Addiction and the Road to Damascus

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Harm Reduction

Dear Friends and Colleagues, If asked to name the American thinkers of the past 150 years whom I most admire, I would place the great pragmatic philosopher William James at the very top of the list. Starting as a professor of physiology at Harvard in 1873, James virtually created psychology as an academic discipline. His Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1890, endures as a religious classic. William R. Miller, distinguished professor emeritus of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, should be considered among James’ most worthy successors. While he may not have created an academic discipline, Miller did, along with colleague Stephen Rollnick, develop a new therapeutic technique – Motivational Interviewing (MI) – now used worldwide to treat individuals suffering from alcoholism and addiction and more broadly seeking personal change.  It is easy to forget that until about 40 years ago, many people believed a confrontational “boot-camp” approach was an effective treatment for alcoholism and other addictions, The concepts of MI have helped to expose this misguided view.   Miller’s experience in working with addicts also led him to explore with academic rigor the notion of sudden personal conversion. He is the first scholar since William James to do so. In his book Quantum Change, he documents what he finds to be the reality and surprising frequency of such experiences. He is now exploring the ways MI and such “change” experiences might be related.  I am delighted to introduce Dr. Miller to you here, for two reasons. First, Clergy for a New Drug Policy is devoted to ending the so-called War on Drugs. The tenets of Motivational Interviewing make clear why criminalization as the primary weapon in this war, as currently fought, is a tragic response to drug possession and addiction. More broadly, these same principles offer the potential for human change regardless of the arena.   Dr. Miller recently participated in a webinar broadcast by the Center of Addiction and Faith (CAF), a Minneapolis-based organization that engages clergy and churches in responding to addiction. A selection of Dr. Miller’s comments under key issues is provided below.   On the origins and key tenets of Motivational Interviewing:   Early in my education, I was on an internship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin working on an alcoholism unit. It was run by a psychologist who was compassionate and scientifically oriented, so I felt very at home. I knew nothing about alcoholism, really, but had been trained in Carl Rogers’ person-centered and behavioral approaches. It was the patients who taught me about alcoholism. I began reading the literature on alcoholism from the 1970s, which said, “Alcoholics are pathological liars, completely in denial, out of touch with reality, and horribly difficult and defensive.” And I said, “Gee, those aren’t the same people I was talking to.” This puzzle was the beginning of Motivational Interviewing. I realized that that picture of people being very difficult, defensive, and dishonest was a function of the way we were treating addiction at that time — in a very confrontational, authoritarian, shut-up-and-listen kind of way. The spirit behind Motivational Interviewing is partnership rather than “I’m the expert and you’re only a recipient.” It’s two people talking to each other as peers. I have expertise, but so does my client. My client knows more about him- or herself than anybody else in the world. If we’re talking about a change in that person’s behavior, I need their expertise, as well as my own. Rather than saying “I have what you need, and I’m going to give it to you,” the communication in Motivational Interviewing is more “You have what you need, and together we’re going to find it.” A central principle is that it should be the person, the client, the patient, the student, who’s making the arguments for change and not me. If I’m arguing for change and they’re arguing against change, I’m in the wrong chair. On the importance of “self-acceptance” in personal change: Here was one of Carl Rogers’ interesting discoveries: that when you experience yourself as unacceptable, it’s very, very difficult to change. It’s paralyzing. And when you experience acceptance, profound acceptance — as you are — whether from a therapist, or a friend, or your family, or God, then it becomes possible to change.  Now, I don’t know why we’re wired that way, but we seem to be.  On the role confrontation and punishment in response to addictions:  Punishment suppresses behavior. It doesn’t teach anything new. It doesn’t say, “This is the way to go, … this is the way forward.” I began a very different approach to working with addiction accidentally and [found] very different outcomes. Human beings don’t generally take well to being told what’s wrong with them and what they should do. If you take a different, person-centered approach, you get a very different outcome. You find that you are working with a very different kind of person. When we also looked at the literature on confrontation, it is completely negative. There’s not a single clinical trial of a confrontational approach that produced a positive outcome. It was the norm at that time. We thought that that’s what those people needed.  But there never was any science to the notion that if you can just make people feel bad enough, they’ll change. And nor is that my faith. On the debate over addiction as a disease or a choice:  It’s an old idea that people with substance use disorders just can’t enter into a therapeutic relationship. There never was any science to that. Quite to the contrary, person-centered approaches like Motivational Interviewing have a very, very good track record. When we have this black-and-white way of thinking about things, there are only two possible outcomes, perfection or disaster. I’ve done outcome research for 40 years. Outcomes don’t look like that. They’re all over the map. It used to be alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse were different disorders. They’re not. It all lies along a continuum. Outcomes look the same way. We know that with chronic illnesses, we don’t expect people with diabetes to never taste sugar again. We don’t expect people with hypertension to abstain totally from salt in all forms. The main thing is to be moving in the right direction.  What is meant by the disease model is that you are completely different, incapable of controlling what you are doing.  For some people that’s helpful.  Identifying with that is the way they stay sober, and that’s good. However, if you don’t remain perfect, it can be discouraging.  We have a study in which we found that an endorsement of the disease model actually increases the relapse rate. People were more likely to not just use, but use catastrophically, when they believe that if one drinks one is a drunk. For some people, that’s helpful. For others, it’s not. That’s human nature and there’s not one solution, one answer for everybody. On the seemingly contradictory approaches to recovery (some evoking a “higher power,” others “personal agency”): One of the wonderful things about addiction treatment is we have a terrific menu of different science-based approaches that can help people. There isn’t one approach you should always do.   One of those is the 12-step program. It’s very nicely scientifically documented. (Alcoholics Anonymous itself is harder to document, although there are a lot of studies of it.) But a 12-step facilitation treatment works on average just as well as cognitive behavior therapy or Motivational Interviewing on average. So, if one thing isn’t working, try something different.   For Bill Wilson (founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), who was a banker and at the top of his game, learning powerlessness might have been the key. But if you’re working with individuals who have experienced deep trauma, they might need to focus on methods that will draw out personal agency. Feminist theology has questioned whether women in general need more powerlessness. Women for Sobriety and SMART Recovery and other kinds of approaches were developed as reasonable alternatives. Humility and ego busting and powerlessness doesn’t seem to be the path for them. On how churches and other communities can respond to addiction: First, make it a topic of conversation. So often there’s so much shame around this topic in the United States that you just don’t talk about it. You can change that norm in a church by preaching about it if you’re the pastor, by sharing stories in prayer time.  Bring it out of the closet. In this country we have made it a shameful thing. Albuquerque is an interesting example. The University of New Mexico Hospital operates the largest addiction treatment program in the state. But it’s not located at the University of New Mexico Hospital. It’s in a warehouse district out by the airport. Now, why is that? It’s because we don’t want “those people” around the hospital. Except guess what? They’re already there being treated for all kinds of other things. That’s not right. We have science-based, perfectly reasonable treatment methods that are rather like what therapists are doing anyhow with other kinds of clients. And yet, we’ve somehow come to believe that this is somebody else’s work. We should mainstream it in churches, in healthcare, in psychology, in social work, in homeless services. It’s just a really common part of life and not one to be shunned. On the importance of “small interventions:” Most of the things in my career that were most important were unexpected. And I learned early that when you don’t find what you predicted, that’s when you should get interested, become curious, and follow that, believe your data and follow your data.  In 1983, I was thinking of Motivational Interviewing as a kind of priming the pump or getting people ready for what would be real treatment. The unexpected thing that popped up was that after a conversation in this way, people often began changing without additional help.  My training as a therapist had been “the longer you spend with me, the better you’ll get.”  But I began to find that even after a relatively brief conversation, people seemed to turn a corner on what had been very longstanding destructive patterns.  It didn’t make sense to me, but we kept pursuing it. That has held up over time. If you look at the stories of healing and in writings about Jesus, they’re not long interactions. They are relatively brief encounters. He almost always touches the person, which is interesting. But these things are not long-term psychotherapy sessions. Something is happening that powerfully changes the person. On the possibility of personal conversions: Some people don’t know that the author of the hymn Amazing Grace was a slaver. His last trip was not the one on which he wrote Amazing Grace. He had a couple more exchanges. And so, it doesn’t necessarily happen all at once. It’s not always like Ebenezer Scrooge, where you’re totally transformed in the moment. But sometimes people are. I wrote a book called Quantum Change. The last psychologist I could find who was interested in this was William James, for whom psychology and religion naturally fit together at the beginning of the 20th century.  He was fascinated by people who are suddenly transformed and tells some of their stories in Varieties of Religious Experience.  I wondered, “Is that real? Does that actually happen in real life?” Well, the stories are found in biography and autobiography.  We found that it was not difficult at all to find people who had had such “turning point” experiences in their lives. They hadn’t told anybody. They often didn’t talk about it, because the experiences sometimes sound pretty crazy.  I just went into the study asking, “Does this even exist? Is there such a thing as an experience that happens within a few minutes or hours that permanently changes the person, like a one-way door?” It is real and it’s common. (For more on this aspect of Dr. Miller’s work click here.) On the relation of psychology and religion:  Psychology in the …

We Are Witnesses: Chicago

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Harm Reduction

My purpose today is to urge you to watch a powerful and haunting short film called “We Are Witnesses: Chicago.” Through the testimony of 15 individuals, the series captures the tragedy and anguish of violence in Chicago. We hear the voices of victims, police, and court officials.  It is a story of suffering and pain, systemic cruelty and corruption.  It offers moments of compassion, courage, and forgiveness. It speaks to our hearts, and helps to open them. It makes us cry out for change, especially in our criminal justice system.  Violence tears our cities apart.  Chicago is synonymous with gun shootings, even though some other cities have numbers worse than Chicago’s.  In CNDP’s advocacy to end the War on Drugs, I have long wanted to argue that this failed War is a primary cause of urban violence. My problem in making this case is that the topic of violence is hideously complex.  It is what academics call “a wicked problem.” As such, it hard to generalize about. It has so many causes.  “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” helps us to identify and begin to connect them.  The War on Drugs is certainly key.  It calls for prohibition. As a result, gangs rather than sanctioned outlets become the economic vehicle for distributing drugs.  There are no legal means to settle disputes, so violence, usually with guns, becomes the vehicle for doing so. Huge amounts of easy cash from drug sales lure kids to the streets rather than school.  This same cash finances the guns that are so plentiful on city streets. This misguided and unjust war undermines the relationship between police and communities.  How could it be otherwise when officers are trained to track people down in pursuit of often low-level economic transactions that, in poor communities, may be their only way to feed their families? The War on Drugs feeds upon itself.  When parents are incarcerated for low-level drug possession, their future is obliterated, their families are destroyed, and their children suffer. All of this, in turn, feeds the poverty and despair than can often lead the next generation to escape into drugs. The cycle continues.   In “We are Witness” Chicago we meet Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, until recently the Executive Director Of The Cook County Department Of Corrections.  At age eight, growing up in North Carolina, she witnessed the arrest and incarceration of her father for possession of marijuana: “I can only imagine being the man in the house and watching your young daughters seeing you arrested,” she recalls. “It’s humiliating.” After her responsibilities for Cook County Jail, she writes, “When you walk into those doors and you see hundreds of young black men chained together you see the hopelessness in their eyes and it does something to you.  I saw them as my brother. I saw my father in them…We are more than our charge. We are the whole person who can still have the ability to offer good in the world.” The War on Drugs does not fully explain the tragedy of urban violence in our cities.  There are many causes. But is time that we started to realize what is also true. The violence in our cities will not end until, at long last, we decriminalize low-level drug possession, thereby effectively ending the 47-year-old War on Drugs.  I am grateful that “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” is so effective in helping to make this case. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

Interview with Author Timothy McMahan King

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education

Timothy McMahan King’s book Addiction Nation is both a personal memoir and an exploration of addiction. He brings an understanding of public policy, knowledge of advances in neuroscience, and his own religious faith to bear on this complicated and urgent topic. We were pleased to discuss the book with King last week.   How would you describe your own faith history and current affiliation?  I started off in an evangelical home. I was even homeschooled for a while. That culture certainly shaped my early life, and also introduced me to Jesus and taking Jesus seriously. And the more I learned about Jesus, the more I became concerned about people and issues that are on the margins. Over time, that shaped and formed me to the place where I am today of still loving parts of the tradition I grew up in, but also being drawn into contemplative spirituality and now the Episcopal church. How did you become addicted to opioids? My addiction started with an extended hospital stay. I had a minor case of pancreatitis at the age of 25. My doctors weren’t sure why so they kept doing some procedures and tests. One of those went wrong and that was when I developed acute necrotizing pancreatitis. I was put into the ICU, given a 50/50 shot about whether I would live or die, and pulled through after about two months in the hospital. I was sent home on heavy doses of opioid pain medication. Being on those drugs for that long, I moved from a simple physical dependence to a compulsive usage and addiction. I didn’t know how to process that experience for a long time, because so many of the models and the stories and the narratives I had in my head about addiction were wrong ones. They were stories about how only immoral people get addicted. If you get addicted, you must have done something wrong. It was through this journey and the blessing of having medical staff who understood the scientific and medical parts of addiction that I was able to find recovery. Why did you decide to call your book Addiction Nation?  Typically, people approach addiction as if there is an aberrant group of individuals who have done or participated in something wrong. The more I understood about addiction, the more it was clear that addiction isn’t an issue of certain people, it is something that we have facilitated with our entire culture and our public policy. Our nation itself has its own addictions. That might be to our criminal punishment system, a rampant capitalism without restraint, our culture of constant consumption. All of these things contribute to a culture that facilitates addiction. We have to work against those streams that so often draw people in.  I wanted this book to be an exploration, not so much of the individual issues at stake, but of these broader cultural implications for the levels of addiction and overdose we see today.  What does that say about all of us, not just the people who are caught up in the midst of it? Is drug use a sin? No. And the Bible’s pretty clear. Jesus used (and even created) a drug, alcohol. There was a big debate in the early church, in particular the Council of Jerusalem.  Is it inherently sinful to eat particular foods? The answer was no. Then you have Augustine, who was in the midst of a battle of whether evil is a specific substance. He argued “no,” and the church agreed. Everything God created is good. Everything God created has a role and a purpose. The things that we call sinful or evil are not those things that God created. Sin comes with our relationship to those things. In the hospital, I was on the chemical equivalent of heroin. It was called Dilaudid.  In fact, it’s often referred to as “hospital heroin.” It was not a sin for me to be on that. It was lifesaving. My doctors said that if they hadn’t been able to manage my pain, I might not have survived.  These chemicals were a blessing.  But just because something is good in one situation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be cautious and that it doesn’t have dangers. This is where we need a better theology of understanding of our relationship to drugs, to be able to say simultaneously this can be a good in a person’s life under certain circumstances and also be a danger. We know that water is essential for life and it also can be dangerous. We do this with other substances where we have a cultural and political historical bias against specific substances that too often means that our policy is not based on science or even a consistent ideological approach, but just cultural biases often rooted in racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. You mentioned your evangelical upbringing. What would you say to evangelicals who oppose even the legalization of marijuana, which is obviously safer than the drugs that you were making good use of? First, I would quote the Bible. Don’t call anything bad that God has created and called good.  Second, Jesus was clear when asked about Sabbath laws. Jesus said, “God did not make man for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” There is a role for laws in our society. But laws always have the purpose of human flourishing, and that is where we need to ask, “Are our laws around marijuana adding to human flourishing or detracting from it?” Based on the amount of people who have been locked up for this substance, I think the answer is clear. Third, I’d ask if they know their history. Do they know why marijuana was singled out as a drug to be criminalized? It didn’t have anything to do with science and how marijuana affects our brains. It didn’t have to do with research around the substance. It had everything to do with a racist campaign focused on Mexican and Latinx people. It was about stirring up fear about people who didn’t look like the European immigrants who were in this country. It was based in our fear of the other, not in an understanding of the proper role for that substance. But, again, so many people of faith consider drug use a sin. Where does that concept fit into this discussion? This is where I think we need better language. I think it is imprudent and unwise for an individual to use, say, cocaine recreationally and it might lead to behaviors and broken relationships we would call sin. But if that same individual were to try the traditional usage of chewing some leaves from the coca plant while hiking in the Andes mountains, that certainly wouldn’t be a sin. When we look at the origins of the last major usage of coca products in Coca-Cola, I don’t think it was a sin to use that. But I do think we have a very high responsibility to talk about prudence and wisdom.  I’m not a parent, but if I were, I would definitely warn my children about the potential dangers of addictive substances and want them to have the best knowledge on how to make those decisions. Any kind of drug use, whether nicotine and alcohol or cocaine and heroin, has even higher risks for those under the age of 25.  What we have today is misinformation for young people.  That is what’s most dangerous. They get misinformation from people about a particular drug as an evil substance, and then the first time they’re exposed to it—they see their friends using it or they’re offered some and they don’t see the dangers that they heard about from the authorities—then they just don’t trust the authorities at all. They don’t trust their parents at all. And I think that has led to a higher problematic usage rate than if we simply had the honest conversations about the realities of drugs. It’s the lying to young people that makes them lose trust, and we need to be honest about it. Is addiction a disease? I think the disease model of understanding addiction has really helped us move forward in understanding the physical, the neurological, and the medical ways of dealing with and addressing addiction. This is hugely important in shaping the ways that we can address addiction as a public health crisis. At the same time, I think we need to understand that there are also limits to any model for understanding a complex phenomenon.  This is where I always try to be careful with my phrasing. It’s important for people to always know that they are a part of their own recovery. There are some studies that have indicated if a person believes that their addiction is a disease that they can’t do anything about, they are less likely to enter into recovery than if they think they’re a full participant. The disease model is important, but it’s also not the only way, the only lens we should look at addiction through. Is there any sense in which personal drug use should be considered a crime? Not the use itself. But, as with other drugs like nicotine and alcohol, that doesn’t mean there aren’t restrictions or responsibilities. If your usage endangers or puts others at risk, that could be considered illegal or criminal. But that is drug usage plus a behavior, not usage itself.  Would you decriminalize all drugs? Yes. I didn’t start at this place when I first started researching. Once I started seeing all the papers and the studies out there that made the case for decriminalization I was amazed at the level of evidence for its effectiveness at saving lives and reducing crime. It isn’t a “soft on crime” position, it is just smart policy. Would you legalize all drugs? I would be much more careful about legalization and what that looks like. A lot of people who think about legalization see this kind of Wild West with the availability of dangerous substances. It is important that we always communicate that that is not the approach. But should we look at programs like heroin-assisted treatment in Switzerland? Absolutely. It was creating a highly restricted and controlled program and environment for legal access to heroin. It destroyed the country’s black market for the drug, plummeted the crime rate, reduced overdoses, and the majority of the people on the program to begin with are now in recovery. We need to follow the science and the evidence, not our biases. The reality is most people are dying from drug use because they don’t know what’s in their drugs. They don’t know the dosage. All these drugs are being sold on the black market. These crimes are happening because it’s black market. One of the ways to undercut the black market is to make sure that if someone is in the throes of addiction to a substance, they have safe and legal access to that substance in order for us to be able to reduce harm and give that person the opportunity, time and time again, to make that choice to enter into recovery when they’re ready. What role then does punishment have when it comes to drug use, both in our criminal justice system and in the home?  One of the things I believe as a Christian is that the most transformative power in the universe is not punishment but grace. And I don’t think that that’s just true, uniquely true, about someone in the Christian tradition.  I believe that what Christ revealed is a deep truth about how the world works and how people change. The primary mode of helping people change, the path to the most sustainable change, is not the outside imposition of a specific behavior, but the cultivation of a vision for what is a good and full life. I think that is true about our criminal justice system. Addiction is a self-harming behavior by its very definition. Increasing the level …

The War on Drugs is a War on Families

Tom Houseman Drug Education

Last month, Clergy for a New Drug Policy partnered with Unbound, an online journal and community that examines, expresses, and provokes social justice as inspired by the prophetic gospel of Jesus Christ. Policy Director Tom Houseman wrote about how the War on Drugs tears apart families and undermines communities. With their permission, the full piece is reprinted below. It can also be read here. Drug use is often framed as a personal issue, one of choices and consequences. “Do the crime, do the time.” Supposedly, harsh penalties aim to reduce irresponsible use of drugs. In reality, however, the War on Drugs has not succeeded in “protecting individuals” from their own choices. Instead, it has systematically incarcerated people of color (especially Black Americans) and devastated the family structures of entire communities. When considering the punishment for a drug violation, whether it is prison, probation, or mandated treatment, we tend to only think about the impact that a conviction will have on an individual. Far too rarely is the impact on their families and their dependents considered. After the investment of over $1 trillion dollars, drugs are as plentiful as ever, with seemingly little impact on drug use rates. While failing to win the war, we have, as Michelle Alexander tells us in The New Jim Crow, found a new way to enslave people of color. We send them disproportionately to prison for even minor drug offenses. As we examine the collateral damage of this unjust war, two figures hit us between the eyes: At current rates of arrest, one out of every three African American males born today will spend time in prison. Approximately 2.7 million children have at least one incarcerated parent and over 10 million have lost a parent to prison at some point in their lives. (These figures affect 1 in 9 African Americans, compared to 1 in 57 White children. The War on Drugs is a major driver of these disparities. Drug policies have had far more negative impact in terms of social justice, of family justice, than they have had any sort of impact on drug consumption and abuse. Urban neighborhoods have been ravaged by mass incarceration, leaving young men to rely on gangs for support, protection, and economic opportunities. The people in prison for drug violations are not just people with drug use disorders or who had to sell drugs because they lacked any other source of income. They are heads of households, breadwinners for families, caretakers for children. Their prison sentences do not operate inside a vacuum, but have consequences that last for generations. And children do not choose to grow up with their parent incarcerated. When examining the War on Drugs, it is also crucial to acknowledge how unevenly these laws are enforced. Black people are multiple times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than White people, despite the fact that countless surveys show the two groups use drugs at the same rate. Black people also receive lengthier prison sentences than White people for identical violations. Families of color and those living in poverty are over-policed and over-imprisoned. They are also the most vulnerable to the damage that a prison sentence can do to a family when it loses a breadwinner or a caretaker. Whether prisons are merely meant to serve as a form of punishment or to help rehabilitate those who enter them, it is crucial to understand the ramifications of removing somebody from their family and community and placing them behind bars. Several studies have documented the impact of incarceration on families, both in the short term and long term. In their essay, “Incarceration in Fragile Families,” Christoper Wildeman and Bruce Western write about how imprisonment “diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup.” This effect is particularly acute for families already living in poverty. Putting a parent in prison not only takes them away from their children, but impacts their ability to provide structure and support for their long after they have served their sentence. Growing up with a parent in prison has profound, long-lasting effects on children. In a report from The Nation, Sociology professor Kristin Turney detailed how “children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety.” It is not surprising that students who have at least one prison in parent are more likely also less likely to finish high school or go to college. These negative effects last even after a person is released from prison. Those with felony convictions are often barred from housing assistance, federal loans for education, and safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In states that do not prevent employers from asking about felony convictions, even a conviction for non-violent drug possession can make it almost impossible to find a job or housing. In Paternal Incarceration and Support for Children in Fragile Families, Amanda Geller, Irwin Garfinkel and Bruce Western examine how “the negative effects of incarceration on fathers’ financial support are due not only to the low earnings of formerly incarcerated men but also to their increased likelihood to live apart from their children.” When a parent is not present—or not able to support their children—because of a drug conviction, the effect is deeply damaging. There are other collateral consequences of drug violations that can impact the family of people who are caught possessing or selling drugs. Considering that there is a drastic public housing shortage in the United States, it is very easy for someone to be disqualified from public housing, or even evicted, because of a family member with a drug conviction. For example, In 2002 nearly 50,000 public housing applicants were rejected because of a policy that excludes people with criminal records from public housing. There are no winners in the War on Drugs, but there are millions of victims. That number will only grow until these policies are changed. The War on Drugs has failed. Both for the sake of the families already torn apart and for those that will be torn apart in the future, we must end the war. We are reaping the consequence of what our nation has sown. And although we cannot choose to unilaterally end drug abuse, it is our choice to end the needless suffering of America’s “Other Vietnam”. Tom Houseman, Policy Director

“Of course addiction leads to crime…We have made it illegal”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Faith Perspectives

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] SOURCES: 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