Condemnation and Criminalization of Drug Use: Bad Policy and Bad Religion
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on the Morality of Personal Drug Use. Read other perspectives here.
Those of us who care about social reform know full well the dangers of proof-texting. Selected adroitly, particular Bible verses can be used to justify almost any public policy under the sun. Jesus changed water into wine, but that didn't keep Prohibitionists from brandishing their Bibles to support the 18th Amendment. Today, four verses still fuel homophobic rage.
The perils of misusing the Bible notwithstanding, let me suggest at least one text that can serve as an eloquent and moving guide to emerging social policy.
In John 8:3-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus calls us all to account with his words to the scribes and Pharisees, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." To the prostitute, he says simply, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your own way and from now on do not sin again." No mention of surrendering to the authorities and spending a night in jail.
The use of drugs other than alcohol is increasingly tolerated in our society. Twenty states have now approved cannabis as medicine. Sixteen have decriminalized low levels of marijuana use. The purchase of marijuana for personal use is now legal in Colorado and Washington.
In 2011, a colleague and I conducted a survey of the approximately 150 home rule municipalities in Illinois and found that over half had had decriminalized marijuana without public fanfare. They had tired of police and court costs on cases that were later dismissed. Suburban parents didn't want their teenage children saddled for life with an arrest record.
All of these changes appear to be harbingers of a "new paradigm" that frames drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal act. Seattle is beginning the third year of its Law Enforcement Assisting Diversion (LEAD) Program. Police officers divert low-level drug and other offenders directly to a social service provider offering housing, drug treatment, and other basic programs. This "pre-booking" approach bypasses the court system. Of over 200 participants, no more than five are in jail. The Seattle City Council has just voted to expand the program from one neighborhood to the entire downtown area.
The Governor of Vermont recently devoted his entire annual State of the State message to drug use as primarily a health not a criminal issue. He called for a $700,000 appropriation "so that our state attorneys in every county will be enabled to establish a rapid intervention program... where those addicts accused of drug-fueled crimes could agree to seek immediate treatment for their disease and avoid criminal prosecution if they successfully adhere to the strict requirements imposed."
In Milwaukee's 3rd Police District, officers are referring prostitutes directly to the Benedict Center, which offers counseling, treatment, and other programs. Prosecutors and police together testify that this saves money, is less dangerous for police, and reduces recidivism. These same arguments surely pertain when one regards not only prostitution but drug use as a health rather than a criminal problem.
The most dramatic example of diversion is found not in the United States, but Portugal, which in 2001 decriminalized not just marijuana but all drugs. While trafficking continues to be a crime, drug possession is treated as a civil offense. Police routinely refer drug users to "dissuasion commissions" comprised of a lawyer, medical practitioner, and a social worker. These panels distinguish between recreational users, who account for about 90 percent of the cases, and addicts. The former are dismissed, sometimes with a fine or community service requirement, and rarely reappear; the latter are offered the opportunity for treatment. Drug use and crime have not increased appreciably since decriminalization of all drugs was put in place. They have decreased in some categories. Rates for drug use are lower in Portugal than in neighboring countries where drug use is a still a crime.
What are we to make of these changes, increasingly evident, from criminalization to diversion and treatment? If we take seriously the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, we will seek national policies that offer treatment and compassion. We will practice diversion rather punishment.
For faith communities coming to terms with this new paradigm in drug policy, Jesus' refusal to condemn and other biblical examples of compassion and solidarity provide welcome and helpful guidance.
The Rev. Alexander E. Sharp is Acting Executive Director of Community Renewal Society, a faith-based, Chicago organization that fights racism and poverty. He served as the founding Executive Director of Protestants for the Common Good in Illinois from 1996 through 2012.