Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Clergy for a new drug policy

U.S. Marshals fingerprinting prisoner | Source: United States Marshals Service

When was the last time any of us read of a war being over? The War in Afghanistan? The Culture War(s)? The War on Poverty? For all we know, factions may still be seething over issues, such as they were, in the Thirty Years’ War or (we’ll raise you 70) the Hundred Years’ War. So it is startling to read, as we do now with some frequency, that the “War on Drugs” is over. Look out the window at the overcrowded prisons housing addicts and drug dealers, penal colonies which grow every year, and it’s hard to believe that the “war” is over. This is so especially because in many jurisdictions law-enforcement powers keep arresting and confining ever more addicts with no alternative.

The War on Drugs over? Could this be because we have run out of people to arrest and imprison? Have we run out of publics which remain ready to prosecute the war by filling the prisons? Hardly. As Alexander E. Sharp reminds readers in an article in The Christian Century whose title sounds optimistic (“After the War on Drugs”), our nation has spent over $3 trillion waging that war since 1971. Manya Brachear Pashman reported in the Chicago Tribune over a year ago that Federal Prison populations had ballooned from 25,000 in 1980 to 219,000 in 2013 and that “[r]ecidivism also escalated as criminal records prevented many ex-offenders from securing employment or housing.” The War on Drugs over?

Sharp, Brachear Pashman, and many other google-able reporters are describing what creative people are doing now because they see that enforcement has not lowered but, instead, added to the prison populations. Our experiences here at Sightings do not qualify us to be “war correspondents” or experts on drugs. What draws us to this topic is the fervor and imagination with which clergy in many denominations, beginning with Unitarian Universalists, have recognized that the war is lost, and that new strategies are needed. Several of the writers agree, or report on those who observe, that it is counterintuitive for religious leaders (who join with social workers, some law enforcement agencies, and citizens of goodwill in general) to provide safe havens for addicts. The visionaries are also lobbying legislators to effect changes in approaches so as better to deal with addiction and its attendant ills.

Pastor Sharp, a longtime activist on social-justice fronts, describes successful programs like Vancouver’s Insite, the first legal, supervised injection center, where addicts come for clean needles, at least minimal medical care, company, counsel, and steps toward new lives—something the policy of imprisonment almost never has done. In Vancouver, the drop-ins at Insite are observed by experts to minimize injury as they shoot up. Then the visitors go from stalls to a lounge area, then to a detox unit, and often to an 18-bed, long-term recovery unit. Sharp reports on the spread of experiments to other cities, and notes that there are significant declines in recidivism where these Insite-type efforts are made.

Such units follow a “four-pillar” approach, which the pioneering psychiatric nurse Liz Evans developed with colleagues. “We demonized drug users,” says Evans; something else was needed, an approach that does not say “people are bad because they are making wrong decisions.” Heroin use and addiction to painkillers have killed 78 people each day in the United States under the old War on Drugs model. Writes Sharp: “a fundamental shift in policy is under way—a shift toward a more humane and hopeful policy.” The problem afflicts families, churches, campuses, farm communities, and small towns as much as inner cities.

Many mistakes will be made along the way in pursuit of a new policy, but Pastor Sharp and his hopeful counterparts are clear about their “counterintuitive” yet humane vision. They can count on much clergy support, because priests, ministers, and rabbis are on the front line and frustrated by the futility of the War on Drugs. They support the fourth pillar in the new approach, “harm reduction.”

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • Certainly incarceration in most instances seems counterproductive, the model described above may well have legitimate merit, I would not inveigh against it, I would however add, that programs in use by Christian parachurch organizations have also proven somewhat effective over the years. Alas, if only education were a more effective means as a preventive at the outset.

  • Here are the main paragraphs from the address of His Eminence, Cardinal Dougherty, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, to the Catholic societies of the Archdiocese on New Year’s Day 1931:

    “Having heard the report on behalf of the members of the Total Abstinence Society, it occurs to me to say that when the law prohibiting alcoholic drink was passed, many thought that there would be no further need for our temperance or total-abstinence societies. Hence the practice of giving a pledge against intoxicating liquors to boys and girls at Confirmation was discontinued. There seemed to be no need of it.”

    “But, unfortunately, Prohibition has not performed the miracles that were expected. According to experts, such as judges, public officials, social service workers, and others, there is as much, perhaps even more, drunkenness and intemperance today than before the passage of the Volstead Act.”

    “When in the past did we see young men and women of respectable families carrying a flask of liquor when going to social events? When did we see young girls, not yet of age, drinking in public, perhaps to excess, cocktails and the strongest kind of intoxicating liquors, and perhaps being overcome by them? That, today, is not an uncommon sight.”

    In 1923 the executive council of the American Federation of Labor issued an address to the American people after an exhaustive investigation of the effects of the Volstead Act. It was shown by this investigation that there had been–––

    A general disregard of the law among all classes of people, including those who made the law.

    Creation of thousands of moonshiners among both country and city dwellers.

    The creation of an army of bootleggers.

    An amazing increase in the traffic in poisons and deadly concoctions and drugs.

    An increased rate of insanity, blindness, and crime among the users of these concoctions and drugs.

    Increase in taxes to city, State, and National Government amounting to approximately $1,000,000,000 per year.


  • Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald. The following text is an extract from his article, published in the Catholic Herald, August 2016:

    “The effects of President Duterte’s war on drugs will be catastrophic. The drugs trade is inherently violent because it is illegal. The way to tame it is to legalise it.

    The government of the Philippines, in taking on the criminals, using the same methods of the criminals, risks the worst of all outcomes: fighting the war on drugs and losing it. When that happens the criminals take over the government.

    But when the drugs trade is legalised, taxed and regulated (like the alcohol and tobacco trades) then the criminals lose control of their fiefdom and are put out of business. Moreover, when drugs become legal, addicts can be recognised for what they really are: sick people needing medical help, rather than criminals.”

  • Are you then suggesting that we legalize all mind and behavioral altering substances with the presumed effect being a healthier more well ordered society? I can see tremendous costs associated with such an approach, not to mention the less than Spartan effect on an already over indulged society.

  • “Are you then suggesting that we legalize all mind and behavioral
    altering substances with the presumed effect being a healthier more well
    ordered society?”

    Well it makes a lot more sense that the alternative/status quo. Treat the issue as an individual failing as opposed to a massive criminal enterprise/prison industrial complex one. Plenty of people on both sides of the law benefit from it being illegal. The public is just not among that group.

  • This is part of malcolmkyle’s quote:

    “But when the drugs trade is legalised, taxed and regulated (like the alcohol and tobacco trades) then the criminals lose control of their fiefdom and are put out of business. Moreover, when drugs become legal, addicts can be recognised for what they really are: sick people needing medical help, rather than criminals.”

    It does seem counterintuitive to those of us raised in the “War on Drugs” culture, but logically it makes sense. Also, we need to remember the WoD has not worked. Let that sink in. It Has Not Worked. So what do we do instead?

    I believe that treating marijuana like alcohol and tobacco on a federal level is a good place to start. I’d encourage nationwide use of many of the practices of Insite and what was laid out by Nurse Liz Evans too.

    Continuing to do what we’re doing with hopes that the results will somehow magically change is -don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before- the definition of insanity.

    The US can’t afford yet another instance of mass insanity.

  • Your point about who benefits under the present system is quite valid. Still, I suspect the cost of your alternative would also not be cheap. Is their no way to (re)instill some Spartan virtue in our people? If the answer is yes, then I find it in the Church. If interventions are the answer, I still put my trust in the faith based models extant, if they do not achieve 100% success (and no program does) I’ve seen the evidence that they are indeed effective.

  • Education, Education, Education! To me it is the best approach starting as early as kindergarten all the way through the educational process. It has to be a uniform process that continues to evolve as we add new information to the process.Churches and communities will not work in a nation of our size because they will not be uniform and have too many bias’. The most important part of this endeavor is we would be eliminating most people from ever experimenting with drugs,and then becoming addictive. We will never completely stop the usage of drugs, but we can make it where it will not be a way of life, for the many of the future.