Protestant Perspective on Drug Policy Reform

“Clergy for a New Drug Policy” seeks to mobilize clergy across faiths in opposition to the War on Drugs, and in support of responses to drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one.  Project staff bring a Christian perspective to this project. Here the Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director, presents a Protestant Christian view.

At the heart of the Christian faith is a loving God of mercy and forgiveness, seeking always to heal and yearning for us to be united as brothers and sisters in God’s love. The reality of a loving God is what Jesus embodied. It informs how we must relate to each other. It shapes the Christian view of the function of law in our society.  It frames what Jesus called the Great Commandment.  It defines the criteria for a Just War.  The War on Drugs cannot stand these tests.


Jesus embodied the fundamental reality that God loves each of us.  We are each of inestimable worth, precious in God’s sight.

Consider the 8th Psalm:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God.”

God loves us.  ”Even the hairs on our head are numbered.” (Luke 12:7)

God loves us.  ”Even the hairs on our head are numbered.” (Luke 12:7)

Jesus taught that we are brothers and sisters in God’s love.  As such, we are called upon to be a community of love.  We are all one.  Jesus spent time with outcasts, with prostitutes, lepers, and even tax collectors, who were especially hated in his day.  He saw the good in each of us.  He sought that we be reconciled one with another.

But the law concerning drug use stigmatizes people; it brands and marginalizes them. It stands in opposition to God’s love, healing, and forgiveness.  Legislation enacted under the banner of the War on Drugs has done more to divide us as a society than any other confluence of laws in the last one hundred years.  The title of Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” was aptly chosen.

Jesus healed.  “That evening,” we read in Matt. 8:15, “they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick.”  Following Jesus’ model our goal should be not to punish, but to heal.  And yet, we only provide drug treatment for about 10 percent of those who need it in the United States.  In some states and counties, jails and prisons have become substitutes for mental health facilities.

Jesus forgave.  “The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the very act of committing adultery. When they had been disarmed by Jesus’ question “Who of you is without sin?” they “went away one by one.”  (John 8:7)

Jesus did not then say to the woman, “Okay, my dear, now, you’re safe from those hypocrites, but you will have to spend a few days in jail.”  Of course not.  Instead, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more.” (John 8:7)

We are substituting violence for God’s love.
That is neither how our criminal justice system, nor the War on Drugs, works. Today, it is virtually impossible for anyone ever to repay his or her debt to society.  Once arrested, individuals are never free of the stigma of drug use, or the collateral consequences, that last longer than the formal sentence.

The United States incarcerates more individuals than any other nation on the planet.  There are many kinds of violence – physical and psychological.  To arrest someone, certainly to put them in a cage, is a combination of both. We are substituting violence for God’s love.


Historically, Christian theologians have identified three uses of law.  Deterrence is one.  The law keeps those who have inflicted harm from doing so in the future.  But even as the Drug War has turned the United States into a prisoner nation, has it really deterred drug use? Very little, if at all.  If anything, the reality of an “illicit market” has increased violence in our society.

A second function of law is retribution. Individuals should pay for the harm they have inflicted upon others.  This seems only fair.  It is here, perhaps, that the values of Jesus contrast most strikingly with what we would intuitively expect.  The Sermon on the Mount calls us repeatedly to another way:  “Judge not lest you be judged,” (Matt. 7:1) “forgive seventy times seven,” (Matt. 18:22) “if someone has sinned against you, go first to the altar and then appeal to the courts.” (Matt. 5:22-23)  And in the case of drug possession, it is not clear that forgiveness and exemption from judgment are always required. If one has not harmed others, what is there to forgive?

 Approximately one-half of all low level offenders are back in prison within three years.  
Rehabilitation is a third function.  The purpose of law, in other words, is to reform behavior. But hoping that incarceration, or the “wake-up call” of being arrested, will in themselves serve to rehabilitate is misguided. Many incarcerated individuals emerge from prison newly educated in the ways of crime.  Because of the criminal-label and the associated collateral consequences, they leave prison with little opportunity to rebuild their lives. Approximately one-half of all low level offenders are back in prison within three years.


John Stuart Mill gave us the harm principle: “There is no right in society to use power against those who have not harmed others.”  This proposition must be qualified, especially when it comes to youth and people with drug addictions. But the truth remains – our drug laws harm others in huge numbers who have not harmed us.

By filling our jails with people sentenced for low-level drug possession, the War on Drugs violates what Jesus himself regarded as “the Greatest Commandment in the Law”:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 37-39)  To arrest someone is to commit an act of violence against them.  It imposes great harm, more so if the arrest leads to incarceration.  In the case of drug-related arrests, such harm is inflicted even though the person has not necessarily harmed others.  Who among us would feel it appropriate to be arrested or incarcerated even if we had not inflicted harm on another person, or upon society?  In this respect, they contradict the Great Commandment.


The common good is what we seek in our lives together.  Our understanding of God as love gives us the blueprint for achieving the common good.  God wants each of us to flourish.  God wills for us the opportunities to create, enjoy, and express the wonders of creation in all the ways given to us.  This requires that all of us have the opportunity for self-expression, safety, a healthy environment, and access to material goods that make it possible for us to flourish.

If each of us has such opportunities to be, in the words of Irenaeus, “a human being fully alive,” we not only enjoy our own lives, but enrich the lives of all those around us.  Martin Luther King Jr. said it best:  “I cannot be who I ought to be unless you are able to be whom you ought to be.”  We live in a world of mutuality.

 The War on Drugs continually tears at the common good. 
The War on Drugs continually tears at the common good. By arresting people and incarcerating them, we diminish them.  We destroy their capacity to flourish.  Instead of mutuality, we have separation, one from each other.  The War on Drugs is a vicious enemy of the common good.


It is easy to overlook the fact that the War on Drugs is, indeed, just that – a war. Starting with St. Augustine, the towering 5th century theologian and philosopher, Christians have wrestled for over 1600 years with the concept of “Just War.”

There are at least six criteria:

Is the War on Drugs to be justified as a “Last Resort – waged after all peaceful options are considered”?  Surely not.  Alternatives to arrests and incarceration in the form of diversion and treatment are all around us, largely ignored.

Is there “Just Cause” for the War on Drugs?  Not if most drug users do not harm others.

Does our annual expenditure of over $50 billion offer “Probability of Success” against either the entry of drugs into the United States, their availability on the street, or the level of use and abuse?  Most experts say no on all fronts.

Just Wars require “Right Intention.”  The goal must be to achieve a peace “greater than the peace that would have succeeded without the use of force.  The aim of the use of force must be justice.”  When will the United States government come to terms with the devastation this War is inflicting on whole communities, especially people of color?  The government’s failure to acknowledge such damage calls into question whether the goal is peace.

 The War on Drugs is not a Just War.

Wars should be fought with a sense of “Proportionality – the violence in a Just War must be proportional to the casualties suffered.”   Current sentencing laws, the forfeiture to police of private property, SWAT teams, and indiscriminate police sweeps, all tell us that by this criterion that the War on Drugs is a travesty. These excessive measures, and the devastating consequences they have inflicted, vastly outweigh the relative “harm” produced by drug users and producers.

Finally, Just Wars seek to avoid “Civilian Casualties.”  In 2007, the number of children with incarcerated parents, increasingly mothers who are most often arrested for drug offenses, exceeded 1.7 million children under the age of 18.  The War on Drugs fails as a just war by this criterion as well.

The War on Drugs is not a Just War.  Nor can the values of the Christian tradition be used to justify it.

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