Dear Friends and Colleagues, Most church buildings host two kinds of activities: traditional worship in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, and meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the church basement, usually on weeknights. The twain rarely meet. Drug use and addiction don’t merit prime-time attention. There is something profoundly wrong with this picture. AA and other Twelve-Step meetings are, of course, confidential. But what we do and say in church should reflect the reality that addiction exists all around us. If those who suffer from addiction feel not only unwelcome but stigmatized, what is our faith really about? That is why almost three years ago I was delighted to learn of a conference on faith and addiction to be held in Minneapolis. I attended that meeting and blogged about it. Since 2019, the small group of volunteers who created that first event have transformed themselves into the organization called the Center of Addiction and Faith (CAF). Though it is still taking shape, CAF now has a board and executive director. Its website offers theological reflections on addiction, sample sermons, a bibliography of helpful and inspiring readings, podcasts and webinars from leading authors and practitioners, and a directory of 12-step recovery groups for lay and clergy. This new organization has the potential to transform the way the institutional church, and, indeed, all of us, understand and respond to addiction. CAF is holding its third annual conference in person as well as remotely in Minneapolis on October 7-9. Workshop topics will include: how to bring the subject of addiction forward in a congregational setting, and harm reduction as a spiritual response to substance abuse. I will be leading a discussion on the role of churches in ending the War on Drugs. All sessions will be online. Beyond these workshops, I see a second and possibly overriding reason why the conference is important. In bringing addiction out into the open, CAF may be key to accomplishing something that all of us hope for and few of us know how to do. I speak of revitalizing a progressive Christianity that is clearly in a downward spiral. We normally think of addiction as manifested in those abusing substances or trapped in gambling or pornography. It is important to deal with these afflictions as they affect individuals. But, at a more profound level, seeking to understand addiction is a way of coming to terms with what might be considered the human condition. It raises profound questions about personal freedom, how we change, and the sources of meaning in our lives. These are religious questions. Yet they are rarely answered in the traditional church. Even as church attendance declines, we hear increasingly of those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” They are the “new wine” that the Bible talks about when it says “new wine is put into fresh wineskins.” (Matt. 9:17) They reject the “old wineskin” of organized religion with its outdated theology and empty ritual. In my experience, the religious figure today who comes closest to capturing what those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” are reaching for is Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Father and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His spiritual insights have the potential to bring new vitality and meaning to a Christian church that must change to survive. If you drop his name in casual conversation, you will be surprised how many people recognize it and smile. How many theologians recently have been the subject of articles in prominent national magazines such as the New Yorker and Harpers? The language of addiction is central to Rohr’s theological perspective. In one of his books, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, he makes the case that in a profound sense, we are all addicts. In varying degrees, we pursue false gods. These, in turn, separate us from our “True Self” as the source and expression of authentic joy and meaning. Although he will not be with us in person, Rohr’s message will be abundantly present throughout the CAF conference. Sincerely, Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy
On December 12, 2019, Rev. Rob Gregson, Executive Director of UU FaithAction New Jersey, appeared before the New Jersey Senate Commerce Committee on the proposed ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for adult use. We provide his testimony here. Since 2015 when my predecessor, Rev. Craig Hirschberg, gave what we believe was the first denominational testimony in favor of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey, Unitarian Universalists of Faith Action New Jersey has consistently supported the safe, regulated, socially just legalization position. While Unitarian Universalists in general, and UU FaithAction in particular, would have been happier with a legislative solution rather than a ballot question, on balance we agree that from an ethical and justice perspective, it is better to have ballot legalization than continue with the current system which largely allows people who look like me [white] and live in suburban neighborhoods like mine to escape being caught up in the criminal justice system for smoking or healing. Black and brown residents of more urban or poorer neighborhoods don’t have that same luxury. The only broadly compelling reason we, as a faith-raised body, decided to take a stand for marijuana legalization is because it would end the ill-conceived and horribly racially biased “War on Drugs.” Looking forward I hope you will support future legislation like the expungement bill currently before the Legislature that attempts to make some small reparations—and I use that word advisedly and deliberately—aimed to address the grossly unethical place we may find ourselves in if and when the ballot is successful: well-heeled, largely white business men and women begin making dollars hand-over-fist only weeks after others have been fined or even imprisoned for the same exact act. When reparation, or legislation—or come up with a more palatable word if you like—comes before you over the next few years, I hope you will take these disparities very, very seriously.
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.
Those of us who have grown up attending church can recall at least a few familiar Biblical passages. For attorney and law professor Mark Osler, these passages have guided his life. In 2011, he was a federal prosecutor in Detroit. His job was to send those accused of dealing, or even possessing, crack cocaine to prison, sometimes for life. Under the law, those with crack, usually African Americans, faced sentences 100 times greater than those, mostly Whites, with powder cocaine. One day Osler remembered Jesus coming upon a group of pharisees who were about stone to death a woman caught in adultery. When they asked him what they should do, Jesus answered, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” All the men present dropped their stones, and walked silently away. (John 8:7-8) In the courtroom, Osler realized, “I was the guy with the rock.” Osler resigned his position and took a teaching job at Baylor Law School, where he and legal colleagues successfully challenged the 100 to 1 crack-to-powder disparity. In 2011, he moved to St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis and founded the first law school clemency clinic in the United States. He was instrumental in the creation of the Clemency Initiative at the end of President Obama’s second term. Osler’s work continues to attract national attention. Last week he spoke with Clergy for a New Drug Policy about the Obama Clemency Initiative and prospects for clemency under the Trump administration. Q: Of the 1,715 individuals who received clemency under the Obama Clemency Initiative, how many of their convictions were in some way related to the draconian laws of the War on Drugs? A: Nearly all of them. Q: In light of this, what changes would you propose in our drug laws? A: I would argue for changes in our tactics and strategy, as well as in our drug laws. One of the biggest drivers of unfair sentences is that we use the weight of the drugs at issue as a proxy for culpability. That’s just wrong. If I hire somebody for $500 plus expenses to go down to Laredo and pick up some kilos of methamphetamine, I’m going to make tens of thousands of dollars once I sell those kilos. If we both get arrested, we are going to face the same sentence because we’re involved in the same activity. But we are not equally culpable, or anything close to it. We should not be addressing people at all. When it comes to interdiction, the most we can hope for because of the laws of economics is to marginally and temporarily raise the street price of drugs. It’s supply and demand. As long as the demand is there the supply is going come back. Labor is especially easily replaced. What they should go after is the cash flow because you’re never going to close down a business by sweeping up low wage labor but you can close down a business by denying them cash flow and credit. The FBI have become real experts at grabbing money going back to terrorist groups. We can apply that expertise to narcotics, and shut them down that way. This would demonstrate a whole new model: The guy who’s selling crack isn’t going to be in prison, he’s just not going have that job anymore. Q: Concerning drug laws, I thought you would say that we need to get rid of mandatory minimums and three strikes. A: Absolutely. The First Step Act is starting to move towards that. Q: If we had proportionate, fair sentencing laws, would we still need clemency? A: You wouldn’t need it as much, but we would still need clemency to take into account people who received long sentences, even if they had serious involvement in narcotics or other crimes, who have changed their lives, who aren’t the same person. You take Rudy Martinez. That was not a case where someone got racked up for a minor role. He was transporting a lot of cocaine, but the person he was when he did that is fundamentally different than the person he is now. That idea of redemption is that there can be a transformation in a person’s life. You would always need clemency to account for those people whose lives have changed, whose souls, and hearts, and minds, are different. Q: How does that argument apply to the hardest core crimes? Let’s take first degree murder. No matter how repentant, no matter how much one changes, isn’t there degree of retribution needed for some crimes? A: Certainly there is a role for societal retribution. It helps to avoid vigilantism. As long as people are assured that the state is going to take an approach that ensures punishment, they are not going take action into their own hands. But, even for the worst crimes, we can’t rule out the possibility of redemption. King David was a murderer. Paul was a murderer in a conspiracy. They were redeemable. They were given a role. We visit those in prison with the goal of there being a role, a vocation, even for those people who have done terrible things. Q: The Obama Clemency Initiative chose to look only at individuals on a case-by-case basis. Are there categories he could have used? For example, the ACLU report A Living Death argues that we should review all non-violent offenders who have been given life sentences without parole. A: You could look at people who received really long sentences before they were 22 years old. We know the brain science which tells us how much people change after that age. We are not serving public safety by spending millions of dollars to incarcerate those people. One thing we could do is go to the warden of each prison and ask “Who doesn’t belong here?” They will tell you. My students go into the prison to interview their clients and the guards say, “This is the guy who should be getting out.” Q: Mark Mauer of The Sentencing Project has argued for no sentences longer than 20 years. A: I don’t think that’s politically feasible. We’re a long way from that. There’s an ongoing argument within the advocacy community: Do you go for incremental changes, or do you try to have everything change right now? Even the briefest analysis of our political history will tell you that everything’s incremental. That’s how things change. Look at the civil rights movement. There wasn’t a before and after. There was a movement toward what’s better. It’s that gradual arc towards justice. Q: Are there other nations with better drug laws? A: Portugal is a reasonable model to look at. It has decriminalized all drugs. But they also have treatment on demand. One thing that we have to take into account is that the United States is a much greater consumer of narcotics than a nation like Portugal. Our usage rates outstrip those of any other country. The social costs are significant. Most of us know someone who is consumed by opioids and the tragedy that goes with that. We’re going to have to put more resources towards treatment, for example, than a country with a lower rate of consumption. Q: Why do we consume so much more? A: I think it’s in part because of our individualism. We all believe that our lives have to be significant, important, and exciting. Drugs do that. In the same way that Americans all want to be on television, we all want to see things in an exciting way. Selling or doing drugs provides that. Q: What is your assessment of the First Step Act brought forward and passed under the Trump Administration? A: I wrote a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune supporting it. It’s an incremental step and frankly, it’s a lot more than people expected to come from this administration. I think the response is, “That’s great. Let’s keep moving. Let’s get to that next step.” Q: Who is going to implement it? Attorney General Barr does not seem sympathetic. In his first term as Attorney General, he said, “We have a choice between more prisons and more crime.” A: I think that there is some real opportunity in this administration. In the past, the bar to reform has consistently been the Department of Justice. Politicians and presidents tend to defer to DOJ. This President does not. This brings a remarkable opportunity We saw that with the First Step Act. The First Step Act includes a lot of things we did not get from the Obama Administration, and the reason was because DOJ said, “Don’t do that.” Well, Donald Trump doesn’t care what DOJ thinks. On that score, we’re better off. Also, there is a remarkable advocate for reform within the inner circle of this White House. That’s Jared Kushner. Because of the experience of his family due the incarceration of his father, I think he’s really motivated to take action in this area. The third thing is that Attorney General Barr is a believer in the unitary executive theory: the president has to re-claim from the bureaucracy the power that is given to him or her by the Constitution. This is completely consistent with our argument on clemency: the president has to claim that power and take it back from DOJ. Q: Our discussion thus far pertains to the 181,000 people in the federal prisons system. This is a small percentage of the over 2.1 million individuals in state prisons and jails. Is there anything federally that can affect what happens in the states? A: Not directly. But hopefully, we will see some “leading by example.” It helps that there are some conservative Republicans leading the charge at the national level. This gives conservatives at the state level permission to do the same thing. When you’ve got Senator Mike Lee and the Koch Foundation arguing for this, it sends a signal to the states. Harsh punishment across the board is no longer entirely a core Republican belief. That’s a game changer. Q: In the introduction, we commented on your Christian faith. Are there other scripture passages that have guided your work? Micah 6:8 is common to a lot of people. I remember first coming across that when I was a prosecutor. On the surface, it seems almost glib. You have three values: justice, mercy, and humility. They are all good, but in criminal law they are in tension with one another. If justice is viewed as treating similarly situated people the same way, it’s fairness.Mercy cuts into that. In a way, it is an argument for unfairness. What we learn is that the criminal justice system can’t be all mercy or all justice. It has to have aspects of both if it’s going to be principled. Our tendency in the United States is to have all justice and no mercy. The active push from people who take those principles seriously has to be towards mercy because we are too far towards the other pole. We also need to learn humility. Consider juvenile life without parole. We are saying someone is irredeemable. We are playing God when we have such certainty about something that is ultimately unknowable, namely the chance of redemption for someone we barely know. Christ also told us, “When you visit those in prison, you visit me.” This is transformative for me. There is an imperative to visit all those in prison, not just innocent people, not political prisoners, not our friends, but all those who are in prison. The power of that directive is shrouded until people actually do it. I have students who have generally had fairly privileged lives. My clinic students are required to go a prison and spend two days with a client. They come back transformed. Taking down someone’s life story as they sit in a cell is something that alters the way they see the world. That is exactly what Jesus is after when he tells …
On Wednesday, March 20, more than a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Islamic clergy voiced their support of legislation to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina. Four spoke at press conference, joined by Rev. Alexander Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy. Here are their press conference statements. The South Carolina Compassionate Care Act (S-366) is expected to be taken up by the state senate within the next several days. Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, United Church of Christ “I come to Columbia this morning to stand with my interfaith colleagues in support of the Compassionate Care Act, which will help those who are suffering with chronic and terminal illnesses. I’m here because my faith compels me to care for the suffering. In my seventeen years in congregational ministry, I’ve been present to many suffering with illness. My vocation before church work was that of professional hospital chaplain and bioethicist. In that work I was often at the bedside of someone who was dying, and I worked closely with their doctors and families as we tried to ease their physical and emotional pain. In that work I almost always saw the best in people. Regardless of our many differences, we always came together in the hospital to care for someone and do everything we could to help. And that’s what the Compassionate Care Act does. It brings us together across the lines of faith and partisanship that too often divide us to do something to help each other. I dare say that in these polarized times a bill like this is good medicine for us all. It shows that we can still work together to make a difference. And have no doubt, this bill will make a difference. If we work together to pass it then real people will suffer less. With access to medical cannabis under the direction of their doctors, real South Carolinians will have less pain. Some have suggested that those of us who support this bill have been put up to it somehow, or there are, perhaps, some special groups or secret interests are behind it. But I would like to say very clearly that no one has put me up to this. I traveled to Columbia today to speak for myself about an issue that effects many who suffer with chronic and terminal illness. I am here because I believe the act is aptly named and really is about compassionate care. I’m here because my Christian faith taught me the Golden Rule, that we should treat others in the way that we would want to be treated ourselves. And all of us, were we in pain, would want to have our pain addressed and managed by our doctors. Most South Carolinians, I think, understand the Golden Rule. According to a benchmark research poll taken last December, 72% of us support medical cannabis. This may explain why the bill is bipartisan and why representatives of such diverse faith traditions stand together in support of it. We know that we should care for those who are suffering. Before I close I would like to tell you why I am really here, why this issue cuts close to home for me, and why I am grateful to all who have worked so hard to bring the Compassionate Care Act to South Carolina. When I was in college my father was diagnosed with cancer, and I left school for a time to return home and help my mother take care of him. He became a hospice patient in our home, and I remember the doctors and the nurses working so hard to help us manage his pain, which grew worse and worse over time. It was incredibly difficult to see someone we loved so much in so much pain. In my father’s case we relied on morphine, not cannabis, yet under the supervision of his doctors, the medication was able to ease his pain enough that he could rest. Friends visited. Family sat by his bedside. Everyone came together to help, and we created a place for him that was loving and dignified. As this bill moves through the process I offer my own prayers that it will pass and that our state will embody the golden rule when it comes to those who suffer with illness. May we treat our neighbors with the kindness and compassionate and care that we would all want for ourselves. Thank you.” Rev. Ivory Thigpen, Baptist “When we look at the name of this bill, Compassionate Care Act, there could not have been any better name given to it. For, indeed, we should as a civilization, as well as humanity and legislators, always teach ourselves to care for others and have compassion. When we look to the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ example is very clear. Not only does it say “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,” but at every miracle and every turn of Him engaging and caring for the lives of those that he so dramatically changed, the scriptures read that He had compassion. And in this day and age, where we really need to be our brother and our sister’s keeper, when we have individuals who have illnesses that debilitate them, illnesses that are terminal, illnesses that reduce their quality of life, let alone their quantity of life, we must have compassion. And so, as we look to pass this legislation, I want you to think about if it were your family member that was suffering, if it were your family member that was in debilitating pain and there was something within your means to care for them, then you would, by all means, have compassion. So as we seek to encourage others and educate them on the benefits of what this type of legislation can do, we will see a lot of people across the state of South Carolina helped because we were, as our scriptures say, called to be compassionate. Thank you so much.” Rabbi Eric Mollo “In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses, “I’ve heard the cry of my people, I will save them with an outstretched hand.” We are made in the image of God, and being made in the image of God we have the opportunity to extend our hand, too, in compassion, in love. We have the opportunity to lift up the fallen. That’s what the Compassionate Care Act can do. It can lift up those in pain. It can lift up those who are suffering and provide them the relief they need. It’s not a “can we do it, it’s a must.” We must do it. The medieval rabbis taught, “Men are stood well,” but we are still debating today. They wrote, “Where there exists a possibility that a certain cure or medicine is administered and the patient may have a quality of life or it may have the opposite effect of hastening his death, it is permissible to provide the medication.” Those words are five hundred years old, surely we can do better today to provide care and a better quality of life to those who need medical cannabis to quell their suffering. We are behind the times. There can be no sufficient excuse to believe otherwise. Thank you.” Rev. Terry Alexander, Baptist “On almost a daily basis I know of friends who are suffering from chronic pain, whereas if they take prescribed medicines that they have now, it would have them all discombobulated, addicted, particularly our veterans. They do not take the medicine. They walk around or they cannot walk around because of the excruciating pain that has grabbed their body. Medical cannabis is an alternative for the opioids, and it’s an alternative to pain. Alternative, another option, just as you would go to the store and get Aleve or Excedrin, why is it or why can’t an individual who are suffering from pain not have an option, as well? This bill gives relief to those who are hurting. Not only does it relieve the sufferer, but it also helps to relieve the caregiver. Sometimes miss that point: the caregivers, who see their family member suffer because they do not have the medication that would give them relief. What kind of state or what kind of country is this? We have the assistance, the medication, have the know-how to provide relief for its people and we refuse to do so. And until it hits home, we will probably have a different posture, but I’m here because I’ve seen it. I’ve been approached by those who are hurting, who are saying, “Terry, we need that bill. It relieves me, it helps me, it comforts me.” So I encourage you who are watching, I encourage you to call your legislator and encourage them to support this bill, get it out of committee so we can move it to the governor’s office for signature. Thank you very much.” Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, United Church of Christ “Clergy for a New Drug Policy seeks a health, not punishment, response to drug use. I am delighted to be here with a genuinely interfaith, interracial gathering on behalf of this bill. If you look at the folks who are supporting and signing on, you will find Christian, Jewish, and Islamic voices coming together for all the reasons that you’ve heard. I’d like to support what has been said, but, perhaps, not been said clearly enough. Scientific evidence supports this bill. That is not in doubt. If you can oppose this bill you maybe have your private, somewhat, cramped reasons for doing so, but you can’t oppose it because there isn’t scientific evidence. In my state, we have passed a bill that provides medical cannabis as a substitute for opioids. Think of that. In the midst of an opioid crisis, a response that is less expensive, has less side effects, and relieves pain. Thirty-three states have approved this bill, it’s time for South Carolina to do likewise.”