Six major religious denominations have joined the fray over medical marijuana in the US Congress. In letters sent out to targeted congressmen and women this week by the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (http://www.idpi.us), the churches are calling on Congress to end the Bush administration's persecution of medical marijuana patients. The letters target representatives belonging to the six denominations, and while they delineate the positions adopted by each of the denominations, each letter leads with the position of the targeted representative's own church.
The United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the Unitarian Universalist Association have all signed on to a statement proclaiming that "seriously ill people should not be subject to criminal sanctions for using marijuana if the patient's physician has told the patient that such use is likely to be beneficial," IDPI reported. The Union for Reform Judaism, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ have all adopted similar position statements. Two other major denominations, the Evangelical Lutherans and the Presbyterians, while not adopting specific statements on medical marijuana, have signed a 2002 statement calling for a broad array of drug policy reforms consistent with support for medical marijuana.
"The politicians who oppose medical marijuana often make 'morality' arguments," said Charles Thomas, IDPI's executive director. "Yet six major denominations advocate legal medical marijuana, and no denominations have taken a position against it. Where did these politicians get their concepts of morality?"
Not from the holy writings, suggested Rabbi Peter Schaktman, president of the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues, which is in turn part of the Union of Reform Judaism, one of the denominations that has pronounced in favor of medical marijuana. "We are in the morality business," he told DRCNet. "At least in Jewish tradition, the duty to heal the sick and alleviate suffering is very much a moral issue. We've come to realize that when medical marijuana can be used in an appropriate fashion, it is probably immoral not to allow it to be so used," he said. "The relief of suffering and alleviation of pain is a very high value; our duty is to do whatever we can to comfort and cure the sick."
According to IDPI, one thing that Congress can do is pass a bill that would prohibit the use of federal funds to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers in those states where it is legal under state law. Last year, a similar bill, the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, named after its initial sponsors, Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), failed to pass. This year, the bill is likely to be introduced as an amendment to the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill.
"Medical marijuana is an issue of mercy," said Thomas. "Being seriously ill is stressful enough already. Patients who follow their doctors' advice to use marijuana shouldn't have to live in constant fear of arrest and jail. It is the duty of religious denominations to stand up for vulnerable people who are being wronged. We pray that Congress will have the compassion to stop the Bush Administration's War on Patients."
"The facts show that the plant has medicinal uses," said the Rev. Greg Stewart of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada, "especially for people with HIV/AIDS, as well as other diseases. There is real relief for people who cannot find relief any other way, and that ought to be the government's priority. It is certainly the church's priority, and we need to take the lead instead of supporting the current regime," he told DRCNet. "If the church does not stand up for people unable to stand up for themselves, who will? As we have seen, certainly not the government."
Rev. Stewart's position is grounded in a deeper critique of drug policy. "This war on drugs has been dragging on for years and it hasn't been effective and it may even stimulate drug use, particularly among teens and young adults," he argued. "Personally, I would rather see a system of legalization, where there could be some accountability about how it is distributed. There are many of us looking for very intentional and wide-reaching reforms of these laws."
The letter to members of Congress is notable for the presence of the nation's largest African American denomination. "We got the Progressive National Baptist Convention to sign on," Thomas said. "This is the denomination Martin Luther King belonged to, this is Jesse Jackson's church, and the convention is still one of the main social justice-oriented denominations in the country," he pointed out.
And with it, they got the powerful rhetoric of the Rev. Dr. Arnold W. Howard of the Enon Baptist Church in Baltimore. In remarks prepared for a Baltimore press conference, the reverend constructed an elaborate metaphor of society addicted to the war on drugs, then drove it home: "Just like an addict can spiral out of control and begin to exhibit bizarre behavior, the federal government, in a despicable show of bravado to maintain this drug war addiction, is even arresting legitimate seriously ill patients who use medical marijuana with the approval of their doctor," he said. "The drug war mongers are in denial. They come out every year with a drug war battle plan that is basically the same as the year before. My brothers and sisters, it is time for an intervention," Rev. Howard declaimed.
"It's time to intervene in this war and share a compelling vision of policies that abstain from the addictive and damaging habits of punishment and coercion," Rev. Howard continued. "I understand that total abstinence from punitive approaches to drugs is not ready to be fully embraced by the powers that be." Still, he said, the church has "a moral imperative" to fight the "unconscionable excesses" of the drug war, first among them the attacks on medical marijuana. "If we are going to have a war on drugs, can we at least remove the sick and dying from the battlefield? Marijuana provides symptom relief for people suffering from the effects of chemotherapy, AIDS Wasting syndrome, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia and other serious illnesses. If a doctor and a patient decide that marijuana is the best medicine for them, let's have some mercy on these people."
Some 180 legislators are receiving the lobbying letters, Thomas said. "Building support for medical marijuana among religious denominations and channeling it into specific federal legislative efforts already underway by different reform groups is one of our top priorities," he added. The group is also working on Higher Education Act and federal mandatory minimum sentence reform this summer, Thomas said. In the fall, IDPI will turn its focus to the states.
"Ultimately," said Thomas, "medical marijuana is an issue of mercy. It is the duty of religious denominations to stand up for people who are seriously ill and already suffering enough without having to live with the constant fear of being arrested. In Christianity, Jesus broke the law of his day by healing people on the Sabbath," Thomas said. "And as Martin Luther King said, when the law is unjust, it is no law at all."