for individuals using drugs, including those who are addicted, to be put in jail, to be locked up.   This is simply wrong, especially theologically. This is not what Jesus did. He did not say to the woman caught in adultery, “Go down to the local jail house and turn yourself in.”  No, he said, “Go and sin no more.”  He did not lecture the Samaritan Woman at the Well on all she had done wrong in her life. He spoke to her about the “living water…(indeed) everyone who drinks of this water will never be thirsty again.” (John 4:10, 13).  Not a bad message for those drowning in alcohol. Jesus healed without condemnation.  He held people accountable, but he did not blame them.  Punishment — the underlying premise of the War on Drugs — has caused an unspeakable amount of human misery. I could spend the rest of this webinar giving you story after story of lives ruined by the Drug War.  But I want us to go deeper.  I want us to think about punishment in relation to the problem it is intended to address.  To do this, we need to consider for a moment the nature of addiction and its causes. Let’s join the perpetual debate about whether addiction is a “disease” or a “choice.”   Federal researchers, who have made amazing advances in neurophysiology, are passionate advocates for what might be called the “disease” model.  They talk about changes that become etched into neural pathways, “highjack” the brain, and never go away: hence the notion that addiction is a “chronic disease.”   Philosophers and psychologists are more likely to argue that addiction is, at some level, a matter of “choice,” even as they recognize the often-overwhelming difficulty of achieving recovery.  The reality, of course, is more complex.  I like what Princeton Theological Seminary faculty member Sonia Waters tells us: “It is not just one cause that creates an addiction, but a dynamic tangle of vulnerabilities that catches the individual in the net of addictive behavior.” Or author and former addict Mia Szalavitz, who accepts the concept of “disease” but sees addiction most fundamentally as a learning disorder. She has written that, “Addiction doesn’t happen to people because they come across a particular chemical…It is learned, and has a history in rooted in their individual, social, and cultural development.”  If addiction is a disease, it should be obvious why punishment does not make sense.  When was the last time you heard that someone had been arrested for lung cancer?  Perhaps punishment in the form of arrest and jail might be the appropriate response to drug use, not yet addiction, since use can lead to addiction. But how can that be the right response when, as we know, the great majority of those who use drugs never end up with a substance use disorder, and about 70% who do get to this point recover on their own?   So we know that punishment does not make sense if drug use is a disease.  Let’s turn to the “choice” model.   If drug use is a choice we can be held responsible for our actions.  We have moral agency.  Some people consider use of certain drugs to be immoral.  Under laws mandated by the War on Drugs, such use is also illegal.  Violations of the law must be punished.  So…. Lock ‘em up.  What is wrong with punishment?  One practical difficulty is that law enforcement generally lumps drug use and addiction together.  Even if jail or even prison might deter a drug user from future use – generally not the case — do we really think that jail or prison is where those living with addiction belong?   Second, let’s be clear: Most of us who live relatively comfortable lives are oblivious to the violence, yes, violence, that jail and prisons inflict upon body and soul.  Locking someone in a cage and giving him or her a number, not a name, even for a short period of time, are surely acts of violence.  Someone once said, “Poverty is violence is slow motion.”  So is incarceration.  Here’s the overriding point. When it comes to healing addiction and stopping drug use, punishment for the most part does not work.  When punishment is our first resort, we are making misguided assumptions about human behavior and how people change.  Addiction forces us to address this question acutely.  I submit that nurture, not punishment, is the better answer.   The obscenely long sentences given us by the War on Drugs do not deter drug use.  Some would argue for the value of drug courts.  These are special courts for drug offenders. Judges have the option of offering treatment and expungement of charges if individuals succeed in their treatment programs. But drug courts generally serve only the easiest to help; do not permit relapse, even though relapse is almost always part of recovery; and oppose medically assisted treatment – the use of methadone and other drugs to assist with withdrawal.  It is not surprising that a spirit of punishment drives our criminal justice system. But consider this. Right now county prosecutors in my home state of Illinois are opposing changes in our drug laws on the grounds that we have to arrest people in order to help them, that is, steer them to treatment.  Imagine!  We need to separate people from their families and their jobs, put them in jail, and possibly brand them permanently with a criminal record because forced incarceration is the only constructive alternative.  I haven’t studied this, but I doubt there is a lot of this going on in white, suburban neighborhoods. So where does that leave us?  Here’s where advocacy comes in.  We have an extraordinary opportunity right now – at this very moment – to speak out simultaneously with a dual message: first, that punishment – treating drug use and addiction as a crime – is wrong, indeed, immoral; and second, that drug treatment is the right, indeed, the compassionate response.  We can take the position, as clergy and congregations, that all low-level drug use should be decriminalized and simultaneously, that anyone who seeks it should be steered to treatment.  Let me define criminalization.  This is not the same as legalization. Under decriminalization drug use is deemed a civil offense, like a traffic ticket. Selling drugs remains illegal. This is not pie-in-the-sky.  It has already happened in one state – Oregon – this past November.  Ballot Measure 110, The Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative was approved by Oregon voters by a 57% to 43% margin.  Low level drug possession and use is now legal in Oregon, and, upon implementation, treatment will be offered in any of 10 regional health centers to all who accept the referral.  This will be paid for by higher-than-expected revenues from cannabis legalization. Let me repeat that:  drug users will not be arrested.  Treatment will be available to all who need and request it under this law. It can be argued that we already have decriminalization all around us.   In fact, we took this step almost 40 years …

A Star to Guide Us in 2021

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization

Dear Friends and Colleagues, As my year-end gift, it is a joy to introduce to you a scholar I have discovered only in the past few weeks. Hanna Pickard was recently appointed to the faculty of Johns Hopkins University after working part-time for ten years in a therapeutic community. A philosopher, she writes about addiction and law with stunning clarity.  We should regard her as our Christmas star to guide our thinking about drug policy in the year ahead.  Clergy for a New Drug Policy advocates for a “healing, not punishment” response to drug use. Increasingly, the “healing” part of that message is gaining traction. Witness the approval of low-level drug decriminalization in Oregon last month. Most churches, however, if only through their silence, perpetuate the War on Drugs and its “punishment” message despite decreasing public support for this approach.  Why? Perhaps addiction is too complicated. We don’t have the time on a Sunday morning to approach it in a meaningful way in the context of a worship service. Or maybe we think, perhaps unconsciously, that the best way to avoid addiction in our own lives is to pretend it does not exist. But Hanna Pickard gives us perhaps the most telling insight about why we turn a blind eye: in most mainline Christian churches, we have not yet gotten beyond a level of moralizing of which we are probably not even aware. When it comes to addiction, we are Pharisees. We politely, even self-righteously, put a hold on what Jesus taught us about compassion and love.  Much of Pickard’s thought can be summarized as a tagline: “Responsibility without Blame.” Her message is far from simplistic, however. She examines these key words by placing them in the context of how scholars across disciplines – neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, law – debate the causes of addiction: Is it a “disease” or a “choice”?   I’ve spent the past several months wrestling with what I think. Under the disease model, what happens to free will? What is the role of choice? What are the limits to our ability to change, and how does this occur? Does punishment matter? If inclined to religious concepts, how do we talk about sin and judgment?   The disease model is often advanced, especially by medical researchers, to eliminate the sense of stigma that the addicted so often feel. Through the marvels of brain neuroscience, addiction is seen increasingly as a function of broken, or “highjacked,” circuitry over which addicts have little or no control. They are suffering from a chronic disease, like lung cancer or type 2 diabetes. If there is a physiological basis to their addiction, the thinking goes, they are not to blame. Pickard, however, challenges the disease model. She cites the growing evidence that individuals do, indeed, often exercise choice, however hard the struggle. Some quit “cold turkey.”  Others mature with work and family responsibility. Studies show a sensitivity to financial reward. More broadly, individuals do overcome addiction through personal growth and self-understanding. This itself presupposes a degree of choice and control.  The underlying debate aside, what matters most is what Pickard tells us about how to respond to those afflicted with addiction.  Individuals are not to be absolved from the consequences of their actions, which often hurt themselves and others.  They are, indeed, responsible. What so often follows, however, is a profound error. We assume that where there is moral agency, there must be blame. This is both wrong and clinically unhelpful, at best.     Pickard illustrates this distinction by reflecting on her experience working with clients suffering from “disorders of agency,” including substance abuse, anorexia, and borderline personality disorder.  She and her clinical colleagues kept “the distinction between responsibility and blame clearly before our minds, and…challenge(d) our own sense of righteousness…while cultivating a commitment to treating all people, including those who are responsible for real and lasting harm, with respect, concern, and compassion.”   In this Christmas season, do we need to be reminded that this is exactly what Jesus preached? His message was one of healing, not punishment.  He held all who reached out to him responsible for their actions, but he did not blame. As we enter the New Year, I am grateful to Hanna Pickard for calling us back to the most basic tenets of our faith.  With best wishes for a blessed 2021.  Sincerely,  Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy

Major Steps Forward on Election Day

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Legalization, Marijuana Legalization

As a result of ballot initiatives approved in six states on Election Day, it now possible to visualize an end to the War on Drugs with some clarity.   The most dramatic breakthrough, of course, was the strong mandate – 59% in favor and 41% opposed – to decriminalize low-level drug possession in Oregon. “Yes on Measure 110” means that treatment rather than criminalization will be an option for all persons using drugs who seek it.   CNDP endorsed and publicized this initiative. Our piece in the current issue of The Christian Century describes how the initiative will work, and why we believe what happened in Oregon is not just an isolated phenomenon in a predominantly liberal state.  Instead, it is a harbinger of what we will see elsewhere soon.   According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “The Oregon victory demonstrates that decriminalization is politically viable, spurring potential efforts in other states, including California, Vermont, and Washington, and even in Congress.”   Legalization of cannabis for adult use also received a strong mandate. Initiatives were approved in four states:  Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey.  South Dakota also approved medical cannabis, along with Mississippi. We were especially gratified by the results in New Jersey, where we traveled last January to recruit clergy and testify on behalf of the Initiative.   No longer do we need to think of cannabis legalization as something inching its way forward.  Fifteen states, covering one-third of the U.S. population, have taken this step.  70% of all states have now approved medical cannabis.  Especially striking is the fact that all sections of the country are stepping forward. We were delighted, and frankly, a little surprised, when Oklahoma approved medical cannabis three years ago. But now we see Mississippi and South Dakota approving initiatives. All of this makes it reasonable to anticipate some kind of breakthrough on cannabis legislation at the federal level within perhaps the next couple of years, if not sooner.  To all of you who have participated in the work of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, thank you for all you have done to help bring about these results.