“[We] had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
This is where we start. This is a quotation from John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, and it needs to be the first thing we consider. Sure, we can talk about addiction, and harm reduction, and prohibition, and the history of drug use and religion, and a number of other things. I plan to touch on those this week. But when we talk about drug policy in the United States—and by extension, in the world and in the church—we need to start with this quote right here.
We start here because nearly everything in our country has been weaponized for the sake of white supremacy and imperialism: religion, roads, housing construction, banking, marriage, the family, mass media. This is not an overstatement. EVERYTHING. But drug policy has been one of the most devastating weapons contrived.
Phyllis Tickle said that society goes through periodic 500-year cycles of revolution and reformation, a “rummage sale” where old ideas are brought out into the light, and we decide what to keep and what to throw away. Our approach to drugs is one of these areas that is up for review. Drugs and drug addiction regularly appear in sermons and prayers, even though these modern terms never appear in the Bible, so it is appropriate for us to consider them.
I grew up in the 1980’s, during the “Just Say No” campaign. I have practiced abstinence from illegal drugs my whole life. As a pastor, I’ve seen the devastation wrought by opioid addiction—and who profited from it. But I’ve also walked in the Amazon with indigenous people who told me, “God has put a cure for every human ailment in this jungle.” Plant medicine from the rainforest, they believed, could heal the world—if the descendants of Europeans could only stop destroying it.
We need to acknowledge the harm that drugs can do to individuals and society, certainly. Alcohol and nicotine are responsible for tremendous social harm. Prescription drugs are the newest form of a long-term drug problem. Yet we often blame drugs instead of their antecedents: poor quality social relationships, being stuck in meaningless jobs, self-medicating for depression and anxiety. There are behavioral and biological components to addiction. Yet our policies are not about addiction: they are about disrupting communities and targeting certain people.
I start with the above quotation because we need to understand that the stigma associated with addiction and drug use is very intentional. Drug policy is responsible for the massive swelling of our prison population: The “home of the free” imprisons more people than any country on earth. The War on Drugs launched on June 17, fifty years ago, and its purpose was always to delegitimize the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. In order to weed out these toxic policies and attitudes, we need to pull them up by the roots.
God of Justice, we so often do the wrong things for the right reasons, or allow unjust harm because we are convinced of a greater good. Give us wisdom and discernment to know truth from lies, and to be ruled by love rather than fear—in our personal lives, as well as public.