Webinar Text: Center of Addiction and Faith, January 21, 2021

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Decriminalization

I want to talk this morning about “Addiction and Advocacy: The Role of the Church.”  Let me say at the outset that I have what might be called a Don Quixote feeling.  Addiction and Advocacy.  Can we ever really get at the heart of addiction?  Do most churches care about advocacy?  Can we bring the two together?  

In mainline Protestant churches, you don’t hear a lot about addiction.   I’ve visited many congregations across the country. It’s been my experience that you can go into almost any mainline church and not see a hint that addiction exists, in our families, our friends, even in ourselves. That’s why I was so excited to learn of the Center of Addiction and Faith, and feel privileged to support it in any way I can. The Center will help us stop ignoring a reality we have too long failed to acknowledge and have an obligation as faith communities to respond to. 

“Advocacy” – it means taking a stand and raising our voices on issues that affect us as individuals and communities.  Many churches don’t do advocacy.  Why? First of all, it’s hard.  I’ve often felt that the problem is not that clergy lack courage, but that they don’t know where to start:  how to structure the conversation, choose priorities, develop strategies for being heard.  They don’t teach that in most seminaries.  But they should.  There are a lot of good models in churches around the country to draw upon, and secular organizations with vast amounts of information on drug use and addiction:  The Drug Policy Alliance, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, and many others. I hope you will get to know them.  

For some congregations, advocacy is too controversial.  When I was in divinity school, I worshipped at a church near the campus. It was during the time of intense public discussions about health care during the Clinton administration. I suggested to my own pastor that she invite experts on a Sunday after the sermon to debate the pros and cons of universal coverage.  She turned to me with a pained look in her eye and said, “Al, you’re scaring me to death.”  

So, it’s not surprising that not many churches talk about advocacy. As the name implies, Clergy for a New Drug Policy does reach out to clergy and congregations.  We advocate for a health –healing, not punishment–response to the reality of drugs in our society.   Our advocacy goal is to end the tragic War on Drugs, which over the past 50 years has failed to reduce the availability of drugs even has it has wrecked countless human lives at a cost of over $1 trillion.   As Michelle Alexander made so clear ten years ago in her book The New Jim Crow, it has been especially devastating to communities of color.

Advocacy assumes an agenda.  What I’m hoping you will consider this morning is  the urgent need to change our drug laws and to advance what is called “harm reduction,” helping people limit the harm of their drug use rather than insisting they abandon drugs altogether, an approach this world calls “abstinence only.”  Examples of harm reduction include administering naloxone, which revives people on the brink of overdose death; providing clean needles and syringes to limit the spread of diseases such as hepatitis and AIDS; medically assisted treatment, like buprenorphine and methadone, to assist in managing withdrawal; and, yes, safe consumption sites. In such facilities, individuals can bring their drugs, and self-administer them under medical supervision.  I’ll say more about these later.

Let me be clear.  None of this, or what follows, is intended to encourage the use of drugs.  What we are saying is that drugs are a reality. Our focus should be not on drug use but on drug abuse and the harm to individuals and society that results. Prohibition is not the answer. Regulation, which can take many forms, and education, the right kind of education, is the answer.  

If I could recommend one source of information on both regulation and education, it would be a book titled Regulating Vice by James Leitzel of the University of Chicago.  He defines “vices” as pleasures that can become harmful–certainly drug use, but also drinking, gambling, pornography, and other potentially dangerous behaviors. 

In our battle against the Drug War, Clergy for a New Drug Policy also opposes mandatory minimum sentences, civil asset forfeiture, private prisons, cash bail, and the collateral consequences of drug convictions. Under current law, drug offenses can carry with them the denial of public housing, food stamps income assistance, education grants.  (These may not seem directly related to addiction, but they can make addiction seem like a rational option if you are one step away from living on the street.) 

How does this agenda connect to addiction?  Again, our mission focuses on healing not punishment.  The voices fueling the War on Drugs call for punishment, for individuals using drugs, including those who are addicted, to be put in jail, to be locked up.  

This is simply wrong, especially theologically. This is not what Jesus did. He did not say to the woman caught in adultery, “Go down to the local jail house and turn yourself in.”  No, he said, “Go and sin no more.”  He did not lecture the Samaritan Woman at the Well on all she had done wrong in her life. He spoke to her about the “living water…(indeed) everyone who drinks of this water will never be thirsty again.” (John 4:10, 13).  Not a bad message for those drowning in alcohol. Jesus healed without condemnation.  He held people accountable, but he did not blame them. 

Punishment — the underlying premise of the War on Drugs — has caused an unspeakable amount of human misery. I could spend the rest of this webinar giving you story after story of lives ruined by the Drug War. 

But I want us to go deeper.  I want us to think about punishment in relation to the problem it is intended to address.  To do this, we need to consider for a moment the nature of addiction and its causes. Let’s join the perpetual debate about whether addiction is a “disease” or a “choice.”  

Federal researchers, who have made amazing advances in neurophysiology, are passionate advocates for what might be called the “disease” model.  They talk about changes that become etched into neural pathways, “highjack” the brain, and never go away: hence the notion that addiction is a “chronic disease.”  

Philosophers and psychologists are more likely to argue that addiction is, at some level, a matter of “choice,” even as they recognize the often-overwhelming difficulty of achieving recovery. 

The reality, of course, is more complex.  I like what Princeton Theological Seminary faculty member Sonia Waters tells us: “It is not just one cause that creates an addiction, but a dynamic tangle of vulnerabilities that catches the individual in the net of addictive behavior.” Or author and former addict Mia Szalavitz, who accepts the concept of “disease” but sees addiction most fundamentally as a learning disorder. She has written that, “Addiction doesn’t happen to people because they come across a particular chemical…It is learned, and has a history in rooted in their individual, social, and cultural development.” 

If addiction is a disease, it should be obvious why punishment does not make sense.  When was the last time you heard that someone had been arrested for lung cancer?  Perhaps punishment in the form of arrest and jail might be the appropriate response to drug use, not yet addiction, since use can lead to addiction. But how can that be the right response when, as we know, the great majority of those who use drugs never end up with a substance use disorder, and about 70% who do get to this point recover on their own?  

So we know that punishment does not make sense if drug use is a disease.  Let’s turn to the “choice” model.   If drug use is a choice we can be held responsible for our actions.  We have moral agency.  Some people consider use of certain drugs to be immoral.  Under laws mandated by the War on Drugs, such use is also illegal.  Violations of the law must be punished.  So…. Lock ‘em up. 

What is wrong with punishment?  One practical difficulty is that law enforcement generally lumps drug use and addiction together.  Even if jail or even prison might deter a drug user from future use – generally not the case — do we really think that jail or prison is where those living with addiction belong?  

Second, let’s be clear: Most of us who live relatively comfortable lives are oblivious to the violence, yes, violence, that jail and prisons inflict upon body and soul.  Locking someone in a cage and giving him or her a number, not a name, even for a short period of time, are surely acts of violence.  Someone once said, “Poverty is violence is slow motion.”  So is incarceration. 

Here’s the overriding point. When it comes to healing addiction and stopping drug use, punishment for the most part does not work.  When punishment is our first resort, we are making misguided assumptions about human behavior and how people change.  Addiction forces us to address this question acutely.  I submit that nurture, not punishment, is the better answer.  

The obscenely long sentences given us by the War on Drugs do not deter drug use.  Some would argue for the value of drug courts.  These are special courts for drug offenders. Judges have the option of offering treatment and expungement of charges if individuals succeed in their treatment programs. But drug courts generally serve only the easiest to help; do not permit relapse, even though relapse is almost always part of recovery; and oppose medically assisted treatment – the use of methadone and other drugs to assist with withdrawal. 

It is not surprising that a spirit of punishment drives our criminal justice system. But consider this. Right now county prosecutors in my home state of Illinois are opposing changes in our drug laws on the grounds that we have to arrest people in order to help them, that is, steer them to treatment.  Imagine!  We need to separate people from their families and their jobs, put them in jail, and possibly brand them permanently with a criminal record because forced incarceration is the only constructive alternative.  I haven’t studied this, but I doubt there is a lot of this going on in white, suburban neighborhoods.

So where does that leave us?  Here’s where advocacy comes in.  We have an extraordinary opportunity right now – at this very moment – to speak out simultaneously with a dual message: first, that punishment – treating drug use and addiction as a crime – is wrong, indeed, immoral; and second, that drug treatment is the right, indeed, the compassionate response.  We can take the position, as clergy and congregations, that all low-level drug use should be decriminalized and simultaneously, that anyone who seeks it should be steered to treatment. 

Let me define criminalization.  This is not the same as legalization. Under decriminalization drug use is deemed a civil offense, like a traffic ticket. Selling drugs remains illegal.

This is not pie-in-the-sky.  It has already happened in one state – Oregon – this past November.  Ballot Measure 110, The Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative was approved by Oregon voters by a 57% to 43% margin.  Low level drug possession and use is now legal in Oregon, and, upon implementation, treatment will be offered in any of 10 regional health centers to all who accept the referral.  This will be paid for by higher-than-expected revenues from cannabis legalization. Let me repeat that:  drug users will not be arrested.  Treatment will be available to all who need and request it under this law.

It can be argued that we already have decriminalization all around us.   In fact, we took this step almost 40 years ago, back in the mid-eighties, when we first began to practice what I have mentioned as harm reduction.  It took a pastor to begin this movement in the United States.  Rev. Edwin Sanders, the senior servant of Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, TN, started offering clean needles to addicts in the vacant lot across from his church.  He did not want people dying from HIV-AIDS spread by dirty needles.  “How can you do that, pastor?” some of his congregation asked.  “I can’t save souls if people are dead.” He answered.   Once you decide to help someone, rather than arrest them, you are practicing harm reduction – the rest is detail.  

Although drug decriminalization so far is limited to Oregon, it will become a movement.   Advocates in New York and California are already exploring similar policies.  

The clergy among you can advocate openly for this.  This is actually easier for you to support than the legalization of cannabis. Here’s why. In recent years, I traveled to at least 10 states on behalf of cannabis legalization.  I sought help in person from many clergy.  I was always grateful if they were prepared to discuss this with their congregations, but I was not surprised that most did not. Even though probably 65% of the congregations supported legalization, that left 35% who felt that marijuana use is wrong. Who wants to take on 35% of their congregation?  Clergy were willing to allow me to use their names and personal addresses, not the name of their church.  I respected this position and was grateful for their individual support.

Decriminalization is different. The law does not condone use. You can argue that drug use is wrong and still support this law. There is a civil sanction.  But decriminalization does keep society from labeling someone as a criminal for low-level drug use or possession.  It says that such branding is wrong.  In religious terms, it is immoral.  I believe that clergy can and should seek congregational support on positions that are morally the right thing to do. I can imagine standing in front of a congregation and saying that it is immoral to put individuals in jail, or burden them with a criminal record, solely because they were caught possessing or using small drug amounts.

Assuming we agree that those in churches should advocate for decriminalization, what does this have to do with addiction?  That’s easy.  Criminalizing drug use and addiction not only ruins people’s lives by turning them over to the criminal justice system.  It also stigmatizes addiction. It gives us an excuse to shun those who are struggling, to walk on the other side of the road.  Recall the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We have an excuse – which may only register subconsciously – to pass by those in the ditch.  We can, if only through our silence on addiction, tell them that they are not welcome in our churches. 

Have we in our congregations ever thought of doing just the opposite – finding a way to make it clear that those struggling with substance abuse are, in fact, welcome among us?  The analogies are obvious.  My church has a sign on its front lawn saying in bold letters “Black Lives Matter.”  Churches declare their welcome to all gender orientations with rainbow logos.  Couldn’t we find a symbol or logo that offers the same invitation to those struggling with substances and addictive behaviors?    Why not? 

There are other forms of potential advocacy as well.  A lot depends on where you are located.  I’ve mentioned harm reduction.  There are neighborhoods where it makes sense for pastors and staff to be trained in how to administer naloxone.  In these same neighborhoods, church leadership could invite mobile units that provide harm reduction services, like clean needles, and basic health supplies to show up in the church parking lot at least once a week.  Is this advocacy?   On such controversial matters, there is a fine line between advocacy and service.  Simply providing the service becomes an act of advocacy.  Rev. Sanders was doing more than providing clean needles when he appeared in the parking lot beside his church forty years ago.

The same thing is true with educational programming in churches.  Invite some speakers to your church to talk about addiction. Ask them to speak about harm reduction.  It will not be long before cities across the country are considering whether to permit what are called safe consumption sites.  Right now, there is only one in North America.  It’s located in Vancouver, Canada.  I’ve visited it.  It saves lives and offers the possibility of treatment.  Over 60 exist in Europe and Australia. Versions of such sites are becoming commonplace in Canada.  In this country, Philadelphia is on the cusp:  the city has approved it, but was stayed by the regional U.S. Attorney.  This opposition will someday be overruled.  I am proud that Clergy for a New Drug Policy and a host of other religious voices have signed on to an amicus brief in this case.  

Again, on issues such as this, education becomes advocacy. 

Let me close with one, final essential question.  If advocacy in churches is difficult, and often unpopular, why should churches do it, on addiction or anything else?  Let me briefly offer three reasons.  The first seems obvious but too often we don’t articulate it.  My friends, we can’t avoid advocacy.  If we say nothing on the issues of the day, certainly those of deepest Christian concern, we are endorsing the status quo—and the status quo is a very political position.  Silence is consent. The only question is what kind of advocates we will be.  

A second reason for advocacy is that charity—giving to the food pantry or our local neighborhood club—is insufficient.  Charity can help to alleviate the conditions we want to challenge—poverty, poor education, homelessness, and more—but it can never address the causes.  

The third reason has to do with the very nature of love.  At the end of the day, at its core, our faith is about nothing other than love.  But without action, what is love?  One cannot love in the abstract.  One loves in relationship.  We can’t love our neighbor without caring what happens to our neighbor; and advocacy is a form of caring.

Bringing up the issue of drugs and addiction in our congregations won’t be easy.  But at some point, don’t we have to ask ourselves what kind of churches, what kind of pastors, we want to be?  And if we are concerned about congregation members who may walk out, it may even be that more individuals will be attracted to boldness and variety than to passivity and blandness.

Let me close with brief stories about two menI deeply admire.  The first is Neil Franklin, who for 34 years worked for the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, where he rose to the position of commander. One day he was furiously trying to arrest a group involved in a drug deal. Things got terribly out-of-hand.  A fire broke out in the building where a drug bust was going down.  A friend of Neil’s was killed.  This was a turning point.  All at once, Neil saw clearly what he had been wrestling with for a long time—that in fighting the War on Drugs as a law enforcement officer, he was doing far more harm than good.  

He changed direction. For the next 10 years he headed a group called, until recently, LEAP—Law Enforcement Against Drug Prohibition. Their bedrock premise is that drug use and addiction is fundamentally a health not a criminal problem.

The second is a lovely man named Mark Osler, professor at St. Thomas School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a renowned expert and advocate on clemency and pardons for the wrongly convicted and those serving excessive sentences.

As someone who grew up in a church environment, he could cite at least a few familiar Biblical passages.  They stayed with him.

For many years, Mark Osler was a federal prosecutor in Detroit.  His job was to send those accused of dealing, or even just possessing, crack cocaine to prison, sometimes for life.  Under the law, those dealing crack, usually African Americans, were 100 times more likely to be convicted than those, mostly whites, using powder cocaine.  

One day Osler remembered Jesus saying to the pharisees who were about stone to death the woman caught in adultery, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  “I realized,” he recalls, “I was the guy with the rock.”

What are we doing in our congregations?  If we are silent about addiction, are we not holding stones in our hands, even if we do not throw them? Through an excess of caution, are we not failing to do what we reasonably could to turn back the spirit of punishment abroad in the land that has allowed the War on Drugs to become the longest war in our nation’s history? 

We can end this war.  If even police, if even prosecutors, can see the light and step forward, surely as clergy we can, too.   Decriminalizing low-level possession and use of all drugs is a good place to start. 

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp

Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy