The Clergy for New Drug Policy Weekly News Round-up “Let justice roll down like waters.” Amos 5:24 Dear Friends and Colleagues, In 2020, voters in Oregon overwhelmingly supported ballot measure 110. This groundbreaking measure made Oregon the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs and expand addiction services through cannabis tax revenue. In addition, the state is establishing regulated access to psychedelic-assisted therapy and retreats. Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance called the passing of Measure 110, “the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date.” While the measure reduced the violence of the war on drugs, it would be a mistake to call it true peace. As Nelson Mandela reminded us: Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, gender, class, caste, or any other social markers of difference. Ending the “war on drugs” isn’t just about stopping the violence and trauma of arrests and incarceration, it’s about ensuring access to harm reduction, recovery services, health care, housing, and quality jobs. One of the major criticisms of Measure 110 has been that few people who have accessed services have entered into treatment. This is true but ignores that there are still huge gaps in treatment access and capacity throughout the state. And, additional funding for these services was held up until September 2022. We don’t have any reason to believe that Measure 110 has increased drug use. Overdoses in Oregon were on a rapid rise before the changes in the law due to illicit fentanyl contaminating the drug supply. And, we have no reason to believe that crime trends are any different than in other comparable cities. While critics have already proclaimed that Measure 110 is a “failed experiment,” the reality is that it has yet to be tried. War can provide a false sense of moral clarity. You know who the “enemy” is and you “win” by defeating them. The work of peace is much more difficult and slow going. It requires breaking down barriers and building opportunity. Arresting and caging a person today may make some voters feel better in the moment but it fails to take into account the generational trauma, devastated communities, and stifling of opportunity for years to come. In Oregon, the fighting has slowed. But, that doesn’t mean that true peace has been achieved. A lot more investment is needed in high-quality harm reduction and attractive treatment services to create an environment where everyone can flourish. We’ve provided a breakdown of more of what you need to know about Measure 110 below. Keep the Faith, Timothy McMahan King Oregon Voters Want Measure 110 to Remain in Place While two gubernatorial candidates actively campaign for repealing Measure 110, the public still believes in the project. A recent Data for Progress study of 1,051 Oregon voters found that Measure 110 retains strong majority support. Specifically, a majority of Oregon voters believe drug use and addiction is a public health issue and that Measure 110 should remain in place. Additionally, voters overwhelmingly support individual provisions of the law and understand that Measure 110 is not contributing to crime and homelessness in Oregon. Building the Evidence: Understanding the Impacts of Drug Decriminalization in Oregon Although politicians are falsely pushing the idea that Measure 110 is causing an increase in crime and overdoses, this claim is directly contradicted by another recent study. The study states: Additionally, drug possession arrests significantly decreased after Measure 110 took effect on February 1, 2021, according to data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. Once Measure 110 took effect, the monthly average fell by 65%, and it held steady for the first half of 2022. New study finds large gaps in services for substance use disorder treatment in Oregon There is still a lot more work to be done on ensuring the presence of opportunities where all can flourish. A study published in September found a nearly 50% gap in services for substance use disorder treatment, prevention, recovery, and harm reduction in Oregon. The study’s lead author, Katie Lenahan, a research project manager at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health stated “We definitely see gaps in harm reduction access. Syringe exchange programs, we have less than half of the number that is necessary to really meet the need. Naloxone distribution, we see a 28% gap, so the need for much more access to naloxone And then fentanyl test strips so people can test and make sure their drugs are safe, we saw about a 35% gap in facilities that offer that resource.” Without funding, groups doing harm reduction and recovery work can only be partially successful.
Fentanyl test strips allow for a safer supply and safer use, which minimizes the harmful effects of fentanyl rather than simply ignoring or condemning it.
Dear Friends and Colleagues, Blessings to all of you who are observing Holy Week and Passover this week. It’s been exciting to jump in with Rev. Sharp and help to identify new opportunities for the CNDP community to make a difference. Faith leaders are a critical voice when it comes to ending the War on Drugs. For too long, our society has reduced substance use and substance use disorders to moral failings and responded with punishment and incarceration. We are in desperate need of a compassionate public health approach to drug use. First, thanks to all of you who took action to support the Marijuana Opportunity and Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. The bill has passed the House! As you might know, the Senate will be the big challenge for this legislation. But, this historic House vote continues to demonstrate that the tide is turning against cannabis prohibition. Second, we have another action opportunity for you. CNDP has partnered with Faith in Harm Reduction to launch a faith-leaders sign-on letter to support the opening of Overdose Prevention Centers (OPCs) — oftentimes referred to as supervised consumption sites. 120 OPCs operate in countries across the globe. They are an evidence-based harm-reduction strategy that saves lives, improves health, and reduces the spread of disease. OPCs allow people who use drugs to do so in a medically supervised environment and provide critical services like drug testing and sanitary equipment. No one has ever died from an overdose in an OPC. They’ve been studied intensively and shown not to increase drug use or crime in the communities where they operate. Tragically, they are still considered illegal under federal law. New York City opened the United State’s first official OPC back in December in a direct challenge to these unjust restrictions. Now, Attorney General Merrick Garland will make a determination as to whether or not the federal government will move to close these centers or allow them to operate. Will you make sure that AG Garland hears from faith leaders who support this important work? Add your name and voice today. Sincerely, Timothy McMahan King
As this unremittingly grim, even dark year, draws to a close, I offer one ray of light in the area of drug policy. For the first time, the United States now has overdose prevention sites up and running. 59 opioid overdoses, most potentially fatal, have been reversed in the first month of operation. This major breakthrough took place in New York City on November 30. In two locations—Washington Heights and East Harlem–individuals struggling with substance use now can inject drugs under medical supervision, rather than doing so alone, often in dirty alleyways and public bathrooms. These sites, soon to be linked in a new organization called OnPoint NYC, offer a variety of other medical services. Drug treatment is available but not required. Individuals can also test their drugs for the highly lethal drug fentanyl and other contaminants, thus protecting themselves from a major cause of overdose deaths. Our nation experienced over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2020, with over 2,000 in New York City alone. The United States has been waiting for too long – far too long – for overdose prevention sites. Over 120 in exist in 10 countries including France, Germany, Norway, Spain, Canada, and Australia. They save lives, result in safer communities, and enjoy the support of law enforcement. Two years ago, it appeared that such a site would open in Philadelphia. The mayor, city council, and law enforcement officials were supportive. But the Trump administration’s regional U.S. District Attorney blocked the opening under the so-called crack house law, which bans operating, owning, or renting a location to facilitate the use of illegal drugs. The Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal. In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio began supporting overdose prevention sites in 2018 and has been joined by the district attorneys for Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Harlem. Mayor-elect Eric Adams has also expressed support. President Biden recently became the first U.S. president to endorse harm reduction and has proposed over $30 million in federal funding. The U.S. Justice Department has not yet commented on whether it will intervene. City officials have urged Attorney General Merrick Garland not to prosecute operators of sites where local officials have approved them. These sites are not a new issue for Clergy for New Drug Policy. In 2016, we organized a clergy visit to Insite in Vancouver, at that time only such site in North America. We have supported efforts to open sites in other locations. While New York City’s is the first, we were delighted to hear that the Rhode Island state legislature has authorized two pilot programs. The concept also is being intensely debated in cities across the country, including San Francisco, Denver, and Boston. Why is this step in the United States such a significant breakthrough? The saved lives are surely important. 600 New Yorkers died of opioid overdose in the first three months of 2021. This number might have been cut by at least 30% had the two new sites been operating. More fundamentally, the sites are important because they are the purest expression of harm reduction, in which the focus is on reducing harm to those struggling with substance use rather than insisting on abstinence as the only moral approach. Measures such as: testing for contaminants such as fentanyl; sterile syringes; the availability of Naloxone, a drug that almost instantly can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose; and medication for opioid use disorder such as methadone, buprenorphine and other drugs. These measures are increasingly accepted, but they will not help individuals who are dead. In their first month, the New York City sites have received strong community support. Their director, Sam Rivera, notes, “We are partnering with the NY Police Department,” as he told a New York City radio audience recently. “They are here at our sites to support us and make sure there are no disruptions to what we are offering. They ask us for paperwork so they can refer people to us who they see are using drugs.” “The sites really speak for themselves,” commented staff member Kailin See. “They’re not just for people who use drugs, they are also for the communities where they’re located. The community asked for less public injection, fewer improperly discarded syringes on streets and playgrounds, less overdose death, less crime in their neighborhoods.” The sites received high praise from an emergency department nurse: “In many cases, departments are overrun and the staff is exhausted. I’ve personally tried to resuscitate patients who — even though emergency services got to them and gave them Narcan – died because it was too late, and we’ve lost those patients. Anything we can do to decrease the burden on emergency services is really important.” One New Yorker recalled, “I was a resident of Washington Heights [and] used some of the safe needle exchange services probably 10 years ago. Only because of programs you’re talking about was I able to get clean, stay clean, reintegrate into society, hold a solid job. I hear people saying things like ‘Not in my backyard.’ But you’re right, you are where there is the most need.” As we close the door on a most difficult and troubling year, may I extend my best wishes for a healthier and happier New Year in 2022. Sincerely, Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy
As we witness the agony of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, most of us think that after 20 years there at least we are ending America’s longest war. But conventional wisdom would be wrong. The United States is still fighting a War on Drugs which Richard Nixon officially declared on June 17, 1971, over fifty years ago. Both wars have been fueled by false assumptions. When the concepts that are used to justify a war prove misguided, it is reasonable to believe that our leaders, supported by the public, will change course. This is what has caused us to leave Afghanistan. The same thing can happen with the War on Drugs. The false premises that have propped up the War on Drugs for over 50 years are clear. The first misguided assumption is that the best way to keep individuals from using, and too often abusing, drugs is to punish them. Prohibition, which criminalizes drug use, does not work. As President Carter famously observed, it is a cure worse than the disease. If punishment were a meaningful deterrent, we would have won the Drug War long ago. The American public understands this. 68% of the U.S. public supports the legalization of cannabis. Adult recreational use is now legal in 19 states and D.C.; medical marijuana in 36. Slightly more than one-half support the decriminalization of low-level use of all drugs. The second false assumption is that drug use, rather than the harm caused by drugs, should be the object of our concern and the metric by which we should define success. Our policy metric when it comes to drugs should be “harm,” not “abstinence.” Tragically, it took the AIDS crisis beginning in the early 1980s even to conceive of this approach, so obvious when you think about it. As AIDS spread, it became clear that individuals using drugs were being infected by sharing contaminated needles, and that such infections could be minimized by making clean syringes available. Like decriminalization, harm reduction enjoys growing public support. Clean needles are now available in 300 exchanges across the country, and the federal ban on such services has been lifted. Naloxone, an antidote which can quickly bring an individual back from drug overdose, is legal in 49 states and available over the counter; there are over 120 overdose prevention sites throughout the world, where individuals can safely test their drugs and use them under medical supervision. We will have such a site in the United States very soon. Specifying the false premises of the War on Drugs helps us to understand what an end to that war would look like. We also now have proposed federal legislation that would get us there. On June 15, 50 years after Nixon declared his War on Drugs, representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO), working with the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA). This bill would decriminalize low-level possession of all drugs, treating such offenses like a traffic violation. It would shift drug regulatory authority from the Department of Justice to Health and Human Services “to emphasize that substance use is a health issue and not a criminal issue.” If passed, it would drive a stake through the heart of the War on Drugs. How close are we to its passing? All the suffering notwithstanding, it was obviously easier to withdraw from Afghanistan than it will be to end the War on Drugs. The former was possible through Executive Action. Congressional approval is much harder. This is especially the case since the War on Drugs has entrenched support among stakeholders in the current system such as prosecutorial offices and prisons, sweetened with federal funds, at virtually all levels of government. Further, lawmakers who support drug policy reform can be labeled by opponents as “soft on crime.” For these and other reasons, developing a national constituency for the Drug Reform Policy Act will require the same kind of state-by-state trench warfare that has brought us to the cusp of national marijuana legalization. Oregon took the first step in February 2021 when it decriminalized low-level possession of all drugs in combination with access to 10 treatment centers across the state. Executive leadership could make a big difference. Perhaps this is not so far-fetched. As a presidential candidate in 2020, Pete Buttigieg stated that he would “eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses and apply these reductions retroactively, and legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions.” These would be important first steps. It has taken over 50 years for policies to emerge that respond to the potential dangers of drug abuse and addiction with healing and compassion rather than false assumptions about punishment and incarceration. It is time now to bring to an end what is, in fact, America’s longest war.