A Star to Guide Us in 2021

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization

Hanna Pickard (BA Hons, BPhil, DPhil)

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As my year-end gift, it is a joy to introduce to you a scholar I have discovered only in the past few weeks. Hanna Pickard was recently appointed to the faculty of Johns Hopkins University after working part-time for ten years in a therapeutic community. A philosopher, she writes about addiction and law with stunning clarity.  We should regard her as our Christmas star to guide our thinking about drug policy in the year ahead. 

Clergy for a New Drug Policy advocates for a “healing, not punishment” response to drug use. Increasingly, the “healing” part of that message is gaining traction. Witness the approval of low-level drug decriminalization in Oregon last month. Most churches, however, if only through their silence, perpetuate the War on Drugs and its “punishment” message despite decreasing public support for this approach. 

Why? Perhaps addiction is too complicated. We don’t have the time on a Sunday morning to approach it in a meaningful way in the context of a worship service. Or maybe we think, perhaps unconsciously, that the best way to avoid addiction in our own lives is to pretend it does not exist.

But Hanna Pickard gives us perhaps the most telling insight about why we turn a blind eye: in most mainline Christian churches, we have not yet gotten beyond a level of moralizing of which we are probably not even aware. When it comes to addiction, we are Pharisees. We politely, even self-righteously, put a hold on what Jesus taught us about compassion and love. 

Much of Pickard’s thought can be summarized as a tagline: “Responsibility without Blame.” Her message is far from simplistic, however. She examines these key words by placing them in the context of how scholars across disciplines – neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, law – debate the causes of addiction: Is it a “disease” or a “choice”?  

I’ve spent the past several months wrestling with what I think. Under the disease model, what happens to free will? What is the role of choice? What are the limits to our ability to change, and how does this occur? Does punishment matter? If inclined to religious concepts, how do we talk about sin and judgment?  

The disease model is often advanced, especially by medical researchers, to eliminate the sense of stigma that the addicted so often feel. Through the marvels of brain neuroscience, addiction is seen increasingly as a function of broken, or “highjacked,” circuitry over which addicts have little or no control. They are suffering from a chronic disease, like lung cancer or type 2 diabetes. If there is a physiological basis to their addiction, the thinking goes, they are not to blame.

Pickard, however, challenges the disease model. She cites the growing evidence that individuals do, indeed, often exercise choice, however hard the struggle. Some quit “cold turkey.”  Others mature with work and family responsibility. Studies show a sensitivity to financial reward. More broadly, individuals do overcome addiction through personal growth and self-understanding. This itself presupposes a degree of choice and control. 

The underlying debate aside, what matters most is what Pickard tells us about how to respond to those afflicted with addiction.  Individuals are not to be absolved from the consequences of their actions, which often hurt themselves and others.  They are, indeed, responsible. What so often follows, however, is a profound error. We assume that where there is moral agency, there must be blame. This is both wrong and clinically unhelpful, at best.    

Pickard illustrates this distinction by reflecting on her experience working with clients suffering from “disorders of agency,” including substance abuse, anorexia, and borderline personality disorder.  She and her clinical colleagues kept “the distinction between responsibility and blame clearly before our minds, and…challenge(d) our own sense of righteousness…while cultivating a commitment to treating all people, including those who are responsible for real and lasting harm, with respect, concern, and compassion.”  

In this Christmas season, do we need to be reminded that this is exactly what Jesus preached? His message was one of healing, not punishment.  He held all who reached out to him responsible for their actions, but he did not blame. As we enter the New Year, I am grateful to Hanna Pickard for calling us back to the most basic tenets of our faith. 

With best wishes for a blessed 2021. 

Sincerely, 

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, 
Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy