Thank you all for inviting me here to be a part of your service. Thanks to Cathy for bringing this topic, which is near and dear to my heart, to your congregation.
My name is James. I’m Jewish and we like questions. So, I’m going to start this sermon with a few questions for you to consider. Many of these questions don’t have absolute answers. They are questions we should ask ourselves so that we know where we stand and try to figure out how these beliefs we hold, impact the action we are willing to take.
What does a drug user look like?
For many of us when we picture what a drug user looks like we imagine someone looking dirty and disheveled, living on the streets with beer bottles or needles scattered around their body. We picture a desperate and dangerous criminal, willing to harm anyone in order to feed their addiction. We picture a person of color, most likely someone who’s black. Where do these images come from? What drives the belief that this characterizes what a typical drug user looks like? As it turns out, these images don’t match the reality of drug use.
In a study published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education in 1995, a survey asked people to envision a drug user and describe that person. 95% of respondents described a black person. This is the case despite that fact that the majority of people who use drugs in our country are white. African-Americans make up about 15% of the people who use drugs, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population.
When we picture who a drug user is, we don’t readily think of the successful people who have used drugs—executives, scientists, writers, musicians, politicians, Presidents. It would be inaccurate to say that people who use drugs or have used drugs are bad people, or are unproductive members of our communities. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people who try a drug—any drug—will not have a serious problem with that drug in their lifetime. Yet, this image of a drug user as a failure and threat persists.
When we hear the term “drug user” we often think of a small group of drugs: cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine. We don’t think about the complete list of drugs—legal and illegal—that people use. So, it begs the question…
What is a drug?
In general, we would define a drug as a substance that we put into our bodies that alters our mood or physiological state; the caffeine we use to help us get out of bed at the start of the day; the medicine we take to control our blood sugar, blood pressure, or moderate other symptoms that may prohibit us from taking care of business; the glass of wine we use to unwind after a long day at work. All of these are substances we put into our body to alter the way we think and feel.
What impact would it make if, instead of thinking about drug users as “other” or “those people”, we all thought about ourselves as drug users? How would that affect the way we approach drug use in our communities? Why, when we hear the term drug user, don’t we picture a successful white person drinking alcohol? What impact does it have on people’s mindset to picture a black criminal, injecting heroin, and to meld these images together when we hear the words, drug user?
If we want to change the way we treat people who use drugs and the impact their use has on them and in our communities, we have to address the internal bias and prejudice that we’ve built up over our lifetime.
This does not mean that drugs are not harmful.
Certainly, all drugs have the capacity to harm people. Partially, we have a skewed perspective of drug users because the people who are most negatively impacted by their use, are inherently more likely to need help and encounter systems like hospitals, treatment programs, and law enforcement. However, we’ve exaggerated the likelihood of harm in order to scare people away from trying drugs. This approach is effective for some but it leaves all the people who will experiment, without any idea that there are more or less harmful ways of using any drug.
A quick story, when a friend of mine was a teenager he decided that he wanted to try marijuana for the first time. He bought $25 worth, a quarter of an ounce, from someone at school. Not knowing any better he put all of what he had bought on a sheet of computer paper, rolled it up like a cigarette, taped it shut, and smoked it. We can agree that smoking computer paper and tape isn’t good for you. I tell this story to say, the risk of harm from using a drug is much greater when you don’t know what you’re doing. The risk becomes even more serious when using a drug that can be lethal if used incorrectly.
On the other hand, when a person doesn’t know what they are using is a drug, because it’s legal or provided to them by a doctor, there is also a great risk. Alcohol isn’t a drug, it’s a beverage. Vicodin isn’t a drug, it’s medicine. Marijuana isn’t a drug, it’s a plant. In all these cases, it can be both of these things! Not knowing that also makes harm more likely.
But, if any drug can cause harm, why do we still use them? To put it simply, people use drugs for a reason. A rabbi I spoke to once generalized the reasons for using drugs as an attempt to feel more present in a moment or to disconnect. We might use drugs to feel more connected with a group of people, to enhance an activity like a meal or concert, to deepen our thinking or sense of spirituality associated with a religious ritual.
Indigenous cultures have traditionally used psychedelic drugs for these spiritual purposes. In Judaism, we have several holidays connected with drinking wine. It is considered a good deed to make a blessing over wine in order to mark the beginning of Shabbat. On Passover we celebrate our exodus from slavery by retelling the story and drinking four full glasses of wine. On Purim, a Jewish scholar Rava was said to have taught that we should drink wine until we cannot tell the difference between the face of Haman and Mordecai, our enemy and our friend.
But, we also use drugs to distance ourselves from negative feelings—physical pain, boredom, anxiety, loneliness, despair. The person who uses heroin to seek relief from intense physical pain; or uses alcohol to drown out traumatic memories and racing thoughts so they can fall asleep at night; the person who uses cocaine to overcome their crippling social anxiety and enable connection with other people. Whatever reason we use drugs for, we do not do it as a means to harm ourselves but as a way of obtaining some sort of benefit from our use.
Our relationship with any drug—legal or not—can range from harmful to helpful. There are a number of factors beyond the drug itself that impact whether or not we experience harm from using it. Environment matters. Journalist Johann Hari talks about harmful use being a product of disconnection. Dr. Gabor Mate talks about addictions being rooted in painful experiences. Norman Zinberg points to the combination of three sets of factors he calls drug, set, and setting—factors related to the drug and how it’s used, the individual and their circumstances, and the environment they use in. Most people would agree that when we’re using drugs, we are more likely to experience harm from them if we don’t have a strong support system around us. We also know that experiencing trauma in early childhood increases the likelihood that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs.
Yet, we live in a country that demonizes the drug user—they are a person who has made bad decisions and must live with the consequences. We see drug use as an individual choice and an individual problem. We try to interrupt that problem by punishing their bad choices and isolating people from everything that is familiar to them.
But, what child chooses to be neglected or abused? What person chooses to be left without a support system when their parent or caregiver dies? Nobody chooses the circumstances that often precede harmful relationships with drugs. But, it’s far simpler to point to the individual and never consider the environment that they come from. That way, we don’t have to think about how poverty, a poor education system, a lack of economic opportunities, unstable housing, or growing up in a neighborhood where you regularly witness community violence, all make it more likely that people will have a harmful relationship with drugs. In fact, it is these circumstances, not drug use, where African-Americans are disproportionately represented.
Just as our environment affects our relationship with drugs, our environment is impacted when we use drugs in a harmful way. Responsibilities are ignored—work doesn’t get done, friends and family members are neglected or taken advantage of. But, we’ve tried to punish our way out of the harms caused by drugs for 100 years. And it hasn’t worked. Instead, escalating punishment and extreme isolation have exacerbated the harm.
Much like drug use itself, punishment and isolation don’t just impact the individual. They damage the environment as well; they take the parent away from their child, remove brothers and sisters from families. By removing community members, we promote disconnection and thereby increase the likelihood of harmful drug use for the people left behind.
Nowhere is the failure of our current approach more apparent than in the dramatic spike in drug overdose death. This issue is particularly timely, as August 31st was International Overdose Awareness Day. We can’t punish our way out of harms like overdose death. We need a better way.
We need to shift away from focusing our energy on trying to eliminate drug use altogether. That is and always has been an unrealistic goal. Drugs have been used for thousands of years, across continents and cultures. Drugs are a part of our lives and we all have relationships with them. We need to focus on the harms we consider most egregious and address them instead.
We’ve tried, what some would call, a tough love approach for too long. It’s time we just try love. We need to shift from seeing harmful drug use as an individual problem that we solve with punishment, to a community problem that we solve with healing.
What does it mean to move away from punishment and to focus on healing? Focusing on healing means that we promote people’s ability to be healthy and safe, connected to a support system and in control of their lives.
One approach that does just that, and is gaining traction, is called harm reduction. Harm reduction is the practice of using drugs in less risky ways. When we drink responsibly, we are practicing harm reduction. We eat food before drinking, drink water, we practice moderation and limit our total number of drinks, we don’t drive when we’ve had too much to drink. These are all harm reduction choices we regularly make. As we make harm reduction choices with alcohol, we can make similar choices with other drugs. If you never know there’s a safer way to do something, you’re more likely to make a harmful choice.
Beyond this individual practice, harm reduction is a philosophy—a belief in the human rights of people who use drugs. Harm reduction promotes the idea that regardless of what a person puts in their body, they should not be denied their basic human rights. In the programs that I’ve worked for, we use harm reduction in a practice called Housing First. We don’t deny people access to the human right of housing simply because they use drugs. We provide that resource to people who need it because they are homeless. Once they are housed, we surround them with a support system to help them make positive changes. Sometimes those changes are related to their drug use but sometimes not; sometimes it’s about addressing other physical or mental health concerns; sometimes it’s about pursuing meaningful activities like education, volunteering, or employment; sometimes it’s about reconnecting with elements of their support system that they may have lost along the way. The essential part of this approach is that people who use drugs are afforded the right to choose for themselves what’s most important to them.
As members of a faith community, your congregation has a unique opportunity to offer connection and healing to people in need. Matthew 11:28 tells us, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. The church has long been a place where people have sought out sanctuary. Extend an olive branch to the people who experience the severe consequences of drug use.
Too often, people who struggle with their drug use don’t seek out help, because they think that love and support will only be available to them if they are ready to stop using altogether. We need to dispel the myth that belonging to this community is contingent on abstinence from all drugs. Because it’s not. We know that because we’re all here.
Many people in this room use drugs in one form or another. Nobody is checking people’s medication cabinets to decide who’s allowed to pray here. There is no breathalyzer taken at the door. Your morning coffee doesn’t stop you from being able to connect with this sermon—on the contrary, it probably helps. Our drug use doesn’t stop us from practicing our faith. Our drug use doesn’t prohibit connection and belonging. What is it about our world that makes people who use drugs think otherwise?
We need to throw open our doors to people, wherever they are and whatever they come to us with. Our love and support cannot be contingent on their choice of whether or not to continue using.
Instead of focusing on trying to get people to stop using drugs, we can focus on trying to understand how and why they are using drugs. In order to understand people, we need to be willing to listen.
Healing happens in relationships. We should focus on building a connection with people. Learn about their lives. Find out about their story, ask them about their hopes and dreams, ask them about what’s missing in their life. Almost certainly, one of the things they’re missing is someone who’ll ask those questions and respectfully listen.
Remember, that person who is struggling is likely trying to disconnect from some source of pain. Give them love, give them connection, give them rest, help them heal, and you will help our communities heal.
Thank you again for having me here today. If you’re interested in learning more about the policies that impact people who use drugs in our state and in our country, I bought a sign-in sheet for an organization called Clergy for a New Drug Policy. They are an interfaith organization that envisions a society driven by the values of mercy and compassion and advocates for alternatives to our current War on Drugs.