Frequently Asked Questions

The War on Drugs has fostered a culture of punishment in our country; instead of responding to those abusing drugs with opportunities for healing, the societal impulse has been simply to judge and to punish. This War is unjust as its policies and enforcement mechanisms have primarily targeted poor people and people of color. The Drug War has left no room for forgiveness, mercy, and redemption, evinced most clearly in the severe collateral consequences that accompany a criminal record. To the contrary, it has sown hard-heartedness and mercilessness. The War on Drugs has justified theft of property and assets by local law enforcement through corrupt forfeiture seizure laws. It is a hypocritical war waged by a government that demands research on the medicinal utility of drugs, specifically marijuana, but will not provide the funding or permission to conduct the research it says is needed. Finally, the War on Drugs represents waste: each year the United States spends over $51 billion to maintain the war and in order to do so, social services—such as drug treatment models, educational programs, and harm reduction services—have been ignored or cut. Our faith calls upon us to love God with our minds as well as our hearts. There is no evidence that the War on Drugs has succeeded in its stated goals of reduced drug use and increased public safety even as it has drained the public treasury and inflicted great damage especially on poor communities of color.

For more on this topic, see the Religious Declaration for a New Drug Policy and the Values at Stake pages.

The War on Drugs has become so deeply embedded in international treaties, U.S. drug laws, national budgets, federal bureaucratic structures, local law enforcement agencies, prisons—especially in rural communities—and, indeed, the national psyche, that it will be difficult to return to a “pre-war” status. The War on Drugs has fueled mass incarceration which makes the U.S. the leading jailer in the world. It has been estimated that in order to return incarceration rates to the level they were at the onset of the War on Drugs, it would be necessary to release four of every five individuals currently in prison.

“An Exit Strategy for the Failed War on Drugs” report released by the Drug Policy Alliance in May 2014 offers 75 recommendations at the federal level. The agenda for Clergy for a New Drug Policy draws upon the most prominent of these: changing drug laws, eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, reducing collateral sanctions (barriers to employment, education, food stamps, and housing), increasing harm reduction policies, striking unconstitutional forfeiture laws, and expanding treatment.

When this nation declared a War on Drugs, we probably had an insufficient sense of all that we should do to respond appropriately to the reality of drugs in our society.  Our rush to incarcerate over the past four decades can be partially redeemed if we focus on treatment, public education, and sensible drug laws.

The term “diversion” is used to cover the myriad of efforts to respond to drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal justice problem. The “diversion” choice is available prior to every step of criminal prosecution.

Police can divert individuals into treatment and other services as an alternative to booking them. Three pilot models of pre-booking are underway in Seattle, Santa Fe, and counties in the state of Vermont. Seventeen other states have implemented pre-booking diversion programs. Furthermore, several municipalities, such as Reno, Nevada and San Antonio, Texas, have put in place community triage centers; places where police can directly refer individuals for treatment rather than arresting them. Police have developed Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) in several cities; as part of CIT teams, officers are trained in how to respond to people with mental illness.

It is morally wrong for our jails and prisons to function as mental health hospitals of last resort.

Prosecutors can assign and monitor treatment for individuals who have been charged, but not yet arraigned or tried. The Community Justice Reinvestment Project in Wisconsin, as well as projects in other states, do this. Diversion at this stage often involves an agreement that judgment will be vacated upon successful completion.

Finally, drug courts are an increasingly common practice across the country. After they have determined a verdict, judges in these specialty courts have the option to assign people who have committed drug offenses to treatment. Diversion at this stage often is accompanied by an agreement that charges will be revoked or reduced upon successful program completion.

Diversion at any step is preferable to incarceration. The goal should be to develop alternatives at the earliest possible point in the process.

Decriminalization eliminates jail time for simple possession or use of drugs while prohibiting commercial manufacture and retail selling. In most cases, it also eliminates criminal penalties (but can include civil sanctions, such as fines).

Legalization permits a controlled market for drugs, in which responsible adults can legally acquire, possess, and use particular drugs from safe sources. It stipulates regulatory controls on age of the buyer, amounts that can be purchased, methods of distribution, and standards of drug purity and potency.

Decriminalization does not eliminate illicit markets and the crime and violence associated with them. Nor does it enable us to address environmental damage due to unregulated manufacturers. Decriminalization does not protect youth, who easily access drugs through the illegal, unregulated market. In a legal market, regulated retailers would be required to follow age restrictions, as well as standardized testing and labeling procedures. A system of taxation and regulation also makes it much easier to conduct educational programs warning society, and especially children, about the harms of drug use. It is difficult to carry out such programs having de facto driven drug use underground. Finally, taxation and regulation is beneficial economically, through the creation of jobs, production of tax revenues, and the stimulation of the economy.

With decriminalization there are still consequences for drug use. Civil sanctions, such as fines, can be imposed. By making drugs available through a legal, regulated, and taxed market, we can focus on education and treatment. A study by the RAND Corporation found that every dollar invested in drug education and treatment is about seven times more effective than a dollar spent on a criminal punishment approach. A robust, realistic, and informed drug education program is only feasible in a decriminalized or legalized market.

Early evidence from states in which there is now a taxed and regulated drug market indicates that legalization does not necessarily increase drug use. A survey by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment showed that in 2013, the first year marijuana was legal for adults 21 years and older, marijuana use by high school students had declined from previous years and was also lower than the national average.  In states that have approved medical cannabis, teen use is almost uniformly down.

Current policies are not keeping drugs out of the hands of Americans. Based on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over the course of the last 40 years, illicit drug use has remained largely constant. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that a system of taxation and regulation nationwide could result in increased marijuana use.  The most effective anti-drug policy is education and only with a decriminalized or legalized drug market, could a robust, realistic, and informed drug education program be possible.

The gateway theory posits that the use of less harmful drugs, such as marijuana, will lead to the usage of more dangerous, “harder drugs.” Marijuana is easily obtainable, and is also the most popular drug in the United States today. While marijuana may be statistically associated with the use of “harder drugs,” it is not true that marijuana use causes subsequent use of “harder drugs.” Studies on this point are, at best, inconclusive. Correlation does not imply causation. No evidence exists of a physiological connection: having marijuana in one’s system does not increase the physical desire for another drug. There is even some evidence that marijuana helps people addicted to more harmful drugs reduce or eliminate their use by easing withdrawal symptoms. Nevertheless, it is possible that the very fact of using one drug for the first time—whether marijuana or another substance—may make it more likely that one will continue to try harsher drugs. But if this is the case, the issue rests with drug use itself, not with whether marijuana is a gateway.

For some individuals, marijuana use can produce feelings of drowsiness and relaxation, for others marijuana use can generate uneasiness and paranoia. Some users become giddy and silly. The user’s senses can become heightened and they may become more hungry than usual. Marijuana use may also result in short-term memory loss. These sensations are immediate and temporary. While it appears impossible to fatally overdose from marijuana, it is possible to become psychologically dependent. There is no compelling evidence to support the claim that marijuana is a causal risk factor for developing a psychiatric disorder, such as schizophrenia, in otherwise healthy individuals.

Nevertheless, studies have shown that there are potentially negative cognitive effects for youth who use marijuana before the age of 21, unless under the care of a physician. Clergy for a New Drug Policy does not advise marijuana use for adolescents for this reason. However, educating youth about the potential dangers of drug use and following a harm reduction framework is a much more successful tool for convincing youth to stay away from drugs until their brains have more fully developed than driving use underground.

Absolutely not. The main weapon of the War on Drugs has been punishment rather than education and treatment.  There is a better way.  The state of Vermont has, like so many others, seen a dramatic increase in opiate use especially among its young people.  In response, Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire 2014 State of the State message to this problem, with two key recommendations that begin with treating drug addiction as a health crisis.

Gov. Shumlin has recommended the funding of treatment and centers across the state and diversion of those who agree to immediate treatment into such programs with the possibility that they will avoid prosecution upon successful completion. He seeks a strong connection with health care providers.  This is more possible than ever before because the Affordable Care Act provides coverage for substance abuse disorders and treatment.

Diversion and drug treatment are not new concepts.  But, as Pam Rodriquez, President and CEO of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC) in Illinois recently pointed out, “these types of successful programs have never been implemented at a scale to which they can be most effective.”

John Stuart Mill has given us the “harm principle,” which states that  “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Mill hastens to add “this doctrine is meant to apply only to humans in the maturity of their faculties.”   Few would disagree.  Drugs should not be available to kids or to people who suffer from addiction.

The architects of the War on Drugs surely felt their purpose was to “prevent harm to others.”  Crime spiked in the early 1980s, just as crack cocaine was being introduced in U.S. cities. Thus, in the minds of many people, the only way to—in Mill’s terms—“prevent harm to others,” was to arrest drug users and keep them off the streets for as long as possible.

But this response is born of a major fallacy — that one should arrest individuals for something other than the crimes they actually commit. The fact that those who use hard drugs are more likely to break the law to support their habits does not justify incarcerating them for the habit itself, especially if they are addicted and need treatment.  We do not arrest individuals for drinking alcohol merely because they might drive while intoxicated.  We arrest them if they do.  The War on Drugs is justified on the false premise that drug use is intrinsically a crime.

Harm from drug use extends further than we often realize.  It affects family members.  It drives up health care costs and other insurance premiums. The quality of society is diminished due to drug abuse.

But using the force of law to protect individuals from the consequences of their own behavior, whether or not it harms others, is fraught with peril.  Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once noted, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive…when they (rulers) are wicked, the humanitarian theory of punishment will put in their hands a finer instrument of tyranny than wickedness ever had before.”

Finally, it is far from clear that arresting people is the way to change their behavior.  It is much more likely that, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “injury tends to damage character rather than improving it, and punishment is injury.”

If repealing the Volstead Act that prohibited alcohol made sense, the same reasons surely pertain today to marijuana, a far less dangerous drug.

Prohibition does not remove the possibility that someone will abuse marijuana or other drugs. By legalizing and regulating drugs we create an environment in which people who are suffering from drug abuse or addiction can seek help, without fear of being charged with a felony. Only when an intoxicant is legal can we pursue educational programs that are effective. Attitudes towards smoking tobacco have changed significantly over the past several decades through both education and regulation. If cigarettes were illegal, the education resources on the health risks of smoking, as well as the regulatory measures (age restrictions, high taxes, laws against where you can and cannot smoke, etc.) would not have been possible; without the legal and regulated market, it is likely that the amount of tobacco users would have remained constant instead of the dramatic decline our country has witnessed since the 1970s. Reducing the harms of drug use are best achieved by switching from a criminalization paradigm to a public health paradigm.

No and No.

Because the drug trade has had to operate illegally, an “unintended consequence” of the War on Drugs has been the violence associated with the criminal black market. This violence persisted throughout the drug war, even despite the arrests of drug “king-pins” and distributors. In addition, research suggests that the intensification in drug law enforcement actually has contributed to increased gun violence and high homicide rates over the past four decades.

Consequently, the proposed drug reforms should not lead to an increase in violent crime. In fact, making drugs available on a legal and regulated market would eliminate the need for an illicit drug market, thus decreasing the violent crime associated with illegal drug manufacturing and distribution.

The effectiveness of treatment largely depends on the particular situation of the person voluntarily partaking in a drug treatment program, as well as the nature of the treatment program itself. Nevertheless, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, research that examines individuals in treatment over extended periods has shown that most people who get into and remain in treatment cease using drugs, decrease their criminal activity, and improve their occupational, social, and psychological functioning.

According to the Drug Treatment Outcomes Research Study (DTORS), a longitudinal study that explores the outcomes of drug treatment in England, all drug types were used by significantly lower proportions of respondents at follow-up interviews after treatment. In fact, the proportion of individuals using heroin, crack, cocaine, amphetamines or benzodiazepines decreased by approximately 50% at the follow-up interview.

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