Drug Policy and the Church, Day 2: Models of Addiction

A portrait of Father Edward Dowling, a Jesuit priest and spiritual adviser of Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. From Wikimedia Commons

We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons. We support abstinence from the use of any illegal drugs.

Millions of living human beings are testimony to the beneficial consequences of therapeutic drug use, and millions of others are testimony to the detrimental consequences of drug misuse.

We commit ourselves to assisting those who suffer from abuse or dependence, and their families, in finding freedom through Jesus Christ and in finding good opportunities for treatment, for ongoing counseling, and for reintegration into society.

–Selections from the United Methodist Book of Discipline’s Social Principles, “Alcohol and Other Drugs”.

The United Methodist Church, of which I am a part, advocates the use of pasteurized, unfermented grape juice for Holy Communion instead of wine. This was an early gesture of hospitality for those who were recovering from addiction. The concern was that wine consumed during the sacrament could lead someone to “fall off the wagon.”

Churches often host Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction recovery support groups in their buildings. The model for most of these support groups is that an individual’s addiction is a disease, not a sin, and the best treatment for this disease is abstinence. There are some wonderful spiritual lessons in twelve-step programs, but the effectiveness of twelve-step programs is debated.

The church’s relationship to drug use has been defined by a history of the struggle of two mental models of addiction: addiction as “sin,” or addiction as “disease.” Both of these locate the primary source of the problem in the individual. Although people have different opinions about whether abstinence or moderation is better, in order to provide a safe space for recovering alcoholics, abstinence is usually the preferred choice (using Saint Paul’s words for guidance).

But why is addiction our primary lens through which we view drugs and plant medicines at all? We also have disorders related to sex, food, and media consumption, but we don’t automatically think of “disease” when someone talks about binge-watching Netflix. Drug policy reformers point out that alcohol, tobacco, and even sugar kill far more people than cannabis, yet we do not jail people for selling sugary breakfast cereal to children! When it comes to addiction, we have been trained to see particular drugs—and not others—as a uniquely contaminating substance, both morally and physically. The stigmatization of drugs and drug use has benefitted those who have pursued our racist, failed War on Drugs.

Modern perspectives on addiction and unhealthy compulsive behaviors are changing. There are different, less individualistic models of addiction. Thanks to a TED talk from 2015, one that has gotten a lot of press recently is Bruce Anderson’s 1978 study of rats in a socially-rewarding “park.” Rats in a rewarding environment are less likely to exhibit addictive behaviors than those stuck in a cage, even if they have access to an unlimited supply of cocaine. This model of addiction shifts our focus. Instead of seeing the drug itself as the problem, or the individual consuming it as diseased or morally flawed, we look at the environment.

I want to share that my own view is informed by a belief in the inherent tendency of living things to thrive if they are placed in the right conditions. Tomato plants can catch diseases, of course, and may have genetic flaws, but the vast majority of tomatoes, if they have the right soil, air, water, and sunlight, will thrive. If your garden isn’t producing, you look for what’s going on in the environment. Are there aphids? Soggy or dry conditions? Fungus? Too much shade? Sometimes it will require pruning, or the removal of a diseased plant. But it is the nature of living things to pursue life, not death. If the conditions are right, most living things will thrive.

If our society has an addiction problem, it is not simply the moral or genetic fault of individuals. It is a social problem. Through counseling, spiritual guidance, and discipline, we can certainly help individuals navigate a sick society, and give them tools to make better choices. But if churches, pundits, and government policy only frame drugs in terms of addiction, and addiction as a problem with individuals, then we will remain stuck.

One of the reasons American Christianity has focused on abstinence in conversation about addiction is that its theology is so thoroughly individualistic. Salvation is a matter of individual choice, and about getting individual souls into heaven. This neglect of social ethics is part of what has enabled the War on Drugs to be weaponized into a tool of white supremacy and militarism.

Abstinence, fasting, and attention to healthy living are certainly spiritual disciplines that the church should teach. But it is past time for our understanding of addiction and drugs to come out of the 18th century.

Lord of Life, we are part of a web of systems and processes. Help us tend our environment so that more people have the potential to thrive.