DRCNet Interview: Chuck Thomas and Troy Dayton, Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative 2/13/04

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Chuck Thomas spent years in the drug reform trenches, most notably as a cofounder of the Marijuana Policy Project and its director of communications from 1995 through 2001. But following his own spiritual quest and seeing fresh opportunities to organize new flocks, in 2000 Thomas formed Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform (http://www.uudpr.org) as a means of bringing at least one section of the religious community into the struggle. Thanks largely to Thomas' guidance, the Unitarians have developed a very progressive position on drug policy -- legal use and regulated access -- and now he is seeking to broaden that success with other religious communities. To that end, Thomas formed the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (http://www.idpi.us), and with some seed money in hand hired on long-time drug policy activist Troy Dayton as the group's field coordinator. DRCNet spoke with Dayton and Thomas this week about what they're up to.

Drug War Chronicle: What is the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative and what does it seek to accomplish?

Chuck Thomas: I started Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform (UUDPR) a couple of years ago to help shape the Unitarian Universalist denomination's drug policy position statement and then to publicly advocate for the recommendations in it. Those recommendations include a variety of reform options, up to removing criminal penalties for drug possession and use and a medicalized way for people to access drugs. For the past couple of years, we have worked to educate the public and to do some policy work on these matters. UUDPR had a tax status that limited the amount of effort we could spend lobbying directly or even organizing grassroots lobbying. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we can only spend 5% of our time influencing policy, and we wanted to be able to spend more time and resources doing that. Also, other people of faith would contact UUDPR wanting to get involved through our organization. We realized it would be very useful to have a 501(c)(4) organization, one that the IRS allows to spend an unlimited amount of time and resources influencing legislation, including things like organizing the grassroots.

We figured we could get more bang for the buck as an interfaith organization, so I spent a couple of months trying to get all our ducks in a row and looking for a field coordinator. For the past month and a half, Troy Dayton has been doing that job. He's been involved in drug policy work since he was a student at American University, and he is also very spiritually attentive and very interested in this kind of work. Troy is doing a lot of outreach to religious organizations now.

Our goal is to organize religious or spiritually attentive individuals, as well as denominations and other religious activist groups to focus on advocating whatever drug policy reform positions their denominations already support and what is already on the public agenda. Most mainstream religious denominations don't go as far as the Unitarian Universalist Association, they don't support regulated access, but some actually recommend decriminalization, and others support a variety of reforms that are actually before state legislatures, such as ending mandatory minimum sentences, treatment not prison, medical marijuana, and a whole host of harm reduction measures.

The beauty of this project is that we match up the religious people whose denominations already support these things with the drug policy reform efforts already underway in various states, as well as Congress. For example, there are medical marijuana bills in several states, a treatment not jail bill in Maryland, the effort to end mandatory minimums in New York by repealing the Rockefeller laws, the federal effort to repeal the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision, and a federal medical marijuana amendment coming up this summer. There are a whole raft of good and bad bills to work on.

We're doing basic grassroots advocacy work. Troy e-mails and calls various religious bodies, congregations, and individuals and gets them to participate in the coalition's activities and write letters to pass good bills and defeat bad bills.

Chronicle: So how are things going so far?

Troy Dayton: The outreach is going great. The rubber really meets the road when I'm talking to clergy, encouraging them to take a public stand or get their congregations active, or when I'm setting up appointments with different interfaith groups. We have come to realize that in almost every town or city there are organizations of the leaders of the various churches who meet to make decisions about policy. They often have lobbyists working the legislature, so they are already in the process. This is an amazing resource we are beginning to tap into here. We've been working with the coalition around drug policy reform in Maryland (http://www.treatnotjail.org) and we are applying what we've learned to other states. We're also getting key people already on our UUDPR lists and getting them to get their congregations active, to do forums and send e-mails and similar things. My job is basically to gather the ground troops and develop a groundswell of support from the congregations and an outcry for relief from religious leaders.

Thomas: We are also reaching out beyond the Unitarians. Troy mentioned Maryland. Last week, we met with the Maryland Interfaith Legislative Council, and while they have not yet reached consensus on endorsing the treatment not jail campaign, representatives from a variety of religious faiths were able to hear our message, and we are encouraging them to sign on individually. For example, we succeeded in getting the Episcopalians in Maryland to endorse this. This is the kind of thing we've been doing.

Chronicle: What else is on your agenda?

Thomas: Spring is a very busy season for us because that is when the state legislatures typically meet, but after that we will put more time into making the coalition even larger. We'll be digging up the drug policy positions from every denomination we can find, and then we'll see where there is room for improvement. This will involve working with individuals from those denominations who are already on board with us to help them figure out how to work through the policy process in their churches. We want to help shape these policy statements so they support substantial drug policy reform, and we will follow the model of what I did with the Unitarian Universalists a couple of years ago. We will help coordinate the efforts of other religious people to get them to push the envelope, so by the time the next legislative session rolls around, we'll have more to work with.

We are hoping to fill an important niche in drug policy reform. Ultimately, if we are to achieve to kind of drug policy reform the movement is working for -- removing criminal penalties for use and allowing regulated access -- we really have to shatter the common misconception that these kinds of policy changes are somehow immoral. People have the sense that drugs are bad, so the drug war must therefore be good. They may say there are excesses that could be eliminated or minor fixes needed, but there is a widespread sense that prohibition is inherently a moral response to drugs. The drug reform movement can win some victories in stopping some of the drug war's excesses, but to go that final step and actually end prohibition we really need to help the American people understand that drug use is not necessarily immoral, and even if you think it is, arresting people for it is not a moral response. It is wrong to punish people who are harming only themselves even if you think it is a sin. It is wrong for the government to punish people for sin. Drugs should be treated as a health issue. There are physical, psychological, and spiritual health issues, and these should be dealt with by families, doctors, communities, religious organizations, not the criminal justice system. Our slogan is "compassion not coercion."

If you look at the moral and philosophical underpinnings of the world's religions, you can draw logical conclusions about how we should handle drugs. It is a matter of getting people to think about it in that context and then to move through the decision-making bodies of the different denominations and have them recognize the merits of this position. That's our longer term mission. Over the next couple of years, we intend to spend a lot of time and resources to build a large, effective religious wing of the drug policy reform movement.

Chronicle: Aren't there already religious people in the movement?

Thomas: Oh, yes. One of things I'm excited about is that there are a lot of reformers who are already involved in religious communities or otherwise take their spiritual practices seriously. I'm always pleasantly surprised to find people I've worked with over the years getting involved in various mainstream religious communities. In some cases, they've already taken steps to help their fellow congregants, but in many cases it never really occurred to them. They hadn't really thought about organizing drug policy reform through their religions. I encourage anyone who is interested to contact us and let us work with them. There is much to be done, whether it is writing letters to a legislator or to a newspaper or otherwise communicating with the public, to articulate and advance the moral, ethical, and religious arguments against prohibition. And people should be explicit, whether it is quoting scripture that supports drug policy changes or whatever else it takes. Religious groups wield enormous influence in our political process, and if people think drug policy reform must be immoral, we have to shatter the myth of consensus that surrounds that notion. One letter from an authentic religious person involved in a mainstream denomination can be just enough to sway that legislator sitting on the fence.

The people who are involved in drug reform and are religious need to contact us so we can start to bridge the gap and help bring members of these religious communities on board and get them involved in our lobbying efforts. With our new tax status, it is very exciting. Now, we can be very explicit and tell people these are the bills they should support or not, and start working to win victories.

Chronicle: How does the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative support itself?

Thomas: Raising money is a challenge in drug reform, and even more so for 501(c)(4) organizations, because big contributions are not tax deductible. Unitarians have given money to UUDPR, but the initiative itself has so far had just one start-up grant from Peter Lewis. Funding will have to come largely through individual donors. We encourage people to check our web page and make a donation, whether they are religious themselves or they just recognize that effective political movements have a strong religious component. Religion has played a small role in our movement so far, but this is an opportunity to move quickly and really become a viable force in the world of drug policy reform.

My goal is for us to focus this spring on our work, not fundraising, and to be able to have enough accomplishments under our belts that when we go to funders and individual religious activists we can raise enough money to continue and cover our expenses. But UUDPR and the initiative are basically sister organizations, and if people want to make larger, tax-deductible donations, they can do it through UUDPR.

Chronicle: How is your message being received?

Dayton: I have not seen resistance to our message. I've always talked to people who seemed on the face of it unlikely to support reform, whether soccer moms, PTAs, or grandparents, and I've always been pleasantly surprised that when you speak with reason and compassion, people respond to that. I haven't heard any crazy drug war ranting. The other thing that is important to note is that we are talking about things like mandatory minimum sentence reforms, medical marijuana, treatment not jail, and these are all things that have broad support. I imagine that if I called up and said legalize it, I might get more opposition, but we're not doing that. We're trying to win concrete changes on popular issues this legislative season.

Chronicle: Are you specifically targeting inner city black churches?

Dayton: We plan to work on the African-American churches. We have not yet had the chance to place a speaker at a primarily African-American church, but we plan to do that.

When we start working on repealing mandatory minimum sentences, the black churches will be a primary focus of our effort. In many cases, black leaders, including church leaders, fought for tough drug laws to save their communities, but now there is a big shift in opinion happening. Here in Maryland, the legislative black caucus is 100% behind the treatment not jail campaign. I don't think black religious leaders will be far behind. They seem to be coming on board with the things we're talking about. To organize the black churches for drug policy reform will not be easy, but at this point I think it is more an issue of priorities than it is one of ideological difference.

Chronicle: Have you had any surprises doing this work?

Dayton: Yes. One of the most striking things I've found is that many members of the clergy are not necessarily aware that their denominations have taken positions on these issues. This is one place we can play a big role because the power of a denomination's national position statement is amazing. If it weren't for us, these clergy members might not even know an issue has been studied by people who believe what they believe or know that their denomination has concluded that some drug reform measure or another is desirable.

Visit http://www.idpi.us for more about the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative. Thomas and Dayton say it is a work in progress at this point, but already has much valuable information related to religion and drug policy and will soon have more.

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Issue #324, 2/13/04 Victory for Hemp! Federal Judges Reject DEA Effort to Ban Hemp Foods | DRCNet Interview: Chuck Thomas and Troy Dayton, Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative | Sweet Home Alabama: Marijuana Legalization Advocate Convicted on Pot Charge in Kafkaesque Trial -- Appeal Filed Immediately | Action Alert: HEA Campaign Entering New Stage -- Your Letters and Phone Calls Needed! | Newsbrief: Legalization Talk in Trinidad | Newsbrief: Brit Police Chief Says Legalize Heroin, Irks Other Cops | Newsbrief: Australian Federal Government Issues Threat to Stop New Safe Injection Sites | Newsbrief: Prohibitionist Sweden Sees Drug Deaths Climb | Newsbrief: Philadelphia Drug War Reality Tour Hits the Airwaves, Internet | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: US Senate to Consider Lifting Buprenorphine Restrictions | Ohio Patients Network Art Contest | UCSF Seeking Patients for Medical Marijuana Research | Offer and Appeal: New StoptheDrugWar.org Ink Stamps and Strobe Lights -- DRCNet Needs Your Support in 2004 | The Reformer's Calendar
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