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Both the U.S. and Canada are in the throes of a deadly opioid epidemic. But there is a major difference.  Canada has life-saving sites where individuals are able to consume drugs under medical supervision. The U.S. has none. Last week, under the auspices of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, I traveled to Toronto as part of a group of service providers, state and county legislators, and law enforcement officials.  It was an extraordinary opportunity to view Canada’s supervised consumption facilities (SCFs) first hand and learn from them. The sheer number of Canadian facilities is striking. When I visited Insite in Vancouver three years ago, it was still the first and only SCF in North America.  Now 44 have been authorized in Canada. There are nine in Toronto alone. This did not happen overnight. The election of a liberal federal government in 2015 helped to open the door. Although conservatives gained power in Ontario in 2017 and have raised regulatory barriers and threatened to reduce funding it seems likely that SCFs are in Canada to stay. On the first day of our visit, we gathered at Moss Park OPS, an overdose prevention service much like a SCF.  Its staff have consulted closely with the surrounding business leaders and residents. They report that “Moss Park OPS has not received any direct complaints from neighbors or the stakeholders.” They add that “Toronto Police have been supportive of the establishment of overdose prevention facilities operating in the Moss Park Neighborhood.”   According to the Moss Park OPS, there is “long-standing and strong support in Toronto for the establishment of permanent supervised injection/consumption services…In March 2016 more than 50 Toronto community leaders signed a statement calling for the city to establish supervised injection services within existing community health and social service sites.”   Two of the three facilities the Chicago delegation visited were community health service centers, offering a broad array of services. The space for supervised consumption seemed one part of a continuum of health care responses.   That said, there is no requirement that those consuming drugs under supervision at an SCF accept other services.  For staff this is perhaps the essence of the harm reduction approach. They treat overdoses and prevent the spreading of disease.  Their approach is consistent with Jesus’ warning, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” What does this accomplish? During our visit, Thomas Kerr, Professor of Medicine at the University of Columbia, shared data showing that SISs save lives by preventing overdose deaths and they stem the spread of infectious diseases such as hepatitis. They have led neither to increased drug use nor to other crime. “The evidence is indisputable… in Canada there is no serious evidence against these facilities.” Something else of profound significance is happening as supervised consumption facilities gain traction. Drug use is increasingly being framed as a health rather than a criminal issue.  A service provider we met posed this question: “If someone is in our facility with drugs, we try to help them. If they possess drugs and are sitting on a park bench, they get arrested. How does that make any sense?” It does not, of course.  That is why the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network has just issued a report in which its most prominent recommendation states, “The federal government should decriminalize activities related to drug use.” What I learned in Toronto is that supervised consumption facilities save lives, prevent disease, and respect human dignity.  Even without requiring behavioral change, these facilities can be an avenue to treatment. They have broad public support. When will this happen here? Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

The post Supervised Consumption Facilities: Canada 44 U.S. 0 appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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Supervised consumption facilities are one of the most important harm reduction tools available in fighting the opioid epidemic and saving the lives of people with substance use disorders. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice (DoJ) is doing everything in their power from stopping Philadelphia from opening the first legal such site in the United States. There are around one hundred legal, regulated supervised consumption facilities (SCF’s) around the world. Facilities have existed in Switzerland since 1986, in Australia since 2001, and in Vancouver, Canada since 2003. Insite, one of several sites in Canada, which has supervised nearly 4 million injections since it opened. Nobody has ever died of a drug overdose at Insite or any other public, legal SCF. In the United States, where more than 130 people die of drug overdoses every day, it is illegal to run any sort of supervised drug consumption facility. This illegality has done nothing to quell the opioid crisis or to stop people from injecting drugs. Some of the alternatives in the US include unlicensed, underground facilities, which inherently carry more risk. Otherwise, people are injecting drugs in public restrooms or in private, making it extremely difficult for them to receive assistance if they overdose. After decades of a failed War on Drugs, we are finally seeing a pivot from treating substance use disorders as a criminal justice issue to treating them as a public health issue. Unfortunately, not all public officials are on board. In particular, while the Trump Administration has preached the importance of addressing the opioid epidemic, their actions have sent more mixed messages. In February, they made it unequivocally clear that they will stand against progress. Over the last few years the possibility of opening SCF’s has been debated in San Francisco, Denver, and Pittsburgh. Earlier this month, the Rhode Island State Senate passed a bill authorizing a supervised consumption pilot program there. The bill is now being considered by the State House. Last year, when the Philadelphia-based organization Safehouse announced its plans to open a site at which people could inject drugs safely and with supervision, the proposal received the approval of District Attorney Larry Krasner, who made it clear that his office would not interfere with Safehouse in any way. The Department of Justice, unfortunately, had other plans. In February, the DoJ filed a lawsuit to stop Safehouse from moving forward with their plans. The suit, filed by U.S. Attorney William McSwain, points to a provision in the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S. Code Section 856, that was written in the 1980s to target “crack houses.” The provision makes it unlawful to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.” Safehouse argues that this provision should not apply to a medical facility like an SCF. It is represented by AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and DLA Piper attorney Ilana Eisenstein. In their counterclaim to the lawsuit, Safehouse’s legal defense team wrote that “Providing lifesaving medical services to individuals who are suffering from substance use disorder does not and constitutionally cannot violate Section 856.” In its opposition, the DoJ is sending a clear message. McSwain stated that the case “could be persuasive, or helpful authority to a judge in California, New York, Colorado, Washington State, or wherever this issue might come up.” Clearly, he wants every city around the country to know that an attempt to create a legal supervised consumption facility will result in a costly legal battle with the federal government. The fact that there is precedence in Canada to support the legality of SCF’s is reassuring. In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that locally-run SCF’s are exempt from federal prosecution. Still, it is clear that McSwain believes that the Department of Justice has a strong case. He has argued that “Normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl is not the answer to solving the opioid epidemic.” But among public health advocates and researchers, the evidence is clear. “These facilities save lives,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley said about Safehouse’s proposal, “while serving as an entryway to drug treatment.” Hopefully, as visibility of the effectiveness of SCF’s increase, the idea will become more popular, and creation of such facilities in the United States more politically feasible. In the meantime, the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Safehouse marks a serious turning point for harm reduction policies around the United States. Many cities and states have come around to increasing access to the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone, to syringe exchange programs, and to Good Samaritan laws that protect people who call emergency services in the event of an overdose. The opioid epidemic is a serious problem with no simple solutions, but there is considerable evidence that SCF’s work, will work in the United States, and do not incentivize drug use or lead to increased rates of use. How much longer will the Department of Justice ignore this evidence? How many lives will be needlessly lost in the meantime? Depending on how this lawsuit plays out, we may find out the answer soon. Tom Houseman, Policy Director

The post The Justice Department’s War on Supervised Drug Use appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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On Friday, May 31st, 2019, the Illinois House reset the War on Drugs for an entire nation. It passed legislation approving adult-use cannabis and sent it to the Governor for his signature.  Our nation’s drug laws were founded in racism. The major reason this bill passed was because it will begin to repair what such racism has wrought.  When Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, few members knew what “marijuana” was. A virtually self-appointed federal drug czar named Harry Anslinger had brainwashed the members with claims  to the effect that “Negroes under the influence of that crazy drug will molest our women,” and “Lazy Mexicans smoking weed will take our jobs.”  With the help of William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow journalism” chain, Anslinger created a stigma around marijuana use that has infected the national consciousness for over 80 years. This stigma has given police license to break into the homes of people of color and round them up on mere suspicion of possession.  Marijuana laws have always been at the forefront of our national War on Drugs.   Finally, Illinois is effectively repealing these marijuana laws. Their legacy is written in the lives lost to racist and unjust prison sentences. It will take many years to undo even a portion of this damage. Fortunately, this bill is a start. Prohibition is misguided. In trying, and failing, to stop people from using drugs, it turns them into criminals. Treating people as criminals simply because they use drugs is cruel and immoral. So, thank you, Governor Pritzker. Thank you, Sen. Heather Steans, and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, the lead co-sponsors of SB 7 and HB 1438. Thank you, Marijuana Policy Project staff, who helped to craft a hideously complex piece of legislation under extreme time pressure. Thank you to the 58 religious leaders who supported this legislation with a letter to the General Assembly. You have shown that clergy can speak out against the stigma that has blinded too many of their colleagues to racial injustice and misguided prohibition.   With the Cannabis and Regulation Tax Act, Illinois has demonstrated that it is possible to regulate cannabis through legislative action, something no other state has yet been able to do. All of you have brought us to the point where a national reset on the War on Drugs is not just a dream. At long last we can see the way.   Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

The post Illinois Cannabis Bill Resets the War on Drugs  appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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Clergy for a New Drug Policy - Blog by Rev. Alexander E. Sharp - 1M ago

May 24, 2019 To the Illinois General Assembly:  As clergy, we care deeply about social justice. The criminalization of cannabis, even for simple possession, has crippled the lives of people of color disproportionately for more than four decades. This is why we – the undersigned – believe it is time to move to a system of legal, regulated and taxed adult-use cannabis in Illinois.  Current cannabis laws, fines, and arrests are carried out with staggering racial bias. The illicit market, which prohibition makes inevitable, continues to breed violence in our poorest communities all across Illinois.  Regulation would make Illinois a safer state.  It would allow us to educate adults, informing them about what a product contains and enabling them to make informed decisions. Banning sales by law to those under 21 would help to limit access to our youth.  Under prohibition, these measures are not possible.  Legislation being considered in Springfield would permit the expungement of cannabis arrests and convictions and allocate funds to communities ravaged by the War on Drugs. It would provide valuable business opportunities to minorities.  We cannot wait any longer to make this the law of the land in Illinois. We urge you to vote yes on a regulatory system that works for all of Illinois. Signed,   Reverend Scott Aaseng Reverend Lee Barker Reverend Robert E. Biekman Reverend Barbara Bolsen Reverend Danielle J. Buhuro Reverend Fanya Burford Reverend Julian DeShazier Reverend Randall Doubet-King Reverend Dr. Russell Elleven Reverend Emily Gage Reverend Franklin Gamwell Reverend Edward Goode Reverend Joy Grainge Reverend Larry L. Greenfield Reverend David Gregg Reverend Allen Harden Reverend Alice Harper-Jones Reverend James A. Hobart Reverend Darrick Jackson Reverend Sarah Jay Reverend Dr. Matthew Johnson Reverend Veronica M. Johnson Reverend Jonathan Knight Reverend Jesse Knox III Reverend Mike Lesperance Reverend Sarah Lusche Reverend H. Scott Matheney Reverend Lucie Macfarlane Minister Darren Calhoun Reverend Florence Caplow Reverend Tom Capo Reverend Jason Coulter Reverend George W. Daniels Reverend Roger Dart Reverend Kevin J. McLemore Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva Reverend John Modschiedler Reverend Richard Mosley Jr. Reverend Karen Mooney Reverend Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks Reverend Christopher Powell Reverend Mary Rawlinson Reverend Thomas Rawlinson Reverend Kathryn Ray Rabbi Frederick Reeves Reverend Saeed Richardson Reverend Vilius Rudra Dundzila Reverend Pamela Rumancik Reverend Alexander Sharp Reverend Robert Trask Reverend Kathaleen Valek Reverend Colleen Vahey Reverend Amy Wharton Reverend Gunnar Williams Reverend Eileen Wiviott Reverend Ronald Young 

The post SB7: Letter in Support appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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Finally, we have the opportunity to legalize marijuana in Illinois.   Senate Bill 7, now before the General Assembly, would permit and regulate marijuana use for adults over 21.  Our new Governor is committed to the measure. Over 60% of Illinoisans are in favor and have been for a long time.  Yet some are still saying, “Let’s wait another year.” Here’s why they are wrong. Let’s start by looking at what this bill does.  First, it begins to reverse social injustices that our marijuana laws have quietly and cruelly inflicted over the past 80 years.  Most of Governor Pritzker’s May 4 press conference announcing the bill was dedicated to this point. Illinois will allocate huge anticipated revenue from cannabis sales to restoring communities the War on Drugs has done so much to destroy. It will expunge the criminal records of hundreds of thousands of residents convicted of minor marijuana offenses that would not have been illegal under this legislation.  It offers jobs and access to capital to minorities now operating in an illicit market that too often leads to their arrests. Governor Pritzker and his staff have given us a bill that can be a model for the nation when it comes to repairing past wrongs.  Other states will look to Illinois as they did when the state passed what is widely recognized medical marijuana legislation in 2013.  We should not wait another year to act when it comes to social justice. Moreover, SB 7 reflects the best way to respond to the potential for all substance abuse, including by young people.  We know that teen use has not increased in the 10 states that have legalized adult-use cannabis. Why? Regulation and education work; prohibition does not.    Education and, when necessary, treatment are better responses than arrests and incarceration.  It has taken us far too long to figure this out. But as a society we now know this is the way to go. Changing our marijuana laws is a critical part of this long-overdue national transformation. We constantly hear that marijuana today is more potent than in the days of Woodstock. That’s precisely why we need a legal market that is taxed and regulated. When purchasing in a black market, potency and possible adulteration are threats. But in regulated markets, content and amount are clearly labeled.  This protects against exactly what opponents of legalization say we should be afraid of. We also know that taxpayers in Illinois continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year enforcing cannabis laws. Yet prosecutions for possession have dropped significantly in most states that have legalized it.  The changes proposed in SB7 will relieve an overburdened criminal justice and court system and save taxpayer money. Cannabis policy has been a serious discussion in Illinois for years, and we used that time to hear from other states, look at their example, and build on our own experience with regulated medical cannabis. Waiting another year just perpetuates a system we know is a failure.  But this year, Illinois has the opportunity to pass a meaningful law that draws from those lessons, improves on them, and provides the nation with a model of social justice and drug policy reform. This is a critical moment. We should seize it. Rev. Alexandar Sharp, Executive Director

The post Don’t Wait to Legalize Marijuana in Illinois appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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As a nation, we are beginning to change our draconian laws. Seventeen states have developed alternatives to criminalizing at least some drug users. But barriers to change remain, most notably prosecutors across the country who continue to insist on the need for criminal sanctions.   In a superb new book Charged, Emily Bazelon tells us why. She shows how county prosecutors, often unconsciously, exploit the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era drug laws described in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to their own professional advantage.   Mandatory minimum sentencing and “three-strike” laws enable prosecutors to threaten long prison terms, and then coerce a plea bargain agreement that nevertheless leads to incarceration. Can we believe in the fairness of our criminal justice system when 95% of all cases are now plea-bargained, usually in secret? Bazelon is right to focus on prosecutors as obstacles to change. By demonstrating what prosecutors can and will do, she helps us see that we can never end the War on Drugs as long as criminal sanctions against drug use exist. Consider my home state of Illinois. In January, reformers filed HB 2291, a bill that would reclassify low level drug possession offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies. They did so because felony convictions are far more likely than misdemeanors to wreck lives. The bill got a respectable hearing even as it was opposed by the Illinois States Attorneys Association, composed of county prosecutors. Why? The states attorneys argued that only with the threat of felony sanctions can they force drug users into treatment. In other words, society needs criminal sanctions to keep people from becoming criminals. This view sounds illogical, and it is. It also contradicts convincing research that prison sentences do not reduce drug use.  In fact, people who go prison once are more likely to go back. In 2015, the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform found that “long sentences have not had the desired deterrence effect, but have consequences that can be disproportionate and counter-productive.”   If incarceration does not deter drug use, is it at least effective as a threat against those who might not otherwise belong in prison? Prosecutors and judges use it that way, often stipulating that charges or convictions will be set aside upon successful completion of treatment. This, too, often does more harm than good. Since the possibility of treatment is not widely available for those who need it, many will, in fact, end up in prison solely for this reason. Further, using prison as a threat ignores the possibility of relapse, at which stricter punishment will kick in. Criminal penalties stigmatize those who use drugs so that they avoid treatment they might otherwise seek. Finally, programs that divert individuals too often engage in “skimming,” offering treatment only to the “easiest” cases. It will be a tough to convince prosecutors not to oppose HB 2291 in Illinois and similarly compassionate programs in other states. When I asked Bazelon about this last week, she commented, “Oh, we charge people with crimes, so we can coerce them into treatment? That’s not what the criminal code is for.” We should be profoundly grateful to Emily Bazelon for helping us to understand prosecutorial behavior. But we must go further even than she takes us. As long as a drug possession is a crime, the justice system will harm people who do not deserve to be treated as criminals. At the end of the day, decriminalizing all drug use is the only sane and decent path. Rev. Alexander Sharp, Executive Director

The post How Prosecutors Are Stuffing Our Prisons appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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Mass incarceration didn’t happen overnight. Since 1980, the prison population in the United States has increased by more 500 percent, and only in the last few years has the number of people imprisoned at either a state or federal prison leveled off. There is certainly enough credit to go around for the rapid expansion of America’s incarceration system. Between the War on Drugs policies of the seventies and eighties and the “tough on crime” initiatives of the nineties, the blame is largely placed on policy makers, and with good reason. But in her recent book, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration, journalist Emily Bazelon asks us to shift our gaze from the people crafting the policy to the people enforcing it: prosecutors. Most people imagine the court system as being a triangle in which prosecutors and defenders are, as Bazelon writes, “points… on the same plane, with the judge poised above them.” The evidence laid out in Charged shows that this is clearly not the case. Prosecutors play a crucial role in determining what crime a person will be charged with when they are arrested. This decision is largely arbitrary, but it can mean the difference between a multi-year prison sentence and never having to spend a night behind bars. Prosecutors also have control over the other two most crucial factors that will determine whether and for how long a person will spend time in prison: plea deals, and bail. Bazelon points out that by demanding excessively high bail (a point on which judges virtually always defer to the prosecutor), prosecutors can push somebody to plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit. As a result, the number of people who never get their day in court is staggering. What is most troubling about the work of prosecutors is the adversarial role they take against the defense in criminal cases. Despite how they are presented on TV and in movies, the goal of prosecutors shouldn’t be winning cases, but rather seeking truth. Yet when prosecutors are rewarded for winning cases, and are trained to view defendants as the enemy, they become willing to subvert justice in pursuit of victory. Sometimes this effect is subconscious; Bazelon describes the “tunnel vision” that prosecutors get as they become unwilling to examine evidence that could exonerate a defendant. This psychological effect is reinforced by the culture of prosecutors and district attorney, and the politicization of their jobs. If a prosecutor lets somebody off with a light sentence and they reoffend, it could destroy their career or cost them reelection. Better, it seems, to err on the side of overcharging. Often, however, prosecutorial malfeasance is more direct and deliberate. Charged goes into detail about the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to share evidence beneficial to the defense. That was not always mandatory, and the lengths to which prosecutors go to get around the Brady rule is astonishing. If Charged simply rattled off statistics about how prosecutors stuff prisons with people who may be innocent, it would be sufficiently damning. But it is Bazelon’s journalistic abilities and storytelling prowess that elevate it to a truly haunting call to action. The book’s throughlines are two stories that reveal the two major problems with America’s prosecutorial system: one exemplifies the structural flaws of a punitive institution that is unforgiving and arbitrary; the other is a horror story of an overzealous prosecutor who will go to any lengths to secure a conviction. Kevin is a young black man living in a Brooklyn public housing project who took credit for possessing a gun as a way to protect a friend. The prosecutor handling the case had complete control over whether the state charged Kevin with criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree (mandatory minimum sentence three and a half years), third degree (two years), or fourth degree (a misdemeanor, no jail time). Bazelon follows Kevin through the kafkaesque New York City gun court that is meant to expedite these cases, but instead merely strips nuance from complex situations. Through the youth diversion program YCP, Kevin is allowed to stay out of prison, but the lengths to which he must go to appease judges and, more importantly, prosecutors, is absurd. Constantly forced to toe the line and with the fear of a lengthy prison sentence hanging over his head, Kevin’s case stretches on for years. Noura, by contrast, is a white teenager in Memphis, who becomes the target of District Attorney Amy Weirich. After her mother is found murdered, Noura becomes the only suspect, despite nothing but circumstantial evidence tying her to the case. Weirich’s methods are ethically and constitutionally dubious, showing that she prioritizes defeating Noura in court over finding out who killed Noura’s mother. As Bazelon shows, this behavior is not anomalous, and not only is it rarely punished, but it is often rewarded. The stories that unspool in Charged—and the data behind them—reveal just how broken our criminal justice system is. But while Bazelon offers no happy endings or tidy resolutions, she does show the promise of a new generation of District Attorneys determined to reform the prosecutorial landscape. Winning elections on waves of support, progress has already been made in Chicago by Kim Foxx, in Philadelphia by Larry Krasner, and in other cities around the country. Every proposal by these firebrand reformers is met with resistance by a system designed to defend the status quo, but while progress is slow, they are already making a difference.The prosecutorial system is deeply ingrained in America’s courts, and the Supreme Court has given District Attorneys stunning amounts of power and leeway in how they handle cases. In Charged, Bazelon lays out the facts unflinchingly, but also offers a way forward, as well as realistic alternatives that can drastically reduce the prison population without sacrificing public safety. Bazelon’s book is more than an indictment of a dangerous and broken system, it is a call to action that nobody who reads it will be able to resist. Tom Houseman, Policy Director

The post Charged: A Damning Portrait of The Role Prosecutors Play in Mass Incarceration appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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Those of us who have grown up attending church  can recall at least a few familiar Biblical passages. For attorney and law professor Mark Osler, these passages have guided his life.   In 2011, he was a federal prosecutor in Detroit.  His job was to send those accused of dealing, or even possessing, crack cocaine to prison, sometimes for life. Under the law, those with crack, usually African Americans, faced sentences 100 times greater than those, mostly Whites, with powder cocaine. One day Osler remembered Jesus coming upon a group of pharisees who were about stone to death a woman caught in adultery.  When they asked him what they should do, Jesus answered, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” All the men present dropped their stones, and walked silently away. (John 8:7-8)  In the courtroom, Osler realized, “I was the guy with the rock.” Osler resigned his position and took a teaching job at Baylor Law School, where he and legal colleagues successfully challenged the 100 to 1 crack-to-powder disparity. In 2011, he moved to St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis and founded the first law school clemency clinic in the United States. He was instrumental in the creation of the Clemency Initiative at the end of President Obama’s second term. Osler’s work continues to attract national attention. Last week he spoke with Clergy for a New Drug Policy about the Obama Clemency Initiative and prospects for clemency under the Trump administration. Q: Of the 1,715 individuals who received clemency under the Obama Clemency Initiative, how many of their convictions were in some way related to the draconian laws of the War on Drugs? A: Nearly all of them. Q: In light of this, what changes would you propose in our drug laws? A: I would argue for changes in our tactics and strategy, as well as in our drug laws. One of the biggest drivers of unfair sentences is that we use the weight of the drugs at issue as a proxy for culpability. That’s just wrong. If I hire somebody for $500 plus expenses to go down to Laredo and pick up some kilos of methamphetamine, I’m going to make tens of thousands of dollars once I sell those kilos.  If we both get arrested, we are going to face the same sentence because we’re involved in the same activity. But we are not equally culpable, or anything close to it. We should not be addressing people at all.  When it comes to interdiction, the most we can hope for because of the laws of economics is to marginally and temporarily raise the street price of drugs. It’s supply and demand. As long as the demand is there the supply is going come back.  Labor is especially easily replaced. What they should go after is the cash flow because you’re never going to close down a business by sweeping up low wage labor but you can close down a business by denying them cash flow and credit.  The FBI have become real experts at grabbing money going back to terrorist groups. We can apply that expertise to narcotics, and shut them down that way. This would demonstrate a whole new model: The guy who’s selling crack isn’t going to be in prison, he’s just not going have that job anymore. Q: Concerning drug laws, I thought you would say that we need to get rid of mandatory minimums and three strikes. A: Absolutely. The First Step Act is starting to move towards that. Q: If we had proportionate, fair sentencing laws, would we still need clemency? A: You wouldn’t need it as much, but we would still need clemency to take into account people who received long sentences, even if they had serious involvement in narcotics or other crimes, who have changed their lives, who aren’t the same person. You take Rudy Martinez. That was not a case where someone got racked up for a minor role. He was transporting  a lot of cocaine, but the person he was when he did that is fundamentally different than the person he is now. That idea of redemption is that there can be a transformation in a person’s life. You would always need clemency to account for those people whose lives have changed, whose souls, and hearts, and minds, are different. Q: How does that argument apply to the hardest core crimes? Let’s take first degree murder. No matter how repentant, no matter how much one changes, isn’t there degree of retribution needed for some crimes? A: Certainly there is a role for societal retribution. It helps to avoid vigilantism. As long as people are assured that the state is going to take an approach that ensures punishment, they are not going take action into their own hands. But, even for the worst crimes, we can’t rule out the possibility of redemption. King David was a murderer. Paul was a murderer in a conspiracy. They were redeemable. They were given a role. We visit those in prison with the goal of there being a role, a vocation, even for those people who have done terrible things. Q: The Obama Clemency Initiative chose to look only at individuals on a case-by-case basis.  Are there categories he could have used? For example, the ACLU report A Living Death argues that we should review all non-violent offenders who have been given life sentences without parole. A: You could look at people who received really long sentences before they were 22 years old.  We know the brain science which tells us how much people change after that age. We are not serving public safety by spending millions of dollars to incarcerate those people. One thing we could do is go to the warden of each prison and ask “Who doesn’t belong here?” They will tell you. My students go into the prison to interview their clients and the guards say, “This is the guy who should be getting out.” Q: Mark Mauer of The Sentencing Project has argued for no sentences longer than 20 years.   A: I don’t think that’s politically feasible. We’re a long way from that.  There’s an ongoing argument within the advocacy community: Do you go for incremental changes, or do you try to have everything change right now? Even the briefest analysis of our political history will tell you that everything’s incremental. That’s how things change. Look at the civil rights movement.  There wasn’t a before and after. There was a movement toward what’s better. It’s that gradual arc towards justice. Q: Are there other nations with better drug laws? A: Portugal is a reasonable model to look at. It has decriminalized all drugs.  But they also have treatment on demand. One thing that we have to take into account is that the United States is a much greater consumer of narcotics than a nation like Portugal. Our usage rates outstrip those of any other country. The social costs are significant. Most of us know someone who is consumed by opioids and the tragedy that goes with that. We’re going to have to put more resources towards treatment, for example, than a country with a lower rate of consumption. Q: Why do we consume so much more? A: I think it’s in part because of our individualism. We all believe that our lives have to be significant, important, and exciting. Drugs do that. In the same way that Americans all want to be on television, we all want to see things in an exciting way. Selling or doing drugs provides that. Q: What is your assessment of the First Step Act brought forward and passed under the Trump Administration? A: I wrote a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune supporting it. It’s an incremental step and frankly, it’s a lot more than people expected to come from this administration. I think the response is, “That’s great. Let’s keep moving. Let’s get to that next step.” Q: Who is going to implement it?  Attorney General Barr does not seem sympathetic. In his first term as Attorney General, he said, “We have a choice between more prisons and more crime.” A: I think that there is some real opportunity in this administration. In the past, the bar to reform has consistently been the Department of Justice.  Politicians and presidents tend to defer to DOJ. This President does not. This brings a remarkable opportunity We saw that with the First Step Act. The First Step Act includes a lot of things we did not get from the Obama Administration, and the reason was because DOJ said, “Don’t do that.” Well, Donald Trump doesn’t care what DOJ thinks.  On that score, we’re better off. Also, there is a remarkable advocate for reform within the inner circle of this White House. That’s Jared Kushner. Because of the experience of his family due the incarceration of his father, I think he’s really motivated to take action in this area. The third thing is that Attorney General Barr is a believer in the unitary executive theory: the president has to re-claim from the bureaucracy the power that is given to him or her by the Constitution.  This is completely consistent with our argument on clemency: the president has to claim that power and take it back from DOJ. Q: Our discussion thus far pertains to the 181,000 people in the federal prisons system.  This is a small percentage of the over 2.1 million individuals in state prisons and jails.  Is there anything federally that can affect what happens in the states? A: Not directly.  But hopefully, we will see some “leading by example.” It helps that there are some conservative Republicans leading the charge at the national level.  This gives conservatives at the state level permission to do the same thing. When you’ve got Senator Mike Lee and the Koch Foundation arguing for this, it sends a signal to the states. Harsh punishment across the board is no longer entirely a core Republican belief. That’s a game changer. Q: In the introduction, we commented on your Christian faith. Are there other scripture passages that have guided your work?   Micah 6:8 is common to a lot of people.  I remember first coming across that when I was a prosecutor. On the surface, it seems almost glib. You have three values:  justice, mercy, and humility. They are all good, but in criminal law they are in tension with one another. If justice is viewed as treating similarly situated people the same way, it’s fairness.Mercy cuts into that.  In a way, it is an argument for unfairness. What we learn is that the criminal justice system can’t be all mercy or all justice. It has to have aspects of both if it’s going to be principled. Our tendency in the United States is to have all justice and no mercy.  The active push from people who take those principles seriously has to be towards mercy because we are too far towards the other pole. We also need to learn humility. Consider juvenile life without parole. We are saying someone is irredeemable.  We are playing God when we have such certainty about something that is ultimately unknowable, namely the chance of redemption for someone we barely know. Christ also told us, “When you visit those in prison, you visit me.”  This is transformative for me. There is an imperative to visit all those in prison, not just innocent people, not political prisoners, not our friends, but all those who are in prison. The power of that directive is shrouded until people actually do it. I have students who have generally had fairly privileged lives. My clinic students are required to go a prison and spend two days with a client.  They come back transformed. Taking down someone’s life story as they sit in a cell is something that alters the way they see the world. That is exactly what Jesus is after when he tells ...

The post “BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL, FOR THEY SHALL RECEIVE MERCY” appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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Last month, Clergy for a New Drug Policy partnered with Unbound, an online journal and community that examines, expresses, and provokes social justice as inspired by the prophetic gospel of Jesus Christ. Policy Director Tom Houseman wrote about how the War on Drugs tears apart families and undermines communities. With their permission, the full piece is reprinted below. It can also be read here. Drug use is often framed as a personal issue, one of choices and consequences. “Do the crime, do the time.” Supposedly, harsh penalties aim to reduce irresponsible use of drugs. In reality, however, the War on Drugs has not succeeded in “protecting individuals” from their own choices. Instead, it has systematically incarcerated people of color (especially Black Americans) and devastated the family structures of entire communities. When considering the punishment for a drug violation, whether it is prison, probation, or mandated treatment, we tend to only think about the impact that a conviction will have on an individual. Far too rarely is the impact on their families and their dependents considered. After the investment of over $1 trillion dollars, drugs are as plentiful as ever, with seemingly little impact on drug use rates. While failing to win the war, we have, as Michelle Alexander tells us in The New Jim Crow, found a new way to enslave people of color. We send them disproportionately to prison for even minor drug offenses. As we examine the collateral damage of this unjust war, two figures hit us between the eyes: At current rates of arrest, one out of every three African American males born today will spend time in prison. Approximately 2.7 million children have at least one incarcerated parent and over 10 million have lost a parent to prison at some point in their lives. (These figures affect 1 in 9 African Americans, compared to 1 in 57 White children. The War on Drugs is a major driver of these disparities. Drug policies have had far more negative impact in terms of social justice, of family justice, than they have had any sort of impact on drug consumption and abuse. Urban neighborhoods have been ravaged by mass incarceration, leaving young men to rely on gangs for support, protection, and economic opportunities. The people in prison for drug violations are not just people with drug use disorders or who had to sell drugs because they lacked any other source of income. They are heads of households, breadwinners for families, caretakers for children. Their prison sentences do not operate inside a vacuum, but have consequences that last for generations. And children do not choose to grow up with their parent incarcerated. When examining the War on Drugs, it is also crucial to acknowledge how unevenly these laws are enforced. Black people are multiple times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than White people, despite the fact that countless surveys show the two groups use drugs at the same rate. Black people also receive lengthier prison sentences than White people for identical violations. Families of color and those living in poverty are over-policed and over-imprisoned. They are also the most vulnerable to the damage that a prison sentence can do to a family when it loses a breadwinner or a caretaker. Whether prisons are merely meant to serve as a form of punishment or to help rehabilitate those who enter them, it is crucial to understand the ramifications of removing somebody from their family and community and placing them behind bars. Several studies have documented the impact of incarceration on families, both in the short term and long term. In their essay, “Incarceration in Fragile Families,” Christoper Wildeman and Bruce Western write about how imprisonment “diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup.” This effect is particularly acute for families already living in poverty. Putting a parent in prison not only takes them away from their children, but impacts their ability to provide structure and support for their long after they have served their sentence. Growing up with a parent in prison has profound, long-lasting effects on children. In a report from The Nation, Sociology professor Kristin Turney detailed how “children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety.” It is not surprising that students who have at least one prison in parent are more likely also less likely to finish high school or go to college. These negative effects last even after a person is released from prison. Those with felony convictions are often barred from housing assistance, federal loans for education, and safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In states that do not prevent employers from asking about felony convictions, even a conviction for non-violent drug possession can make it almost impossible to find a job or housing. In Paternal Incarceration and Support for Children in Fragile Families, Amanda Geller, Irwin Garfinkel and Bruce Western examine how “the negative effects of incarceration on fathers’ financial support are due not only to the low earnings of formerly incarcerated men but also to their increased likelihood to live apart from their children.” When a parent is not present—or not able to support their children—because of a drug conviction, the effect is deeply damaging. There are other collateral consequences of drug violations that can impact the family of people who are caught possessing or selling drugs. Considering that there is a drastic public housing shortage in the United States, it is very easy for someone to be disqualified from public housing, or even evicted, because of a family member with a drug conviction. For example, In 2002 nearly 50,000 public housing applicants were rejected because of a policy that excludes people with criminal records from public housing. There are no winners in the War on Drugs, but there are millions of victims. That number will only grow until these policies are changed. The War on Drugs has failed. Both for the sake of the families already torn apart and for those that will be torn apart in the future, we must end the war. We are reaping the consequence of what our nation has sown. And although we cannot choose to unilaterally end drug abuse, it is our choice to end the needless suffering of America’s “Other Vietnam”. Tom Houseman, Policy Director

The post The War on Drugs is a War on Families appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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Diverting individuals from drug use to treatment rather than arresting them is becoming increasingly common in the United States. In this interview, Jac Charlier, co-founder of the Police, Treatment, and Community Collaborative (PTACC), describes this “quiet revolution” and brings us up-to-date on its progress. What are police diversion and deflection? Pre-arrest diversion is what happens when police direct individuals to treatment or other services when facing criminal charges that will be held in abeyance instead. Deflection is when police connect individuals into community-based treatment, housing, and services without involving the criminal justice system. Why did you start focusing on diversion and deflection? Diversion is the right thing to do. It’s hard to work in law enforcement and see that the tools we have on our belt — a gun and badge — aren’t solving the problem of addiction and mental health, the two largest drivers of justice involvement in the United States. Diversion is a way to say, “Let’s get these folks into treatment in the community, which will then stop them from having encounters with the justice system in the first place.” Should police ever arrest someone for low level drug possession? How often do we hear the phrase “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”  That’s the wrong statement. What we say in deflection is, “Do we really need to arrest in the first place?” Sometimes police drive away from someone when there are no other charges but they know the person needs help. They have compassion: Deflection says, “We need to be trained in how to work together with behavioral health to say, “I’m not driving away.  I know how to connect you up with treatment. No need to wait for a crisis to act.” What is PTACC? PTACC stands for Police Treatment and Community Collaborative. We are the national voice of the emerging field of deflection and pre-arrest diversion. PTACC represents a field that’s about seven years old, sitting at the intersection of law enforcement, first responders, community-based behavioral health, mental health, trauma, housing and other services. PTACC is made up of 31 national sponsoring organizations. When it comes to deflection, the vast majority are rural or medium-size departments, and so you’re getting 30 people a year, you’re getting 15 people, 10 people per department. We also still don’t have a lot of departments doing the deflection. 18,000 law enforcement departments, we think we’re at about 750 right now, up from 400 two years ago. What are your greatest accomplishments? We are demonstrating that police and drug treatment providers can work together. In the past they have had a kind of indifference to each other, not knowing that to reduce crime, they actually need each other. Police would go sit outside methadone clinics and wait for people. Those days are behind us and now police are carrying naloxone. The second big thing we’ve done at PTACC is to save lives, whether it’s in response to the opioid epidemic or to other mental health issues. Third, we have advanced the conversation at the federal level.  In 2019, for the first time, the Office of National Drug Control Policy included the words “deflection” and “pre-arrest diversion” as a formal strategies to combat drug use. That’s a big deal. You give police five pathways when they encounter drug users.  Which are the most successful? You have to look at what problem you’re trying to solve, and what resources you have. If you have opioid overdose, you’re going do Naloxone Plus.  Self- referral happens more in rural and medium-size area where the amount of investment needed to start deflection is light. Treatment is mostly what you need to get self-referral going.   Active outreach starts with the idea that we have a group of folks that our officers are running into over and over. About 10 percent in this group consume 80 to 90 percent of public health dollars in emergency room costs, repeat visits, and other chronic issues.  Under active outreach, you target proactively people to connect them to treatment. Officer prevention and officer intervention give officers what we call third option, which is the power of deflection while working their beat or on patrol. Everybody gets the first option: the power to arrest. They forget the second option, which is police can drive away and do nothing. In deflection, officers can instead take people directly to treatment, housing, and services. Since deflection started, how many people have actually been deflected? We estimate we are over 40,000 people. Aren’t we really just asking police to be social workers? About 80% of police calls have some amount of social service component to them. They’re not just getting called to go after the bank robbers. People are calling them because they don’t know what else to do. In officer training, I’ll say “We don’t want you to be drug counselors or social workers. We do want you and your counterpart in drug treatment and mental health and housing to know each other and know how to connect people between each other.” We want police out of the business of social services and into “Well, I don’t know. It’s not my thing, but here, wait five minutes. We’ll have someone come over, he’ll take you to drug treatment center.” The police would love that. They could get back to catching the bad guys. What are the barriers in getting police to divert and deflect? Police law enforcement is a paramilitary culture. You need the chief to give the command that the department is going to do this. You absolutely need leadership.  Number two is the broader culture, meaning the line officer and the sergeant. You need them saying, “This is what I expect you to do. I want to see what you’re doing on your shift.” The third thing is pressure from the public. They might say, Where did you take that guy? You got to take him to prison.” You have to learn how to respond to this so the crime reduction aspect of deflection is what happens. Much of this work depends on the availability of treatment.  How much treatment is available? Nationally, about 22 million people in the US are active users of drugs.  Against that, it is estimated that there are about 2.5 million drug treatment slots. My daughter is an emergency room doctor. She says she does not have any place to refer opioid overdose “deaths.” What are the pathways to address that? There is in the United States a huge and massive disconnect between emergency rooms at the hospitals and behavior health. The payment structure for services in hospitals includes a form that lists a discharge plan. But the case management to ensure that you do what the plan says is needed is rarely funded once you walk out of the ER. We need to find a way for hospitals to sit down at the table with local behavioral health, insurance companies, and the State Medicaid office, to develop a payment structure for follow-up to happen. We need specialized case management that bridges these worlds together. Are the five pathways confined pretty much to smaller cities and towns? San Francisco, New York, and even Chicago have small versions of it underway now. San Francisco has a small officer prevention approach that they are starting. New York City has someone.  Chicago has both mental health — down in Roseland, they have the mental health drop off center, and they have the west side triage and wellness center over on Madison and Pulaski. Baltimore has begun an officer prevention approach. Officers are trained to deflect in the high drug areas. Boston is underway with that. San Francisco. Spokane, Washington has a whole behavioral health unit fully integrated between officers and treatment. What impact does deflection have on communities? It can aid in police-community relations. Consider the normal scenario: Squad car drives down the street. Person is arrested, put in the squad car and driven away. Twenty-four hours later, he calls home from the jail and says he has been arrested. That cycle is repeated over and over. With deflection, squad car drives down the street, person goes in the squad car, two hours later he calls, he says, “Hey, mom and dad, I’m in drug treatment.  I’m in housing. I’m in a mental health center. Hey mom, I’m back home and Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. I have to report to treatment.” Deflection changes the script on how police are viewed. We have anecdotal evidence, especially in high drug use areas, that that is in fact happening. The recovery community is beginning to come alongside police and say, “We’re spreading the word about what you’re doing.” That’s powerful. Can churches and faith leaders be helpful? What I really want churches to do is, first, be advocates for deflection and the funding of community-based treatment. Advocate for funding and resources.  Second, let’s recognize that congregations have people in recovery who could help others in recovery. If you had seven churches in a small community, those seven churches might have thirteen folks in those congregations who are in recovery.  What a calling in response to the Gospel it would be to say, “I’m going to use my recovery to help somebody else who is struggling. If you need someone, call me at 2:00 in the morning and we’ll set up a tree, we’ll figure out who to call and we’ll be there.”

The post A ‘Quiet Revolution’ Gains Momentum appeared first on Clergy for a New Drug Policy.

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