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October 13, 2003 - The Michigan Citizen

Reformers Challenge Preachers: 'Protect People, Stop Drug War'

By Bankole Thompson

DETROIT - The war on drugs is a war on people, and churches cannot be reticent on such issues, said Anthony G. Holt, program director of the city's Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, at a drug policy forum at Wayne State University.

The two-day forum, held on Oct. 3-4, brought together health activists and civic and community leaders from across the country.

The theme for the forum, which was sponsored by the Drug Policy Forum of Michigan and Wayne State University Students for Sensible Drug Policy, was "And Justice For All: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs."

"With all the big churches in the city, what are they doing about the war on people? The faith-based community must do something now," Holt said.

According to Holt, most of the churches are financially sound enough to help in the tackling of issues that affect minorities.

"They make a lot of money. Some of them have large congregations of up to 4,000," he said.

The Rev. Oscar King III, vice president of the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors, agreed.

"We spend 75 to 80 percent of our budget maintaining church buildings when our primary role is to find the lost, which includes the drug addicts," he said.! "While we are building bigger churches, more people are getting hurt. There are people out there engaged in massive church building programs at the expense of bringing solutions to the issues confronting our communities."

Some critics question the wisdom of spending money on building new churches amidst neighborhoods with drug houses, abandoned buildings and dissipated city services, instead of using the same money to address the city's socio-economic problems.

Some say churches could play an active role, not only advocating for sound drug policies, but also helping to rehabilitate drug offenders.

Statistics reveal African Americans make up only 14 percent of the statewide population but a staggering 76 percent of those in prison for drug-related offenses.

"You can say, metaphorically, that the criminal justice system in America today is like a pipeline, like a slave ship transporting human cargo, primarily Black cargo, along interstate triangular trade-routes, from black and brown communities, through the middle passage of police precincts, holding pens, detention centers and court rooms to upstate or rural jails - and then back to communities as un-rehabilitated felons, and then back to jail, in a vicious cycle," said Deborah Peterson Small, public policy director of the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington D.C.

Small said the disparity in drug arrests and incarceration is not related to any substantial differences in the use of illicit drugs.

"Statistical and other evidence compiled by the government demonstrates that drug use and selling cuts across all racial, geographic and socio-economic lines," she said.

A recent survey regarding drug users, she added, showed there were almost five times as many white marijuana users as Black users, four times as many white cocaine users as Black users, and almost three times as many whites as Blacks who have ever used crack-cocaine.

"Yet when it comes to enforcing the drug laws, it has been poor urban minority communities that have been the principle fronts of the war on drugs," Small said.

"More Blacks have been prosecuted for crack offenses than whites, which has made [Blacks] subject to the outrageously harsh sentencing disparity - five hundred to one - for crack versus powered cocaine under the federal system."

Several measures have been taken to address the problem of having what reform advocates call a "prison industrial complex."

Last year, the Michigan Campaign for New Drug Policies petitioned for treatment instead of jail time for first time drug offenders.

Despite having 454,584 signatures, more than enough to qualify for the Nov. 5th ballot, the state's highest court refused Sept. 10 to grant drug reform advocates a spot on the ballot.

Instead, the state Supreme Court upheld an earlier appeals court decision, which said that sponsors of the initiatives failed to clearly show a legal right to certification by the board of canvassers.

The board said it would not certify the MCNDP drug reform initiatives because the section to be amended in the constitution was numbered incorrectly.

"If we had fewer prisons and higher quality societal resources, this mess the drug war has put us in would be significantly less," said Amanda Brazel, who coordinated the forum.

"Our communities cannot wait for politics to stop being politics long enough to remedy drug war injustice. We have to take the initiative, and we will overcome."

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