The Christian case for legal weed
Rev. Alexander Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy calls legalization ‘a profoundly human compassion issue’
By Ted Cox
What would Jesus do when it comes to the legalization of marijuana?
“When you think of it,” said Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, it’s “absolutely” a Christian issue, involving “compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.”
Sharp is founder and executive director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, a national organization that focuses on the harsh criminal treatment typically given those who are slaves to drugs. Although the group has a wide range of issues and goals to address them, it’s watching the General Assembly now to see what it does this week on legislation to legalize marijuana, along with accompanying provisions to expunge previous criminal records for low-level possession and provide equity in the new legal industry for communities that bore the brunt of the so-called War on Drugs.
“I’m working on marijuana to end the War on Drugs,” Sharp said. “It’s finally opening the door to say we’ve got to have a sensible drug policy for all drug use.
“It took me about four or five years to be able to say this simply,” Sharp added, while sitting for an interview Wednesday at the University Club in downtown Chicago. “Low-level drug possession should not be a crime. If it’s recreational, OK. If it’s something that requires treatment, provide treatment. There’s a national model in Portugal that has done exactly that … and it can work in this country.”
Sharp immediately clarified that he was talking about “not trafficking, but low-level drug use.” He added that “abstinence-only is not the only response to drug use,” although it’s the default position for critics of legalization.
“The question isn’t whether drugs can be abused,” Sharp said. “The question is how you respond to abuse, and I think they overstate the case.”
But for now let’s stick to cannabis and what Sharp called the “absurdity” of criminal punishments surrounding its use.
“It’s classified as a Schedule 1 drug,” Sharp said, on the same level as cocaine or heroin. “What are we thinking?”
Medical marijuana has helped cannabis gain acceptance, and Sharp said that was true for himself as well. He granted, “I started out with that as a wedge issue, to be honest,” but within a week of doing research he had an epiphany on “how intrinsically important” cannabis is in its medical role to “ease suffering in a way you can’t possibly imagine,” including its recent adoption in Illinois as a legitimate substitute for opioids. “It’s really made a difference.”
Two-thirds of the 50 states have already adopted some sort of medical-marijuana program, Sharp added, “and yet you still have a federal system … that is still saying, ‘No, still a Schedule 1 drug, right up there with cocaine.’
“It simply shows the inertia of large bureaucracies that once they get locked in there they won’t change.”
From there, it doesn’t take a leap to accept its already prevalent use socially, and to accept the need for what Sharp called “chipping away at absurd drug laws and the system.”
Yet he acknowledged, “You’re always going to have law enforcement against this,” as well as some addiction specialists and high-school teachers and principals, although he insisted they “have a limited perspective.”
He added, “They see kids that do abuse, and they think that this is going to cause that to increase. What we know is that teen use has not increased in states that have done this. Overall use will increase, but in many cases it will be a substitute for more-dangerous drugs.”
Sharp expected that the “elderly are going to use marijuana in ways that are kind of touching. It may be as simple as aches and pains. They’re not potheads.”
Clergy for a New Drug Policy, of course, is in direct opposition to conservative religious elements led locally by the Catholic Church. Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said in no uncertain terms at a Capitol news conference earlier this month that “this is not a social-justice issue,” adding that pot “poisons one’s ability to think,” and “legalization of marijuana does not promote the public good.”
“I don’t know if it’s a social-justice issue,” Sharp said. “It’s a profoundly human compassion issue.”
He rejected the abstinence approach as reflected in Paragraph 2291 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct cooperation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.”
“The issue isn’t drug use. The issue is drug abuse,” Sharp said. “I don’t think that many people who oppose this bill realize, you’ve got to make that basic distinction and say, ‘Let’s target abuse.’ Let’s not ban everything, because that certainly doesn’t stop abuse.”
“The issue isn’t drug use. The issue is drug abuse. I don’t think that many people who oppose this bill realize, you’ve got to make that basic distinction and say, ‘Let’s target abuse.’ Let’s not ban everything, because that certainly doesn’t stop abuse.”
Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, executive director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
Clergy for a New Drug Policy grew out of an earlier organization Sharp helped found called Protestants for the Common Good. It had an ambitious agenda, he said, that “included a whole range of things, from immigration to housing to education funding, and added to that agenda the notion of a second chance — which of course is a myth in our society for people coming out of prison,” who frequently face suspicion and discrimination.
“The more we looked at where these people were, the more we realized they shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place with these ridiculous sentencing practices for low-level offenses,” Sharp said. “The more we got into that, the more we realized we had to change the drug laws.”
That led directly to Clergy for a New Drug Policy, founded in 2015 as an instrument of what he labeled “faith-based advocacy.”
“Happily, it’s got a nice elevator speech, which our other organization didn’t,” Sharp said, quickly reciting, “‘We mobilize clergy nationally to end the War on Drugs and seek a health, not punitive, response to drug use.’ Not too complicated, but pretty important.”
The group absolutely endorses Senate Bill 7, reintroduced as a second Senate amendment to House Bill 1438 under consideration now in the General Assembly, and Sharp cited how over its 500-plus pages it addresses industry and the need for equity stakes in communities that saw many residents — especially young men — locked away for years if not decades, as well as labor provisions, expungement of criminal records for offenses that will no longer be considered a crime, and even the right to grow a handful of plants at home, a key issue for the Illinois Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“So all these things have to be brought together,” Sharp said. “I think the thing that has to be said is how important this is, because we will be the first state to do the whole enchilada legislatively.” Other states, he added, have legalized marijuana on ballot initiatives, and Vermont’s state legislature went halfway, voting in favor of possession but not distribution, but Illinois would be the first to take on the whole complex issue of legalization and hammer it out in representative government.
“What I hear is that it’s good but not certain” to pass, Sharp said, as the General Assembly takes up SB7 this week ahead of a deadline at midnight Friday to end the current legislative session. Sharp faced down the qualms of conservative Democrats uncertain about which side they’ll eventually favor, pro or con.
“The Black Caucus really realizes what is true here,” he added, “that we have a social-equity part of the bill that — just as our medial-marijuana legislation was — is going to be a model for the country. If only for that reason, I desperately hope it passes.”
Yet he was already dealing out praise, saying, “Thank heaven for wonderful sponsors — Kelly Cassidy and Heather Steans — and a governor who knows how to be a governor.”