We Are Witnesses: Chicago

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Harm Reduction

My purpose today is to urge you to watch a powerful and haunting short film called “We Are Witnesses: Chicago.” Through the testimony of 15 individuals, the series captures the tragedy and anguish of violence in Chicago. We hear the voices of victims, police, and court officials.  It is a story of suffering and pain, systemic cruelty and corruption.  It offers moments of compassion, courage, and forgiveness. It speaks to our hearts, and helps to open them. It makes us cry out for change, especially in our criminal justice system.  Violence tears our cities apart.  Chicago is synonymous with gun shootings, even though some other cities have numbers worse than Chicago’s.  In CNDP’s advocacy to end the War on Drugs, I have long wanted to argue that this failed War is a primary cause of urban violence. My problem in making this case is that the topic of violence is hideously complex.  It is what academics call “a wicked problem.” As such, it hard to generalize about. It has so many causes.  “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” helps us to identify and begin to connect them.  The War on Drugs is certainly key.  It calls for prohibition. As a result, gangs rather than sanctioned outlets become the economic vehicle for distributing drugs.  There are no legal means to settle disputes, so violence, usually with guns, becomes the vehicle for doing so. Huge amounts of easy cash from drug sales lure kids to the streets rather than school.  This same cash finances the guns that are so plentiful on city streets. This misguided and unjust war undermines the relationship between police and communities.  How could it be otherwise when officers are trained to track people down in pursuit of often low-level economic transactions that, in poor communities, may be their only way to feed their families? The War on Drugs feeds upon itself.  When parents are incarcerated for low-level drug possession, their future is obliterated, their families are destroyed, and their children suffer. All of this, in turn, feeds the poverty and despair than can often lead the next generation to escape into drugs. The cycle continues.   In “We are Witness” Chicago we meet Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, until recently the Executive Director Of The Cook County Department Of Corrections.  At age eight, growing up in North Carolina, she witnessed the arrest and incarceration of her father for possession of marijuana: “I can only imagine being the man in the house and watching your young daughters seeing you arrested,” she recalls. “It’s humiliating.” After her responsibilities for Cook County Jail, she writes, “When you walk into those doors and you see hundreds of young black men chained together you see the hopelessness in their eyes and it does something to you.  I saw them as my brother. I saw my father in them…We are more than our charge. We are the whole person who can still have the ability to offer good in the world.” The War on Drugs does not fully explain the tragedy of urban violence in our cities.  There are many causes. But is time that we started to realize what is also true. The violence in our cities will not end until, at long last, we decriminalize low-level drug possession, thereby effectively ending the 47-year-old War on Drugs.  I am grateful that “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” is so effective in helping to make this case. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

Inside Out Network: Connecting Churches to Returning Citizens

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

Our nation continues to incarcerate over two million individuals annually. They will return to their communities, with limited prospects for housing, education, and jobs.  Many need mental health and substance abuse treatment. How can clergy and congregations help? Most just do not have the information to connect service providers and returning citizens.   That’s why I am delighted to present to you the Inside Out Network.  This interactive online system connects service providers, including clergy and congregations, with those coming out of prison. And vice versa.  It has been developed by Rev. Fred Nelson, a Lutheran parish pastor in Park Ridge, Chicago, who 13 years ago felt drawn to prison ministry.  He wrote the book Spiritual Guide for Prison and Beyond, which now has a national circulation of about 65,000.  He surveyed inmates and those who on the outside about their first year after release.  He reports, “They were talking about the dream they had of what would happen when they got out, how they would be a force for good, and even what role they wanted to play in the church.  Not every inmate, of course, but a surprisingly large number of them.” “It just wasn’t happening,” he continues. “What was going wrong? I landed on the twin evils of isolation and invisibility.  They are isolated from their support networks and families and friends while they’re locked up, but also the service providers, people working on the outside.” Rev. Nelson’s first step was to create RED Chicago, a hardcopy, 50-page Re-Entry Directory for the Chicago area:  “Our church produced that because we didn’t find anyone that had done something that was really geared for people getting out of prison.  “The Department of Corrections loved it and asked ‘Can you do something for the whole state,’” Nelson recalls. This is prompted him to take the basic concept to a “whole other level and make it available online.” Here’s how he describes the Inside Out Network: “It’s not an app.  It’s a website. Don’t think of it as an online database. Think of it as a dating site. It’s for people who want to connect, who want to find relevant matches that are proximate enough, near where they can actually connect with each other, filtered for the things they are looking for so that we can make that connection.  “You want to be known and seen and connected with the relevant people.  It’s the same for service providers. There are a lot of under-subscribed programs, unfilled beds.”  The services listed include housing and shelter, substance abuse treatment, food pantries, legal services, and multi-agency programs.   The Inside Out Network operates in Chicago, with a database of over 200 providers and several hundred returning citizens.  It is also active in cities in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. At the end of September, Rev. Nelson will be moving to Tucson, AZ to devote himself full time to the Network.   How will he bring it to scale? Basically, he sees the process as building a “network of networks.” He notes that existing coalitions have come together: “They reach out and say, ‘Hey, we’re in.  You want to be in? Then we can go to a Department of Corrections saying, ‘We’ve got a network going. Work with us.’” When I asked how anyone reading this piece could get involved, he said, “They can register their organization today.”  In addition to the web link, Rev. Nelson is eager to speak with anyone wishing to participate in or support the Inside Out Network. He can be reached at: Fred@insideoutnetwork.net and at 847-323-3744.  Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

Book Review- Addiction Nation Offers a Path to Those in Need

Tom Houseman Harm Reduction

Addiction Nation opens with a deeply personal story told in visceral detail. It describes  the weeks that author Timothy McMahon King spent in an intensive care unit, suffering from pancreatitis, on the verge of organ failure and death. He describes the agonizing pain he suffered, as well as the only resource that brought him any relief: opioids, specifically fentanyl. “Addiction Nation is my story,” he writes, “but it is our story too.” The subtitle of the book is What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us. King is not a journalist, nor is Addiction Nation a PhD thesis. The opioid crisis, and the challenges of treating substance use disorder, have been examined by several authors, from Gabor Maté to Beth Macy to Sam Quinones. King references their writing, as well as the mountain of research done on the spread of opioid use disorder, but his approach is unique. Instead it is King’s personal experience, and his faith-driven approach to recovery, that power Addiction Nation. King experienced opioid use disorder, describing his addiction to opioids that began with his time in the hospital. He is extremely lucky, and he understands that. “My story is one of early detection,” he explains, “of things that went right. It is a story that should be more common than it is… If everyone had what I had, the opioid crisis would not be what it is today.” King grew up in a religious household, and he has spent his life pondering and understanding the role that faith plays in his life. Few authors have explored the relationship between faith and addiction as deeply as King, or in a way that is as accessible to a Christian audience. Those who do not share this perspective may find the biblical allegories and quotes off-putting, as if King’s religious background detracts from the seriousness of his writing. But for those who share this worldview, it offers fascinating insight into how people treat both themselves and others. “Addiction is a kind of faith gone wrong,” King posits. King explains how he was able to come to terms with his own addiction and gain control of it. He needed to reckon with his own shame, fueled by the stigma that addiction was a “moral failing,” a sign of a weak will and a weak mind. Using his own experience as a jumping-off point, he tries to explain how complex addiction is, how universal an experience it is, and how shame and “tough love” are often the worst ways to handle it. King’s goal is loftier than garnering sympathy for people who use drugs, or pushing policy proposals that will save lives, although he does both. He wants to diagnose all of us, and help us understand how our lives have become steeped in addiction. “The idea of addiction as a disease,” he writes, ‘allowed me to let down my defenses and accept help.” But he also explores the idea of the so-called Disease Model of addiction and finds it imperfect and lacking. King argues that the opioid crisis, and addiction in general, is “more than a disease.” It is a complex hydra of impulses and emotions, a mobius strip of blame, shame, need, and fear, a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle. In order to defeat it, we must first untangle it and understand it. The drug addictions plaguing communities, cocaine and meth and heroin, have been exacerbated by politicians who, rather than trying to help people in need, choose to “wage war on our citizens.” These “tough on crime” policies have fed on racial stereotypes of “super predators” and “welfare queens,” but they hid the growing problem of drug addiction surging in affluent white communities as well as poor rural communities. King believes that addiction “reveals something about our culture, our economy, and our world that is very much considered ‘normal’ but is actually destroying what is human.” Opioids, he explains, “are not the cause of addiction, even though they are addictive.” Instead, addiction is driven by a desire to escape pain. For some that pain is physical, as it was for King, but for others it is emotional, psychological, even spiritual. Poverty, isolation, and hopelessness are all types of pain from which addiction offers a momentary escape at a great cost. There are no easy answers to the addiction crisis, because King explains that addiction itself is the easy answer. Instead, he promotes the idea of slow, deliberate changes made on both the personal and the systemic level. That is what King means when he writes about faith: that faith in ourselves, each other, and the slow process of growth are the only way to overcome addiction. We must grapple with our own shame and fear in order to promote positivity, rather than condemning addicts out of a misplaced superiority. “To struggle with control of our own actions is at the heart of what it means to be human.” As the opioid epidemic rages, more and more people either struggle with their own substance use disorders or know and love someone mired in addiction. These are the people for whom Addiction Nation is written: people who are afraid, who don’t know what to do, who know that the old answers won’t work and are looking for new solutions. For Christian audiences, and people who find strength in their faith, King’s story and perspective are inspiring and enlightening. For  anyone scared or ashamed, the ideas explored in Addiction Nation will help them remember the most important message in overcoming addiction: You are not alone. We are all in this together. Tom Houseman, Policy Director

Clergy Join Suit to Keep Drug Users Safe

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Harm Reduction

In Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love, community leaders, service providers, and key public officials have joined together to bring safe injection to their city. At the proposed facility, aptly named “Safehouse,” individuals struggling with addiction could use drugs under medical supervision.  This would be the first such program in the United States. But on February 6, the U.S. District Attorney in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania sued to keep Safehouse from opening its doors. William McSwain argued that it would violate the Controlled Substance Act, which is intended to ban the operation of “crack houses.” When Clergy for a New Drug Policy was asked recently to join an amicus brief rejecting efforts to block Safehouse, we couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.  Here is why. The United States is woefully and shamefully lacking when it comes to supervised injection facilities (SIFs).  Worldwide, there are over 120 in 12 countries, including Australia. As we reported last month, the score in North America is:  Canada 44, U.S. 0. The arguments on behalf of Safehouse are strong.  Evaluations of SIFs have demonstrated that they: reduce both overdose deaths and infections due to unclean needles; increase access to health care; and provide opportunity for treatment without requiring it.  Nor have there been negative consequences such as an increase in crime or public disorder where facilities are located. The amicus brief invokes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).  It argues that in moving against Safehouse, the U.S. attorney is “substantially impair(ing) the ability of its Christian and Jewish Board Members to practice at least two tenets that they sincerely hold.”   It raises an interesting and important question:  if you were asked to draft a brief that supported an SIF based on your faith, how would you make the case?  What would you consider to be the religious values at stake? The amicus brief offers two fundamental concepts. First, all humans are created in the image of God.  We have “a unique and unrivaled status in creation.” (All quotes are from the brief.) This special status lies at the heart of the commandment to love others as ourselves: “all therefore have value and significance and are worthy of others’ time, understanding, and advocacy.”  Guided by this concept, the brief argues that “In attempting to prevent adherents from providing care to those affected by the opioid crisis, the U.S. Attorney has dehumanized those in need and thus tainted God’s image… (and ) has also put the affected outside the reach of the community…thereby distancing neighbors from each other and God’s love.  The end result demeans the affected and strips them of their dignity, leaving God’s image in tatters.” Second, the brief asserts the inherent dignity and immeasurable worth of each human being. It argues that “in recognizing the dignity and humanity in all, Jesus announced that everyone, including the poor, the sick, and the sinners, are worthy of salvation and protection.”  It follows that “all humans, even opioid addicts, possess an intrinsic, sacred worth that adherents must honor with respect.” The drafters of the amicus brief make clear that it draws upon the core tenets of the Judeo-Christian, Islamic, and other traditions.  But in the final analysis, perhaps it does not entirely matter what its supporters call themselves and which faiths are represented. When Safehouse is finally up and running, it will embody the fundamental injunction that we love our neighbor. To love our neighbor is to know God. In this sense, Safehouse is a religious organization.  This is why it is worthy of our support. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

The Church of Safe Injection Saves Lives

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Faith Perspectives, Harm Reduction

There is a new church on the horizon.  It usually operates out of the back ends of cars, often after dark and late into the night.  So far it exists in six locations in Maine as well as in six other states. It is called the Church of Safe Injection.   Its founder is a 26-year old drug recovery coach named Jesse Harvey.  He preaches the Gospel of Harm Reduction: we should use all possible measures to protect drug users from the harm of their drug use. Measures include clean needle exchanges, and, in the case of potential overdose deaths, a life-saving substance called naloxone.   “All too often, people who use drugs are offered only two choices, ‘Get sober or die.’” Harvey wrote recently in the Portland Herald.  “Jesus would have rejected this shameful and lethal binary….’Let all that you do be done in love,’ states 1 Corinthians 16:14. Too often when ‘religious’ people attack us on Facebook, their hate shines through and they betray this passage.  They betray Jesus.” Last October Harvey started loading up the trunk of his 2017 Honda with sterile needles, naloxone, rubber tourniquets, alcohol swabs, and other materials to avoid infection.  Every week, usually in the evening, he drives to a site in Lewiston where drug users congregate. He makes these supplies available to all who need them. For many, these gatherings seem almost like a mass.  Harvey himself has no doubt he is doing what Jesus would have done: “If syringes had been around in Jesus’ day, He would have supported safe injection, and he would have made sure the people he hung out with had access to sterile supplies.” While many states have now authorized needle exchanges, 15 do not, and services that do exist are often sparse.  Maine, which spans over 35,385 square miles, offers only six, mostly in the southern part of the state. Only four make naloxone available. Harvey is certified as a minister by the Universal Life church, which ordains individuals to perform weddings, baptisms, funerals, and start congregations. He carries a card that identifies him as a “disciple & acolyte.” The Church of Safe Injection has only three rules for members:  they must welcome people of all faiths, including atheists; serve all marginalized people; and, of course, commit to supporting harm reduction. For the most part, the individuals have gathered outdoors. But there have been some house meetings along readings, including scripture. The location within a physical structure will bring Harvey closer to what has been his goal from the beginning:  a safe injection site where individuals can administer their own drugs under supervised care to insure safe and clear conditions. Such sites exist in at least 60 cities spread across Western Europe, Canada, and Australia. They are illegal in the United States, but strong support exists in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle.   Harvey’s strategy at this point is: first, to incorporate the church as a not-for-profit; and, then, to apply for a religious exemption from federal law.  He is looking to a 2006 Supreme Court decision that permitted a small sect to continue import a mind-altering drug – ayahuasca – for use in religious services. At the end of the day, what Jesse Harvey is doing is an act of civil disobedience. He is breaking the law.  He distributes more than the limit of 10 needles at a time permitted in Maine. He also has never obtained certification to operate a needle exchange facility.    He sees no alternative. “Overwhelmingly, the churches I’ve reached out to are not interested in helping people who use drugs…Politicians, law enforcement, and health care haven’t taken the lead here, so our church is,” he writes. “Join the Church of Safe Injection and save lives.”   “We do not encourage drug use. However, it is our sincere religious belief that people who use drugs do not deserve to die, not when there is a proven, cost-efficient, feasible, compassionate solution that can be so easily implemented.” Who among us can disagree? Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director