By Rev. Alexander E. Sharp
The main purpose would seem to end the so-called War on Drugs. We have spent over $1 trillion since 1970 to fight a failed war that has turned us into a prisoner nation, divided us by race, and failed to reduce drug use or availability. So, yes, ending the War on Drugs is what we are about.
But there is a more fundamental purpose. We need to transform the culture of punishment that has afflicted our nation since its earliest days. The War on Drugs could not have continued – with all its waste and futility – for over 40 years, without such a predisposition to punish as part of our national DNA. Almost 20 years ago, theologian T. Richard Snyder chose a brilliant title for his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment that implies why: if individuals fail in our society, they just haven’t worked hard enough. They deserve the punishment they get. It’s their own fault. At some level, they have sinned.
If a culture of punishment weren’t as close to us as the air we breathe, would we tolerate national practices that lead to 1 in every 37 individuals being connected to our criminal justice system through incarceration, parole, or probation? Would we be a nation with more prisoners than any other on earth? Would we blink at the injustice of one in every 15 black and one of every 34 Latino individuals being charged with drug offenses, compared to 1 in every 104 whites, even though drug use is constant across ethic groups? The War on Drugs didn’t create the spirit of punishment in which we “live and move and have our being,” but it is a cruel manifestation of it.
There’s a better way to respond to low-level drug use and possession. The best in our faith traditions calls upon us to respond to individuals in trouble with drugs by engaging them, by listening to them, offering alternatives, enriching their lives in all reasonable ways, yes, loving them. People turn to drugs for the most part, to ease pain. “Just Say No” was absurdly simplistic as social policy in the 1980’s. It is no less so now.
In secular terms, the appropriate social policy response to drug use, including for harder drugs, is diversion. Rather than criminalizing people, we can offer what they really need: education, and if they are sick and wanting, treatment. This can happen at all stages prior to incarceration: pre-booking, pre-trial, or pre-incarceration.
The remarkable thing is that diversion – in many different forms – is more common than we realize. It is happening all around the country. Efforts to divert are working, and they save money. The problem is that we don’t hear about them. With Clergy for a New Drug Policy we pledge to bring these examples to your attention.
So, yes, we are against the War on Drugs—so that at last we can focus as a nation on more humane and wise social measures. Our faith traditions call upon us to heal, not punish; to forgive, not condemn; to be merciful, not hard-hearted. Diversion, not criminalization, is the moral response to drug possession and use. It is to this end that we dedicate Clergy for a New Drug Policy.