A Jewish Perspective on Drug Policy Reform

Rev. Katherine B. Ray Jewish Perspectives

“Clergy for a New Drug Policy” seeks to mobilize clergy across faiths in opposition to the War on Drugs, and in support of treating drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one.  Here Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, Rector and Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at American Jewish University, presents a Jewish perspective on drug policy reform. 

Judaism and Drugs
Jewish sources maintain that because God owns the entire universe, including our bodies, we have a fiduciary responsibility to God to take care of our bodies. Thus, proper diet, hygiene, exercise, and sleep are not just what we should do to attain the pragmatic goals of feeling good and living a long life; they are also what we must do to fulfill our duty to God to preserve what belongs to God and to be able to fulfill the other commandments as well (see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Traits (Hilkhot De’ot) 3:3).

The converse of this also applies – that is, that we have a duty to avoid danger and that duty supersedes all the rest of the prohibitions in the Torah (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 10b). Life, though, is filled with dangers, so which ones may we risk?

Life, though, is filled with dangers, so which ones may we risk?
The answer that the Rabbis give is that we may engage in those activities that most people do, even though they involve risks.

So, for example, we may drive a car even though that involves demonstrated risks. In doing so, of course, we must take proper precautions to avoid injuring ourselves or others, but as long as we do that, we may drive a car.

When we apply these principles to what we now call “substance abuse,” we find that Jewish sources take a nuanced approach. Alcohol in moderation is not prohibited. In fact, the Psalmist says that “Wine makes a person’s heart happy” (Ps. 104:15), and so the Sabbath, Festivals, and happy events like the naming of a baby and a wedding are all accompanied by reciting the blessing over wine and drinking some. On the other hand, drunkenness is frowned upon, primarily because it deprives a person from the ability to act responsibly, and so people who know that they are alcoholics have the duty to find help in avoiding alcohol altogether, using grape juice instead of wine in the liturgical events mentioned above.

Given what we now know about the effects of smoking on both those who smoke and those who inhale the smoke from others smoking (“second-hand smoke”), the Conservative and Reform movements in Judaism, and most Orthodox rabbis as well, have urged their constituents not to smoke and, if they do, to find a way to stop. This comes out of our duty to preserve our own health as well as that of others. The same applies to drugs like cocaine and heroin that are similarly addictive and harmful.

What, then, is the status of marijuana?
What, then, is the status of marijuana? It depends on what scientific research tells us about its effects and dangers, if any. So far we have clear evidence that marijuana helps to alleviate pain in patients with cancer and other maladies, and Jewish sources demand that we seek to relieve pain. So when less potent forms of pain relief do not work, marijuana should definitely be used. Hence laws should definitely permit medical uses of marijuana under the same restrictions that govern morphine.

What about recreational uses of marijuana? Here again it depends on what scientific research shows. If marijuana turns out to be as addictive and harmful as smoking cigarettes, then it should be prohibited, just as smoking tobacco is in Jewish law as currently interpreted. If, on the other hand, marijuana for most people is enjoyable and in moderation is not addictive or harmful, like alcohol, it should be permitted by law under the same kinds of restrictions that govern alcohol. So, for example, it may be legal to use it, but only for adults, and driving under the influence of marijuana may be forbidden.

Responding to Those Who Break the Rules

As a Jew I have an abiding faith that people can change for the better, be forgiven for past sins or crimes, and regain the good graces of both society and God. This does not happen just by wishing for it to be so, however; forgiveness has to be earned. That happens not through incarceration, but rather through a process of “return” (teshuvah), the steps of which are these:

  • Acknowledging and admitting that one has done something wrong.
  • Feeling remorse for having committed the wrongful act.
  • Apologizing to any and all persons and to God for having committed the wrongful act.
  • Doing what one can to repair the damage one caused.
  • Acting differently the next time a similar situation arises.

Jewish sources record various punishments, including fines, excommunication for a period of time, lashes, and even capital punishment (although the Rabbis effectively eliminated the death penalty through their narrow interpretation of the laws that require it and through strict evidentiary procedures). Incarceration per se was not known in Jewish sources as a form of punishment, but excommunication may be a close relative of it because someone excommunicated was cut off from any form of communication, business, or support from the community, much as people in prison are. Still, it was used only when a person would not engage in the process of teshuvah, which was always the preferred mode because it restored both the person and the community and thereby honored the God who created both.

In our own day, as a Jew, I object to incarceration being used as the primary response to drug use.
In our own day, as a Jew, I object to incarceration being used as the primary response to drug use. I would urge the use of programs that help individuals avoid hallucinatory and harmful drugs and also marijuana if they cannot use it in moderation or in settings that are safe. This comes out of an abiding faith in the ability of people to learn from their mistakes and to improve. As we have learned during the years of the War on Drugs, incarceration does not reduce drug use; it only teaches people to commit worse crimes. Furthermore, American drug policy has proven to be blatantly discriminatory, punishing people of color far more and far longer than white people; this is downright unjust, a violation of the biblical principle: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Conclusion: A Jewish Perspective on Drug Policy Reform

It is for these reasons that I, as a Jew and a rabbi, support the efforts of Clergy for a New Drug Policy. We Americans must stop the use of incarceration as our primary response to the use of drugs. We need to distinguish among those drugs, like alcohol, that adults can use in moderation without serious risks and can contribute to people’s pleasure, and those, like tobacco, that are inherently harmful to those who use them and to others in their vicinity. We also need to embrace policies that treat people fairly, regardless of their skin color or economic status. Finally, we need to embrace a medical model of helping people avoid harmful drugs rather than the punitive model we have been using of imprisoning them for such use. Changing American drug policy in these ways will enable us to provide real help for those plagued by drugs and thus benefit both them and society at large. At the same time, we must fulfill God’s commandments to take care of our bodies and demonstrate the qualities of respect and love that we are commanded to have toward all people created by, and in the image of, God.

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