Bringing Our Efforts Full Circle

by Lisa ConineOctober 1, 2018

Unthinkable pain and injustice causes most of us to turn away. Even the most compassionate people can struggle to face the extent of the world’s sorrow. We all have our limits. However, there is a response in our society to take the most troubling topics and shove them under the rug. We do not want to bring them in to our daily lives. We are constantly being bombarded by terrible news from every outlet possible. An over stimulation of negative can sometimes cause myself to see other’s struggle as a burden, like I just don’t have the bandwidth to take that on… not today at least. It is tough to admit, but I am willing to bet I am not alone in that feeling. While that might be a necessary response sometimes, in the name of self-care, it can quickly turn into a numbing effect. A choice to permanently turn away. Furthermore, when we feel the problem is too large and we feel helpless, it makes turning away easier.

Prison populations are arguably the easiest to turn away from. After all, they were convicted of a crime, they serve their time and the system takes care of the rest, right?

A simple process we would all like to believe to be true. That would make it much easier.

Thankfully, many are awakening to the fact that the system is not so simple. One of the biggest culprits of the rising prison populations in the U.S. is the Drug War. The War on Drugs is a racist and oppressive policy, designed to give the appearance of being “tough on crime” when in fact, it is an excuse to lock up poor communities and minority communities, often times for non-violent drug offenses… all in the name of “justice”.

The Drug Policy Alliance reports that the amount spent annually in the U.S. on the war on drugs is $50+ billion.

The number of Americans incarcerated in 2016 in federal, state and local prisons and jails: 2,157,000, the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The proportion of people incarcerated for a drug offense in state prisons who are Black or Latino, although these groups use and sell drugs at similar rates as whites: 57 percent.

These facts drive the mission at the Om of Medicine. Ensuring safe access to medical cannabis and facilitating research are key values; but we also want to change policy. We want to end the mass arrests for a plant and help support those who have had their lives derailed by this system.

Furthering the cannabis movement as we work towards restorative justice and safe access for all – is the heart and soul behind what we do. 

Aligning with that mission, we are proud to have joined forces with the Prison Creative Arts Project. PCAP is a program at the University of Michigan that brings art workshops to detention facilities all around Michigan. This program offers the opportunity for students at the University to receive academic credit with participation in the program. Additionally, any student or community member can volunteer and receive training to facilitate art workshops. These workshops extend beyond the facilities. Opportunities are created for artists to sell their work and to impact the community outside of the cell walls. PCAP has a student branch of the organization and they asked me to speak at a meeting to share how we plan to collaborate with them and for what reason.

As some of our patients have already noticed, we have begun to raise funds at our facility for the program. These funds go to the purchasing of art supplies and reimbursements for travel for the volunteers working around the state to facilitate workshops. We will soon begin displaying art created from the program in our patient lounge, so stay tuned!

When I was asked to speak at the PCAP student group, I was sent a number of questions to prompt the discussion.

One question posed was: “What can we do to counteract the disparity between those with access to medical marijuana and those that are punished for the use of the drug?”

My number one answer is to vote for the legalization for adult-use in November. We say adult-use because the term recreational implies indulging in something that is “naughty”. Adult-use implies that an adult has the choice to partake in cannabis use responsibly.

Legalizing will stop the criminalization of a plant that has been used as an oppressive tool, especially for poor communities and communities of color. Legalizing in Michigan would be the first midwest state to legalize, encouraging surrounding states to follow suit once they see the tax revenue, decrease in opioid use, reduction in the illicit market, etc. Which would apply more pressure to the Federal government, as states continue to legalize, to de-schedule cannabis. We say de-schedule because even re-scheduling to a schedule 2 would do a disservice to society.

That first recommendation is the most important and urgent.  Something we can all do and see the positive impact immediately. Vote in November and in every election, educate yourself on those running for office, their position on drug policy, mass incarceration, etc.

De-scheduling would open up the gates for fair and robust research on cannabis. More research and information will help increase access for all by breaking down the stigma and expanding the use and understanding of this plant as a medicine.

The second recommendation would be to educate yourself on cannabis and the history of prohibition and talk about it – often. Talk about how the Drug War is a racist policy and how it has demonized a plant and the people who use it. When in reality, this plant has healed people and everyone deserves that chance for healing – regardless of race and socioeconomic status.

Speaking about these truths can help dismantle the stigma around cannabis. Ending that stigma can eliminate barriers to access.

When it comes to supporting PCAP, responses from patients have been extremely generous. People are eager to support their efforts. Many people have to take a moment and realize they have not thought about this topic or those incarcerated – a forgotten population. Once they make the connection, they give and express gratitude for the existence of such a program and their opportunity to support it. I believe when people are given a tangible way to help others, they will do it. Even if it is small, it makes an impact, and that helps chip away at the conditioned apathetic response to struggle.

A large reason we are supporting this program is to spark these types of conversations. Awareness and constructive conversation can bring compassion into the arena.

However, we have received slight push back which speaks to the elephant in the room.

“Well what about the murderers and rapists? Why should they get art classes?” 

My response to that honest question has been to admit that I struggle with that thought too. Especially if it is a specific case I can think of that truly disgusts me… my first reaction is no. They don’t “deserve” compassion… But who am I to decide that?

These questions are the most important because they challenge the very foundation and values of our criminal justice system. We act as if justice is black and white and it is not. Human error, emotion, ego, perspective, and biases are all present in each level of the judicial system. How could we expect a one-size-fits-all response to work?

When we think about crimes that go against societal norms and law – how do we want our response to look?

Is it lock people away and never deal with them again?

If we look at cases of individuals who will spend the rest of their lives incarcerated, are we willing to say we want people to never experience any type of humanity for the duration of their life? If they are locked up permanently, let’s just let them paint, okay?

If we turn our attention to individuals who do re-enter society after serving their time, how can someone be expected to be a positive and contributing member of society when we do not forgive in our society? If they carry around a felony charge which impacts their ability to get a job, housing, etc. They are not forgiven.

When we (society) sentence someone to incarceration, even after the most awful acts – we should require part of the process to be for looking at society and how we allow these issues to breed. How can we try to prevent future crimes? Are we doing everything we possibly can as a society to ensure that individuals have their basic needs met? Abuse, poverty, neglect, etc. can all contribute to someone getting to the point of committing a crime. If we cut funding for social services and then fill our prisons, we are not addressing the root cause of the issue. 

These conversations are so important to have at our facility because we see all walks of life. All ages, genders, belief systems, etc. We must be able to talk to each other, human to human, about human issues. We should constantly critique and question our methods of seeking justice.

We are partnering with the Prison Creative Arts Project as a way to promote compassion and restorative justice.

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