Illinois Cannabis Bill Resets the War on Drugs 

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Marijuana Legalization

On Friday, May 31st, 2019, the Illinois House reset the War on Drugs for an entire nation. It passed legislation approving adult-use cannabis and sent it to the Governor for his signature.  Our nation’s drug laws were founded in racism. The major reason this bill passed was because it will begin to repair what such racism has wrought.  When Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, few members knew what “marijuana” was. A virtually self-appointed federal drug czar named Harry Anslinger had brainwashed the members with claims  to the effect that “Negroes under the influence of that crazy drug will molest our women,” and “Lazy Mexicans smoking weed will take our jobs.”  With the help of William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow journalism” chain, Anslinger created a stigma around marijuana use that has infected the national consciousness for over 80 years. This stigma has given police license to break into the homes of people of color and round them up on mere suspicion of possession.  Marijuana laws have always been at the forefront of our national War on Drugs.   Finally, Illinois is effectively repealing these marijuana laws. Their legacy is written in the lives lost to racist and unjust prison sentences. It will take many years to undo even a portion of this damage. Fortunately, this bill is a start. Prohibition is misguided. In trying, and failing, to stop people from using drugs, it turns them into criminals. Treating people as criminals simply because they use drugs is cruel and immoral. So, thank you, Governor Pritzker. Thank you, Sen. Heather Steans, and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, the lead co-sponsors of SB 7 and HB 1438. Thank you, Marijuana Policy Project staff, who helped to craft a hideously complex piece of legislation under extreme time pressure. Thank you to the 58 religious leaders who supported this legislation with a letter to the General Assembly. You have shown that clergy can speak out against the stigma that has blinded too many of their colleagues to racial injustice and misguided prohibition.   With the Cannabis and Regulation Tax Act, Illinois has demonstrated that it is possible to regulate cannabis through legislative action, something no other state has yet been able to do. All of you have brought us to the point where a national reset on the War on Drugs is not just a dream. At long last we can see the way.   Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

SB7: Letter in Support

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Marijuana Legalization

May 24, 2019 To the Illinois General Assembly:  As clergy, we care deeply about social justice. The criminalization of cannabis, even for simple possession, has crippled the lives of people of color disproportionately for more than four decades. This is why we – the undersigned – believe it is time to move to a system of legal, regulated and taxed adult-use cannabis in Illinois.  Current cannabis laws, fines, and arrests are carried out with staggering racial bias. The illicit market, which prohibition makes inevitable, continues to breed violence in our poorest communities all across Illinois.  Regulation would make Illinois a safer state.  It would allow us to educate adults, informing them about what a product contains and enabling them to make informed decisions. Banning sales by law to those under 21 would help to limit access to our youth.  Under prohibition, these measures are not possible.  Legislation being considered in Springfield would permit the expungement of cannabis arrests and convictions and allocate funds to communities ravaged by the War on Drugs. It would provide valuable business opportunities to minorities.  We cannot wait any longer to make this the law of the land in Illinois. We urge you to vote yes on a regulatory system that works for all of Illinois. Signed,   Reverend Scott Aaseng Reverend Lee Barker Reverend Robert E. Biekman Reverend Barbara Bolsen Reverend Danielle J. Buhuro Reverend Fanya Burford Reverend Julian DeShazier Reverend Randall Doubet-King Reverend Dr. Russell Elleven Reverend Emily Gage Reverend Franklin Gamwell Reverend Edward Goode Reverend Joy Grainge Reverend Larry L. Greenfield Reverend David Gregg Reverend Allen Harden Reverend Alice Harper-Jones Reverend James A. Hobart Reverend Darrick Jackson Reverend Sarah Jay Reverend Dr. Matthew Johnson Reverend Veronica M. Johnson Reverend Jonathan Knight Reverend Jesse Knox III Reverend Mike Lesperance Reverend Sarah Lusche Reverend H. Scott Matheney Reverend Lucie Macfarlane Minister Darren Calhoun Reverend Florence Caplow Reverend Tom Capo Reverend Jason Coulter Reverend George W. Daniels Reverend Roger Dart Reverend Kevin J. McLemore Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva Reverend John Modschiedler Reverend Richard Mosley Jr. Reverend Karen Mooney Reverend Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks Reverend Christopher Powell Reverend Mary Rawlinson Reverend Thomas Rawlinson Reverend Kathryn Ray Rabbi Frederick Reeves Reverend Saeed Richardson Reverend Vilius Rudra Dundzila Reverend Pamela Rumancik Reverend Alexander Sharp Reverend Robert Trask Reverend Kathaleen Valek Reverend Colleen Vahey Reverend Amy Wharton Reverend Gunnar Williams Reverend Eileen Wiviott Reverend Ronald Young 

Don’t Wait to Legalize Marijuana in Illinois

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Marijuana Legalization

Finally, we have the opportunity to legalize marijuana in Illinois.   Senate Bill 7, now before the General Assembly, would permit and regulate marijuana use for adults over 21.  Our new Governor is committed to the measure. Over 60% of Illinoisans are in favor and have been for a long time.  Yet some are still saying, “Let’s wait another year.” Here’s why they are wrong. Let’s start by looking at what this bill does.  First, it begins to reverse social injustices that our marijuana laws have quietly and cruelly inflicted over the past 80 years.  Most of Governor Pritzker’s May 4 press conference announcing the bill was dedicated to this point. Illinois will allocate huge anticipated revenue from cannabis sales to restoring communities the War on Drugs has done so much to destroy. It will expunge the criminal records of hundreds of thousands of residents convicted of minor marijuana offenses that would not have been illegal under this legislation.  It offers jobs and access to capital to minorities now operating in an illicit market that too often leads to their arrests. Governor Pritzker and his staff have given us a bill that can be a model for the nation when it comes to repairing past wrongs.  Other states will look to Illinois as they did when the state passed what is widely recognized medical marijuana legislation in 2013.  We should not wait another year to act when it comes to social justice. Moreover, SB 7 reflects the best way to respond to the potential for all substance abuse, including by young people.  We know that teen use has not increased in the 10 states that have legalized adult-use cannabis. Why? Regulation and education work; prohibition does not.    Education and, when necessary, treatment are better responses than arrests and incarceration.  It has taken us far too long to figure this out. But as a society we now know this is the way to go. Changing our marijuana laws is a critical part of this long-overdue national transformation. We constantly hear that marijuana today is more potent than in the days of Woodstock. That’s precisely why we need a legal market that is taxed and regulated. When purchasing in a black market, potency and possible adulteration are threats. But in regulated markets, content and amount are clearly labeled.  This protects against exactly what opponents of legalization say we should be afraid of. We also know that taxpayers in Illinois continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year enforcing cannabis laws. Yet prosecutions for possession have dropped significantly in most states that have legalized it.  The changes proposed in SB7 will relieve an overburdened criminal justice and court system and save taxpayer money. Cannabis policy has been a serious discussion in Illinois for years, and we used that time to hear from other states, look at their example, and build on our own experience with regulated medical cannabis. Waiting another year just perpetuates a system we know is a failure.  But this year, Illinois has the opportunity to pass a meaningful law that draws from those lessons, improves on them, and provides the nation with a model of social justice and drug policy reform. This is a critical moment. We should seize it. Rev. Alexandar Sharp, Executive Director

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