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.
Kassandra Frederique: “The Drug War is a manifestation of the things that we have failed at. How do we have a conversation about alternatives? How do we build the capacity for our communities to care for each other? “People create hospitals and churches. But sadly, what we also recognize is that both those institutions have failed us miserably. If those institutions don’t see that they have helped to create the conditions in this moment, then we’re not actually having a conversation about what their true role is. “For some people, faith and spirituality fill a spiritual void. But if their institutions still traffic in stigma, miseducation, racism, sexism, a prosperity gospel… [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]” Monique Tula:“I can’t get away from the fact that the War on Drugs is as much driven by capitalism as it is by racism. Today’s governing bodies and corporate CEOs are overwhelmingly white, wealthy, cis men. Although we’re seeing countries like China and India changing some of those demographics, the endgame looks like colonization and domination of the earth’s resources. This keeps the oppressed in a constant state of struggle: constantly distraught, constantly distracted, constantly divided. All we see is ‘other.’ “ Frederique: “You list the Fortune 500 companies. What about the faith community? The faith communities often have the same kind of leadership, the same kind of investment, the same commitment to upholding the status quo of the people that benefit most from capitalism.” Tula:“Or to upholding those Victorian values and religious dogma—the idea that abstinence and chastity will keep you off of the road to perdition.” Frederique:“I’m excited for anyone that wants to help us end the overdose crisis. But what I ask about is the purpose of the faith institutions. Is it for control or as an ally towards freedom? Are you trying to control people or are you trying to give people strategies to take down the structure that created the circumstances we are navigating through right now? We can’t save anybody. We’re not going to fix anybody. We have to give folks the resources to do that healing within themselves.” Tula:“I had this spiritual awakening sometime after the last Harm Reduction Conference in New Orleans, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since. I started listening to Eckhart Tolle. His latest book is called A New Earth. He writes about global transformations. One is the global market economy, driven by capitalism. Another is the reality that people around the world are awakening to a new state of consciousness. Although we exist in separate bodies in separate forms, the energy that flows through us is the same. At our core we’re actually connected. “Tolle talks about how many of us are awakening to the primacy of unconditional love. He says that people are gaining this greater self-awareness. We’re beginning to understand our symbiotic relationship with the planet which cannot be sustained if we continue to exploit its resources with no regard for the future, for our children. If we’re all connected, then harm to one is harm to us all. “Have you noticed that there is a shift away from top-down decision making, from those values that are rooted in the patriarchy and in white supremacy? “The reality is that there are enough resources on this planet for all of us. It is just a matter of how they’re distributed. Policies that formed the foundation of the War on Drugs are rooted in a dying paradigm fueled by capitalism and criminalization. “Let us remember Audre Lorde’s classic quote, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.’ Problems can’t be solved with the same level of consciousness that gave rise into them in the first place. We need a shift—a complete shift—a new way of thinking. Deconstruction of the old world needs to happen in order to make space for this new consciousness to emerge. “Those of us who practice and believe in the power of harm reduction, we’re the culture makers. We’ve been on the edge, we’ve been on the fringe. I want to point to my dear colleague Allan Clear, who was one of the founders of harm reduction in this country, the first executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition 26 years ago. “We were not in churches very much. But I will say that there have been faith leaders and faith communities that low-key supported harm reduction since the very beginning. The first needle exchange program that I worked in was housed in a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Harm reduction is often limited to describing public health strategies and interventions to prevent people from contracting infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis or fatal overdoses. But harm reduction is more than a public intervention. Think of these interventions as harm reduction with ‘lowercase HR.’ “Harm Reduction with ‘uppercase HR’ is a local grassroots advocacy effort that bridges public health with civil rights and community mobilization. Our aim is to shift power and resources to people most vulnerable to structural violence. We are challenging the prevailing notion that people who use drugs are bad and that they’re broken.” Frederique:“I struggle with ‘lowercase harm reduction.’ We think that the goal is syringe exchange or an overdose prevention center. We see Naloxone as harm reduction. Then abstinence-based organizations say, ‘We’re harm reductionists because we use Naloxone.’ That’s not what it is. “Harm reduction is a beautiful thing. I consider it a part of my ministry because of the church I belong to. But we operate in the framework of capitalism. This causes us to violate the integrity of our framework. “We are allowing other institutions to judge our spirituality in a way that we never would. The fact that the academy can take something like syringe exchange or Naloxone and then talk about moral hazards shows that they are claiming the high ground. “We have to be clear about who the moral compass is because those institutions are not without sin. They are so ready to tell us that we are the sinful ones. Why is it that we bow our heads down to false prophets? The economy is a false prophet, organized religion is a false prophet, the medical system is a false prophet. “We are the moral ground, high and low. There are no hierarchies in our morality. And that is why when we have a conversation about what the role of faith groups are in the overdose crisis, in the drug war, if you believe that you are the moral leader, that you will dictate what morality looks like, then keep it. I don’t want to come to your church. I don’t want to come to your temple. I don’t want to come to your synagogue. I don’t want it to come to your circle. I want you to come to ours.” (This dialogue has been edited for clarity and length.)
“Recovery Dharma is a non-profit organization that uses traditional Buddhist teachings, which we know as Dharma, to overcome addiction through meditation, self-inquiry, wisdom, and compassion. Recovery Dharma encourages full abstinence and renunciation from all recreational mind and mood-altering substances. For those with process addictions such as food, technology, gambling, sex, pornography, of course, complete abstinence may not be possible. “Support in navigating the program of Recovery Dharma is available through mentors who have experience in the program, who have a period of renunciation or sobriety under their belt. They are matched specifically with newcomers who are struggling with any specific addiction. “It is important to take a look at what substance abuse treatment opportunities are available. For many individuals, there is detoxification, which of course is limited to several days. There are inpatient rehabilitation centers, outpatient rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and medication-assisted treatment. It is critical to focus on aftercare. In general, about 75%-80% of individuals who do not remain connected to a sober support community will tend to relapse and struggle greatly with maintaining long-term recovery. “Recovery Dharma is based and centered on the idea that meditation on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path—most importantly, the support of sangha (community) in our meetings—can foster a journey towards long-term recovery. “The Four Noble Truths tell us that in life there is suffering. The cause of suffering is craving. The cessation of suffering comes with the cessation of craving. The Eightfold Path leads from such suffering. This includes: wise understanding, wise intention, wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood, wise effort, wise concentration, and wise mindfulness. “Why meditation? To pray is to ask and give thanks. To meditate is to listen. It is quieting the mind and calming the body long enough to receive the guidance for which we pray. There are numerous meditations that focus on gratitude, compassion, and loving kindness. “Meditation is also an excellent tool for down-regulating the nervous system, especially for those who have survived trauma. Meditation has been proven to be helpful with various medical conditions, stress, burnout, anxiety and depression, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, improved focus, emotional regulation, and perspective. “The prevalence of trauma in addiction is astounding. The co-occurring ranks as high as 90%. As a result, trauma-informed care is critical in combating substance abuse disorder. This is one of the greatest differences between Recovery Dharma and many other community sober support programs. Our literature is trauma-informed because we understand the prevalence between trauma and addiction. “Non-identification as an addict or alcoholic is something we practice in order to reduce shame and stigma. In our meetings, it does not matter if you have a substance abuse disorder. It does not matter if you have a process addiction. It does not matter if you show up with a codependency issue. We simply introduce ourselves by our name and our preferred gender pronoun. “We also provide regular overdose prevention and Naloxone training. We have regularly planned social leisure programming for our in-person and online meetings. And most critically, we are open to people of all faiths and walks of life. Our program does not require belief in a God or higher power. A spiritual program has to be developed by the individual. No one should be stressed into believing something that they are not open to at a particular time. “We do not ask anybody to give up participation in any other meeting, recovery program, or spiritual practice. Many of us actually combine traditional 12-step or other recovery programs with our Recovery Dharma program. “We are easily found on RecoveryDharma.org. This will take you to our major website, which covers national and international programs. We are an international program with an international board and founder that provides us with the support that we need and the resources that we need, whether you’re in the United States or not. Faith and spirituality are complicated. As a survivor of religious abuse, it was extremely difficult for me to conform to a 12-step program for quite some time. Eventually it saved my life, but mindfulness and meditation and turning more towards Buddhist practices was critical. Without this option, I do not believe I would still be standing here today.” (This presentation has been edited for length.)
“I’m a pastor, that’s my passion. And I’m a community organizer. I was born in Puerto Rico. I grew up there. My father was a doctor. The church was the biggest shock absorber to keep me going. My biggest passion for harm reduction comes from having this traumatic experience as a priest to bury six of my brothers with HIV and drugs-related issues. I still miss them. That is one of the things that keeps me going. In every single person that uses drugs, I see my brothers’ faces. “In 1990, I was the person in charge of the Saint Ann’s crime and harm reduction [program]. That’s when I found Joyce Rivera. A lot of snow, winter, oh god, and I’m passing by. I know all the drug dealers in our community. So, there is this young lady, pregnant, in a car, the trunk of the car is open, and she is giving out something. So, I went there, and I say, young lady, what are you doing here? You’re freezing here. Of course, she can’t close her coat because she’s pregnant. She’s nine months pregnant, okay? “I see the needles, and the condoms, and everything there. I came out with a stupid question: ‘So what are you doing giving out these things here in this weather and in this place?’ She slapped my face: ‘Because you do not allow me to be inside the church to do it.’ So next day, she was inside. That’s how we started to work together at St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction. It has been 30 years and we are still growing. “My brothers and St. Ann’s gave a whole shape to my theology. When I went to divinity school, I had no idea about saving souls. I still have a problem. But I know God knows how to do that. So I’m going to give that to God. My biggest responsibility is about saving lives. “By any means necessary. That’s the whole point. I’m going to save your life. I need to keep you going because I never know when you will want to make some drastic changes. And if you don’t, I will demand exactly what I demand from people who do not use drugs. You have to be responsible. “In my pastoral theology, harm reduction is a set of practical strategies to reduce any damage that is going to touch God’s creation. Starting with Genesis Ch. 1, v. 26, we were created in the image of God. If I manage to see that you are the image of God, I’m going to have a different angle to build a relationship with you. We need to learn how to connect and reconnect with people. The connection with people always reconnects me to God. You are my way to God because you are the image of God. You deserve serious respect. “Harm reduction is part of the course that I teach at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I’m a human rights activist. We need to understand that people who use drugs have human rights. Some people in communities of faith say we do not deal with politics. One of my favorite leaders in this field is [Archbishop] Desmond Tutu, who says there is nothing more political than to say that the church is not supposed to deal with politics. We are always dealing with politics. The only question is what kind of politics we are going to deal with. I want to deal with the politics of the body. These bodies are the image of God.” (This presentation has been edited for clarity and length.)
Blyth Barnow is a preacher, harm reductionist, writer, and community organizer, and serves as the Harm Reduction Faith Coordinator for Faith in Public Life Ohio. She works to establish harm reduction resources for faith-based communities and has brought her worship service, Naloxone Saves, to several states. “I try to leverage the power of clergy in service of people who are doing harm reduction work, people who use drugs, people who do sex work. It matters what clergy say. “I remember the first time I officiated at a funeral. An older gentleman had died by suicide. His daughter presumed that I was judging her father as I presided over the service. She never spoke to me. That was her experience of clergy. “I went to seminary because people that I loved had never been treated with dignity in the church—as people who use drugs, as people who do sex work, as queer people. I lost a partner to an overdose. He was condemned to hell at his funeral. All of us were condemned for living the same lifestyle. I sat in the pew with friends. Almost all of them now are dead or locked up. I think the message that that pastor passed on that day is part of how they got there. “I wanted to be able to provide spiritual care and ritual to my community so that people didn’t have to hide when they were offering and receiving care. I want to figure out how we return something that has been stolen from people—their access to spiritual care. “Dignity and divinity are related. When you support people in accessing their dignity you are opening up what is divine within them already. When you wound their dignity, you are committing an act of spiritual violence. “I developed a worship service called Naloxone Saves. It started sassy: ‘Okay, Jesus saves. But Naloxone really saves.’ It has evolved from there. Naloxone Saves is a very standard order of worship for Christian services: prayers, hymns, and a sermon, which I deliver. “We train people to recognize and respond to an overdose in the context of worship. When people come up to receive their kits as if receiving communion, we all together bless the kits as we distribute them. We talk about reversing an overdose as an act of resurrection that Christians are called to participate in. “If our faith is founded in the power of resurrection, how are we participating here on earth? I worked with the overdose ministries of the United Church of Christ. We have developed these buttons that say, ‘People who use drugs are beloved by God.’ “I had the chance to offer a version of the Naloxone Saves service for a church in Minneapolis. While we were there, the pastor found out that one of his families in his church lost their son to an overdose. The church decided that it wanted to become an ongoing site in distributing Naloxone and other harm reduction supplies, and to formalize their relationship with Southside Harm Reduction in Minneapolis. “At that young man’s funeral, everybody was wearing a pin that said, ‘People who use drugs are beloved by God.’ As they walked out of the service, they could access harm reduction supplies like Naloxone, and sterile equipment, putting some resources behind that effort. “I think about my path from a funeral where someone is condemned to hell to one with the message that people who use drugs are unconditionally loved by God. I felt the community experiencing this love. That is why we work.” (These comments are excerpted from Blyth Barnow’s participation on the panel “Having Faith in Harm Reduction” during the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference in St. Louis.)