Religious Groups Call Drug War Immoral

For Jennifer Wallace, the revelation came four years ago, after she found out that a friend of hers who she knew came from a devout Christian family smoked marijuana, and she became worried about the young woman.

Wallace, a devout Christian herself, started looking into the research on marijuana and what she found surprised her.

She said she found no evidence to back up the horrible things she had heard about the drug, and when she searched the Bible for any reference to it she found nothing at all. So she began to wonder why some religious leaders seemed to favor stiff penalties for marijuana users.

She even decided to try smoking it, though she had always been afraid before.

"I was very surprised that I wasn't very different than I was before," she said of the experience. "I believe it made me think more, and thinking more is always good."

Those experiences led the 35-year-old mother of five to start the Christians for Cannabis Web site, and to begin a campaign of letter-writing to legislators, religious leaders and newspapers, urging an end to the marijuana prohibition and more research into potential uses of the drug, she said.

Christians for Cannabis, which describes part of its mission as "to provide encouragement, support and prayer for the [Christian cannabis user] subculture as a whole and those that work on its behalf," may be the extreme, but it is not the only religious group advocating an end to the war on drugs.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends and the Progressive Jewish Alliance are among the groups that have lent their support to a call by the National Coalition for Effective Drug Policies to redirect efforts to curtail drug use.

These organizations all make clear that their opposition to current drug policy is based not on support for drug use, but out of a belief that the war on drugs has done more harm than good and that it is essentially immoral.

"The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure in any practical sense, and the number of people who are being victimized by the war is fairly awful," said Thomas Jeavons, the general secretary of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, a group of Quakers.

"The war on drugs affects our society in so many negative ways," Universal Unitarians for Drug Policy Reform executive director Charles Thomas said. "We believe underlying it all is an immoral approach to dealing with a health problem."

An Evolving Process

The thrust of the NCEDP's statement, "Eight Steps to Effectively Controlling Drug Abuse and the Drug Market," is that criminalizing drug use has failed to curtail drug use, and that society would be better served by a "shift to treating drug abuse as a health problem with social and economic implications."

"It's an evolving process — reform," NCEDP president Kevin Zeese said. "We've seen over the last five or six years more denominations realize that the drug war is hurting their denominations and does more harm than good. They're seeing in their own experience that their people are hurting from the drug war."

A broad range of treatment programs should be made available on request, and should include alternatives to "abstinence-based treatment," such as methadone and other alternative maintenance drugs, according to the program. The statement also calls for mental health treatment and broader social services to deal with "the underlying causes of addiction."

These programs should be focused on abusers and addicts, not on everyone who uses drugs, the statement says.

Among other aspects, the statement calls for increased funding for after-school programs, job training and mentoring programs to keep young people "interested and involved in life," and a shift in the focus of law enforcement from prosecution of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to those who are the most dangerous and violent.

Conservatives for Drug Policy Reform

The aim, according to Zeese, is to create a drug policy that treats the problem as a social and public health issue, and deals with abusers and addicts as human beings who can be more effectively brought back into society with help rather than punishment.

He said the policy of treating drug abuse as a criminal issue is responsible for much of the spread of HIV and AIDS, because it bans needle exchange programs that have been shown to be effective, and for many overdose deaths, because people are afraid to get help, fearing the legal consequences of their drug abuse.

"That's what I mean by the immorality of those who support the drug war," Zeese said. "They let a deadly epidemic spread because of zero tolerance."

The Philadelphia Quakers, one of the largest groups within the non-heirarchical denomination, signed on not because they share the view of Christians for Cannabis that drug use is a neutral issue, Jeavons said.

"Absolutely not. If you know anything about Quakers, you know we're a fairly conservative lot," he said. "However, we believe that there must be a better answer to the problem. We encourage our members to avoid these substances or use them in moderation."

Consulting Conscience

The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting formed a Drug Concerns Working Group in 1997, and in 1998 drew up a minute, or brief statement in early 1998. He said that the importance of the issue was reinforced when members took part in the so-called "shadow convention" held in conjunction with the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000.

The minute makes clear the Philadelphia Quakers' objections both to current drug policy and to drug abuse, and calls on Friends to do what they can to change that policy and to help others stop their misuse of drugs.

The Unitarian Universalists' objection to the treatment of drug abuse has a long history, dating back to 1970, when the denomination passed three drug policy reform resolutions, calling for legalization of marijuana and heroin maintenance programs.

In 2000, the denomination passed a resolution calling for all congregations to study the issue and develop a comprehensive "Statement of Conscience," which will be voted on at the General Assembly to be held on June 24.

The effort is to draw up a statement of "what the ideal drug policy would look like," Thomas said.

"It is remarkably good, recognizing the distinction between use and abuse, and calling for removal of criminal penalties for possession," he said.

Challenge to ‘Hypocrisy’

Assuming the statement passes, Thomas said it will be taken to other denominations for their consideration. He said that the Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform have already worked to spread the group's message by sending speakers to drug policy conventions and discussing the issue with representatives of other religious groups.

Part of that campaign will be to engage those Christian leaders who say they favor the current drug policies in debate over the issue.

"We will challenge people on their position, really start to call people on their hypocrisy, because that's really what it is, hypocrisy," Thomas said. "These people are doing the exact opposite of what Jesus taught."

He said the statement and the Unitarian Universalists draw much of their inspiration from Jesus' own words.

"People often justify the war on drugs by saying drug use is inherently immoral," he said. "That's not what Jesus said. He said, it's not what goes into a person, it's what comes out. If we meet people with love and respect, we can help them more."