(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
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. “
Christy and Mark Zartler are the parents of an eighteen-year old child, Kara, who has multiple disabilities, including autism. Rev. Alexander Sharp had the privilege of meeting them while participating in the Texas Marijuana Policy Conference in Austin. They have been fighting a heroic battle for many years, at huge personal cost and risk, to help their daughter. They are advocates for legalizing medical marijuana. Please read their story here. Dear Friends of CNDP, My name is Christy Zartler. My husband Mark and I are parents of a severely autistic daughter. Eighteen years ago, I gave birth to premature identical twins. One of my twins, Kara, has multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy and autism. Unfortunately, her primary mode of communication is self-abuse. She has had these behaviors since she was four. The worst of these behaviors is that she repeatedly hits herself in the head and face with close fists. She has been recorded in one school day to punch her face and ears 3,000 times. We had to do something for her. We’ve been to many physicians and she’s been on many different medications. Nothing worked. We’ve been trying to help her for 14 years. When Kara was 11 years old we found that cannabis in the form of an edible brownie stops these self-injurious episodes. After the discovery that cannabis was a very effective mood stabilizer for Kara, my husband tried a Cannabis vapor treatment. We blow up a cannabis vapor balloon and give it like a nebulizer treatment; it takes about 5 minutes to work. Like a light switch, her brain shifts, her mood changes abruptly, and she’s back to more acceptable behavior. She can do activities that she enjoys like walking, playing with her rice bin, and eating. After the treatment she expresses joy and happiness. We believe it’s good medicine for her and it helps relieve pain in her legs. It works a hundred percent of the time. It’s not the only medicine she takes, but it’s a vital part of her program. It’s a medical necessity. We use it for rescue purposes, when she’s having these dangerous meltdowns. In February 2017, my husband Mark released a treatment video to promote awareness for conditions like Kara’s. It shows that cannabis is an effective treatment. The video went viral. It’s been seen worldwide. We had no idea this would happen. Pictures and videos of her can be seen on her fb page “Kara Zartler”. Kara has always had a team of doctors. She is currently a patient at the Autism Center at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. We haven’t given up on modern medicine. We can’t. She currently takes three pharmaceutical prescriptions. They help her, but nothing stops these severe episodes once they start. Once they get rolling, her mind gets into this loop. We’ve always told her doctors about the treatment. We take whatever legal risk we have to take because of drug interaction issues. Our doctors can’t offer us advice back, except to look for interaction precautions from what they know. It would be a blessing if we could actually have a two-way conversation with them about the use of cannabis for her conditions. Families like ours need legal access to whole plant cannabis and recourses so that we can feel safe and sleep better. Cannabis oil possession carries stiff punishments. If you live within 1000 square feet of a school a six-month supply of cannabis oils for one person is 10 years to life in prison. Everyone tells us that we should just move, but the reality is that we can’t. Kara has been thriving in the Richardson School District since she was three years old. It’s been a long process, and now we finally have an excellent program going at her school. The chances of us replicating that in a different district are zero. We also have our social services here. We’re on the Texas Medicaid Waver programs so we have in home help that helps us care for Kara so that we don’t have to institutionalize her. Many families in our autism community who live in legal states believe that cannabis works for their autistic children. These parents have shared videos of their children. After cannabis treatment the children are interacting with people, making eye contact, doing tasks and activities, smiling and enjoying their surroundings. I believe that the sick children here in Texas deserve to have access to this less harmful medication. What we really need is for Texas lawmakers to recognize that cannabis is medicine. Sincerely, Christy Zartler
One of the greatest risks for heroin users is that, very often, they do not know exactly what it is they’re injecting. This danger is a direct result of prohibition, since there are no regulations for drugs sold through a black market. Very often, heroin is laced with fentanyl, an incredibly potent opioid. Users who are unaware of the potency of their purchase risk overdosing and dying. Not surprisingly, a report from earlier this year stated that “nearly half of opioid-related deaths in 2016 involved fentanyl.” Fentanyl is one of the greatest dangers facing those who use heroin or who are struggling with opioid abuse disorders. Unfortunately, the response from policy makers and law enforcement has been to double down on the strategy that has fueled the failed War on Drugs: instead of helping users, they want to punish dealers. In Florida, a law went into effect last year that will allow prosecutors to charge dealers who sell heroin laced with fentanyl with first degree murder. Less than a month ago, Rhode Island followed suit, with a piece of legislation titled “Kristen’s Law.” This strategy has also been embraced by President Trump, calling for the death penalty for drug dealers. “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers,” he said, “we’re wasting our time.” What Trump and the legislators behind the laws in Florida and Rhode Island seem to be willfully ignoring is that the War on Drugs has always been about being tough on dealers, as well as users. The idea that has driven policy is that aggressively punishing drug dealers will result in fewer drug users. Instead, it has only resulted in more prisoners. Since the 1970s, the government has fought the War on Drugs by locking up as many people involved in the drug trade as possible. The outcome has been a dramatic rise in the US prison population, far outstripping that of any other country, without doing anything to curtail rates of drug use or prevent the opioid crisis from ravaging communities and destroying lives. Kristen’s Law is named after Kristen Coutu, who died in 2014 after overdosing on heroin laced with fentanyl. Opponents of the bill argue that the bill will lead to “the prosecution of ‘small time’ dealers who trade or sell drugs, and who may themselves struggle with substance use disorder, or those who provide drugs to a friend for a few dollars or in exchange for a bed for the night.” This bill ignores the fact that drug dealers rarely know the contents of their own supplies, and that jailing drug dealers will do nothing to halt the supply of drugs, that there will always be another dealer waiting to take their place. If the goal of Kristen’s Law, or any similar legislation around the country, is saving the lives of drug users like Kristen Coutu, it will be an abject failure. However, if the goal is adding to the already outrageously large prison population and ruining the lives of people forced into the Prison Industrial Complex, they could not be picking a better strategy. Should policy makers decide they were serious about protecting drug users at risk of overdosing on heroin, there are policy approaches they could take that have been proven effective. Providing users with a space in which to consume their drugs under the supervision of a medical professional is the best way to ensure that overdoses are quickly and safely reversed. This is not a fantasy. Insite, a safe injection facility in Vancouver, has been open since 2003. Nurses there have reversed hundreds of overdoses, with not a single overdose death. Deaths caused by drug overdoses are avoidable, but giving drug dealers life sentences, or death sentences, will not prevent the next overdose death. Kristen’s Law is an “eye for an eye” type of punishment that is both barbaric and counterproductive. If policy makers wants to honor the legacy of Kristen Coutu, they should do so by saving lives, not destroying them. Tom Houseman
Guest Blog by Rev. Bobby Griffith, Jr., Pastor, City Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City, OK Two weeks ago, my home state, Oklahoma, passed State Question 788, which legalizes marijuana for medicinal purposes. As a minister, I was overjoyed at the prospect of beginning to push back against the harm caused by the long War on Drugs and to see kindness unleashed toward the suffering. I did my part by helping with the petition drive, talking to the undecided, giving media interviews and writing in support of this statute. I did not always hold this view. What pushed me over the edge was sermon prep, of all things. In 2010, I gave a sermon with heavy application that centered on the fact Oklahoma seemed “okay” on the surface, but it was not that way for everyone. My illustration was twofold. First, Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the world. Yes, world! Second, Patricia Spottedcrow. Ms. Spottedcrow was a single mom, who sold $31 of marijuana to an undercover informant. She did this to feed her family. In turn, she received a 12-year prison sentence and her family was broken up, despite the fact this was her first offense. A grassroots effort ensued, and she served two years, instead of 12. Still, she spent that time without her four kids and had to rebuild her life. I mentioned these two things in a sermon. The church where I was on staff at the time was mostly made up of Red State Oklahomans. Mentioning something about marijuana, sentencing and, dare I say, social justice, was unheard of for this congregation. I received a few “I never thought about that” comments, but nothing out of the ordinary. Two years later, I met a man in his early 20s who made most of his money growing and selling marijuana. He lived a few blocks from one of the hip spots in Oklahoma City and lots of folks knew what he did for income. In the course of our short conversation (how many ministers get to hang out with a drug dealer!), I asked him if he was worried about getting caught. He said, “Dude. I’m white.” That interaction drove me to gain a better understanding of Oklahoma’s sentencing disparity. African Americans are almost four times as likely to be in jail for marijuana than Caucasians. Arrest rates for whites are lower. Sentencing occurs along racial lines. My state now has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. The system is broken. I look at the enforcement of drug laws, marijuana specifically, and I feel the angst of the Old Testament prophets. There is real oppression. Prohibition creates black markets and opens the door to gangs, prostitution, and human degradation. Law enforcement has the ability to apply civil asset forfeiture and take from those who barely have anything, especially immigrants and migrants. Mandatory minimum sentences do little by way of treating humans as bearers of God’s image. It is within this space, I believe, clergy need to lead. Houses of worship need to empower congregations with the realities that are often ignored. No one at that little church where I preached in 2010 knew about incarceration rates or Patricia Spottedcrow. Some may have thought she “got what she deserved,” but I’m sure many felt it was wrong. We need to learn how to tap into that sense of injustice to do our part to bring about restorative justice. The issue of drug laws is not as simple as “just say no” or “go to jail”. There are hosts of socio-economic and political factors. There is space to apply Christ’s love for others in the Gospels. There is room to point out oppression. There is an opportunity for religious communities to be compassionate, speak for the voiceless, and open the eyes of the powerful to a better way.