“Let justice roll down like waters.”Amos 5:24 Dear Friends and Colleagues, It has been exciting to see the growth of this community over the past year with the work of my colleague Timothy McMahan King. I’ve been working diligently on a book that will articulate a theological framework for ending the so-called War on Drugs. I will be excited to share this project with you in the future. While I know our supporters are across the country, I wanted to share with you a letter we are collecting clergy and faith leader signatures to send to the Illinois General Assembly. The “Reducing Barriers to Recovery” (SB 1830) is a bill that would reclassify low-level drug possession in Illinois from a felony to a misdemeanor. It is an understatement to say that this bill would significantly reduce the damage our current drug law inflicts upon so many lives. We believe the bill has a good chance of passing the General assembly this year, and that lifting up the voices of faith leaders from across Illinois’ diverse communities will be crucial to help ensure the success of this campaign. More information about SB 1830 can be found on this website. If you are clergy or a faith leader in the state of Illinois, I hope you will join me in adding your signature to the letter by completing this form. We also request that you share the letter and form with other clergy, faith leaders, and faith-based organizations in your networks and ask them to add their signatures to the form as well. Feel free to add your own comments in communicating this request. You might also mention that under “organization” it is not necessary to include the signer’s congregation. The individual signer’s address is helpful. Thank you so much for your support. Al Rev. Alexander E. SharpExecutive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy P.S. If you know of other initiatives across the country like this that we can support, please let us know. To the Members of the Illinois General Assembly: As clergy and faith leaders in Illinois, we urge your immediate support for “Reducing Barriers to Recovery,” Senate Bill 1830. By reclassifying small-scale drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, this bill would align society’s response to drug use with our fundamental values of compassion, fairness, and justice. Two overriding principles guide our support: First, in a civilized society, the burden of proof should always be on those who deprive individuals of their freedom. Jail and prison should always be the last resort. Second, all of our traditions have in common the moral teaching of equality and the call to love our neighbors. We reject laws which divide us by race and income, thereby creating “the other” in our midst. We are united in our commitment to building the beloved community in which every person is treated equally. SB 1830 works toward both ends. Punishment as drug policy does not work. It has not decreased the supply of drugs or curtailed use. It has not reduced crime. Overdose deaths continue to rise. SB 1830 would reduce the damage of current failed policies. Drug use is fundamentally a health issue. Incarcerating people doesn’t help them recover from substance use problems. SB 1830 would prioritize connecting individuals to appropriate treatment. The criminal legal system should focus on holding individuals who harm others accountable. People who put only themselves at risk need compassion and mercy, not judgment. Moreover, treating drug use as a felony exacerbates social and economic divisions in society. Black and brown people, usually poor, are far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for low-level drug offenses even as drug use is equally prevalent in middle and upper-class communities. When we label people as felons, often for possessing minuscule amounts of substances, we cripple their chance of future employment, condemning them to a lifetime of societal stigma and limiting access to vital services. SB 1830 would alleviate these wrongs. As clergy, we are all too aware of the dangers of drug use. Each of us serve people and communities negatively impacted by addiction and tragic overdose deaths. We speak on this topic only with great care. We do so because SB 1830 will bring us closer to drug policy that respects all individuals even as it serves the common good. The New York Times published an in depth exploration of the work of On Point, the country’s first above ground overdose prevention center. The headline of the article called it a “radical” approach. The word “radical” is often thought of as simply “extreme.” But the word radical comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root.” In that sense, overdose prevention centers are radical as they get to the root issue that drug use is a public health issue and that people who use drugs are worthy of dignity, respect and access to the health care and support they need.
Drugs & Crime in Oregon
The Clergy for New Drug Policy Weekly News Round-up “Let justice roll down like waters.” Amos 5:24 Dear Friends and Colleagues, In 2020, voters in Oregon overwhelmingly supported ballot measure 110. This groundbreaking measure made Oregon the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs and expand addiction services through cannabis tax revenue. In addition, the state is establishing regulated access to psychedelic-assisted therapy and retreats. Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance called the passing of Measure 110, “the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date.” While the measure reduced the violence of the war on drugs, it would be a mistake to call it true peace. As Nelson Mandela reminded us: Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, gender, class, caste, or any other social markers of difference. Ending the “war on drugs” isn’t just about stopping the violence and trauma of arrests and incarceration, it’s about ensuring access to harm reduction, recovery services, health care, housing, and quality jobs. One of the major criticisms of Measure 110 has been that few people who have accessed services have entered into treatment. This is true but ignores that there are still huge gaps in treatment access and capacity throughout the state. And, additional funding for these services was held up until September 2022. We don’t have any reason to believe that Measure 110 has increased drug use. Overdoses in Oregon were on a rapid rise before the changes in the law due to illicit fentanyl contaminating the drug supply. And, we have no reason to believe that crime trends are any different than in other comparable cities. While critics have already proclaimed that Measure 110 is a “failed experiment,” the reality is that it has yet to be tried. War can provide a false sense of moral clarity. You know who the “enemy” is and you “win” by defeating them. The work of peace is much more difficult and slow going. It requires breaking down barriers and building opportunity. Arresting and caging a person today may make some voters feel better in the moment but it fails to take into account the generational trauma, devastated communities, and stifling of opportunity for years to come. In Oregon, the fighting has slowed. But, that doesn’t mean that true peace has been achieved. A lot more investment is needed in high-quality harm reduction and attractive treatment services to create an environment where everyone can flourish. We’ve provided a breakdown of more of what you need to know about Measure 110 below. Keep the Faith, Timothy McMahan King Oregon Voters Want Measure 110 to Remain in Place While two gubernatorial candidates actively campaign for repealing Measure 110, the public still believes in the project. A recent Data for Progress study of 1,051 Oregon voters found that Measure 110 retains strong majority support. Specifically, a majority of Oregon voters believe drug use and addiction is a public health issue and that Measure 110 should remain in place. Additionally, voters overwhelmingly support individual provisions of the law and understand that Measure 110 is not contributing to crime and homelessness in Oregon. Building the Evidence: Understanding the Impacts of Drug Decriminalization in Oregon Although politicians are falsely pushing the idea that Measure 110 is causing an increase in crime and overdoses, this claim is directly contradicted by another recent study. The study states: Additionally, drug possession arrests significantly decreased after Measure 110 took effect on February 1, 2021, according to data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. Once Measure 110 took effect, the monthly average fell by 65%, and it held steady for the first half of 2022. New study finds large gaps in services for substance use disorder treatment in Oregon There is still a lot more work to be done on ensuring the presence of opportunities where all can flourish. A study published in September found a nearly 50% gap in services for substance use disorder treatment, prevention, recovery, and harm reduction in Oregon. The study’s lead author, Katie Lenahan, a research project manager at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health stated “We definitely see gaps in harm reduction access. Syringe exchange programs, we have less than half of the number that is necessary to really meet the need. Naloxone distribution, we see a 28% gap, so the need for much more access to naloxone And then fentanyl test strips so people can test and make sure their drugs are safe, we saw about a 35% gap in facilities that offer that resource.” Without funding, groups doing harm reduction and recovery work can only be partially successful.
A Ray of Light in a Dark Year
As this unremittingly grim, even dark year, draws to a close, I offer one ray of light in the area of drug policy. For the first time, the United States now has overdose prevention sites up and running. 59 opioid overdoses, most potentially fatal, have been reversed in the first month of operation. This major breakthrough took place in New York City on November 30. In two locations—Washington Heights and East Harlem–individuals struggling with substance use now can inject drugs under medical supervision, rather than doing so alone, often in dirty alleyways and public bathrooms. These sites, soon to be linked in a new organization called OnPoint NYC, offer a variety of other medical services. Drug treatment is available but not required. Individuals can also test their drugs for the highly lethal drug fentanyl and other contaminants, thus protecting themselves from a major cause of overdose deaths. Our nation experienced over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2020, with over 2,000 in New York City alone. The United States has been waiting for too long – far too long – for overdose prevention sites. Over 120 in exist in 10 countries including France, Germany, Norway, Spain, Canada, and Australia. They save lives, result in safer communities, and enjoy the support of law enforcement. Two years ago, it appeared that such a site would open in Philadelphia. The mayor, city council, and law enforcement officials were supportive. But the Trump administration’s regional U.S. District Attorney blocked the opening under the so-called crack house law, which bans operating, owning, or renting a location to facilitate the use of illegal drugs. The Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal. In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio began supporting overdose prevention sites in 2018 and has been joined by the district attorneys for Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Harlem. Mayor-elect Eric Adams has also expressed support. President Biden recently became the first U.S. president to endorse harm reduction and has proposed over $30 million in federal funding. The U.S. Justice Department has not yet commented on whether it will intervene. City officials have urged Attorney General Merrick Garland not to prosecute operators of sites where local officials have approved them. These sites are not a new issue for Clergy for New Drug Policy. In 2016, we organized a clergy visit to Insite in Vancouver, at that time only such site in North America. We have supported efforts to open sites in other locations. While New York City’s is the first, we were delighted to hear that the Rhode Island state legislature has authorized two pilot programs. The concept also is being intensely debated in cities across the country, including San Francisco, Denver, and Boston. Why is this step in the United States such a significant breakthrough? The saved lives are surely important. 600 New Yorkers died of opioid overdose in the first three months of 2021. This number might have been cut by at least 30% had the two new sites been operating. More fundamentally, the sites are important because they are the purest expression of harm reduction, in which the focus is on reducing harm to those struggling with substance use rather than insisting on abstinence as the only moral approach. Measures such as: testing for contaminants such as fentanyl; sterile syringes; the availability of Naloxone, a drug that almost instantly can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose; and medication for opioid use disorder such as methadone, buprenorphine and other drugs. These measures are increasingly accepted, but they will not help individuals who are dead. In their first month, the New York City sites have received strong community support. Their director, Sam Rivera, notes, “We are partnering with the NY Police Department,” as he told a New York City radio audience recently. “They are here at our sites to support us and make sure there are no disruptions to what we are offering. They ask us for paperwork so they can refer people to us who they see are using drugs.” “The sites really speak for themselves,” commented staff member Kailin See. “They’re not just for people who use drugs, they are also for the communities where they’re located. The community asked for less public injection, fewer improperly discarded syringes on streets and playgrounds, less overdose death, less crime in their neighborhoods.” The sites received high praise from an emergency department nurse: “In many cases, departments are overrun and the staff is exhausted. I’ve personally tried to resuscitate patients who — even though emergency services got to them and gave them Narcan – died because it was too late, and we’ve lost those patients. Anything we can do to decrease the burden on emergency services is really important.” One New Yorker recalled, “I was a resident of Washington Heights [and] used some of the safe needle exchange services probably 10 years ago. Only because of programs you’re talking about was I able to get clean, stay clean, reintegrate into society, hold a solid job. I hear people saying things like ‘Not in my backyard.’ But you’re right, you are where there is the most need.” As we close the door on a most difficult and troubling year, may I extend my best wishes for a healthier and happier New Year in 2022. Sincerely, Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy
Will Oregon Be the First?
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.”
African-American, Latinx Clergy Speak on Cannabis Legalization in Connecticut
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.”