Wednesday, July 16, 2014

From other steps: Behind the spotlights, what I said to the General Assembly committee about US drug policy

While divestment and marriage equality captured the headlines, other important issues were being dealt with at the Presbyterian General Assembly as well. On with special interest to West-Park was the overture on US drug policy. Originally drafted by San Francisco, West-Park signed on as a co-sponsor and brought this overture to New York City Presbytery which also passed it and sent their concurrence on to the National Assembly. Since West-Park had introduced this overtire, New York City Presbytery named me as it's overture advocate for this issue.

Why did we bring this issue forward? We've had (and have) members who struggle with substance abuse issues, including (illegal) drugs. We've had members incarcerated. And the data is stunning. A though black and white Americans use (and sell) drugs at virtually the same rate, blacks make up 765% of arrests and 75% of those incarcerated. It becomes an issue of social control, and ultimately, as they say, the new Jim Crow. Since the Nixon-Reagan War on Drugs began, our prison population has doubled.  So it's time to take new look.

Here's what I had to say to the Social Justice committee in my testimony:

From the moment we open the doors of our church in the morning, on into I the night, I am confronted with people who struggle with mental illness and substance abuse issues. We live in  a society, in a culture of addiction, from caffeine to nicotine to alcohol to prescription drugs, chocolate and cocaine. These are health issues, not character issues and have unjustly criminalized a whole segment of our society without addressing the true issue. There is the further reality that when caught with drugs, my college student son was given community service while his friend from the projects were sent to Rikers Island and jail time. Even more so, members of my congregation from ventral America have seen their countries subjected to and tor with violence that sustains the drug trade. The time to change is now.

The Assembly committee voted for our overture 64-0 and the plenary passed the overture by concensus.

The text of the overtire and rationale  follows.

The Presbytery of San Francisco overtures the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to call for a two-year study by the governing bodies and members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to discern how to advocate for effective drug policies grounded in science, compassion, and human rights, and to this end, do the following:

1.    Direct the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, in consultation with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, to appoint a Drug Policy Task Force to promote study, discussion, and engagement among church members and congregants and develop a plan of concrete actions and policy recommendations for the 222nd General Assembly (2016).

a.            The task force shall consist of seven to nine selected volunteer members representing the following stakeholders/disciplines: policy analyst/advocate; subject matter specialists in addiction science, criminal justice, and international relations; law enforcement; judicial representative; formerly incarcerated drug offender/drug user activist; defense counsel/community litigator; theologian.

b.            The task force will serve as a clearinghouse for information and discussion of relevant issues; it will create an online presence with diverse, creative, and fact-based information in support of local church study groups.

c.            The task force shall conduct four hearings in different parts of the country (rural, urban, suburban, border) in collaboration with presbyteries to receive a broad range of perspective and stimulate dialogue.

d.            As opportunities for policy reform may arise before possible General Assembly action, the task force will keep individual members, churches, and presbyteries within the PC(USA) informed of relevant policy reform initiatives or action for which they may want to exercise democratic advocacy on their own.

2.    Urge all publications and other communication vehicles of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to develop articles, reports, and other materials designed to educate, motivate, and activate church members and congregants to learn about the history, development, and implementation of U.S. drug policies.

3.    Recommend that the Criminal Justice Network of the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association focus Criminal Justice Sunday in 2015 on issues related to the impact of drug prohibition.

4.    Urge Presbyterian Women (PW) to make drug policy education and reform part of their ongoing work.

5.    Urge Presbyterians who are ecumenical staff to advocate for making the impact of punitive drug policies a critical focus of the Summer 2015 meeting of the National Association of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Staff.

6.    Recommend that congregations and councils of the church, as well as the task force designated above, consider the following questions and concerns:

a.            What are the roles, responsibilities, and limits of the state and citizenry in relation to our bodies, particularly with respect to what we market and sell for consumption and what we consume? What does Christian theology suggest about current drug policies, and our social responsibility to ensure health for members of our communities? What are the spiritual and ethical implications of: massive and disproportionate incarceration of drug offenders, especially people of color, and of the militarization of relations with the nations involved in illicit drug cultivation and/or trafficking?

b.            Does current U.S. drug policy achieve its stated goal to reduce production and consumption of illegal drugs, or does it serve other policy goals, institutional interests, societal norms, or systemic forces? If so, how do we define those other goals, interests, norms, and forces?

c.            What laws, policies, programs, and treaties currently govern our nation’s responses to the production, transit, and use of illicit drugs?

d.            What are the consequences of maintaining current punitive drug policies? What might more effective and humane drug policies look like, with regards to the following:

(1)  militarization of law enforcement and the erosion of distinctions between civilian police and military, especially with respect to drug law enforcement;

(2)  relationship between prohibition of drugs and organized crime;

(3)  communities’ use of illegal drugs and the disparate impact that enforcement of drug prohibition has on poor people and racial minorities;

(4)  distinction between harmfulness, addictiveness, and illegality as it relates to use of psychoactive and/or addictive substances;

(5)  allocation of public resources required to enforce current drug policies and effectiveness in addressing underlying problems relating to substance abuse and addiction while programs for social needs such as health, education, and community development are underfunded;

(6)  rates of illicit drug use, abuse, and addiction; health effects and impacts on special populations—e.g. mentally ill, homeless, ‘at-risk’ youth, immigrants, victims of sexual violence.

At the heart of Jesus’ mission is the proclamation of restoration, liberation, and new beginnings. Jesus began his ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah (Lk. 4:18–19) and identifying his life’s work with transforming the situation of the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast. Following his mission entails participation in very concrete actions of social renewal. Drug prohibition has had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable members of society—particularly poor blacks and Hispanics. Even though whites outnumber blacks five to one and both groups use and sell drugs at similar rates, African Americans comprise 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession; 55 percent of those convicted for drug possession; and 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession. As a result of the more than forty-year-long “war on drugs,” the United States has become the world’s greatest incarcerator—with 5 percent of the global population, we imprison 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, almost half of these are for drug-related crimes. Drug prohibition also has been the primary rationale as well for more than $20 billion spent in the last decade on U.S. military operations and aid in Latin America, where related violence has caused devastating human damage.

Prior General Assemblies have sought to speak to many of these issues, such as the 1971 statement by the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) on drug use; the 1993 statement on Freedom and Substance Abuse (Minutes, 1993, Part I, p. 758); the 2002 Resolution on Restorative Justice (Minutes, 2002, Part I, p. 576); the 2003 Resolution Calling for the Abolition of For-Profit Prisons (Minutes, 2003, Part I, p. 439); the action of the 218th General Assembly (2008) calling for withdrawing military support to the government of Colombia (Minutes, 2008, Part I, p. 1180); the Resolution on Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call of 2010 (Minutes, 2010, part I, p. 334 of the printed copy, p. 830 of the electronic copy), and the Resolution on Racism, Incarceration, and Restoration of 2012 (Minutes, 2012, Part I, p. 32 of the printed copy, p. 1053 of the electronic copy). Our recognition of the institutional racism in how our drug laws are written, administrated, enforced is a continuation of the need for racial reconciliation identified in the Confession of 1967.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has clearly recognized the moral mandate to reexamine our nation’s current approach to substance abuse and drug-related crime with all its consequences. However, we have not yet dealt directly with our policy of prohibition of, and criminalization for, drug use. Unexamined assumptions in drug policy and in many people’s responses to drugs, as well as the extensive institutional structures and incentives that support current drug policies, mean that efforts to modify or transform policy can be controversial and difficult. The issues are complex, and serious change pushes us into unknown territory. Therefore, we call for a broad-based, all-church study that explores what is practically possible while holding up that which still needs the light of the Gospel.

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