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.
As a result of ballot initiatives approved in six states on Election Day, it now possible to visualize an end to the War on Drugs with some clarity. The most dramatic breakthrough, of course, was the strong mandate – 59% in favor and 41% opposed – to decriminalize low-level drug possession in Oregon. “Yes on Measure 110” means that treatment rather than criminalization will be an option for all persons using drugs who seek it. CNDP endorsed and publicized this initiative. Our piece in the current issue of The Christian Century describes how the initiative will work, and why we believe what happened in Oregon is not just an isolated phenomenon in a predominantly liberal state. Instead, it is a harbinger of what we will see elsewhere soon. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “The Oregon victory demonstrates that decriminalization is politically viable, spurring potential efforts in other states, including California, Vermont, and Washington, and even in Congress.” Legalization of cannabis for adult use also received a strong mandate. Initiatives were approved in four states: Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey. South Dakota also approved medical cannabis, along with Mississippi. We were especially gratified by the results in New Jersey, where we traveled last January to recruit clergy and testify on behalf of the Initiative. No longer do we need to think of cannabis legalization as something inching its way forward. Fifteen states, covering one-third of the U.S. population, have taken this step. 70% of all states have now approved medical cannabis. Especially striking is the fact that all sections of the country are stepping forward. We were delighted, and frankly, a little surprised, when Oklahoma approved medical cannabis three years ago. But now we see Mississippi and South Dakota approving initiatives. All of this makes it reasonable to anticipate some kind of breakthrough on cannabis legislation at the federal level within perhaps the next couple of years, if not sooner. To all of you who have participated in the work of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, thank you for all you have done to help bring about these results.
On February 18, African-American and Latinx clergy held a press conference on the Capitol steps in Hartford, Connecticut in support of legalization of adult-use cannabis. The Rev. Tommie Jackson, Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Stamford, presided. Speakers included: Rev. Edwin Perez (shown here), United Church of Christ, Hartford; Rev. Charlie L. Stallworth, East End Baptist Tabernacle Church in Bridgeport; Rev. Stephen Camp, Faith Congregational Church in Hartford; and Rev. Alexander Sharp, Clergy for a New Drug Policy. If successful, Connecticut would become the 12th state to approve cannabis legalization and the second to do legislatively rather than by ballot initiative. Rev. Stallworth:“For many years, members of many congregations and communities across our state have been negatively impacted by marijuana prohibition. This year, our governor and lawmakers in Hartford are finally working on a solution. It’s time that we all stand together to end this failed policy and move forward in a way that will lift our communities up and allow our state to move forward. “One of the key features of the regulated system being discussed by lawmakers is that cannabis will be produced and sold by legitimate taxpaying businesses instead of by drug cartels and criminals. Regulation will also free up resources so that police can focus on more serious crimes and also help improve police-community relationships, and instead of continuing to fuel organized crime, the money spent on cannabis in our state can and should be used to help revitalize communities that have been disproportionately harmed by enforcement of laws against cannabis. “To be clear, I do not recommend the recreational use of cannabis any more than I would recommend the recreational use of alcohol. We know that both of these substances can be abused, and adults who choose to use them should be expected to take responsibility for their actions. However, it’s clear that our state’s current policy of prohibition is failing everyone, especially our young people. And I also think that we as community leaders need to stand up and demand that those folks most directly harmed by this failed policy be involved in developing solutions. A new policy that is aimed at reducing harms rather than foolishly seeking to eliminate all cannabis use. Thank you. Rev. Perez:“I remember in 2018 in New Haven in the month of August, seeing bodies drop on the green. Looking out to buy marijuana and getting something else that was unregulated, something else that isn’t natural marijuana. What we’re not doing here is telling people to use marijuana, but what we are saying is that we need to control what people are setting out to get. We need to control how people seek out what they’re trying to look for instead of getting what they did not bargain for. We cannot regulate what is illegal, but what is legal we can regulate. “We’ve known that forbidding substances does not help, but instead creates negative issues and problems across racial divides. Our Latinx community, our black and brown communities, are suffering much more, are four to seven times more likely to get arrested for just possessing marijuana, according to the ACLU in 2010. Forbidding a substance doesn’t work. You can ask any of these clergy about the story of the Garden of Eden, but allowing people to make educated choices and allowing people to be shown mercy and dignity is the way to go.” Rev. Camp:“I stand before you to say that I’m tired of our young, black and brown children, young men and women, having their lives disrupted when we can regulate cannabis, when we can make it available so it doesn’t penalize their lives. I don’t see in the scripture where this prohibition makes any sense. It should be the people understanding that they have to be responsible. And so we need to help people to be responsible, but prohibition is not the way. I applaud this effort and support it and it is my hope that this state will move into the new century and support a new way.” Rev. Sharp:“We’ve heard a lot about regulation this morning, and I’d like to say one small thing that’s so obvious, we overlook it. Critics of what we’re trying to do here today say, “The marijuana, the cannabis today, isn’t what our grandparents used. It isn’t what our parents used. It’s so much stronger today.” If that’s true, what we ought to do is regulate so that we can control, and people know what they’re getting. I’ve been working around the country but I can report from Illinois, which is my home state, that we became the 11th state, and we fervently hope that Connecticut will be the 12th, to legalize cannabis for adult use. “What we’ve done and what you have the opportunity to do here, what we’ve done in Illinois, is build social justice and social equity into the program. I know you have parts of the bill that are calling for that. We have done that in Illinois. I can tell you that it’s possible. It will work. We’ve set aside 25% of the revenues from cannabis sales to be spent in communities that were ravaged by the War on Drugs. We are creating opportunities for minority businesses to get into the cannabis industry, and one very important thing that I’m seeing happen already is that our community colleges are now offering courses in cultivation and growing. It’s providing training opportunities for kids that very recently were in back alleys selling unregulated marijuana to people who certainly don’t need it. “I urge you to follow the lead of 11 other states that have done this. Godspeed. We wish you well.”
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
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