Dear Friends and Colleagues, When George Floyd was killed, we were already tragically familiar with black death due to police brutality —Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown, Aumaud Arbery, and, most recently, Breonna Taylor since 2014 alone. Despite short and largely localized expressions of outrage, little had changed. But might this be a turning point? A black leader in my church commented, “What happened this time really showed the whole world how we treat our people in this country.” In the past,” she went on, “maybe our slip was showing. This time we were butt naked.” The protests are continuing three weeks after George Floyd was murdered. A new generation of young people is involved. The call for change is multi-racial. National, state, and city officials and legislators are speaking out. The world is watching, and protests are happening globally. But will anything be different now? I think it is possible. For decades we have been saying we need to change hearts and minds. This must always be our goal. Sadly, that kind of change happens slowly, and the deaths continue. I cannot bear the thought that what seems like the possibility of real, meaningful, reform will somehow slip away. Martin Luther King once sardonically observed, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.” Although we pray for so much more, we must at the very least stop the modern-day lynchings – all too many in the name of an immoral drug war — by seizing the moment to write new laws and regulations and throw out bad ones. Here are three changes that can happen relatively quickly. The first is for cities to revise police contracts. I recall two cases of police abuse that led to death in Chicago in 1996. The facts were damning, and community activists called for accountability. But they found that over many years the City had bargained its way to a police contract that made it virtually impossible to monitor, discipline, and fire officers — even after multiple offenses. Even today, anonymous citizen complaints are not permitted. Records from inquiries into possible police misconduct are expunged after five years. Officers have 24 hours to coordinate their account of shootings in which they are involved. No wonder police have the impression they can get away with murder. If city officials cannot resist political pressure from police unions there is a new and promising path to accountability — the licensing of police at the state level. In the words of Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot, “If I go get my nails done … the person who is handling my nails is licensed by the state. If I go get a haircut, the barber is licensed by the state.” Why not police? Both the Mayor and Illinois Governor J. B, Pritzker seem ready to press for this reform. Second, the law can change whom police choose to arrest. Right now, all low-level drug offenders can be charged with a felony. This cripples them. If jailed, they are likely to lose their jobs and be separated from their families. They have little chance of obtaining employment or housing upon release. Life with a felony record is a life without a future for those who are poor and black. We can reduce arrests by supporting the national movement for what is called police diversion, or “deflection.” When police see those suffering from drug addiction—often individuals they have been recycling through the criminal justice system —instead of jail they already have the discretion to steer them to drug treatment and other services. Over 800 police districts have already initiated deflection in some form. This should become national practice. The third possibility is to carry deflection to its logical conclusion by decriminalizing all drugs. Right now, over half-a-million individuals are incarcerated in each year solely for drug possession. Yes, half-a-million. We can end this mindless and slow-motion violence right now. Impossible, you say? Consider: in Oregon signatures are now being gathered for a ballot initiative in November that would make it the first state to take this step. As others follow suit, this will collectively sound the death knell of the already failed War on Drugs. What change can we expect in days and months ahead? Let us start with reforms that will limit what even the racists among us are permitted to do in our society. Laws matter. Regulations matter. Such changes are within our grasp. If we stop the lynching, hearts and minds will follow. Dr. King knew that over fifty years ago. It is no less true today. Sincerely, Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy A REFLECTION ON HOPE This message was posted last Monday on Facebook by my son-in-law Brendan Brown. He and my daughter Joanna and their two young children have just moved to Old Irving Park, Chicago. Brendon has kindly permitted me to share these words with you. I believe you will find them as moving as I did. Brendan, we share your hope. On the morning of Sunday, June 7, I took a walk with my two year-old son because we needed something to do. As we made our way around the new neighborhood we just moved into during a pandemic (introductions have been scarce), we saw people with signs and strollers on their way to a Family March for Equality. I saw an opportunity to, hopefully, make an impression on my son, however minutely, that might linger in his head somewhere. As we merged into the procession, a man near me said something about what a nice day it was and I said something about what a nice turnout it was. And then he replied, ‘Yeah, it makes me proud to live in this neighborhood.’ And I started crying. The essence of what he said cut through the calm and personal reserve I usually try to maintain. All of this is about being proud of your neighborhood. It begins at home. To see so many people who didn’t all look like me and didn’t all look like each other. On a Sunday morning, when they didn’t ‘have’ to be there. With their children. It wasn’t performative and it resonated in a way that struck me deeply. The thought that my kids, the grandchildren of a Black man who grew up in Mississippi in the 1940s and 50s, might grow up in a country that is not just technically different, but materially and functionally different than the America that he and I grew up in, gives me hope. I know better than to believe that what we’ve seen lately is anything resembling meaningful change. But when I look into the faces of my children, all I see is hope. I want to be able to return it to them. We have to.
Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream: Civic and Economic Justice
Almost 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is only natural to wonder what he might teach us in these profoundly troubling days. It is worth remembering that, especially in the last three years of his life, his most strident calls were for economic justice. “I have a dream today that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As the minister and scholar Michael Eric Dyson reminds us, these 34 words are more famous than anything else King ever said. These are the words we carry in our hearts. But this was far from the full message. It is now commonplace to observe that the United States is the prison capital of the world. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on earth, with Russia a not so close second. This monstrous reality has fallen most heavily on African Americans and Hispanics. While he did not live to see that our criminal justice system would become perhaps the leading civil rights issue of our day, Dr. King knew intuitively what must happen if we are ever to move beyond Jim Crow: civil rights laws alone could not address three centuries of racism and economic exploitation. He was killed in Memphis, where he had gone to lead a strike of sanitation workers, and his next destination was to be Washington D.C. where he was mobilizing a Poor People’s Campaign. Three weeks before the end of his life, he spoke of how in the 1860s Americans had been given land if they moved west to build their economic future even as blacks remained slaves. Listen to Martin Luther King in this video. He is tired, impatient, even close to anger. Anticipating a Poor People’s Campaign, he said, “Now when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.” Is this not a call for reparations? For most Americans, the idea of reparations is a non-starter. It seems at best impractical. But consider the perspective of African Americans who cannot get a job due to a marijuana arrest on their records as we move to the legalization of marijuana. They are witnessing young white men creating businesses to sell a substance that blacks went to jail for possessing. The growing marijuana industry as an argument for reparations is a small slice of a much deeper problem. Even if we cannot devise a clear-cut reparations policy as such, it is worth keeping front and center the idea of helping people overcome the challenges of almost three centuries of oppression. Ta-Nehisi Coates tells us why: “Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America…But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much – if not more than – the specific questions that might be produced.” In this, he is surely right. Let us remember today that as King called for the brotherhood and sisterhood of us all, he knew this could not be achieved without economic justice. If only to help us discuss this fundamental truth, it worthwhile to discuss what society can and should do in the way of reparation. Dr. King surely would have approved.
Community Healing in the Aftermath of the War on Drugs: A Sermon by James Kowalsky
In his sermon “Community Healing in the Aftermath of the War on Drugs” James Kowalsky reflects on drug use in our society and harm reduction as the most appropriate response. James worked at Heartland Health Outreach in Chicago for seven years and is currently a graduate student at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. The sermon was preached at Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We provide excerpts here with a link to the full text. I’m going to start this sermon with a few questions for you to consider. Many of these questions don’t have absolute answers. They are questions we should ask ourselves so that we know where we stand and try to figure out how these beliefs we hold, impact the action we are willing to take. What does a drug user look like?… For many of us when we picture what a drug user looks like we imagine someone looking dirty and disheveled, living on the streets with beer bottles or needles scattered around their body. We picture a desperate and dangerous criminal, willing to harm anyone in order to feed their addiction… In a study published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education in 1995, a survey asked people to envision a drug user and describe that person. 95% of respondents described a black person. This is the case despite that fact that the majority of people who use drugs in our country are white. African-Americans make up about 15% of the people who use drugs, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population. When we picture who a drug user is, we don’t readily think of the successful people who have used drugs—executives, scientists, writers, musicians, politicians, Presidents. It would be inaccurate to say that people who use drugs or have used drugs are bad people, or are unproductive members of our communities. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people who try a drug—any drug—will not have a serious problem with that drug in their lifetime. Yet, this image of a drug user as a failure and threat persists… What is a drug? In general, we would define a drug as a substance that we put into our bodies that alters our mood or physiological state; the caffeine we use to help us get out of bed at the start of the day; the medicine we take to control our blood sugar, blood pressure, or moderate other symptoms that may prohibit us from taking care of business; the glass of wine we use to unwind after a long day at work. All of these are substances we put into our body to alter the way we think and feel… This does not mean that drugs are not harmful. Certainly, all drugs have the capacity to harm people. Partially, we have a skewed perspective of drug users because the people who are most negatively impacted by their use, are inherently more likely to need help and encounter systems like hospitals, treatment programs, and law enforcement. However, we’ve exaggerated the likelihood of harm in order to scare people away from trying drugs… Our relationship with any drug—legal or not—can range from harmful to helpful…Environment matters. Journalist Johann Hari talks about harmful use being a product of disconnection. Dr. Gabor Mate talks about addictions being rooted in painful experiences. Norman Zinberg points to the combination of three sets of factors he calls drug, set, and setting—factors related to the drug and how it’s used, the individual and their circumstances, and the environment they use in… We also know that experiencing trauma in early childhood increases the likelihood that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. Yet, we live in a country that demonizes the drug user—they are a person who has made bad decisions and must live with the consequences. We see drug use as an individual choice and an individual problem. We try to interrupt that problem by punishing their bad choices and isolating people from everything that is familiar to them. But, what child chooses to be neglected or abused? What person chooses to be left without a support system when their parent or caregiver dies? Nobody chooses the circumstances that often precede harmful relationships with drugs. But, it’s far simpler to point to the individual and never consider the environment that they come from. That way, we don’t have to think about how poverty, a poor education system, a lack of economic opportunities, unstable housing, or growing up in a neighborhood where you regularly witness community violence, all make it more likely that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. In fact, it is these circumstances, not drug use, where African-Americans are disproportionately represented… Much like drug use itself, punishment and isolation don’t just impact the individual. They damage the environment as well; they take the parent away from their child, remove brothers and sisters from families. By removing community members, we promote disconnection and thereby increase the likelihood of harmful drug use for the people left behind… We need to shift away from focusing our energy on trying to eliminate drug use altogether. That is and always has been an unrealistic goal. Drugs have been used for thousands of years, across continents and cultures. Drugs are a part of our lives and we all have relationships with them. We need to focus on the harms we consider most egregious and address them instead. We’ve tried, what some would call, a tough love approach for too long. It’s time we just try love. We need to shift from seeing harmful drug use as an individual problem that we solve with punishment, to a community problem that we solve with healing… One approach that does just that, and is gaining traction, is called harm reduction. Harm reduction is the practice of using drugs in less risky ways. When we drink responsibly, we are practicing harm reduction. We eat food before drinking, drink water, we practice moderation and limit our total number of drinks, we don’t drive when we’ve had too much to drink. These are all harm reduction choices we regularly make. As we make harm reduction choices with alcohol, we can make similar choices with other drugs… Beyond this individual practice, harm reduction is a philosophy—a belief in the human rights of people who use drugs. Harm reduction promotes the idea that regardless of what a person puts in their body, they should not be denied their basic human rights… As members of a faith community, your congregation has a unique opportunity to offer connection and healing to people in need. Matthew 11:28 tells us, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. The church has long been a place where people have sought out sanctuary. Extend an olive branch to the people who experience the severe consequences of drug use. Too often, people who struggle with their drug use don’t seek out help, because they think that love and support will only be available to them if they are ready to stop using altogether. We need to dispel the myth that belonging to this community is contingent on abstinence from all drugs. Because it’s not. We know that because we’re all here… Instead of focusing on trying to get people to stop using drugs, we can focus on trying to understand how and why they are using drugs. In order to understand people, we need to be willing to listen. Healing happens in relationships. We should focus on building a connection with people. Learn about their lives. Find out about their story, ask them about their hopes and dreams, ask them about what’s missing in their life. Almost certainly, one of the things they’re missing is someone who’ll ask those questions and respectfully listen. Remember, that person who is struggling is likely trying to disconnect from some source of pain. Give them love, give them connection, give them rest, help them heal, and you will help our communities heal. Amen
Rick Steves: Law Enforcement, Race, Opioid Use, and Marijuana
On Monday evening, Nov. 27, Rick Steves spoke at a private reception. On Tuesday morning, he held a press conference and then testified before a joint hearing of state legislative committees on marijuana legalization and economic development. Here are excerpts from these events. Transcripts of the complete remarks are available upon request. In Washington State marijuana is legal and the sky is not falling. I’m a friend of our Governor, Jay Inslee, who wanted nothing to do with this. He was elected the same day we legalized marijuana and now he understands what it is. He’s so thankful we are not arresting 10,000 people a year. He so pleased that we’ve taken out much of the black market. And he’s getting to used to $300 million in additional revenue. The black-market industry rivaled apples in my state, and if you know how big apples are in Washington, that’s a big industry. It was empowering and enriching organized crime and gangs, and we dismantled it. We’ve turned it into a highly regulated, highly taxed legal market employing 26,000 people, especially in rural areas where we can use the employment. We’ve been able to redirect precious law enforcement resources away from petty pot issues to serious crime. In 2013, James Cole of the U.S. Justice Department made this memo with very clear points: we’re going let you try this, but if you break our rules, you can expect to be busted by the federal government: keep it away from children, keep the criminals out of the business, keep out leakage from neighboring states, be very strict about safety on the roads, no pot in federal property and so on, and don’t let it be a cover for other illegal drug use. In Washington State, we have been very shipshape about making sure the Cole Memo is satisfied. Consequently, we actually have banking now in our state. About 95% of our money is not cash. EUROPEAN VIEWS OF U.S. I spend a third of my whole life hanging out in Europe. They cannot imagine how in the United States 70,000 people are in jail today for non-violent marijuana crimes. “How can you arrest 700,000 people?” they ask. “You Americans lock up 10 times as many people per capita as we do here in Europe. Either you have inherently more criminal people or there’s something screwy about the laws.” They look at us and they say, “You guys are just crazy about legislating morality.” IMPACT OF LEGALIZATION ON MARIJUANA USE The exciting news today is that we have a track record. There’s never been a correlation with how strict the laws are and how much is consumed. That was our hunch when we started in Washington State. Now we know that because we have the statistics. We’ve been at this for four years in Washington State and in Colorado. The numbers are in. Use does not go up. Adolescent use does not go up. DUI’s don’t go up. Crime does not go up. What goes up is civil liberties and tax revenues. I’ve been at this, as I mentioned, for 15 or 20 years and it’s always difficult to get statistics because people who generate statistics have an agenda. We have a thing called the Healthy Youth Survey that our government does in our state. It interviews 200,000 students between sixth and 12th grades every year on their lifestyle choices and their challenges and drug use and all those kinds of things. Since 2012, teen use has stayed the same in our state. You drive into town and you see the marijuana signs. It seems like it’s less forbidden. Perhaps that makes it less sexy for the kids. Also, remember of that $300 million we’ve generated in tax revenue, a good portion of it is earmarked for education and drug prevention programs. Most of those who oppose legalizing marijuana are assuming use will go up. People who oppose legalizing marijuana act like nobody smokes it now. A lot of people assume a whole reservoir of decent people who would love to ruin their lives smoking pot if only it was legal. But what we’ve learned is that anybody who wants to smoke pot, generally does now, already. IMPACT ON RACE A big issue for me is the racism embedded in our prohibition. When I was doing this in Washington State an individual from law enforcement was assigned to trail me when I gave my talks. We became friends. We went to dinner one night. He said, “I disagree with everything you say except for the civil liberties thing.” Later he asked, “Why are you so passionate about this? Rick, you’re comfortable here in suburban Seattle, you can smoke pot for the rest of your life and never get in trouble.” I said, “That’s exactly it! A rich white guy won’t get arrested. It’s poor kids, it’s black kids.” It is just pathetic – the racism behind this law, and now people are starting to stand up. In the first 57 years of my life I had never been hugged by a big, black, Baptist minister. After we legalized, I’ve been hugged by lots of big, beautiful, Baptist ministers. Now leaders in the black community know how drugs have ravaged their communities. What they’re learning is it’s not the drugs that are so devastating, it’s the fact that it is criminal to use those drugs. The NAACP endorsed our law in Washington. They know that the most costly thing about marijuana is the fact that if you smoke it, you can ruin the rest of your life because you have a record, you can’t get into school, and you can’t get a loan, and you can’t get a job. MARIJUANA AS GATEWAY DRUG People are going to say that marijuana is a gateway drug. Europeans have taught me that the only thing ‘gateway’ about marijuana is when it’s illegal, you got to buy it on the street from some criminal who is not going card you, and who is going to offer you something that’s more addictive and more profitable. IMPACT ON DUI’S DUIs are a very important concern. In Washington state, we were not a pro-pot law, we were a public safety law. That’s why we got the endorsement of law enforcement. We had very, very strict DUI considerations in our law. It was so strict that our main opposition was from the left, not from the right. I don’t know anybody who believes that if somebody is driving intoxicated by anything – pills, marijuana, alcohol – we shouldn’t throw the book at them. But I don’t think there’s any real evidence that shows in any state — medical, legal, or no marijuana — a correlation between those states and safety on the roads. There are all sorts of people looking for an excuse to discredit this legalization movement, whose job is to be in the opposition. They can spin examples and say, statistically, “Look it, there were two more accidents in this county than before, fatalities have doubled.” But if you look at the broad picture, there’s no indication that medical or legal marijuana states show any difference from states that have not taken these steps. IMPACT ON OPIOID CRISIS Portugal and the Netherlands initiated their liberal policies on marijuana in order to deal with a serious opioid problem. After they got rid of their dictators, it was just a free for all. They had a horrible problem with hard drug addicts. They decided to take the marijuana out of the equation and focus on hard drug addiction. Their marijuana use has stayed the same, they do not have any drug tourism, and their hard drug addiction populace has been cut by 50%. If you’ve been to Amsterdam to see that neighborhood, it was a no-go zone when I was a kid traveling in the Netherlands. It was just completely owned by the hard drug dealers. Now, it’s gentrified, there are beautiful restaurants and cafes and there is a coffee shop on the corner. They’ve taken the marijuana off of the streets, they’ve turned it into legitimate businesses and they have targeted their hard drug-addicted population very successfully. IMPACT ON LAW ENFORCEMENT You can learn about our prohibition against marijuana when you look at how we struggled with the prohibition against alcohol back in the ’20’s and ’30’s. Mayor LaGuardia of New York said, “When a society has a law on the books that it does not intend to enforce consistently across the board, the very existence of that law erodes respect for law enforcement in general.” Take away the black market and generate tax revenue, then you can get your police to focus on serious problems instead of running down petty pot smokers and you can save a lot of money in law enforcement on top of the tax revenue. MARIJUANA AS HEALTH NOT A CRIMINAL ISSUE In Europe the word for addicted is “enslaved.” People who are drug addicts are not criminals. They don’t need cops, they don’t need lawyers, they don’t need judges, they need counselors and they need nurses and they need compassion. They need support. When you can take the crime out of the equation, you can see this is a health and education challenge, whether it’s hard drugs or a soft drug use and abuse.
Ira Glasser: The Case for Repairing the Harm
The Drug Policy Alliance Conference included a Town Hall Meeting on “The Case for Reparations: 50 Years After the Drug War and Mass Incarceration, What Does America Owe Us? Ira Glasser, board chair of the DPA and one of the panelists, argued that the GI Bill of Rights offers both a model and a cautionary tale in considering reparations as a response to the War on Drugs. Here are excerpts from his remarks. The War on Drugs is just the latest form of racial subjugation. We’re talking really about the history of 300 years, and there is no way of talking about repairing harm without talking about all of that. When you get to get this age, you get to be a historian. When you start talking about things, you find out that nobody knows anything. They’re not coming from the same place you’re coming from and they’re not sharing the same premises because they don’t share the same facts. People don’t know what the GI Bill of Rights did. It provided tuition for college, high school, vocational school, training schools. It provided living expenses for people going to school. It provided low-cost loans without a down payment, low-cost mortgages without a down payment for people to buy homes when they came back from the war. It provided low-cost loans for people to start businesses, credit for people to start businesses, for people who had no assets. And it didn’t do that with a means test. They did it for everyone. Because everybody had suffered the disadvantage, everybody was going to get the repair. And they didn’t do it just for the people who were in combat. They did it for people who were on active duty for 90 days or more. 90 days! And you compare what that repair was targeting with what we’re talking about and you have to conclude that if it was a moral obligation to pass the GI Bill of Rights, that moral obligation is multiplied by a factor of thousands for the people we’re talking about. This [case] has never been made to the white liberal audience who thinks they’re with us. They don’t know about it. You have to get past their sense of defensiveness. They feel like you’re accusing them of racism when you tell them they have a moral obligation. They wouldn’t feel that way if they had had an accident in a car. The idea of repairing the damage that the state of official law and policy has done is not an alien concept. It’s established in our country. It’s established in our culture. It’s established in our law. So you have to ask yourself: why is it received so radically? It’s racism in this context. And the answer has to be that it is very different when you’re talking about people of darker skin color. One more thing. In order to get the GI Bill passed, Congress needed the votes of southern Democrats. This is 1945–46. And in order to get it passed, part of the way it was passed was the understanding that the federal government would get it passed, but it was going to be administered locally. Local white folks would get to decide who got these benefits. There were 67,000 mortgages enabled by the GI Bill of Rights in the first year after it was passed, and fewer than 100 went to people who were not white. There were 100,000 people in the first year, black people, who applied for the education benefits. Fewer than 20% got them. Looking at the GI Bill of Rights, you get a rationale for what we’re trying to move toward that’s very powerful and compelling. But at the same time, the way the GI Bill of Rights was administered and played out describes the problem that we have even with the white liberal audience of people that we think should be with us. We need to find a way to translate that sense of moral obligation to them even if they are not racists.