By any measure, the United States is a highly religious country. More Americans claim to believe in God and attend church regularly than in any other Western industrial democracy, and religiously-based claims carry great weight in American politics. But the drug reform movement, much of it secular and unattached to traditional religious practices, has only begun to make serious inroads with these powerful groups.
One drug policy reform organization, the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (IDPI), is working specifically to ensure that faith-based support for drug reform continues to grow. "Ultimately, people make their decisions based on their values, and the vast majority of people in the US get their values through their religion," said IDPI executive director Charles Thomas. "If we want to fundamentally change our nation's drug policies, we need to be able to shift the way people view drugs and drug policy, and the best way to do that is through organized religion."
IDPI press conference with Thomas and US Reps. Maxine Waters and John Conyers
Many denominations have already adopted progressive drug reform positions, Thomas noted. "Most of the major denominations already support a variety of drug reform measures. It is important that Congress and state legislatures are made aware of those positions and know that their denominations support things like medical marijuana and repealing mandatory minimum sentences. It is also important that people who belong to those denominations become aware of their positions. People shouldn't assume their church opposes drug policy reform, because that is often not the case."
Indeed. In fact, many drug reformers and church-goers alike would be surprised by organized religion's progressive drug policy positions. On the issue of medical marijuana, for instance, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Church of Christ, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention have all passed resolutions in favor.
When it comes to repealing mandatory minimum sentences, the denominations and religious bodies above are joined by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, Prison Fellowship Ministries, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention USA, the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Baptist Missionary Convention, the Church of the Brethren Witness, and the American Baptist Churches in the USA.
Another drug reform issue, repeal of the Higher Education Act's infamous "drug provision," efforts coordinated by the DRCNet-sponsored Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, has also received endorsements from a number of faith-based groups, including the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, the Church of the Brethren Witness, Church Women United, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, God Bless the World, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the United Church of Christ, and the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual.
While the evangelical churches are typically viewed as deeply conservative and hostile to drug reform, that isn't always the case. Former Nixon-era Watergate felon Charles Colson heads Prison Fellowship Ministries, which endorses sentencing reform. And IDPI reports it is in contact with a national organization of evangelical churches.
With all the potential support lurking behind church walls, drug reformers are remiss if they fail to make the connection with their spiritually-based brethren, said Thomas. "Working with and mobilizing religious organizations is an essential component of moving the ball forward on drug reform," he argued. Even people who are not religious can do it, he said. "Most everyone has friends and family members who are members of a congregation. Ask them if they are aware of their church's position. If they oppose medical marijuana because it's bad, show them what their denomination says about it. If they already agree, ask them to frame it in moral language. It's the same with pastors and ministers," Thomas pointed out. "Sometimes you have to educate them on their own denomination's position, but once you have, ask them if they will sign a letter educating the congregation and the public."
IDPI is not merely taking advantage of favorable positions taken by denominations, it is helping to prod them to take those positions. Last month, thanks to a solid effort by IDPI and a strong grassroots concern within the church, the Presbyterians became the latest denomination to come out in support of medical marijuana. That in turn led to a story on BeliefNet, with an accompanying internet poll showing 70% support for legalization and 92% support for medical marijuana. Similarly, prodding from IDPI helped push the New York State Catholic Conference to include Rockefeller drug law reform on its list of criminal justice priorities.
Now, activists are taking the lesson learned by IDPI and applying them in the states. Deep in the heartland, drug reformers are seeking to build alliances with faith-based communities. In Kansas, for example, the Drug Policy Forum of Kansas (DPFKS) and the nascent Kansas Compassionate Care Coalition are laying the groundwork for a medical marijuana bill next year.
"We have gotten information on all religious denominations here in Kansas that have favorable positions on medical marijuana and we have gotten demographic information about congregations on a city or county basis," said the Forum's Laura Green. "We are reaching out to the faith-based communities. We have identified representatives who oppose us on medical marijuana and we are going into their districts and trying to get clergy to sign on to our statement of principle, so we can take that to the representative," she told DRCNet.
Why go after the churches? Simple, said Green. "The churches here have their fingers in everything, and some of the congregations are very large and powerful. The churches here have traditionally stayed out of drug policy, but we managed to get them behind a bill that allows convicts access to services once they get out, and that's why it passed."
In other places, religiously-inspired activists from numerous denominations are joining forces to push for humane, progressive change. "Drug reform is one of three justice issues we focus on," said Rev. Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a Southern California-based faith-based organization. "Frankly, our constituency is mostly Anglo and suburban, yet our people have a sense of what a waste of human lives and tax resources it is to incarcerate people with addiction issues. A few years ago, we did a high-profile conference about the drug war, and that got people really excited," he told DRCNet. "After that, we did a curriculum on progressive drug policy reform in congregational settings, hired some staff, and created a citizens committee to support Proposition 36," California's "treatment not jail" law.
In fact, Progressive Christians Uniting was in the news two weeks ago, when it held a press conference to urge Gov. Schwarzenegger (R) to veto legislative changes to the law that perverted its original intent. "Changing a voter approved ballot initiative is not only unconstitutional," said Laarman, "but it is morally unconscionable. The law is successfully saving lives and repairing families."
Naturally enough, Progressive Christians Uniting draws its inspiration from its members' religious beliefs. "The Bible and the witness of Jesus say we belong to one another and identify with those most exposed to injustice," Laarman explained. "Early Christians were often imprisoned themselves, so we strongly identify with people unjustly imprisoned. We need a humane and ethical alternative to mass incarceration. A lot of people think addicts are fallen, sinful people who need to be punished, but we believe that addiction is punishment enough and we need to show people a path out. For us, harm reduction is a very Christian response."
"Working with the churches is not only just, it is smart," said IDPI's Troy Dayton. "When a denomination takes a favorable stand on a drug reform issue, it gets a lot of media attention, which in turn draws the media to examine other denominations' positions. And when the churches say something, a lot of people listen. The way we imprison mass numbers of people, for instance, is a crucial moral and religious question, and the big denominations are almost across the board for sentencing reform."
Getting the denominations on board and letting the politicians know what the churches want when it comes to drug policy can be critical, Dayton told DRCNet. "The drug war doesn't work no matter what your religious beliefs are; it's immoral, and the faith-based community can really provide politicians the moral conviction to do what they know is right."
When it comes down to figuring out how we should deal with drug users in the United States, there is a simple and highly appropriate question: What would Jesus do?