Quaker Perspective on Drug Policy


Eric E. Sterling is Executive Director of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a private non-profit educational organization that helps educate the nation about criminal justice issues.   He is a graduate of Haverford College, has been a Quaker for more than 40 years, and serves on the Ministry and Worship Committee of the Bethesda Friends Meeting.   From 1979 until 1989, he was Counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary.

Background on Quakers

Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends, or “Friends”) believe “that of God” is active in every person. Some describe it as the “Inner Light,” the “Light Within,” or the “Christ Within.” As potential possessors of the Truth, all persons deserve respect. Most Quakers believe that the Divine continues to reveal Itself and the Truth, and that any person may be a channel for such revelation, regardless of religion, belief system, spiritual practice, or prior experience or conduct. Convinced of the precious Divine character of every person, Quakers have renounced violence and war as means to influence the behavior of others. Instead, Quakers believe in influencing others by teaching – by example and by instruction – and by worshipping together. Ultimately, the foundation of Quaker practice is to uphold the dignity and integrity of everyone.

Quakers’ Problems with Drug Policy

I think Quakers have two major objections to the War on Drugs. One pillar of this global drug policy is that it is appropriate to coerce individuals (including by the use of violence) to make the “correct” choices in their use of drugs, and that persons who make the incorrect choice may have their liberty and dignity abrogated. Police, courts and prisons (even “treatment” programs in many nations) routinely treat drug users with utter contempt, treat them with insulting and degrading practices, and place them in dangerous or disgusting environments. We all know that drug users are dying from AIDS, hepatitis C and other disease, from poisoned or adulterated drugs, and from overdoses. We know that these deaths are the result of risky, and often compulsive behavior. What people are beginning to realize that the spread of these diseases, the poisonings and the overdoses are a consequence of our drug policy’s disregard for the essential humanity of drug users. This disregard even extends to the families of those who died from drugs — they are not really entitled to our compassion because their family circumstances are often blamed for the drug user’s bad “choices.” I believe that Quakers would find the policies that condone this degradation to be utterly offensive to our doctrine that every person retains his or her right to human dignity regardless of the choices he or she makes.

The second pillar of the War on Drugs is that all societies must engage in a war-like mobilization to stop drug use that systematically involves violence on a national and global scale. Around the world, the police are given the lead to change the behavior of drug users. Nevertheless, drug users provide the revenues for the illegal cultivation, production and distribution of drugs that are a global industry earning $200 to 400 billion annually. Logically, those who engage in the production and distribution of illegal drugs are outside the law. Denied the courts to resolve its inevitable conflicts nonviolently, the notorious violence of the drug industry is also an inevitable consequence of prohibition drug policy. To suppress this large, wealthy industry, the security forces (the police and military) are mobilized, further increasing “drug” violence.

Traditionally, Quakers have opposed the overuse of drugs and alcohol because they can interfere with our ability to be open to and sensitive to the divine spirit. As early as 1695, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting advised Friends to “Shun the use of mind-changing drugs and intoxicants, of gambling, and other detrimental practices that interpose themselves against the Inward Light.”[1]

In 2000, after considering the war on drugs, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends adopted a Minute that observed:

“Friends for over 300 years have sought to live ‘in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.’ Today our country is engaged in a ‘war on drugs’ which bears all the hallmarks of war: displaced populations, disrupted economies, terrorism, abandonment of hope by those the war is supposedly being fought to help, the use of military force, the curtailment of civil liberties, and the demonizing of the ‘enemies.’ While we are all affected by the war on drugs, we are painfully aware that particularly victimized are people of color, the poor, and other less powerful persons.”[2]

Those observations remain true 15 years later. Any spiritual community that is opposed to violence and that is sensitive to injustice will be horrified by what we observe now:

  • In Mexico, since 2006, over 125,000 lives have been taken (including the disappeared) in the war between the government and criminal organizations that are substantially financed from the revenues of illegal drug sales and production.
  • For drug offenses, the death penalty is imposed widely. The governments of China, Iran, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore have executed thousands of drug users, couriers and providers in recent years. Since 1994, U.S. law has authorized the death penalty for growing 60,000 marijuana plants, or manufacturing or selling 16.8 kg of crack, 300 kg of powder cocaine, 3 kg of methamphetamine, or 60,000 kg of marijuana.[3] This sentence has never been imposed in the U.S. and is almost certainly unconstitutional.
  • While the United States imprisons thousands of drug traffickers and some drug kingpins, we incarcerate hundreds of thousands more people for being dependent on drugs, using drugs, providing drugs to other users, surviving off the sale of drugs, or being a minor member of a group that sells drugs.
  • Millions of persons annually are stopped on suspicion of drug possession. Annually, at least one million are manacled, placed in custody, taken to a holding cell, and are only freed after hours, days or months.
  • Countless times a loaded firearm is pointed at the bodies of citizens stopped on suspicion of a drug crime. Often, these persons are cursed at, emotionally abused and sometimes physically abused. Their bodies are routinely and roughly searched, often in their most intimate areas. These acts of violence are committed by police officers carrying out the drug laws.
  • Rather than helping drug users overcome their addictions, our criminal justice system subjects drug users to harsh financial penalties, to months or years in prison, and to years of supervised release – all of which weakens our communities and their family relationships, and makes them unemployable. One in every 28 American children currently has a parent in prison or jail, but this parental incarceration is highly concentrated which perpetuates many neighborhoods’ poverty and cycle of incarceration.[4] The federal government annually spends more than 200 times more to imprison drug users than to treat and prevent drug addiction.[5]
  • In tens of thousands of cases, paramilitary SWAT teams raid before dawn the homes of families. Routinely the homes are ransacked looking for evidence of drug offenses, and family pets are commonly executed.
  • The federal government places heavy-duty military equipment designed for war in the hands of local police officers that is deployed on neighborhood streets.[6]
  • Law enforcement officers under color of law seize billions of dollars’ worth of private property each year on suspicion of association with a drug crime. If they sell the property, the police agency retains the proceeds to use at their discretion. In these “civil forfeiture” cases, there is little due process protection for those who own the property. Pursuing this “booty” can pervert law enforcement priorities by focusing on the seizure of money instead of investigating the violent and property crime that directly threatens the public.

All of these violent, extortionate or distorted practices are contrary to our vision of a society that is peaceful and well-ordered. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Minutes of 2000 concluded by encouraging Friends to support those who are working to change government policy and who are working to aid those who suffer from the disease of addiction, and to find “paths that lead us toward peace, reconciliation and healing.”[7]

Most Quakers now recognize many of the horrifying flaws of the “war on drugs.” But because of Quakers’ long association with the temperance movement and testimony against intoxication, I think Quakers have been reluctant to seriously challenge drug prohibition directly, fearing that it will be interpreted as approval or toleration of drug use.

However, I believe that Friends, as they fully comprehend the universally inhumane and violent character of prohibition-based drug policy, will collectively condemn drug prohibition. I think as they review the policy options that “lead toward peace, reconciliation and healing,” they will recognize our best outcome is to manage the drug problem. Quakers try to be constructive and I think they will help build a system that supports informed decision-making, provides accessible healthcare to drug users, and frees all of us from the violence of the illicit market, and the government. This involves two distinct “management problems.”

The industry that produces and distributes drugs can only be managed through law and regulation. Enabling legal enterprises and law-abiding managers to operate this industry will enable market forces and enforcement authorities to minimize crime and violence.

The other problem is to manage use of drugs respectfully and non-violently. The law must support the social controls and creation of new customs that minimize the initiation of problematic drug use, especially by the most vulnerable. Laws and social controls must help the various kinds of users to control their use to minimize any tendency to risky or excessive use. And new legal mechanisms are needed to devise social controls that help those who are dependent on drug use or using drugs dangerously to minimize the adverse effects of their drug use on the community, their families and themselves.

I am optimistic that as more Quakers see the dehumanization and violence intrinsic to our drug policy, they will apply our tradition of conscientious objection to war to the “war on drugs” and advocate policies that “take away the occasion of all war.”

Photo courtesy of Paul Carpenter at English Wikipedia.

[1] http://www.pym.org/faith-and-practice/extracts-from-the-writings-of-friends/advices/

[2] http://www.pym.org/annual-sessions/previous-years/2000-2/minute-on-drug-concerns/

[3] 18 U.S.C. 3591(b)(1); 21 U.S.C. 848(b)(2)(A), and 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(B).


[5] https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/about-content/fy_2015_budget_highlights_-_final.pdfhttp://appropriations.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hhrg-113-ap19-wstate-horowitzm-20130314.pdfhttp://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp

[6] https://www.aclu.org/report/war-comes-home-excessive-militarization-american-police

[7] http://www.pym.org/annual-sessions/previous-years/2000-2/minute-on-drug-concerns/

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