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.
(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
Looking at any map of state marijuana policies in the United States–including our own–it becomes clear that certain regions have openly embraced marijuana legalization, while others lag behind. Only nine states have legalized recreational marijuana: six on the West Coast; three in the Northeast, plus Washington DC. The reach of medical marijuana is much larger: thirty-one states allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medical conditions, although some states are far more restrictive than others. Of the twelve states in what is defined as the Midwestern United States, only Illinois, North Dakota, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes. In all twelve states, prohibition of recreational marijuana is still the law of the land. But that might change this November, when voters in four states will get to decide whether to continue the failed War on Drugs or to loosen restrictive and damaging policies. The cannabis revolution is coming to the Midwest, and it could change the face of drug prohibition in America. On November 6, voters in Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, and Utah will be asked whether they want their state governments to loosen restrictions on cannabis use. Currently, Missouri and Utah have total prohibitions in place on marijuana use. The ballot initiatives in those states will, if approved, allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medicinal purposes. Missouri and Utah will be the thirty-second and thirty-third states to lift the prohibition on medical cannabis. Both states desperately need these reforms. Recent research has shown the profound impact that medical cannabis can have on rates of opioid prescription rates and opioid overdose rates. In Utah, the opioid prescription rate in 2015 was 73.1 per 100 people, and the 2016 opioid overdose rate was 16.4. In Missouri, those rates were 90 and 15.9. Both states were in the top 40 percent in the country for opioid overdose rate. For patients in Missouri and Utah, medical cannabis will provide much-needed relief and treatment to which they have not had access. Conditions for which research has shown cannabis to be an effective treatment include HIV, arthritis, asthma, epilepsy, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis. Having access to medical cannabis will save lives and improve the quality of life throughout Missouri and Utah, but voting to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes will also serve a second purpose. These votes can send a message that it is finally time for the United States to abandon the failed, dangerous war on marijuana, to move past prohibition and pursue real, evidence-based solutions to medical issues, pain management, and the opioid crisis. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly spoken out against marijuana legalization, instead advocating for harsher punishments for those who use cannabis. While the Department of Justice currently does not interfere with states that have chosen to legalize marijuana, that could change tomorrow, especially since Sessions rescinded former Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Cole Memo.” In addition, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that research on its medicinal benefits is severely restricted. There is no evidence that the Trump Administration is going to reverse course on marijuana. In fact, it seems that the federal government’s Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee is seeking to undermine state autonomy on marijuana legalization. The most effective way to fight back against these attacks is by sending a message that the American people want to end prohibition now. Tom Houseman, Policy Director
On November 6, Michigan voters will be asked to vote on a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. We are grateful to the following five clergy – from Flint, Detroit, and Ann Arbor – who tell us why they support this measure. Rev. Deborah Conrad, Woodside Church, Flint, MI. “…Legalizing marijuana, fully legalizing it, is, I think, a sensible thing to do. ‘Most of what we hate and fear about drugs – the violence, the overdoses, the criminality – derives from prohibition, not drugs’ wrote Dan Baum, Harper’s Magazine, April, 2016. Another writer noted that if marijuana is a ‘gateway drug,’ though that hasn’t really been established, maybe it really is more about the people users must associate with when they buy it illegally. If we take away the underground marijuana market, maybe we actually help keep people away from the harder stuff.” “At our meeting last week, the Woodside Board of Directors affirmed this resolution (Proposal 1 Marijuana Legalization Initiative), as a key piece of our advocacy for mass incarceration reform…But, while the board agreed that legalization is the desired goal, we also agreed that the language of the referendum isn’t perfect. ” “We were especially concerned that the stipulations of the legislation would still provide loopholes for targeting people of color. It is restrictive, far more than I think necessary, given what we know about the relative dangers of alcohol and tobacco, and I’m not convinced it would still become a mitigating factor in the ‘piling on’ that prosecutors like to do – heaping lesser charges onto a defendant to increase penalties for a primary offense. The proposed law isn’t perfect, but it is a start. So I recommend we vote yes, and then continue to work of learning to see racism, advocating for better law that benefit us all.” NOTE: These comments are drawn from the October 4 issue of Pastor Conrad’s church newsletter. She makes clear the deeper implications of legalizing marijuana: with this measure in place, we will finally be able to consider other reforms that, taken together, will finally end those parts of the War on Drugs that have inflicted so much damage upon our society. We commend the entire newsletter to you. Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, Rabbi, The Birmingham Temple, Birmingham, MI “For too long our society has ignored the lessons of Prohibition by imposing the same regressive policies on marijuana. What have we gained from it? We’ve reaped violence in our streets through black market dealing. We’ve generated a social justice crisis through inequitable enforcement of the law in African-American communities. And we’ve prevented sensible research into the many real benefits of cannabis. Approval of Proposal 1 will allow law enforcement to turn its attention to the real problems plaguing our state while generating a new stream of tax revenue to benefit our children, infrastructure, and municipalities. We talk a great deal about learning from the mistakes of history. When presented with this opportunity, let us do just that.” Rev. Kevin Johnson, Presbytery of Detroit, Presbyterian Church U.S.A. “I support the Michigan Legalization Initiative to legalize the recreational use and possession of marijuana for persons 21 years of age or older. My hope is that if passed, this legislation would remove the element of criminalizing individuals for possession and stem the tide of arrests and incarceration rates of people which clearly show imbalanced racialized characteristics as reflected in statistical analysis. I also hope that the passage of this proposal will lead to additional legislation to expunge the convictions for individuals previously prosecuted for the use and possession of marijuana.” Rev. Thomas James, Grosse Ile, MI “I endorse the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative because: Rather than spending enormous sums of taxpayer money punishing users of a drug that has minimal adverse effects on individuals and society, we should be supporting programs that reduce harm and encourage constructive participation in the economic and civic life of our state. As a clergy person, I am especially concerned with the morality of our current practice of prohibition and incarceration because it imposes disenfranchisement, barriers to employment, and family disruption with disproportionate severity on people in Michigan who already face more than their fair share of economic challenges.” Rev. Alexandra McCauslin, Ann Arbor, MI “I believe the regulation and penalty system for marijuana possession has created grave injustice, increasing debt and incarceration unnecessarily, especially for already vulnerable populations, like people of color and the poor. “
This fall is an exciting and pivotal time for us at Clergy for a New Drug Policy. Progressive national reforms often first gain a foothold in the eastern or western regions of the country. This has been the case with legalizing marijuana. Now we can ensure that this reform will come to our nation’s heartland. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Nevada, California, and Washington D.C. have already stepped forward. Now, an initiative to legalize marijuana is on the ballot in Michigan for a vote on November 6. In Illinois, there have already been three statewide hearings on a bill that will be introduced in January for the next legislative session. Over the next two months I will be traveling extensively to speak with clergy in these states about all aspects of legalization. I will raise with what I believe is a deeper and more fundamental message concerning marijuana and social justice than is often brought forward. Since the War on Drugs began in earnest in the 1980’s, arrests for low-level possession of marijuana, and all drugs, have fallen disproportionately on African-American and Latinos. Even when not resulting in prison, having a marijuana arrest record is a ball-and-chain of a different kind when it comes to access to jobs, public benefits, education, and, eventually, keeping families together. Opponents of legalization argue that “decriminalization” (treating marijuana possession as a civil, not criminal offense, like a traffic ticket) stops police from arresting and charging anyone for drug possession. This is not true. States that have transitioned from decriminalization to legalization have seen their rates of marijuana possession arrests drop by as much as 80 percent, including for Black and Hispanic residents. (That police continue to discriminate disproportionately against minorities is a matter of police conduct. Legalization does not end discrimination.) Why does legalization result in fewer arrests? Perhaps because the thresholds for the amount that can be possessed are higher under legalization than decriminalization, and because legalization can lead to a change in police behavior. It makes it harder to use suspicion of marijuana possession as a pretext for stopping people. Regardless of arrest statistics, the deeper social justice message is that “decriminalization” does nothing to limit illicit markets for marijuana. In fact, it reinforces them. It doesn’t create gangs, which in areas of economic devastation and little or no hope, would exist anyway. But it further destabilizes neighborhoods and recruits young people into an underground world of criminal activity. Prohibition nurtures gangs by providing them with cash from the black market, and incentivizes violence as the only way for illicit drug sellers to resolve disputes and establish market turf. Illicit markets do not exist in the same way in white neighborhoods. The War on Drugs has always been primarily a war on black and brown people. Marijuana is a significant commodity in this war – at least 30% of total dollar volume. Only by establishing a legal and state-regulated market, can we erode the illicit drug trade which creates such pernicious and disproportionate harm in minority communities. When it comes to social justice, the current state-by-state debate about marijuana legalization, now unfolding in the Midwest, is about much more than marijuana. It is about violence in our cities, and the continued marginalization of minorities. I hope as many of you as possible will join me as we bring this perspective to Michigan and Illinois in the next two months. Rev. Alexander Sharp