I went to a kit making event in Trenton and saw all the things they put into these kits and was feeling like why are there so many hurdles in the way of doing this? It’s really the right thing to do. I don’t think it’s anybody’s place to be the moral police.
People who have been victimized by the war on drugs can’t get the help they need. I’ve made harm reduction kits with clean needles and Narcan doses, fentanyl test strips and wound care kits, but this is my first time helping with distribution. They need more people who want to unconditionally volunteer and we need to destigmatize and decriminalize giving out harm reduction supplies, because groups like ours aren’t encouraging people to use potentially dangerous drugs. We’re just trying to help them not die if they do use drugs.
Overdose Prevention Program, Vital Strategies
Our work is inherently about jobs, housing, criminal justice, public education, and democracy. We’ve got a government that spends a lot on prisons and policing, but very little on all the other needs that people have and doesn’t do enough for folks when they come home and doesn’t do enough to prevent people from going in in the first place. When you look at who benefits from that, it’s often the people who are making money off it. It’s not our communities who are benefiting.
Since 1980, our prison budget in Michigan has risen by $3.2 million and that’s not adjusted for inflation. Guess what’s been decreased by $3.2 million? Our education budget. So there are clear connections between the fact that if we’re spending more on this, then we’re losing out on other things.
For us, ending the drug war means investing in our communities and divesting from policing. We spend $330 million on our police force in Detroit and that does nothing to make people feel safer. If I’m throwing money at a problem and it’s not fixing the problem, we want to figure out how else can we spend it.
People need housing, people need community care, people need job training. We’re building our drug users union here in Michigan so people can actually express that. How do we get our City Council to invest more in Narcan and have it available in public places? If we’re going after the war on drugs, how do we help people get the treatment and support they need instead of sending them to jail or prison? How we are able to create these policies is all reflected in how we spend money.
Dionna King, Overdose Prevention Program, Vital Strategies
Salvation and Social Justice was originally a blog I started years ago. Coming out of seminary, I had seen almost a separation of the concepts of salvation and social issues in the church broadly and very disappointingly in the Black church specifically, so I was musing about bridging that gap theologically. It became very apparent that there weren’t too many Black statewide organizations or Black faith-rooted organizations working on public policy so that’s how we came to be.
In the beginning, we were working on decarceration and drug policy, and being in that space you quickly come to know that there’s this insidious cyclical nature of all of these issues: criminal and youth justice, education, segregation, economic disparities, environmental disparities, health disparities – injustice is in all these places and they all intersect. So it became very clear that the focus had to be on abolishing structural racism in all its forms in New Jersey.
Within the context of racial injustice in the United States, the Black church has always been at the center of dismantling every instance of that. So whether that’s the abolition of slavery all the way to civil rights, no matter where you look in history, Black faith has played a major role in dismantling racist constructs. Within that Black faith space and more broadly the prophetic tradition, the prophets would hear the lament of the people, look at the oppression taking place, and they would have a new vision for society and what should happen what we call moving from lamentation to liberation.
Our theory of change is that if people most impacted by whatever the issue is go through a process of lament dealing with the tragedy, the trauma, the racism and then have the freedom to envision what would have actually helped them, that gives us not only what the policy recommendations should be, but it also gives the very folks impacted the courage, the strength, the ability and the passion to help propel that change forward. And in every instance where those factors have been in place, we have seen things change.
We would like to see a total decriminalization of all drug use and possession, and even minor distribution. And in its place we’d like to see poverty mitigation, non-coercive health alternatives and care, and job training and entrepreneurial investment for folks who are in the distribution space. Most people in the distribution space are there because that is how they survive poverty. So if we deal with the issue of poverty, if we deal with mental health, substance use and trauma, if we deal with people compassionately, we can help them achieve their greatest potential to thrive.
Most reasonable people see very clearly that the way we have been doing things is not only ineffective but harmful and inhumane and racist so the narrative is changing. Five years ago, we were considered radical for talking about legalizing marijuana now that’s considered common sense. So we’re looking at having a decriminalization bill with sponsors introduced within the next several months. One of the things that’s very critical for us is making sure that we identify the resources that are currently being used to criminalize people and make a very strong case for diverting those funds into more humane, compassionate health responses.
The data shows that marijuana has been more of a gateway to the criminal justice system than it has been to anything else, and no one knows how horrible policing and incarceration have been on our communities more than Black people. But when we start to ask the question, ‘Well, what if police weren’t the response? What if there was a more humane response?’ Very rarely are folks nowadays going to say no, we just need to remain diligent. There’s a big cultural shift.
I don’t think any of us want 15 or 14-year-old kids smoking marijuana without some kind of conversations taking place. But what we know is even more harmful than teen use is anything that will incentivize police to target Black youth. We have yet to see a point in history, in any jurisdiction, where police do not disproportionately target Black children. So police cannot be trusted with this issue—we need alternative structures in place. Who does respond in that case and how do we get to a place of healthy conversation rather than enforcement?
Appropriately defining and talking about people who use drugs is essential to destigmatizing.
There’s a lot more that should be done to help save people’s lives. Unfortunately homelessness and drug addiction happens everywhere. I’ve lived here in the park for eight months so what would help me most now is housing. I remember lying last week under the pavilion thinking I’m going to end up dying here.
Red Project has always been good about helping me get extra supplies so that I can give them to people in the park. The irony of it all is, here is the Red Project passing out supplies and I’ve seen the Grand Rapids police sit right across the street. It’s the only city I know that gives out all the free supplies and then arrests you for using them. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed. There’s a police officer with the homeless outreach team and she’s been a great advocate down here, but you can’t trust anybody in law enforcement. They can put you in jail for anything.
Julie Rwan, Overdose Prevention Program at Vital Strategies
I’m the abolition campaign director for Salvation and Social Justice, which means anything related to prison policy, decarceration and the abolition of the war on drugs. I’m also an Associate Pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park in New Jersey and Reverend Boyer and I speak the same language when it comes to a deep commitment to living out our faith and an absolute refusal to think about faith as being divorced from political struggle.
You can’t really talk about drug policy without talking about a real matrix of racialized oppression that was not accidental. From the late 1800s to now, substances became illegal when they were affixed with certain undesirable populations. We’re coming up on the 50-year anniversary of Nixon’s drug war, which we know from the public record was explicitly racist. He really wanted to go after some of his political adversaries and his biggest threats politically were the organized black liberation movements and also the anti-war movements so he saw an opportunity to go after marijuana all the way to cocaine with the same kind of fervor. Obviously, communities of color bore the biggest brunt of that because it was intended that way.
I think the biggest task with ending the drug war policy-wise is first and foremost a cultural revolution in terms of understanding the drug war was racist to begin with and has profoundly disadvantaged entire communities through incarceration. Then when somebody has served their time, they’re still disallowed from housing and other opportunities for certain drug offenses. The second one is to think about all drug policy as a public health and a community health issue that we’re prepared to respond to with compassion, care and treatment in a destigmatizing and non-punitive way.
So marijuana legalization is going to have to be something we very carefully shepherd because unless it’s an anti-racist legalization process, it’s going to codify a lot of racial injustice. For example, there were too many elected officials who thought that legalizing marijuana was going to just incentivize youth to use it, so they wanted to make sure there were pretty draconian penalties for youth using it. That makes sense if you’re completely blind to the history of the drug war. But legalization actually doesn’t incentivize youth to use it; it incentivizes police to accost youth, especially Black youth. So until we have protections for Black youth that are built into legalization, we’re still looking at a bad drug policy.
We’re trying our best to influence the way that cannabis is legalized in New Jersey and how we reverse some of the damage caused by incarceration, prosecution and stigmatization. But our goals are much broader than cannabis. We’re hoping to introduce something like what Oregon did this past year, which is a full drug decriminalization effort that removes a ton of the legal penalties for possession and use of small amounts of drugs, even so-called hard drugs.
We also really want to have the opportunity to talk to legislators and creatively devise ways to introduce treatment and public health practices like the idea of safe consumption spaces where folks are also given the opportunity to access wraparound services and mental health counseling. These are the dreams obviously, but there’s a lot of repair that needs to happen, a lot of healing.
Center for Disease Control
MOSES does congregation-centered organizing. We train and develop leaders to address the issues that they care about the most by building community and doing actions and exercising their values in the public arena. Some of the issues we’re working on right now are criminal justice reform, transportation, and water equity.
What drew us into the water fight was some pastors came to a clergy meeting and one of them was angry about a letter saying that they owed money for storm water fees. They all got the letter, but they were not talking about it most of the pastors were suffering in silence. So we quickly organized a meeting which ultimately ended up with over 300 clergy in a room. We brought a lawyer who understood policy and systems and he found solutions that could be addressed. So the clergy made some demands on the mayor about reducing the fees. We educated people about what was possible and organized them to use their power. It was a clear example of what it means to really take on a system.”
Our goal is to organize people to fight for policy changes that are needed. For example, we want to train a cohort of leaders to really understand drug-related harms and how we can take a more holistic approach that recognizes how people cope with social ills. They cope because they don’t have jobs or their family has been impacted by the criminal justice system or they can’t afford food or childcare. All of these things are stress factors, especially in communities of color and of low economic means. When you have men who come back into the community after being incarcerated but they can’t get any resources to be whole again, what are they going to do?
So how do we get people to organize to actually resolve these types of issues? What are some of the services they need and how do we get them funded? We do listening sessions to find out what people are faced with and what’s important to them. You can’t just pull an issue out of the air and think people are going to jump on a bandwagon. You’ve got to engage people in the community, find out what they care about, and then train them to address the issue and understand the power dynamics around why they’re not getting the resources they need. We want them to be able to meet with their Congressional leaders to say, ‘Look, this is what we want from mental health services. How do we get your commitment to earmark some dollars for the kind of services that we want?’ If you’re going to take on a Congressional leader, you’ve got to build enough power to say this is what we think the solution is and this is what we want you to do.
The criminal justice system is so huge, it’s like where do we start? Well for one, how do we prevent people from getting into the system? So we started looking at diversion programs and there’s one in Florida that we used to create a model here in Michigan. We did a report with the public health department and law enforcement about the health impact on young people who are stopped by the police or engaging in the system. Once they get arraigned, they’re in the system, so we we’re trying to figure out how we can stop them from getting arraigned.
We also work with people who have experienced the criminal justice system. They educated us on what we really need to look at. They talked about how they got into the system defending themselves, just small offenses that landed them with some kind of arraignment. And from there they can’t get into college, they can’t get a job, so that’s why we took on diversion. The young people who we had engaged told us what was going on, we provided the intel about possible solutions, and then we organized them to put pressure on legislators and the City Council to move the issue.
Jenna Mellor – Executive Director, New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition
I’m fortunate to be able to work with Salvation and Social Justice along with other organizations in New Jersey on abolishing the drug war and specifically the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis. There’s language that has to be added to those bills that has to do with the racial reinvestment and restorative practices that need to take place in those communities that were directly impacted by the war on drugs. What I would like to see is language that specifically states that individuals who are directly impacted or who come from those impact zones will not only be able to have their application fees waived but they will be able to get low-interest loans and receive training in the cannabis field so they can be successful.
We have to look at those communities and how they’ve been ravaged and what we see is that there is injustice. There are people who have lost their public housing because of a cannabis charge. There are individuals who have become homeless or who have had their children taken away. There needs to be reinvestment by way of mental health resources as well as educational and economic resources for those communities. And we need to have a seat at the table. Basically, that’s what we want to see: community reinvestment as part of the healing process for the traumas that have taken place.
I remember being a teenager and looking at High Times magazine and I was so in awe at how beautiful the plant was and then to understand the medicinal purposes for it made me more intrigued. But I never saw myself as someone who would be able to sell marijuana legally or be able to manufacture any kind of cannabis products until about four years ago when I started looking at the cannabis industry in Washington, Oregon and Colorado and I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something here.’ When New Jersey passed legalization for medicinal purposes, I looked into the process of being able to not just have a dispensary but to have my own grow facilities and the security and all of the things that you need – the pots, the shelves, the irrigation system, the lights, the seeds. There’s so much that goes into it but ultimately it’s going to serve a greater good.
We’re talking about people who have chronic illnesses being able to partake and feel better and not have the side effects as they would with any other type of prescription medication. We’re talking about being able to manufacture a product that can continue the healing process for people, whether it’s for anxiety, sleeping or eating disorders, pain, or inflammation. This is something that I definitely want a hand in and I feel as though it’s owed. My life has been directly impacted by the war on drugs. My mother was jailed because of it and a lot of things changed as far as my perspective on law enforcement and how they handled that situation. I think that this is a fair exchange. I remember being a 12-year-old girl and my sister being 8 and police officers storming our home. They can’t fix the trauma I can’t forget that but we can start making things right.
As far as any particular strategy, it’s how do we get the most attention and how do we make the most noise and how do we get the results that we want? That’s what it all boils down to. How do we do that? Who are those people in power that we have to go knock on their doors? We’re not going to go yell at our neighbors for justice. We’re going to go right to the people in power the ones in charge who make these decisions. And we have to have a sound argument. We all have wants, we can always find injustice, but it’s definitely being able to work with groups of people who have the same fire and then just knowing how to choose those winnable battles.
The great thing about working with different organizations is that everyone has something to bring to the table. When you have a team of individuals who love the work and they see where the need is and they want to be right there on the front lines, that’s half the battle right there. That makes the work worthwhile.
Reverend Dr. Charles F. Boyer – Salvation and Social Justice Founding Director