Every generation has its icons. When it comes to drug policy the Rev. Howard Moody belongs at the top of our list. As pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village from 1957 through 1992, he opposed the War on Drugs even before Richard Nixon declared it.
When most in society responded to drug addicts—then called “junkies”—as modern-day lepers, Rev. Moody embraced them. He founded the first drug treatment clinic in Greenwich Village. He called out a society that to this day condemns as criminals those who use drugs.
We know—above all else—that criminalizing drug use is immoral. As we work to end the War on Drugs, lost long ago (although its bureaucratic generals in Washington D.C. do not recognize this), we can learn and be guided by insights Howard Moody gave us. The following texts are excerpted from sermons, from a book, and from articles published in the journal Christianity and Crisis.
“It is important that we finally recognize that cures and prescriptions for ending drug use by the intimidation of harsh legal penalties are much more dangerous than the drug itself.” [CAC, Nov. 24, 1969]
“Attempts to control social behavior by legal fiat, as in the case of our attitude toward heroin addicts, leads to certain immorality. We judge that the addict’s ‘sickness’ or ‘personality weakness’ is morally or legally wrong and then we deny the patient relief by making his medicine illegal and its acquisition a felony punishable by imprisonment.” [CAC, Nov. 15, 1971]
“It is evidence of our pharisaical self-righteousness that we, a people who manufacture, pre-package and sell escapism as a salvation, at the same time label a portion of our population… as dangerous, criminal types, ‘dope fiends’ and ‘insanely sick’ people.” [Voice]
“The problem is not drugs as pharmacological agents, it is people—not only people who take certain drugs, but people who are prejudiced about those who use certain drugs and people in authority who pass laws against certain drugs.” [CAC, Nov. 15, 1971]
“Of course addiction leads to crime because we have made it illegal to carry or use the drug. I wonder if the diabetic who was deprived of insulin and had to acquire the next shot illegally would seem any less a criminal type in the extent to which he might go in acquiring it.
“The trouble with most of our policy in the past 15 to 20 years is that it has not recognized that control, prevention, and treatment cannot be dealt with separately…Every attempt to isolate a human problem from the social milieu that produces it and nurtures it is doomed to failure.
“For this reason those of us who stand on the other side of the law from the addict and the drug user should take a serious look at ourselves and the society out of which illegal drug addiction has grown. It might prove a helpful exercise in humility to confess the collective immorality of a society that spawns these social ‘miscreants.’
“For a culture that legally spends millions on betting, booze, and beauty, it seems incongruous (if not morally reprehensible) to condemn to everlasting shame and dehumanization the bewildered and frightened ones who choose to get lost in the netherworld of a heroin high.” [CAC, June 14, 1965]
“Drug use is natural and universal, found in all times, all places, and in many societies. So it is a little ridiculous to treat drugs as the ‘Enemy,’ whether it’s the church treating drug use as a ‘sin’ or the state treating it as a crime.” [Sermon]
“The Church has been and will be, consciously or unconsciously, unwitting accomplices in ‘scares’ and ‘wars against drugs’ because drug hysteria always indicts individual behavior and morality rather than the endemic social and structural issues that are at the heart of a form of social disintegration in this country.” ([CAC, Nov. 15, 1971]
“I think church people, and perhaps many people, love the ‘just say no’ campaign; but that was the concoction of an administration that had just said ‘no’ to every program aimed at creating alternatives for kids in the ghettos. Unfortunately these kids can’t say no to poverty. They were born and bred in it. They can’t say no to not working. There aren’t any jobs.” [CAC, Nov. 15, 1971]
“The greatest beneficiaries of the outlawing of the drug trade are organized and unorganized drug traffickers. More than half of all organized crime revenues come from the illegal drug business.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990]
“Interdiction is supposed to reduce street sales by raising the price of drugs through increasing the cost of smuggling the drugs. But a recent Rand Corporation study showed that ‘smuggling cost’ accounts for one percent of the street price. That will scarcely affect sales. Interdiction accomplishes almost nothing.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990]
“Why is it that the more money and personnel we put into interdiction, the more drugs we have on the streets? Decades and billions of dollars later, we are worse off than ever.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990]
“The $10 billion a year spent on interdiction hasn’t done much to stop the flow of drugs. But we have managed to clog our prisons with drug offenders and bring to a stand-still the criminal justice system in our large metropolitan areas.“ [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990)]
“The attempt to prevent, regulate and control drug-taking is always greeted with protest and evasion…During Prohibition, people still got drunk, became alcoholics, and menaced the highways—but some things were worse. Contaminated ‘rotgut’ whiskey caused blindness, paralysis and death.“ [Fentanyl is today’s version of a prohibition-induced drug. —Ed.]
“If Congressman Rangel knew history better, he would not add to the hysteria by taking up the sword in the drug war against a spurious enemy, for he will be impaled on his own sword and the people of the black and Hispanic ghetto will be the victims.“ [U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel served five primarily African American districts in New York City from 1971 to 2017. He supported the War on Drugs in the 1980s—Ed.] [Sermon]
“What is the role of the churches in this troubled area? First, to educate themselves about the facts and fictions of addiction… perhaps the most important and immediate task is to help create a new climate of public opinion whereby our laws may be liberalized so as to deal realistically and humanely with the victims of addiction.“ [CAC, June 14, 1965]
“Unless we are willing to evaluate the options, including various legalization policies, we will likely enlarge the catastrophic consequences of our present policies.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990]
Christianity and Crisis. Vol. 25, 1965-66; Vol. 29, 1969; Vol. 31, 1971; Vol. 50, 1990-91. [CAC]
History as Antidote to Drug Hysteria. Sermon. March 1990. [Sermon]
Moody, Howard. A Voice in the Village. New York: Howard Moody, 2009. [Voice]
I wish to thank Abigail Hastings, long-time friend and parishioner of Rev. Moody, for compiling this material.
Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director