The Larger Complexities of Poverty
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on the Morality of Personal Drug Use. Read other perspectives here.
My career as a therapist started in the heart of Detroit, working at a methadone clinic treating heroin/opiate addiction, which used a for-profit business model and was subsidized by federal funds. I was tasked with developing a family system approach to treatment, even though the clientele, administration, and financial reimbursement system were all highly resistant. As a young, white, female, non-addict Mormon, this treatment center was a stark introduction to the complex world of drug use and addiction. And I was rightly challenged by many of my clients as naïve, privileged, and too "innocent" to know how to work effectively within this population. It was a personal and professional wake up call for sure.
I started understanding how the issues surrounding much of drug culture were closely interwoven with the larger complexity of poverty. And it quickly educated me as to the variety of systems involved, all playing a significant role as to whether or not successful sobriety could be achieved: family systems (often steeped in generational dysfunction), community and religious resources (often underfunded in poor neighborhoods), schools (also underfunded in poor neighborhoods), employers (often firing addicts or not willing to hire those with questionable or criminal history), the legal system and overall culture (criminalizing drug use), and medical treatment (drastically lacking for the uninsured and ill-equipped to deal with issues surrounding chronic pain), just to name a few. Even at the clinic itself I witnessed a gross lack of qualified professionals due to lax federal guidelines and a general lack of resources, as well as financial and ethical corruption. I can't begin to number the amount of patients turned away (often in the middle of treatment) due to not having the monies available to pay at the counter. In short, the patients suffered for the many ways our facility was failing them.
I started understanding first-hand how for those who lack appropriate resources there exists a higher statistical rate of childhood trauma, domestic violence, sexual assault, and a myriad of other problems that leave those who suffer feeling trapped, hopeless, and ill-equipped to escape the clutches of systematic poverty. It became clearer as to why people trying to cope and survive might turn to crimes such as theft, drug sale/use, and prostitution when their situations leave them largely ineligible for sustaining employment (especially if fearing the devastating physical withdrawal symptoms of detoxing). Rates of prison sentences have risen dramatically since the "war on drugs" started, and the prisoners themselves are disproportionally skewed toward minority populations -- with minority populations being skewed toward poverty. These types of statistics begin to beg the question as to how "moral" our current approach toward this problem is.
Many would claim that some of the issues I mention above are exactly why we should continue criminalizing drug use (even recreational) and make steps to up the ante on this drug war we've been largely failing at for the past forty years. I disagree. I do not pretend to have all the answers when it comes to addressing the current drug policies of our country. I recognize the complexities are numerous and difficult to tackle. However, I support decriminalizing certain drug use -- a similar approach to how other addictive substances (nicotine and alcohol) are currently regulated. Recreational use, pain management, and addiction will always be part of substance exploration. Therefore, I would support spending our valued time, energy, and financial resources on education, medical availability, rehabilitation, trauma healing, family system support, and employment training instead of prison systems (many of which are run as for-profit).
As followers of Christ, I would hope that our dialogue around substance use and addiction would be more nuanced than the classic warnings of "don't fall prey to Satan." This is not where the conversation should begin or end. This approach ignores the complexities of addiction, it can unintentionally shame those who are victim to all types of chronic trauma, and most concerning, it does nothing to address the underlying issue of poverty. Is there any other theme more prevalent in the scripture of Christ than the heed to love our neighbor and help the poor? I would hope that as we face policy choices in the near future in regards to our drug culture at large we would be willing to complicate this issue by taking a good look at our own personal biases, educate ourselves from several different perspectives, and be willing to step out of our comfort zones and try different, creative solutions to a problem we all want to see progress on. This type of approach is a big part of how I find the concept of morality useful not only in my own personal life, but also in the lives of others.
Natasha Helfer Parker is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist, a Sex Therapist, and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She blogs on Patheos at The Mormon Therapist.