|Drug War Chronicle:
What is the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative and what does it seek to
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
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
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
Chronicle: Have you
had any surprises doing this work?
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