Why Decriminalization is Not Enough

Tom Houseman Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization

There have long been two sets of de facto marijuana laws: one that punishes people of color in poor communities; and another, far more lenient — when they are enforced at all — for whites, mostly in the suburbs. This is largely because of discriminatory law enforcement.  Blacks and Latinos have long been at least three times more likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana possession. Those who oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use would have us believe that a half-measure, called decriminalization, would end this social injustice of the past 80 years. They want us to treat low-level marijuana possession like a civil, not a criminal, offense. This, they say, will solve the problem. They also argue that decriminalization is the best way to protect public safety.  They are wrong on both counts. Historical perspective is helpful here. Anti-marijuana advocates opposed medical marijuana, now legal in 33 states, every step of the way.  Many, including Alex Berenson in his new book Tell Our Children, still do: “Marijuana is not medicine.” he writes.  Most opponents were also against decriminalization when it was first brought forward. Decriminalization is now is their new line in the sand. They are united in supporting it. Why does decriminalization not eliminate the harmful effects of law enforcement primarily on minority communities? Civil offenses generally include a fine – up to $200 in Illinois. Fines can have a debilitating effect on lives at the margin. The New York Times and National Public Radio have both thoroughly documented the impact that accumulating fines can have on those living paycheck to paycheck. The Federal Reserve Board has estimated that 40 percent of Americans don’t have enough money to cover an emergency expense of $400. Decriminalization continues to provide law enforcement with an excuse to target poor communities of color. “In certain communities, some police just throw the book at people,” an activist commented recently. Until marijuana is legal, it will potentially continue to be an instrument of harassment. Some people sell marijuana to support a substance use disorder or because they have no other means to subsist and, in some cases, feed their families.  Decriminalization does not address this issue. A legal, regulated market with a focus on social equity could provide opportunities for these people to seek treatment or jobs.   Finally, marijuana arrests continue to be higher under decriminalization. This is because the amount of marijuana one can possess with legalization is higher, usually 30 grams, rather than 10 grams under decriminalization.  In Washington, marijuana convictions decreased by 76% from 2011 to 2015 and by 96% in Oregon between 2013 and 2016. When it comes to public safety, opponents fail to recognize that decriminalization is still a form of prohibition. In fact, it is the same kind of prohibition that was disastrously applied to alcohol in the 1920’s. Decriminalizing marijuana without legalizing it does not solve any of the problems associated with prohibition. It does not address the issues of the illicit, street corner, school yard, back alley markets and their myriad negative effects on both communities and drug users. Without a regulated market, any time individuals buy drugs they are doing so through the black market from an unlicensed dealer. They have no way of verifying what they are actually buying, and no recourse if something goes wrong. Legalizing marijuana, and creating a taxed and regulated market, will solve these problems. A regulated retail market will make it safer for people to use marijuana, create jobs, and provide opportunities to revitalize neighborhoods trampled by the War on Drugs. These opportunities are just not possible – even as current injustices continue – under decriminalization. In short, despite what opponents say, stopping short of full legalization does not ensure social justice nor does it adequately service public safety. Decriminalization is not enough. Tom Houseman, Policy DirectorRev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

Marijuana Reform: Framing the Debate

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization

In theological terms that go back to Augustine and Aquinas, the War on Drugs is not a Just War.  First, it has no reasonable chance of success. Second, it has disproportionately harmed others, especially people of color. Third, reasonable alternatives exist, especially drug treatment rather than jail or prison for those struggling with substance use disorder. As we head into 2019, thirty-three states have now legalized medical marijuana, 13 have decriminalized it, and 10 have approved legalization for recreational use. Policy debates are intensifying as opponents fear a new national approach to drug policy is taking hold. Witness the just published book Tell Our Children by journalist and novelist Alex Berenson warning that marijuana can cause psychosis and other mental illness.  This is not a new concern. But as similar incomplete and partisan tracts appear, it is more important than ever before to examine the basic assumptions underlying the national marijuana debate. The struggle is really between “prohibition” and “regulation.”  Is this too simple? I don’t think so. Those opposing legalization now make their stand at decriminalization. This is really a soft word for prohibition.  All production and distribution would remain with the illicit market. Low level users are given a civil citation, a small fine, like a traffic ticket. The same was true during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s: drinking liquor was legal, but selling it was not. The best way to think about drug use and most other vices (defined as any activity that provides pleasure but also the possibility of harm) is set forth in the book Regulating Vice by James Leitzel, who teaches public policy and economics at the University of Chicago.   Leitzel argues for regulations that protect youth, those in the throes of addiction and therefore unable to make rational decisions, and drug use that will likely harm others, such as driving while intoxicated.  None of this requires prohibition, which creates more harm than good. As for legalization, I tell my clergy colleagues that is a misnomer: what they are really supporting is “regulation and taxation.”  I have heard opponents assert that we are encouraging marijuana use. In fact, we are merely acknowledging the reality of drugs in our society, including marijuana, and seeking the most effective ways to prevent abuse.   The clearest evidence of the prohibition mindset is the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. According to this Schedule, marijuana is as dangerous as heroin and ecstasy, and has “no currently accepted medical use.” Federal agencies use this classification to block scientific studies even as they oppose drug policy reform citing a lack of research.  Most opponents of marijuana legalization try to defend this nonsensical classification. Where does all this leave us?  On November 20, 2018, U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III laid out a critical next step: “our federal policy on marijuana is badly broken… [Congress must] remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)” and legalize it at the federal level. After 47 years of a tragic War on Drugs that has cost our nation over $1 trillion dollars and destroyed innumerable lives, federal legalization will make it possible to continue to test regulation, starting with marijuana, at the state level.  Perhaps, at long last, we can end drug prohibition and achieve a national policy concerning drug use that best meets the needs of all our citizens. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

The Midterm Elections: A Very Good Day

grygielny Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana

Let us be grateful for our U.S. federal system. In the face of a Washington bureaucracy mired in inertia and self-preservation, and a U.S. Congress reluctant to act, it is the individual states that will finally shut down our nation’s tragic and failed War on Drugs. At the federal level, the Drug Enforcement Administration –ostrich-like – still labels marijuana a Schedule 1 drug with “no currently accepted medical use.” National policies are shamefully ambivalent about harm reduction measures such as clean needle exchanges, naloxone, and medically assisted treatment. Private prison expenditures are steadily growing under the Trump administration.  Civil asset forfeiture is still federal policy. That’s why we must celebrate what happened in Michigan, Missouri, Utah, and Florida on November 6. As our Drug Policy State Grading Map makes clear, each state has its own story to tell about where it ranks in the effort to end the War on Drugs and what it has just contributed to this goal. Michigan became the first in the Midwest to approve marijuana for recreational use, joining nine from the East and West.  It raised its drug policy map grade for marijuana to an “A”, thereby achieving a composite grade across our entire agenda of B-, up from C+.  It falls short of a higher grade because of its punitive position on civil asset forfeiture and a limited Good Samaritan law.   Voters in Utah approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana.  This is remarkable in a state where over 60% of the electorate is Mormon, that is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, a religion which counsels its members to avoid any substance that might be habit forming, including tobacco, coffee and tea. Even after the ballot initiative, Utah’s grade on marijuana policy remains “C”.  It is unlikely any time soon to join the 30 states that have either decriminalized marijuana or legalized it for recreational use.   Utah thus provides a significant precedent for those in other states trying to decide whether to move forward with medical marijuana.  I have just returned from recruiting clergy in South Carolina to support medical marijuana next year. When I point out that Mormons, even with their commitment to abstaining from all stimulants, can support marijuana as medicine because it brings healing, clergy get the point. Missouri also approved medical marijuana, thus raising its marijuana laws to a “B”.  They have yet to decriminalize marijuana, that is, treating low-level possession as a civil offense, like a traffic ticket. When it comes to “game changers”, perhaps the most remarkable event of November 6 was what happened it Florida.  Voters approved a state constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, including parole and probation.  This will change the status of 1.5 million individuals starting January 8. Although this measure does not involve drug laws, it is part of our agenda. Why? Because it is the War on Drugs that has deprived so many people of the right to vote: over 6.1 million individuals are disenfranchised across the nation due to felony convictions.  Almost 50% of those in federal and 15% in state prisons currently are incarcerated for drug offenses. Despite this dramatic step forward, Florida’s grade under this category increases only to a C+.  The state continues to limit access of convicted felons to supplemental assistance under the SNAP program and also operates private prisons. Both these policies harm large numbers of those convicted of low-level drug possession.   With the state actions in Michigan, Utah, and Missouri on November 6, thirty-three states, encompassing at least 65% of the national population, will soon permit medical marijuana.  Ten have now voted to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use. Florida has decided it will no longer deny 1.5 million citizens their constitutional rights. All in all, it was a very good day. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director 

Social Justice and Marijuana

grygielny Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization

This fall is an exciting and pivotal time for us at Clergy for a New Drug Policy.  Progressive national reforms often first gain a foothold in the eastern or western regions of the country. This has been the case with legalizing marijuana. Now we can ensure that this reform will come to our nation’s heartland.   Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Nevada, California, and Washington D.C. have already stepped forward. Now, an initiative to legalize marijuana is on the ballot in Michigan for a vote on November 6. In Illinois, there have already been three statewide hearings on a bill that will be introduced in January for the next legislative session. Over the next two months I will be traveling extensively to speak with clergy in these states about all aspects of legalization.  I will raise with what I believe is a deeper and more fundamental message concerning marijuana and social justice than is often brought forward. Since the War on Drugs began in earnest in the 1980’s, arrests for low-level possession of marijuana, and all drugs, have fallen disproportionately on African-American and Latinos. Even when not resulting in prison, having a marijuana arrest record is a ball-and-chain of a different kind when it comes to access to jobs, public benefits, education, and, eventually, keeping families together. Opponents of legalization argue that “decriminalization” (treating marijuana possession as a civil, not criminal offense, like a traffic ticket) stops police from arresting and charging anyone for drug possession. This is not true. States that have transitioned from decriminalization to legalization have seen their rates of marijuana possession arrests drop by as much as 80 percent, including for Black and Hispanic residents. (That police continue to discriminate disproportionately against minorities is a matter of police conduct.  Legalization does not end discrimination.) Why does legalization result in fewer arrests? Perhaps because the thresholds for the amount that can be possessed are higher under legalization than decriminalization, and because legalization can lead to a change in police behavior. It makes it harder to use suspicion of marijuana possession as a pretext for stopping people. Regardless of arrest statistics, the deeper social justice message is that “decriminalization” does nothing to limit illicit markets for marijuana.  In fact, it reinforces them. It doesn’t create gangs, which in areas of economic devastation and little or no hope, would exist anyway. But it further destabilizes neighborhoods and recruits young people into an underground world of criminal activity. Prohibition nurtures gangs by providing them with cash from the black market, and incentivizes violence as the only way for illicit drug sellers to resolve disputes and establish market turf. Illicit markets do not exist in the same way in white neighborhoods. The War on Drugs has always been primarily a war on black and brown people. Marijuana is a significant commodity in this war – at least 30% of total dollar volume. Only by establishing a legal and state-regulated market, can we erode the illicit drug trade which creates such pernicious and disproportionate harm in minority communities. When it comes to social justice, the current state-by-state debate about marijuana legalization, now unfolding in the Midwest, is about much more than marijuana.  It is about violence in our cities, and the continued marginalization of minorities. I hope as many of you as possible will join me as we bring this perspective to Michigan and Illinois in the next two months. Rev. Alexander Sharp

Testimony before the IL Senate on Marijuana Legalization: Leslie Mendoza Temple, MD, ABOIM

grygielny Decriminalization, Drug Education, IL

January 22, 2018 Good morning, Senator Steans, Representative Davis and esteemed members of the General Assembly. My name is Leslie Mendoza Temple. I am a board-certified Family and Integrative Medicine physician in Glenview, Illinois. I also served as the former Chair of the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board for the Illinois Department of Public Health.  It is important to note for the record that I am not speaking on behalf of any institution or my employer.  I am speaking from my personal viewpoints and experience as a clinician….and as the proud mother of 3 sons, ages 7, 9 and 11 years old.  I have no financial or other beneficial relationship with the medical cannabis industry. My Integrative Medicine practice attracts patients with complex medical conditions- primarily cancer, chronic pain, neurologic, psychiatric, and digestive conditions.  Many of my patients seek my care as the last-ditch effort, referred by their physicians, they prefer to treat their conditions as naturally as possible and find their way to me. I have written certifications for over 400 patients, with over 200 patients returning so far for their follow up appointments, providing me feedback on their medical cannabis experience. I have studied this feedback. An independent chart review of my certified patients showed that over 80 percent of them had  experienced relief of one or more symptoms from their chronic condition.  Medical cannabis plus or minus medications have reduced or completely relieved many of my patients’ insomnia, pain, seizures, and digestive problems. I have seen my patients reduce their benzodiazepines, their sleep medications, and most importantly, reduced or eliminated the opioids.\ Considering the opioid and heroin epidemic, medical cannabis is a crucial part of the solution to this crisis and needs more eligible conditions to be added to the program.  Anytime opioids have been prescribed for chronic pain from all sources, patients should have the option to use medical cannabis instead. Medical cannabis is not a perfect drug however, with 29% of my patients experiencing confusion about what to take, how to take it, and varying strain availability from the cultivators and dispensaries. Despite these challenges, medical cannabis is without a doubt, one of the most important tools I have discovered in my practice, alongside good nutrition, exercise, sleep regulation, acupuncture, meditation, medications, and stress reduction strategies. As I gain more experience with patients using cannabis in a medical, therapeutic way, I have learned more about this substance, far beyond what I was ever taught during medical school or residency training. I have struggled with how to approach the question about legalizing it for adult use.  After speaking with folks on both sides of the issue, both with passionate belief and strong conviction in their viewpoints, and without investment in the industry, and with the mother’s lens.  I have come to the following conclusions which I hope are helpful to this panel and the audience. I am in favor of regulating cannabis for adult use, over age 21. I am against its prohibition given that our current system of prohibition has failed on many levels. Regulating cannabis production and sale may help increase safety of untainted supply by going through vetted cultivators; taxation can create funding to improve drug addiction and education services; legalizing it has implications that can divert funding away from the criminal system and towards education and rehabilitation. Regarding the commercialization of legal recreational cannabis, I would say there is already a very large scale, for-profit industry surrounding current usage.  It is an illegal black market industry run by addiction profiteers who manage (with crime and violence) the supply and sale of billions of dollars annually to people of all ages. They are the gateway drug towards harder substances like heroin, crack, cocaine, and LSD. We are well aware of the public health costs of that “industry’s” 80+ yrs control of the market – and none of them are funneling money into drug education.  I’d like to try a different approach now, please. My editorial:  I do not condone its use, personally, for getting high – whether one is an adult or a child. I don’t condone alcohol or cigarettes either – for anyone. But, it is not my place to govern this aspect of life for others but rather, to guide my patients towards making healthy choices. If funds towards drug education and increased resources towards drug rehabilitation are NOT included in the legislation, then I will not support this bill.  If marketing is not controlled with strict limits on advertising targeted at youth, then I will oppose the bill.  On another note, I don’t want to see a cannabis leaf emblem marketed on every billboard going down the 294, nor do I want to see a cannabis dispensary on every street corner.  In a free market economy, I am not sure how this will all shake out if this passes. So, that’s what the hearing process is all about.  It’s a chance for our voices to be heard about how this legislation should go, if legalized adult cannabis is going to be a reality. Cannabis should be kept out of the hands of children (and their pregnant mothers) whose brains are at risk for cognitive harm. I believe that strong education can help youth make better decisions about the true potential risks of underage cannabis use, which is loss of one’s highest intellectual potential while the brain is still forming, among other risks.  There’s a recent publication on the Monitoring the Future study, a survey of 1.1 million 8th-12th graders.  In the journal, Addiction, researchers made an interesting observation.  The perception of cannabis’ harmfulness increased in 8th graders in medical cannabis states while their use of cannabis decreased by 33%.      I see a huge opportunity here.  Education is an area I believe where we physicians, policymakers, schools, and the addiction healthcare community can shine in Illinois. If we take a stronger role in educating youth about the hazard of cannabis use at an early age on the brain, we could protect more kids from the potential damage they can sustain from early cannabis use.  Let’s learn from the mistakes and missed opportunities seen in early adopter recreational states – if Illinois is to legalize cannabis for adult use.   Keyes KM, et al. How does state marijuana policy affect US youth? Medical marijuana laws, marijuana use and perceived harmfulness: 1991-2014. Addiction . 2016 Dec;111(12):2187-2195.