Over the summer, like all of us, I adjusted to life in a world of the coronavirus (no, my family and I have not contracted it). In that time of enforced solitude, I focused on longer-term writing projects. As I resume newsletters, I am writing to you now on a topic of seismic importance. On November 3, voters will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative that would make Oregon the first state to decriminalize the possession of all drugs. If approved, the proposed measure will strike at the heart of the War on Drugs, both at home and abroad. Many other states will have to follow suit for this to become a national movement. It may take a long time for the massive drug war bureaucracy to wither away. But at the end of the day, why fight a War on Drugs when drug possession is not a crime? This measure is not the same as drug legalization. Selling drugs would continue to be a crime. But possession of low amounts of drugs would not. Last year, about 8,900 individuals were arrested in Oregon solely for low level drug possession. They would not be subject to arrest under the proposed law. Instead, they would be offered the opportunity for treatment. Campaign organizers collected over 150,000 signatures, far more than the 112,000 required to get their measure on the ballot. Called “Yes on 110,” the measure is likely to pass. Opposition so far has been slight. Over 100 organizations, including mental health and treatment providers, unions, African-American and Latinx activists, and legal advocacy groups, have endorsed the initiative. It is significant that law enforcement officials in Oregon have signed on as well. “Yes on 110” is likely to succeed precisely because the initiative is about treatment for addicts not criminalization. I cannot improve on the opening words of the initiative: “The people of Oregon find that drug addiction and overdoses are a serious problem in Oregon and that Oregon needs to expand access to drug treatment.” “The people of Oregon further find that a health-based approach to addiction and overdose is more effective, humane, and cost-effective than criminal punishments. Making people criminals because they suffer from addiction is expensive, ruins lives and can make access to treatment and recovery more difficult.” “The purpose of this Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act of 2020 is to make health assessment, treatment and recovery services for drug addiction available to all those who need and want access to services and adopt a health approach to drug addiction by removing criminal penalties for low-level drug possession.” The proposed legislation would establish addiction recovery centers within each of the state’s 13 coordinated care service areas. Individuals possessing a low level of any drug (up to one gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, less than 40 pills of oxycodone, for example) would not be subjected to criminal punishment. Instead, individuals would receive a $100 fine which could be waived upon the completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional. The centers would triage the needs of all individuals; services would be free and providers could seek insurance reimbursement. Funding for these services would come from cannabis taxes which have outpaced estimates following legalization in 2014, as well as savings from an anticipated reduction in the number of arrests under the new legislation. An Oversight and Accountability Council appointed by the Oregon Health Authority would provide grants to the treatment centers and oversee their operation. As the Oregon initiative nears success, I am reminded of Linda Woodhouse’s tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, published in the Washington Post: “We all have goals, big or small, and we all encounter obstacles to accomplishing some of them. But only a few have the turn of mind to confront head-on the structural obstacles that stand in their way. Some do it with the gift of an outsize personality that can inspire others and galvanize them to action. …That wasn’t Ruth Ginsburg. As a lawyer appearing before the Supreme Court, she presented herself as a modest incrementalist. She had to. If she had come before the court as a social revolutionary, the justices — never having viewed the Constitution as having anything to say about women — would have recoiled.” It is the same with the Oregon initiative. If this measure passes, it will be due to the incremental work of so many in states across the nation. It has taken a broad coalition, led especially by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project, more than 25 years to get to this point. Eighteen states have defelonized the possession of small amounts of drugs like heroin and cocaine (use is still a misdemeanor), 33 have approved medical cannabis, and 11 have legalized adult recreational use. New Jersey and Arizona are the states most likely to legalize cannabis on November 3. In no state has this been easy. There is a long way to go before the shameful War on Drugs is history in the United States. We are not there yet, but we are on the way. Thank you, Oregon! I am pleased to share the statements of a few of the many who have endorsed “Yes on 110,” including several ministers. Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon has been significant voice in support. May these voices inspire you as the opportunity to support drug decriminalization comes to your state, as it surely will. Keep safe, and get out the vote. Sincerely, Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy — ENDORSERS: Nate Macy, Pastor, Yamhill County“Our communities need to work towards justice and the end of systemic oppression. Providing people with addictions with compassion and care is one way we can work towards that, and build stronger communities. This initiative gives pragmatic tools to help make that compassionate care accessible to more people.” Rev. Tara Wilkins, Pastor, Bridgeport United Church of Christ“I believe that we have a responsibility to care for those on the margins, that includes people who are addicted to drugs. Instead of punishing and judging, we should provide people who are addicted to drugs with the love, respect, treatment and support they need to recover and heal. That’s why I support this initiative.” Rev. Connie Yost, President, Farm Worker Ministries Northwest“As a people of faith, Unitarian Universalists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. People struggling with drug addiction should be treated with compassion and care, not criminalization. It is our shame that Oregon ranks last out of all the states in the availability of treatment and recovery services. We can and must do much derecognized better than that bypassing Measure 110 which I support because it will provide critically needed funding for treatment, recovery, harm reduction and sober housing services in Oregon.” Rabbi Debra Kolodny, Portland’s UnShul/As the Spirit Moves Us“I support the Measure 110 because those suffering with addiction are in need of healing, not imprisonment. This brilliant measure has a ready-made income source, and it will eliminate the expense of incarcerating those who should not be in jail in the first place. We need to pass the initiative and ever more integrated solutions like it if we want to achieve our vision of building a just, equitable and compassionate society.” Rabbi Michael Cahana, Temple Beth Israel“Drug addiction is a serious health problem in our community. It destroys lives and families. But criminalization has proven to be a terrible tool to save those afflicted. It is discriminatory and furthers the cycle of family separation. I support Measure 110 because treatment and recovery are the paths to overcoming addiction.” Amanda Marshall, Former US Attorney for the State of Oregon“I spent 20 years immersed in the criminal & juvenile systems in Oregon as a prosecutor, child welfare lawyer, US Attorney and criminal defense attorney. I have witnessed first-hand the devastating failures of criminalizing, shaming and stigmatizing people who suffer from substance use disorder. As both a person in recovery and the mom of a teen in recovery, I can’t escape the truth that what separates me and my son from the people who are prosecuted for possession is our privilege. When we needed treatment, we left the state of Oregon to find it. The options we had aren’t available to most Oregonians suffering from substance use disorder. It’s time to end the insanity. Vote yes on Measure 110.” Pete Tutmark, Sergeant, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office (retired)“Looking back on my 33 year career in Oregon law enforcement, I believe the criminal/punishment model for addressing drug addiction has failed. This is a public health crisis and should be treated as such. Nobody wins when police spend our days punishing people for drug possession. Every person we arrest for drugs is one more person who refuses to talk to us when we’re questioning witnesses and gathering clues. Our drug laws make police work harder and communities less safe.” Mike Schmidt, District Attorney, Multnomah County“It’s time for a change in our public safety system so that drugs are not used as an excuse for arresting people, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color. Misguided drug laws have created deep disparities in the justice system. Arresting people with addictions is a cruel punishment because it slaps them with a lifelong criminal record that can ruin lives, exactly when they need better access to supportive services. We need to change our approach. Lowering criminal penalties for simple drug possession and providing more drug treatment and recovery services to help people move forward with their lives—these are the two pillars of Measure 110. Please join me in voting yes.”
Even in the best of times, but especially now, we must take great care not to put in jail those who do not belong there. That is why on March 26, Clergy for a New Drug Policy was pleased to sign on to an open letter drafted by The Marijuana Policy Project: “Law Enforcement Officials, Medical Professionals, Clergy, and Cannabis Advocates Call for the Cease of Cannabis Arrests and Release of Incarcerated Cannabis Offenders in Light of COVID-19.” The letter notes that “prisons and jails are breeding grounds for infections and diseases due to close quarters and lack of ability to practice social distancing…all prisoners, whether young or old, are increasingly vulnerable to being infected with the novel coronavirus.” We believe this letter has relevance to all of you, regardless of where you live. In my community of Chicago, Cook County Jail has been cited nationally as a “death trap.” Close to 300 inmates are now infected, and 6 have died due to the virus. In response, the mission committee of my church assisted each member of the congregation in contacting our county commissioner. We asked that he urge the county board to “(1) release as many prisoners as possible immediately to prevent the spread of COVID-19, (2) create safer and more sanitary conditions inside the jail for the prisoners and guards who remain, and (3) provide adequate health care for those who become ill.” We also invited the members of our congregation to sign on to a petition urging Kim Foxx, our States Attorney, as the lead law enforcement officer for Cook County, to take additional steps to dramatically lower the number of people in the jail in response to COVID-19. Specifically we asked that she: (1) “Decline to file new charges in cases that do not involve danger to a specific person; (2) Agree to release most people seeking bond reviews from custody without payment of money; (3) Immediately dismiss all pending misdemeanors and class 4 felony cases not involving danger to a specific person, starting with cases in which people are in jail; and, (4) Cease filing violations of probation and violations of bail bonds for technical violations or reasons not involving danger to a specific person.” The MPP letter notes that “many localities – including Baltimore, Suffolk County, Massachusetts; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; New Jersey; Los Angeles; and New York City – and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have already begun to release inmates incarcerated for non-violent, drug-related offenses with the understanding that infections in prisons and jails are rampant, and releasing inmate could save the lives of not only inmates but also the custodial, medical, and safety staff that serve them.” It is my experience that individuals in churches often want to raise their voices in ways that will make a difference, but are not quite sure how. Contacting elected officials to urge them to take steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus among people being jailed for minor offenses, and those who work among them, is one important way we can protect the most vulnerable. Your local elected officials—including states attorneys, county commissioners, and sheriffs–will pay attention to you on this issue. Call and write to them now.
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.
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 RegulationProject.org 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.
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.