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
There is a new church on the horizon. It usually operates out of the back ends of cars, often after dark and late into the night. So far it exists in six locations in Maine as well as in six other states. It is called the Church of Safe Injection. Its founder is a 26-year old drug recovery coach named Jesse Harvey. He preaches the Gospel of Harm Reduction: we should use all possible measures to protect drug users from the harm of their drug use. Measures include clean needle exchanges, and, in the case of potential overdose deaths, a life-saving substance called naloxone. “All too often, people who use drugs are offered only two choices, ‘Get sober or die.’” Harvey wrote recently in the Portland Herald. “Jesus would have rejected this shameful and lethal binary….’Let all that you do be done in love,’ states 1 Corinthians 16:14. Too often when ‘religious’ people attack us on Facebook, their hate shines through and they betray this passage. They betray Jesus.” Last October Harvey started loading up the trunk of his 2017 Honda with sterile needles, naloxone, rubber tourniquets, alcohol swabs, and other materials to avoid infection. Every week, usually in the evening, he drives to a site in Lewiston where drug users congregate. He makes these supplies available to all who need them. For many, these gatherings seem almost like a mass. Harvey himself has no doubt he is doing what Jesus would have done: “If syringes had been around in Jesus’ day, He would have supported safe injection, and he would have made sure the people he hung out with had access to sterile supplies.” While many states have now authorized needle exchanges, 15 do not, and services that do exist are often sparse. Maine, which spans over 35,385 square miles, offers only six, mostly in the southern part of the state. Only four make naloxone available. Harvey is certified as a minister by the Universal Life church, which ordains individuals to perform weddings, baptisms, funerals, and start congregations. He carries a card that identifies him as a “disciple & acolyte.” The Church of Safe Injection has only three rules for members: they must welcome people of all faiths, including atheists; serve all marginalized people; and, of course, commit to supporting harm reduction. For the most part, the individuals have gathered outdoors. But there have been some house meetings along readings, including scripture. The location within a physical structure will bring Harvey closer to what has been his goal from the beginning: a safe injection site where individuals can administer their own drugs under supervised care to insure safe and clear conditions. Such sites exist in at least 60 cities spread across Western Europe, Canada, and Australia. They are illegal in the United States, but strong support exists in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle. Harvey’s strategy at this point is: first, to incorporate the church as a not-for-profit; and, then, to apply for a religious exemption from federal law. He is looking to a 2006 Supreme Court decision that permitted a small sect to continue import a mind-altering drug – ayahuasca – for use in religious services. At the end of the day, what Jesse Harvey is doing is an act of civil disobedience. He is breaking the law. He distributes more than the limit of 10 needles at a time permitted in Maine. He also has never obtained certification to operate a needle exchange facility. He sees no alternative. “Overwhelmingly, the churches I’ve reached out to are not interested in helping people who use drugs…Politicians, law enforcement, and health care haven’t taken the lead here, so our church is,” he writes. “Join the Church of Safe Injection and save lives.” “We do not encourage drug use. However, it is our sincere religious belief that people who use drugs do not deserve to die, not when there is a proven, cost-efficient, feasible, compassionate solution that can be so easily implemented.” Who among us can disagree? Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director
Bob Feeny is a third-year student at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He is seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ. I am never sure where to begin the story of my brother Jeff’s addiction. This is largely due to the fact that his story is not mine; I can only tell my story of his addiction. I did not know it then, but I think that my story of my brother’s addiction began on Christmas Eve, 2007. We were in the apartment where my mom and brother lived. My mother had recently stabilized after a few years of erratic bipolar swings and isolation worsened by an abusive relationship, and my brother had moved in with her after living with extended family for a few years. We were spending Christmas together like a normal family. Things were good. We spent much of the evening with my aunt and uncle—both “functioning” alcoholics. At some point a bottle of vodka came out, and my 18-year old brother started drinking. A few hours later he stood over the sink, violently ill. The next morning, instead of the up-at-dawn Christmas of our youth that I had hoped for, I sat around with my mother wondering when Jeff would emerge from upstairs. Fast-forward to Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016. It has been 4 months since I learned that my 27-year old brother had become addicted to heroin—and he has just sent me a text that reads, “I’m sorry man, I am too sick to come out for Thanksgiving.” I had been out to see him as he had gotten clean. He was confident, we had a vision for his future, I was so hopeful for him. Clearly, he had relapsed. I could not begin to understand how this had happened. He seemed so determined to change his life. But over time it became clear that willpower was not enough to keep my little brother clean. His confidence began to seem foolish to me; my own hope, hubris. If I’m being honest, I resigned myself to the fact that my brother’s life was essentially over. Given our family’s history of addiction and the staggering statistics surrounding this country’s opioid epidemic—this seemed like a warranted stance. Addiction seems to be a demon that America simply cannot cast out. Decades of the War on Drugs have done nothing to mitigate the problem. We’ve spent an unfathomable amount of resources telling people to “just say no,” and trying to convince them along with ourselves, that if they just find something to be hopeful about, they are going to drum up the confidence it takes to beat addiction. Our response has been in vain. I wonder, however, if faith may offer us a unique perspective, one that has not yet been attempted. It’s easy to mix up faith with hope. And certainly, the two are interrelated in many ways. However, as someone who loves an addict, I must admit that I am not capable of responding hopefully to every situation. But what if faith really isn’t about hope? What if faith is less like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and more like just standing knee-deep in sludge, in a tunnel that seems to go on as far as we can see in either direction? What if faith is simply being willing to stand in that hopeless place, and know that somehow, God is present? I don’t know what the future holds for my brother. I don’t know what to hope for, and quite frankly, I’m not sure that hope is really the best thing that people of faith can offer. There are people everywhere willing to offer hope. Medical professionals, rehab centers, community health initiatives- these things all offer hope. Some offer hope as a commodity, others are genuinely confident that addiction can be overcome. The truth is, all of these things are necessary at one point or another in recovery. But all of these things look past the person suffering, into the person they can be if they just believe in themselves. I want to believe that when Jesus tells his disciples that they lack faith, what he’s really telling them is that they’ve failed to see the child for who he is. In their excitement about the possibility of ‘fixing’ him, they’ve refused to bear witness to his brokenness; they haven’t stood in the dark and the muck. I often struggle to imagine what it is that’s ultimately going to save my brother. But maybe I don’t need to. Maybe faith doesn’t require me to visualize the positive ending. Maybe it doesn’t require me to find a solution, or even to think that there is a solution. Maybe my mustard seed is having the courage to admit that I love my brother, Jeff, the addict, just as he is. The person who may never hold a steady job. The person who may never find true love. The person who may die younger than I’d hoped. My prayer for the Church is that as a people who have been transformed by God’s grace, we would never give up hope that lives shattered by addiction can be redeemed. I pray that we would never lose our confidence that our God is a God who keeps transforming lives, opening up possibilities that we could never have imagined. With this hope, I pray that we will speak up about addiction, and champion research-based approaches to prevention, treatment, and policy reform regarding addiction. But more than that, I pray that we as the Church would realize our truly unique contribution to casting out the demons of addiction: faith. Not the Hallmark version of faith, the one with the rosy flourishes and the sappy endings, but the faith that looks the demon square in the eyes, and refuses to stop seeing the soul that it tortures.
On November 6, Michigan voters will be asked to vote on a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. We are grateful to the following five clergy – from Flint, Detroit, and Ann Arbor – who tell us why they support this measure. Rev. Deborah Conrad, Woodside Church, Flint, MI. “…Legalizing marijuana, fully legalizing it, is, I think, a sensible thing to do. ‘Most of what we hate and fear about drugs – the violence, the overdoses, the criminality – derives from prohibition, not drugs’ wrote Dan Baum, Harper’s Magazine, April, 2016. Another writer noted that if marijuana is a ‘gateway drug,’ though that hasn’t really been established, maybe it really is more about the people users must associate with when they buy it illegally. If we take away the underground marijuana market, maybe we actually help keep people away from the harder stuff.” “At our meeting last week, the Woodside Board of Directors affirmed this resolution (Proposal 1 Marijuana Legalization Initiative), as a key piece of our advocacy for mass incarceration reform…But, while the board agreed that legalization is the desired goal, we also agreed that the language of the referendum isn’t perfect. ” “We were especially concerned that the stipulations of the legislation would still provide loopholes for targeting people of color. It is restrictive, far more than I think necessary, given what we know about the relative dangers of alcohol and tobacco, and I’m not convinced it would still become a mitigating factor in the ‘piling on’ that prosecutors like to do – heaping lesser charges onto a defendant to increase penalties for a primary offense. The proposed law isn’t perfect, but it is a start. So I recommend we vote yes, and then continue to work of learning to see racism, advocating for better law that benefit us all.” NOTE: These comments are drawn from the October 4 issue of Pastor Conrad’s church newsletter. She makes clear the deeper implications of legalizing marijuana: with this measure in place, we will finally be able to consider other reforms that, taken together, will finally end those parts of the War on Drugs that have inflicted so much damage upon our society. We commend the entire newsletter to you. Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, Rabbi, The Birmingham Temple, Birmingham, MI “For too long our society has ignored the lessons of Prohibition by imposing the same regressive policies on marijuana. What have we gained from it? We’ve reaped violence in our streets through black market dealing. We’ve generated a social justice crisis through inequitable enforcement of the law in African-American communities. And we’ve prevented sensible research into the many real benefits of cannabis. Approval of Proposal 1 will allow law enforcement to turn its attention to the real problems plaguing our state while generating a new stream of tax revenue to benefit our children, infrastructure, and municipalities. We talk a great deal about learning from the mistakes of history. When presented with this opportunity, let us do just that.” Rev. Kevin Johnson, Presbytery of Detroit, Presbyterian Church U.S.A. “I support the Michigan Legalization Initiative to legalize the recreational use and possession of marijuana for persons 21 years of age or older. My hope is that if passed, this legislation would remove the element of criminalizing individuals for possession and stem the tide of arrests and incarceration rates of people which clearly show imbalanced racialized characteristics as reflected in statistical analysis. I also hope that the passage of this proposal will lead to additional legislation to expunge the convictions for individuals previously prosecuted for the use and possession of marijuana.” Rev. Thomas James, Grosse Ile, MI “I endorse the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative because: Rather than spending enormous sums of taxpayer money punishing users of a drug that has minimal adverse effects on individuals and society, we should be supporting programs that reduce harm and encourage constructive participation in the economic and civic life of our state. As a clergy person, I am especially concerned with the morality of our current practice of prohibition and incarceration because it imposes disenfranchisement, barriers to employment, and family disruption with disproportionate severity on people in Michigan who already face more than their fair share of economic challenges.” Rev. Alexandra McCauslin, Ann Arbor, MI “I believe the regulation and penalty system for marijuana possession has created grave injustice, increasing debt and incarceration unnecessarily, especially for already vulnerable populations, like people of color and the poor. “
Guest Blog by Rev. Bobby Griffith, Jr., Pastor, City Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City, OK Two weeks ago, my home state, Oklahoma, passed State Question 788, which legalizes marijuana for medicinal purposes. As a minister, I was overjoyed at the prospect of beginning to push back against the harm caused by the long War on Drugs and to see kindness unleashed toward the suffering. I did my part by helping with the petition drive, talking to the undecided, giving media interviews and writing in support of this statute. I did not always hold this view. What pushed me over the edge was sermon prep, of all things. In 2010, I gave a sermon with heavy application that centered on the fact Oklahoma seemed “okay” on the surface, but it was not that way for everyone. My illustration was twofold. First, Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the world. Yes, world! Second, Patricia Spottedcrow. Ms. Spottedcrow was a single mom, who sold $31 of marijuana to an undercover informant. She did this to feed her family. In turn, she received a 12-year prison sentence and her family was broken up, despite the fact this was her first offense. A grassroots effort ensued, and she served two years, instead of 12. Still, she spent that time without her four kids and had to rebuild her life. I mentioned these two things in a sermon. The church where I was on staff at the time was mostly made up of Red State Oklahomans. Mentioning something about marijuana, sentencing and, dare I say, social justice, was unheard of for this congregation. I received a few “I never thought about that” comments, but nothing out of the ordinary. Two years later, I met a man in his early 20s who made most of his money growing and selling marijuana. He lived a few blocks from one of the hip spots in Oklahoma City and lots of folks knew what he did for income. In the course of our short conversation (how many ministers get to hang out with a drug dealer!), I asked him if he was worried about getting caught. He said, “Dude. I’m white.” That interaction drove me to gain a better understanding of Oklahoma’s sentencing disparity. African Americans are almost four times as likely to be in jail for marijuana than Caucasians. Arrest rates for whites are lower. Sentencing occurs along racial lines. My state now has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. The system is broken. I look at the enforcement of drug laws, marijuana specifically, and I feel the angst of the Old Testament prophets. There is real oppression. Prohibition creates black markets and opens the door to gangs, prostitution, and human degradation. Law enforcement has the ability to apply civil asset forfeiture and take from those who barely have anything, especially immigrants and migrants. Mandatory minimum sentences do little by way of treating humans as bearers of God’s image. It is within this space, I believe, clergy need to lead. Houses of worship need to empower congregations with the realities that are often ignored. No one at that little church where I preached in 2010 knew about incarceration rates or Patricia Spottedcrow. Some may have thought she “got what she deserved,” but I’m sure many felt it was wrong. We need to learn how to tap into that sense of injustice to do our part to bring about restorative justice. The issue of drug laws is not as simple as “just say no” or “go to jail”. There are hosts of socio-economic and political factors. There is space to apply Christ’s love for others in the Gospels. There is room to point out oppression. There is an opportunity for religious communities to be compassionate, speak for the voiceless, and open the eyes of the powerful to a better way.