Over the summer, like all of us, I adjusted to life in a world of the coronavirus (no, my family and I have not contracted it). In that time of enforced solitude, I focused on longer-term writing projects. As I resume newsletters, I am writing to you now on a topic of seismic importance. On November 3, voters will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative that would make Oregon the first state to decriminalize the possession of all drugs. If approved, the proposed measure will strike at the heart of the War on Drugs, both at home and abroad. Many other states will have to follow suit for this to become a national movement. It may take a long time for the massive drug war bureaucracy to wither away. But at the end of the day, why fight a War on Drugs when drug possession is not a crime? This measure is not the same as drug legalization. Selling drugs would continue to be a crime. But possession of low amounts of drugs would not. Last year, about 8,900 individuals were arrested in Oregon solely for low level drug possession. They would not be subject to arrest under the proposed law. Instead, they would be offered the opportunity for treatment. Campaign organizers collected over 150,000 signatures, far more than the 112,000 required to get their measure on the ballot. Called “Yes on 110,” the measure is likely to pass. Opposition so far has been slight. Over 100 organizations, including mental health and treatment providers, unions, African-American and Latinx activists, and legal advocacy groups, have endorsed the initiative. It is significant that law enforcement officials in Oregon have signed on as well. “Yes on 110” is likely to succeed precisely because the initiative is about treatment for addicts not criminalization. I cannot improve on the opening words of the initiative: “The people of Oregon find that drug addiction and overdoses are a serious problem in Oregon and that Oregon needs to expand access to drug treatment.” “The people of Oregon further find that a health-based approach to addiction and overdose is more effective, humane, and cost-effective than criminal punishments. Making people criminals because they suffer from addiction is expensive, ruins lives and can make access to treatment and recovery more difficult.” “The purpose of this Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act of 2020 is to make health assessment, treatment and recovery services for drug addiction available to all those who need and want access to services and adopt a health approach to drug addiction by removing criminal penalties for low-level drug possession.” The proposed legislation would establish addiction recovery centers within each of the state’s 13 coordinated care service areas. Individuals possessing a low level of any drug (up to one gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, less than 40 pills of oxycodone, for example) would not be subjected to criminal punishment. Instead, individuals would receive a $100 fine which could be waived upon the completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional. The centers would triage the needs of all individuals; services would be free and providers could seek insurance reimbursement. Funding for these services would come from cannabis taxes which have outpaced estimates following legalization in 2014, as well as savings from an anticipated reduction in the number of arrests under the new legislation. An Oversight and Accountability Council appointed by the Oregon Health Authority would provide grants to the treatment centers and oversee their operation. As the Oregon initiative nears success, I am reminded of Linda Woodhouse’s tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, published in the Washington Post: “We all have goals, big or small, and we all encounter obstacles to accomplishing some of them. But only a few have the turn of mind to confront head-on the structural obstacles that stand in their way. Some do it with the gift of an outsize personality that can inspire others and galvanize them to action. …That wasn’t Ruth Ginsburg. As a lawyer appearing before the Supreme Court, she presented herself as a modest incrementalist. She had to. If she had come before the court as a social revolutionary, the justices — never having viewed the Constitution as having anything to say about women — would have recoiled.” It is the same with the Oregon initiative. If this measure passes, it will be due to the incremental work of so many in states across the nation. It has taken a broad coalition, led especially by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project, more than 25 years to get to this point. Eighteen states have defelonized the possession of small amounts of drugs like heroin and cocaine (use is still a misdemeanor), 33 have approved medical cannabis, and 11 have legalized adult recreational use. New Jersey and Arizona are the states most likely to legalize cannabis on November 3. In no state has this been easy. There is a long way to go before the shameful War on Drugs is history in the United States. We are not there yet, but we are on the way. Thank you, Oregon! I am pleased to share the statements of a few of the many who have endorsed “Yes on 110,” including several ministers. Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon has been significant voice in support. May these voices inspire you as the opportunity to support drug decriminalization comes to your state, as it surely will. Keep safe, and get out the vote. Sincerely, Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy — ENDORSERS: Nate Macy, Pastor, Yamhill County“Our communities need to work towards justice and the end of systemic oppression. Providing people with addictions with compassion and care is one way we can work towards that, and build stronger communities. This initiative gives pragmatic tools to help make that compassionate care accessible to more people.” Rev. Tara Wilkins, Pastor, Bridgeport United Church of Christ“I believe that we have a responsibility to care for those on the margins, that includes people who are addicted to drugs. Instead of punishing and judging, we should provide people who are addicted to drugs with the love, respect, treatment and support they need to recover and heal. That’s why I support this initiative.” Rev. Connie Yost, President, Farm Worker Ministries Northwest“As a people of faith, Unitarian Universalists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. People struggling with drug addiction should be treated with compassion and care, not criminalization. It is our shame that Oregon ranks last out of all the states in the availability of treatment and recovery services. We can and must do much derecognized better than that bypassing Measure 110 which I support because it will provide critically needed funding for treatment, recovery, harm reduction and sober housing services in Oregon.” Rabbi Debra Kolodny, Portland’s UnShul/As the Spirit Moves Us“I support the Measure 110 because those suffering with addiction are in need of healing, not imprisonment. This brilliant measure has a ready-made income source, and it will eliminate the expense of incarcerating those who should not be in jail in the first place. We need to pass the initiative and ever more integrated solutions like it if we want to achieve our vision of building a just, equitable and compassionate society.” Rabbi Michael Cahana, Temple Beth Israel“Drug addiction is a serious health problem in our community. It destroys lives and families. But criminalization has proven to be a terrible tool to save those afflicted. It is discriminatory and furthers the cycle of family separation. I support Measure 110 because treatment and recovery are the paths to overcoming addiction.” Amanda Marshall, Former US Attorney for the State of Oregon“I spent 20 years immersed in the criminal & juvenile systems in Oregon as a prosecutor, child welfare lawyer, US Attorney and criminal defense attorney. I have witnessed first-hand the devastating failures of criminalizing, shaming and stigmatizing people who suffer from substance use disorder. As both a person in recovery and the mom of a teen in recovery, I can’t escape the truth that what separates me and my son from the people who are prosecuted for possession is our privilege. When we needed treatment, we left the state of Oregon to find it. The options we had aren’t available to most Oregonians suffering from substance use disorder. It’s time to end the insanity. Vote yes on Measure 110.” Pete Tutmark, Sergeant, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office (retired)“Looking back on my 33 year career in Oregon law enforcement, I believe the criminal/punishment model for addressing drug addiction has failed. This is a public health crisis and should be treated as such. Nobody wins when police spend our days punishing people for drug possession. Every person we arrest for drugs is one more person who refuses to talk to us when we’re questioning witnesses and gathering clues. Our drug laws make police work harder and communities less safe.” Mike Schmidt, District Attorney, Multnomah County“It’s time for a change in our public safety system so that drugs are not used as an excuse for arresting people, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color. Misguided drug laws have created deep disparities in the justice system. Arresting people with addictions is a cruel punishment because it slaps them with a lifelong criminal record that can ruin lives, exactly when they need better access to supportive services. We need to change our approach. Lowering criminal penalties for simple drug possession and providing more drug treatment and recovery services to help people move forward with their lives—these are the two pillars of Measure 110. Please join me in voting yes.”
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 December 12, 2019, Rev. Rob Gregson, Executive Director of UU FaithAction New Jersey, appeared before the New Jersey Senate Commerce Committee on the proposed ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for adult use. We provide his testimony here. Since 2015 when my predecessor, Rev. Craig Hirschberg, gave what we believe was the first denominational testimony in favor of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey, Unitarian Universalists of Faith Action New Jersey has consistently supported the safe, regulated, socially just legalization position. While Unitarian Universalists in general, and UU FaithAction in particular, would have been happier with a legislative solution rather than a ballot question, on balance we agree that from an ethical and justice perspective, it is better to have ballot legalization than continue with the current system which largely allows people who look like me [white] and live in suburban neighborhoods like mine to escape being caught up in the criminal justice system for smoking or healing. Black and brown residents of more urban or poorer neighborhoods don’t have that same luxury. The only broadly compelling reason we, as a faith-raised body, decided to take a stand for marijuana legalization is because it would end the ill-conceived and horribly racially biased “War on Drugs.” Looking forward I hope you will support future legislation like the expungement bill currently before the Legislature that attempts to make some small reparations—and I use that word advisedly and deliberately—aimed to address the grossly unethical place we may find ourselves in if and when the ballot is successful: well-heeled, largely white business men and women begin making dollars hand-over-fist only weeks after others have been fined or even imprisoned for the same exact act. When reparation, or legislation—or come up with a more palatable word if you like—comes before you over the next few years, I hope you will take these disparities very, very seriously.
On Wednesday, March 20, more than a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Islamic clergy voiced their support of legislation to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina. Four spoke at press conference, joined by Rev. Alexander Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy. Here are their press conference statements. The South Carolina Compassionate Care Act (S-366) is expected to be taken up by the state senate within the next several days. Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, United Church of Christ “I come to Columbia this morning to stand with my interfaith colleagues in support of the Compassionate Care Act, which will help those who are suffering with chronic and terminal illnesses. I’m here because my faith compels me to care for the suffering. In my seventeen years in congregational ministry, I’ve been present to many suffering with illness. My vocation before church work was that of professional hospital chaplain and bioethicist. In that work I was often at the bedside of someone who was dying, and I worked closely with their doctors and families as we tried to ease their physical and emotional pain. In that work I almost always saw the best in people. Regardless of our many differences, we always came together in the hospital to care for someone and do everything we could to help. And that’s what the Compassionate Care Act does. It brings us together across the lines of faith and partisanship that too often divide us to do something to help each other. I dare say that in these polarized times a bill like this is good medicine for us all. It shows that we can still work together to make a difference. And have no doubt, this bill will make a difference. If we work together to pass it then real people will suffer less. With access to medical cannabis under the direction of their doctors, real South Carolinians will have less pain. Some have suggested that those of us who support this bill have been put up to it somehow, or there are, perhaps, some special groups or secret interests are behind it. But I would like to say very clearly that no one has put me up to this. I traveled to Columbia today to speak for myself about an issue that effects many who suffer with chronic and terminal illness. I am here because I believe the act is aptly named and really is about compassionate care. I’m here because my Christian faith taught me the Golden Rule, that we should treat others in the way that we would want to be treated ourselves. And all of us, were we in pain, would want to have our pain addressed and managed by our doctors. Most South Carolinians, I think, understand the Golden Rule. According to a benchmark research poll taken last December, 72% of us support medical cannabis. This may explain why the bill is bipartisan and why representatives of such diverse faith traditions stand together in support of it. We know that we should care for those who are suffering. Before I close I would like to tell you why I am really here, why this issue cuts close to home for me, and why I am grateful to all who have worked so hard to bring the Compassionate Care Act to South Carolina. When I was in college my father was diagnosed with cancer, and I left school for a time to return home and help my mother take care of him. He became a hospice patient in our home, and I remember the doctors and the nurses working so hard to help us manage his pain, which grew worse and worse over time. It was incredibly difficult to see someone we loved so much in so much pain. In my father’s case we relied on morphine, not cannabis, yet under the supervision of his doctors, the medication was able to ease his pain enough that he could rest. Friends visited. Family sat by his bedside. Everyone came together to help, and we created a place for him that was loving and dignified. As this bill moves through the process I offer my own prayers that it will pass and that our state will embody the golden rule when it comes to those who suffer with illness. May we treat our neighbors with the kindness and compassionate and care that we would all want for ourselves. Thank you.” Rev. Ivory Thigpen, Baptist “When we look at the name of this bill, Compassionate Care Act, there could not have been any better name given to it. For, indeed, we should as a civilization, as well as humanity and legislators, always teach ourselves to care for others and have compassion. When we look to the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ example is very clear. Not only does it say “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,” but at every miracle and every turn of Him engaging and caring for the lives of those that he so dramatically changed, the scriptures read that He had compassion. And in this day and age, where we really need to be our brother and our sister’s keeper, when we have individuals who have illnesses that debilitate them, illnesses that are terminal, illnesses that reduce their quality of life, let alone their quantity of life, we must have compassion. And so, as we look to pass this legislation, I want you to think about if it were your family member that was suffering, if it were your family member that was in debilitating pain and there was something within your means to care for them, then you would, by all means, have compassion. So as we seek to encourage others and educate them on the benefits of what this type of legislation can do, we will see a lot of people across the state of South Carolina helped because we were, as our scriptures say, called to be compassionate. Thank you so much.” Rabbi Eric Mollo “In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses, “I’ve heard the cry of my people, I will save them with an outstretched hand.” We are made in the image of God, and being made in the image of God we have the opportunity to extend our hand, too, in compassion, in love. We have the opportunity to lift up the fallen. That’s what the Compassionate Care Act can do. It can lift up those in pain. It can lift up those who are suffering and provide them the relief they need. It’s not a “can we do it, it’s a must.” We must do it. The medieval rabbis taught, “Men are stood well,” but we are still debating today. They wrote, “Where there exists a possibility that a certain cure or medicine is administered and the patient may have a quality of life or it may have the opposite effect of hastening his death, it is permissible to provide the medication.” Those words are five hundred years old, surely we can do better today to provide care and a better quality of life to those who need medical cannabis to quell their suffering. We are behind the times. There can be no sufficient excuse to believe otherwise. Thank you.” Rev. Terry Alexander, Baptist “On almost a daily basis I know of friends who are suffering from chronic pain, whereas if they take prescribed medicines that they have now, it would have them all discombobulated, addicted, particularly our veterans. They do not take the medicine. They walk around or they cannot walk around because of the excruciating pain that has grabbed their body. Medical cannabis is an alternative for the opioids, and it’s an alternative to pain. Alternative, another option, just as you would go to the store and get Aleve or Excedrin, why is it or why can’t an individual who are suffering from pain not have an option, as well? This bill gives relief to those who are hurting. Not only does it relieve the sufferer, but it also helps to relieve the caregiver. Sometimes miss that point: the caregivers, who see their family member suffer because they do not have the medication that would give them relief. What kind of state or what kind of country is this? We have the assistance, the medication, have the know-how to provide relief for its people and we refuse to do so. And until it hits home, we will probably have a different posture, but I’m here because I’ve seen it. I’ve been approached by those who are hurting, who are saying, “Terry, we need that bill. It relieves me, it helps me, it comforts me.” So I encourage you who are watching, I encourage you to call your legislator and encourage them to support this bill, get it out of committee so we can move it to the governor’s office for signature. Thank you very much.” Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, United Church of Christ “Clergy for a New Drug Policy seeks a health, not punishment, response to drug use. I am delighted to be here with a genuinely interfaith, interracial gathering on behalf of this bill. If you look at the folks who are supporting and signing on, you will find Christian, Jewish, and Islamic voices coming together for all the reasons that you’ve heard. I’d like to support what has been said, but, perhaps, not been said clearly enough. Scientific evidence supports this bill. That is not in doubt. If you can oppose this bill you maybe have your private, somewhat, cramped reasons for doing so, but you can’t oppose it because there isn’t scientific evidence. In my state, we have passed a bill that provides medical cannabis as a substitute for opioids. Think of that. In the midst of an opioid crisis, a response that is less expensive, has less side effects, and relieves pain. Thirty-three states have approved this bill, it’s time for South Carolina to do likewise.”
(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