Why Decriminalization is Not Enough

Tom Houseman Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization

There have long been two sets of de facto marijuana laws: one that punishes people of color in poor communities; and another, far more lenient — when they are enforced at all — for whites, mostly in the suburbs. This is largely because of discriminatory law enforcement.  Blacks and Latinos have long been at least three times more likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana possession. Those who oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use would have us believe that a half-measure, called decriminalization, would end this social injustice of the past 80 years. They want us to treat low-level marijuana possession like a civil, not a criminal, offense. This, they say, will solve the problem. They also argue that decriminalization is the best way to protect public safety.  They are wrong on both counts. Historical perspective is helpful here. Anti-marijuana advocates opposed medical marijuana, now legal in 33 states, every step of the way.  Many, including Alex Berenson in his new book Tell Our Children, still do: “Marijuana is not medicine.” he writes.  Most opponents were also against decriminalization when it was first brought forward. Decriminalization is now is their new line in the sand. They are united in supporting it. Why does decriminalization not eliminate the harmful effects of law enforcement primarily on minority communities? Civil offenses generally include a fine – up to $200 in Illinois. Fines can have a debilitating effect on lives at the margin. The New York Times and National Public Radio have both thoroughly documented the impact that accumulating fines can have on those living paycheck to paycheck. The Federal Reserve Board has estimated that 40 percent of Americans don’t have enough money to cover an emergency expense of $400. Decriminalization continues to provide law enforcement with an excuse to target poor communities of color. “In certain communities, some police just throw the book at people,” an activist commented recently. Until marijuana is legal, it will potentially continue to be an instrument of harassment. Some people sell marijuana to support a substance use disorder or because they have no other means to subsist and, in some cases, feed their families.  Decriminalization does not address this issue. A legal, regulated market with a focus on social equity could provide opportunities for these people to seek treatment or jobs.   Finally, marijuana arrests continue to be higher under decriminalization. This is because the amount of marijuana one can possess with legalization is higher, usually 30 grams, rather than 10 grams under decriminalization.  In Washington, marijuana convictions decreased by 76% from 2011 to 2015 and by 96% in Oregon between 2013 and 2016. When it comes to public safety, opponents fail to recognize that decriminalization is still a form of prohibition. In fact, it is the same kind of prohibition that was disastrously applied to alcohol in the 1920’s. Decriminalizing marijuana without legalizing it does not solve any of the problems associated with prohibition. It does not address the issues of the illicit, street corner, school yard, back alley markets and their myriad negative effects on both communities and drug users. Without a regulated market, any time individuals buy drugs they are doing so through the black market from an unlicensed dealer. They have no way of verifying what they are actually buying, and no recourse if something goes wrong. Legalizing marijuana, and creating a taxed and regulated market, will solve these problems. A regulated retail market will make it safer for people to use marijuana, create jobs, and provide opportunities to revitalize neighborhoods trampled by the War on Drugs. These opportunities are just not possible – even as current injustices continue – under decriminalization. In short, despite what opponents say, stopping short of full legalization does not ensure social justice nor does it adequately service public safety. Decriminalization is not enough. Tom Houseman, Policy DirectorRev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

Marijuana Reform: Framing the Debate

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization

In theological terms that go back to Augustine and Aquinas, the War on Drugs is not a Just War.  First, it has no reasonable chance of success. Second, it has disproportionately harmed others, especially people of color. Third, reasonable alternatives exist, especially drug treatment rather than jail or prison for those struggling with substance use disorder. As we head into 2019, thirty-three states have now legalized medical marijuana, 13 have decriminalized it, and 10 have approved legalization for recreational use. Policy debates are intensifying as opponents fear a new national approach to drug policy is taking hold. Witness the just published book Tell Our Children by journalist and novelist Alex Berenson warning that marijuana can cause psychosis and other mental illness.  This is not a new concern. But as similar incomplete and partisan tracts appear, it is more important than ever before to examine the basic assumptions underlying the national marijuana debate. The struggle is really between “prohibition” and “regulation.”  Is this too simple? I don’t think so. Those opposing legalization now make their stand at decriminalization. This is really a soft word for prohibition.  All production and distribution would remain with the illicit market. Low level users are given a civil citation, a small fine, like a traffic ticket. The same was true during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s: drinking liquor was legal, but selling it was not. The best way to think about drug use and most other vices (defined as any activity that provides pleasure but also the possibility of harm) is set forth in the book Regulating Vice by James Leitzel, who teaches public policy and economics at the University of Chicago.   Leitzel argues for regulations that protect youth, those in the throes of addiction and therefore unable to make rational decisions, and drug use that will likely harm others, such as driving while intoxicated.  None of this requires prohibition, which creates more harm than good. As for legalization, I tell my clergy colleagues that is a misnomer: what they are really supporting is “regulation and taxation.”  I have heard opponents assert that we are encouraging marijuana use. In fact, we are merely acknowledging the reality of drugs in our society, including marijuana, and seeking the most effective ways to prevent abuse.   The clearest evidence of the prohibition mindset is the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. According to this Schedule, marijuana is as dangerous as heroin and ecstasy, and has “no currently accepted medical use.” Federal agencies use this classification to block scientific studies even as they oppose drug policy reform citing a lack of research.  Most opponents of marijuana legalization try to defend this nonsensical classification. Where does all this leave us?  On November 20, 2018, U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III laid out a critical next step: “our federal policy on marijuana is badly broken… [Congress must] remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)” and legalize it at the federal level. After 47 years of a tragic War on Drugs that has cost our nation over $1 trillion dollars and destroyed innumerable lives, federal legalization will make it possible to continue to test regulation, starting with marijuana, at the state level.  Perhaps, at long last, we can end drug prohibition and achieve a national policy concerning drug use that best meets the needs of all our citizens. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

The Midterm Elections: A Very Good Day

grygielny Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana

Let us be grateful for our U.S. federal system. In the face of a Washington bureaucracy mired in inertia and self-preservation, and a U.S. Congress reluctant to act, it is the individual states that will finally shut down our nation’s tragic and failed War on Drugs. At the federal level, the Drug Enforcement Administration –ostrich-like – still labels marijuana a Schedule 1 drug with “no currently accepted medical use.” National policies are shamefully ambivalent about harm reduction measures such as clean needle exchanges, naloxone, and medically assisted treatment. Private prison expenditures are steadily growing under the Trump administration.  Civil asset forfeiture is still federal policy. That’s why we must celebrate what happened in Michigan, Missouri, Utah, and Florida on November 6. As our Drug Policy State Grading Map makes clear, each state has its own story to tell about where it ranks in the effort to end the War on Drugs and what it has just contributed to this goal. Michigan became the first in the Midwest to approve marijuana for recreational use, joining nine from the East and West.  It raised its drug policy map grade for marijuana to an “A”, thereby achieving a composite grade across our entire agenda of B-, up from C+.  It falls short of a higher grade because of its punitive position on civil asset forfeiture and a limited Good Samaritan law.   Voters in Utah approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana.  This is remarkable in a state where over 60% of the electorate is Mormon, that is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, a religion which counsels its members to avoid any substance that might be habit forming, including tobacco, coffee and tea. Even after the ballot initiative, Utah’s grade on marijuana policy remains “C”.  It is unlikely any time soon to join the 30 states that have either decriminalized marijuana or legalized it for recreational use.   Utah thus provides a significant precedent for those in other states trying to decide whether to move forward with medical marijuana.  I have just returned from recruiting clergy in South Carolina to support medical marijuana next year. When I point out that Mormons, even with their commitment to abstaining from all stimulants, can support marijuana as medicine because it brings healing, clergy get the point. Missouri also approved medical marijuana, thus raising its marijuana laws to a “B”.  They have yet to decriminalize marijuana, that is, treating low-level possession as a civil offense, like a traffic ticket. When it comes to “game changers”, perhaps the most remarkable event of November 6 was what happened it Florida.  Voters approved a state constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, including parole and probation.  This will change the status of 1.5 million individuals starting January 8. Although this measure does not involve drug laws, it is part of our agenda. Why? Because it is the War on Drugs that has deprived so many people of the right to vote: over 6.1 million individuals are disenfranchised across the nation due to felony convictions.  Almost 50% of those in federal and 15% in state prisons currently are incarcerated for drug offenses. Despite this dramatic step forward, Florida’s grade under this category increases only to a C+.  The state continues to limit access of convicted felons to supplemental assistance under the SNAP program and also operates private prisons. Both these policies harm large numbers of those convicted of low-level drug possession.   With the state actions in Michigan, Utah, and Missouri on November 6, thirty-three states, encompassing at least 65% of the national population, will soon permit medical marijuana.  Ten have now voted to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use. Florida has decided it will no longer deny 1.5 million citizens their constitutional rights. All in all, it was a very good day. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director 

A Choice That Must Be Widely Available

grygielny Guest Pieces, Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana

I was pleased to see in Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s April 2018, Open Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in which he addressed how medicinal marijuana could help us work our way out of the opioid epidemic. It was Dr. Gupta’s plea to Attorney General Sessions that inspired me to share my own story. If I had known in 2009 and 2014 what I know now about cannabis, my recovery from brain surgery would have been much different. In 2005 the onset of migraines, vision problems, and pituitary dysfunction led to the discovery of a Rathke’s cleft cyst (RCC) in my brain. A Rathke’s cleft cyst is a benign growth that develops between the parts of the pituitary gland and the base of the brain. In 2009, after four years of increasing migraines and worsening symptoms, I decided to have the RCC removed by a neurosurgery team at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver. The recovery was painful and took longer than I anticipated. My doctor prescribed me Oxycontin (oxycodone) for pain management. The Oxy successfully took the edge off the pain, but it also made me itchy, nauseous, constipated, irritable, and wholly unable to function normally. I had also heard stories of how addictive the medication could be as well as stories of accidental overdoses, and these concerned me. After about one week, I decided that the side effects were too much to manage, and I stopped taking it, only to be met with overwhelming pain. The Tylenol (acetaminophen) I was taking was not enough to manage the level of pain I was experiencing. I went back on the Oxycontin for another two weeks and battled through the side effects before finally deciding to quit Oxy once again and push through the remainder of my recovery with Tylenol only. By 2015 the hardest part of my recovery from this, and a second surgery, was behind me.  I was able to move away from relying on prescription pain medications to manage my migraines. I returned full-time to my position as a health and special education teacher at an alternative high school in Colorado, where I worked with youth ranging in age from 14 to 18 years. In 2014 the sale of recreational marijuana began in the state of Colorado, and when I returned to work after surgery my students had a lot of questions about marijuana. They did not understand the differences between medicinal and recreational uses or products, and quite frankly neither did I. One student asked if a child who was using cannabis for treatment of epilepsy was also getting high, and I didn’t know the answer. I was frustrated by the lack of updated and accurate curricula to address all of these issues appropriately. My coworker and I set out to create science-based youth marijuana prevention curricula that addressed marijuana as a legal substance and differentiated between medicinal use and recreational use as well as recognized the important differences between adult use and use during adolescence when the brain is still developing. We spent a year learning from and working with specialists in various fields to develop our programs. What we learned reshaped our educational approach to prevention but also reshaped my personal approach to pain management. We were able to move away from the egg-and-frying-pan scare tactics into the world of science- and research-based educational practices. In 2016, still suffering from periodic migraines largely a result of my previous brain surgeries, I decided to put to use my knowledge about cannabis, the endocannabinoid system, and the compounds THC and CBD to see whether I could find a better form of migraine prevention and migraine pain management. Not a fan of smoking, I researched tinctures and edibles, working to find a THC and CBD balance that was effective for me. Ultimately, I found a form of cannabis-based pain management that works better and more consistently than any of the prescription painkillers I have taken since 2005. By and large I am able to treat my migraine pain with high CBD cannabis-based products without suffering any side effects.    I have two teenage daughters, and I don’t hide from them the fact that I use medicinal marijuana to treat my migraines. Instead, I use it as an opportunity to talk with them about the important differences between my brain (as an adult) and their brains, which are still developing. We also talk about the medicinal uses of cannabis such as in treating childhood epilepsy and how that differs from recreational use. Had I known prior to my brain surgeries what I know now, I would not have had to choose between extreme pain and extreme Oxycontin side effects. I could have used cannabis as a form of pain management instead.  This is an option that should be afforded to everyone. Sarah Grippa is a high school teacher in Colorado and the Co-Founder of the Marijuana Education Initiative.

What Clergy Need to Know About Legalizing Marijuana

grygielny Marijuana Legalization, MI

(This blog speaks to clergy considering Proposal 1 which would legalize marijuana in Michigan. The main points are pertinent to clergy in North Dakota who will have the opportunity to support a similar measure next Tuesday.) On November 6, voters in Michigan will decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Many clergy, especially those in affluent white neighborhoods, will choose to remain silent. Who needs controversy? Drug use is a complicated issue. But across all faiths and races, we should be supporting  Proposal 1. Here is why. The first reason is that arresting people for low-level marijuana possession can mangle their lives. Those who cannot afford bail, most often minorities, sit in jail for days, sometime months, waiting for their cases to be heard. Marijuana convictions limit job and housing opportunities, and loss of public benefits. Legalization changes this dramatically. Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize in 2012. Arrests have fallen by 46% and 75% respectively. Legalization will at long last help our nation atone for past racial sins. New Jersey and Illinois are considering the expungement of records for those, mostly African American, who have been convicted of marijuana possession, and directing funds from taxes on marijuana sales to communities damaged by the War on Drugs. California has already moved in this direction. This will not happen without legalization. While the ballot initiative in Michigan does not call for such measures, if it passes the General Assembly can consider them as they decide how to implement Proposal 1. As clergy, we should care about public safety. Under the status quo, illicit markets have a monopoly on marijuana distribution. This makes regulation impossible. Legalization will permit labeling, dosage measurements, age limits, and quality control. Playground and back alley distributors do not care about such safeguards. Just as it did with alcohol, prohibition of marijuana contributes to urban violence as gangs fight to protect their turf. The easy cash that comes with black market prices gives kids an alternative to school that is too often a lure too strong to pass up.   Opponents of legalization talk about the dangers of marijuana becoming a big business. They hold up a vision of pot shops concentrated like liquor stores and cigarette billboards in poor neighborhoods. They ignore the biggest business of all – drug cartels – with distributors on virtually every block in some neighborhoods. Again, as they implement Proposal 1, Michigan legislators can introduce regulations that limit the concentration of marijuana dispensaries and control their appearance. Finally, clergy who remain silent on Proposal 1 are kidding themselves on how best to guide our children. They think that prohibition is the way to convey the message that youth should not use marijuana, especially while their brains are still developing. A prominent Detroit pastor said just the other day, “How do I tell young people about the dangers of drugs if it’s now legal?” The answer is honest and effective education, which is just what we are seeing in Colorado and other states that have legalized marijuana. Kids need to know the real facts. But they do not believe us when we support a policy of prohibition implying marijuana is dangerous for all who use it. They know this is not the case. Clergy have a moral responsibility to guide our youth, and we must do so in a way that rings true.    For all these reasons, clergy in Michigan should unite in supporting Proposal 1.    Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director