49 YEARS AGO TODAY, President Nixon kicked off the so-called War on Drugs with a speech on national television (linked in the comments).
This is what his domestic policy advisor said in 1994:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, 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.” (citation).
This kicked off a five-decades-long increase in mass incarceration which would disproportionately affect black individuals, black communities, black political power, and black economics. It was a primary driver of racist policy down to the state level.
Please understand: substance abuse does harm. But policies weaponized against black people and the poor of all races do so much more harm. It’s an open secret our president has a substance abuse problem, but he’s not in jail. Nor are wealthy businesspeople in Mountain Brook. Or their kids who are involved in using and selling drugs.
Right now, there are human beings wasting years of their lives in prison, while a disproportionate number of wealthy white boys make money off of dispensaries in states where cannabis is legal.
We need to end this farce: Take money away from enforcement, and give it to treatment. Substance abuse is a public health and a mental health problem.
Anything short of this policy overhaul is white supremacy in action.
I have decided it is important to be bold in sharing that I have had psychedelic experiences for several reasons:
I had the privilege of using them legally, in a safe, therapeutic, research setting. Part of that privilege was obtained by being an ordained religious leader, which in turn was made more likely because of the privilege of being white, male, and middle-class.
I believe in the potential therapeutic benefits of plant medicines, not only for those suffering from various forms of mental illness, but also for “well” people.
I believe in the potential of these therapies to address not only personal, but also generational trauma that has epigenetic effects.
It is absurd that these naturally occurring substances are classified as schedule 1 drugs, and that nearly incalculable harm is done to human lives under the pretense of keeping them “safe.” We warehouse human beings in prison at tremendous cost to society, when it would be more humaneandcheaper to give them free housing and mental health care.
I had two experiences nearly two years ago, and continue to reap the benefits; whereas many people are taking a pill every day for years or decades in order to alter their brain chemistry.
I obtain some of this power to speak for change by virtue of having practiced abstinence before and since. I have never smoked pot or consumed any illegal drug. I am no hedonist; my motivation for changing drug policy is simply the outrageous injustice and harm it is doing to our society.
I started out this week sharing that the War on Drugs is a racist, failed policy, enacted by frightened men desperate to hold on to coercive power. I am very aware that the reason I am able to talk openly about my own experience is because of something known as “psychedelic exceptionalism.” Essentially, when white middle-class people use drugs, it’s okay.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, crack cocaine became a moral panic. Reflecting Nixon’s original logic in creating a War on Drugs, laws were written to create harsher penalties for drugs that black people were more likely to use. Drug policy was specifically geared to hurt black people worse. But in the current opioid epidemic, which is harming more white people, our national dialogue has changed course. Suddenly we are holding manufacturers accountable and talking about compassionate care for addiction.
All of this is due to white privilege, our society’s tendency to treat white people more humanely, as individuals with backstories, people who are worthy of respect.
Because I had the very rare opportunity to appreciate the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a substance currently classified as a schedule 1 “illegal” drug, because I am white, not addicted, and hold a position of privilege, I have come to realize that I have a moral obligation to expose the hypocrisy and systemic racism of our nation’s drug policy. As a religious leader with a Ph.D in preaching and ethics, I cannot be silent about this obvious and outrageous harm we continue to inflict upon generations of human beings, especially if that policy is upheld by moralizing from the pulpit.
There are certainly important policy discussions we need to have about decriminalization versus legalization, and how to mitigate the very real harms that substance abuse has on individuals, families, and society. Some drugs are worse than others, and there must certainly be a way to control access, especially for people most vulnerable. Drugs can do harm. But the harm we manufacture must end, and it should not be illegal to grow any plant medicine that God created.
It is beyond reason that a living thing should be illegal.
Jesus said that his mission was to a) bring people abundant life (John 10:10) and b) set the captives free (Luke 4:18-21). While drug addiction can certainly be both oppressive and life-destroying, our social policies have done far worse. Addressing this wrong will require us to acknowledge both the existence of white supremacy and the harm done by the War on Drugs.
Prayer: Lord of Liberation and Life, we are born into oppressive systems which we did not design; but we can unmake them. Give us the courage and discernment to break every oppressive yoke.
“What are you experiencing, David?” asked Bill. “Um… I see some stained glass patterns, I think. There’s some movement and a faint light.”
I was about twenty minutes into a psilocybin session at Johns Hopkins. I was lying on a couch wearing an eyeshade and headphones. My support team sat next to me on the floor. An automatic blood pressure cuff gently squeezed my arm every thirty minutes, monitoring my body for signs of distress.
What I was thinking was, “Man, this is kind of a let-down. If I’ve gone through all this—taking time off work, telling my life story three or four times, filling out hours of screening forms and questionnaires, and this is all I get—I will be pretty disappointed.”
“And what will I do with my disappointment?” The question came floating up from deep inside me.
I looked down and realized I was holding my disappointment. I was cradling it, like a baby. And I was weeping with deep, wrenching sobs. I realized I had been carrying so much unacknowledged disappointment, hopes for ministry and for life and relationships. I had been unwilling and unable to acknowledge it. And almost as suddenly, I realized that God was also cradling me, like a mother, while I cradled my disappointment. She was telling me that it was okay to have hopes, and okay to be disappointed, and that I was loved more deeply than I could possibly imagine. And then she proceeded to show me how much I was loved.
I realized that I could not be truly grateful if I did not acknowledge my disappointment. I could not simply “put a brave face on it” and pretend to be cheery. And once I had acknowledged it, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all that was right and good in my life.
And that was all in the first 45 minutes.
At the end of a six-hour session, I felt as if I had been through six months of psychotherapy, as though I had lived a whole other life before coming home to my own skin and my own reality. In the days after, I felt more grounded, grateful, and stable. I felt more loving toward my friends, family, and even strangers. I was overwhelmed with appreciation of the beauty and mystery of life. Almost two years later, I still feel the lingering effects and the lessons of that first session. I know in my bones that God does not expect me to act grateful when I’m not, to feel the way I think I “should” feel. And that makes me more free to be truly grateful and to love.
Psychedelic-assisted therapy is an emerging field. It is being tested as a treatment for drug addiction,PTSD, and treatment-resistant depression. It has shown promise in reducing recidivism among ex-prisoners. One friend I know kicked a 30-year heroin habit after one session with an indigenous plant medicine. He has been clean ever since.
There is a lot of hype about psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy, and I think it is important to remain cautious about “new” therapies. People who are chasing an experience may not reap the full benefit of these substances because there is psychological, internal work that needs to happen in tandem. It cannot replace talk therapy. Our capitalist, consumerist, pharmacological approach to physical and mental health is about pill-popping and miracle cures, about “superfoods” and consuming or avoiding the trendy ingredient du jour. Big Pharma, like other industries, only makes money by commodifying wellness. My fear is that psychedelic therapy will experience the same fate.
But its roots are in positive psychology, indigenous practices, and holistic understandings of mental health and human society. Not only does it have the potential to help people who are suffering from mental illness, it has the potential to help “well” people thrive.
I wanted to spend this week focusing on drug policy and the church because this is a prime example of the way racism hurts everybody. These substances have been locked away for fifty years because the Nixon White House—and subsequent leaders—wanted to disrupt Civil Rights and the antiwar movements. Instead of healing people, we’ve been locking them away for decades, creating more generational trauma instead of healing it.
But there is a better way for us to be.
Prayer: God of Salvation, you salve our wounds and heal all our diseases. Help us to be agents of healing in our selves, our culture, and our planet. Amen.
How should we treat people who use drugs? There are two general schools of thought. The first is that users “should” experience all the negative consequences of their drug use: poverty, homelessness, illness, pain and suffering—in order to coerce them into better behavior. Actions or policies that are not geared toward total abstinence are considered “enabling.” We often call this “tough love.” This is an individualistic approach, and it is what we as a society have been trying for centuries. It doesn’t work.
The second school of thought accepts that drug use happens and is part of human society. While drug abuse does harm to people and society, this approach is about harm reduction: helping people avoid some of the worst consequences of drug use, empowering them to make their own choices about what will ultimately make them happy and productive, and giving drug users a voice in designing policies that will help them. It looks at addiction as a systemic problem exacerbated by poverty, hunger, poor relationships, and homelessness—and not just as the cause of those things. Harm reduction might be providing clean needles to heroin users to reduce the spread of HIV, or giving community organizers training in the use of naloxone to prevent deaths by opioid overdose. It might even mean giving people a safe place to use drugs so that they are not robbed or sexually abused by others, where they can be prevented from harming themselves or others.
I need to distinguish between harm reduction and enabling. Parents of adults, for example, are not obliged to provide their sons or daughters with a safe space to get high, especially if that drug use impacts their ability to earn a living or pay for their own upkeep. In such cases, firm boundaries may be most appropriate. Enabling is making excuses or being dishonest about the harm caused by drug abuse. Harm reduction acknowledges harm and reduces it.
It’s worth asking, though, why a society that has plenty of homes sitting empty (often due to foreclosure) and more than enough food cannot provide food and shelter for all of its citizens. When people who abuse drugs have secure housing and enough food, they are better able to curb their addictive behaviors. Homeless persons who use drugs are better able to get clean and sober if they have a safe place to live. This shouldn’t be surprising! Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs. Food, clothing, and shelter are prerequisites to long-term decision making. Making these needs contingent on socially-acceptable behavior—as our current policy does—is a set up for failure.
As I said Tuesday, I tend to believe that people will thrive under the right conditions. Sure, there is a nature and nurture argument to be made about whether our environment determines our destiny, or whether our will and character do. But living things have a built-in drive toward living—not self-destruction, and when we see large numbers of people failing to thrive, it is an indicator that something is wrong in the environment. We do not blame plants for failing to grow without sunlight, or babies for failing to grow without love!
I believe there is more than enough suffering in the world that occurs naturally, but that we—as individuals and a society—manufacture more than necessary. This is a somewhat Buddhist way of describing what Charles Wesley called “our bent to sinning.” It is not so much a moral or judgmental statement as a practical one: we do harm to ourselves. We do not participate in the abundant life God designed us to live.
For followers of Jesus Christ, our primary task is figuring out what embodied love looks like in our world. The Wesleys came up with three general rules for the people they called Methodists: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. While I think there are situations where “tough love” and boundary setting are necessary and appropriate, I think Christians have to be the public voice of “do no harm” in policy discussions. For too long, we have chosen “tough love” over genuine love, and this attitude has lent influence to both white supremacy and greed.
Prayer: God of Abundant Life, help us live according to your present abundance instead of imagined scarcity. Teach us to do no harm.
On Good Friday in 1962, 20 divinity students gathered in the basement of Marsh Chapel at Boston University to hear a sermon delivered by Howard Thurman. Ten of them received a dose of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in “magic mushrooms.” The other ten received a placebo. Of the ten who received psilocybin, most reported having one of the most profound spiritual experiences of their lives. Nine of them became clergy and were still clergy several years later. In the control group, only four did.
Some psychedelics have been called “entheogens,” because they generate an experience of God (theo). In addition to perceptual changes, people often feel a presence or closeness to the divine, or a sense that they perceive ultimate reality. It would be easy to say that this is “all in their head,” except that we can apply the same brain science to people praying or meditating and see similarities. All spiritual experiences are brain experiences.
And there’s good evidence that such substances have had a role in the development of religions for thousands of years. Some indigenous people in the Amazon use ayahuasca, and in North America use peyote, and in Australia use pituri. (It’s important to note that only by seeking institutionalization as a “church” did indigenous people in North America gain protection for their spiritual practices, and religious use of peyote only received federal protection in 1996.)
Recent archeological evidence even suggests that Jews in ancient Israel burned cannabis on the sacrificial altar. For thousands of years, in temples and cathedrals, burning incense even provided a mild psychoactive effect, boosting mood and making humans more open to spiritual experiences. If these substances can aid or create a sense of transcendence, why would we be surprised that they had religious significance? When we open the Bible to Ezekiel and read of visions of wheels full of eyes, it is easy to imagine that some kind of naturally-occurring psychedelic played a role in his visions.
And why shouldn’t they? If, as I said on Monday, the Tacana people of the Amazon are right, and God did indeed provide a cure for every human ailment in the plants among us, why wouldn’t God include a substance that would make us more open to visions and inspiration? Drug policy reformers often point out that “drug” is a pharmacological term, a modern word that implies industrial production (from the words “dry goods”), whereas a more appropriate term that respects indigenous and historical origins is “plant medicine.” These naturally-occurring substances are living beings, part of a sacred web of life which includes human beings.
Two years ago, I was a volunteer in a Johns Hopkins study of entheogens and religious leaders. The study was an exploration of how faith leaders would interpret psilocybin-induced mystical experiences. I had two sessions in a safe, supervised setting, and I was asked to compare these experiences with other spiritual experiences. I have no hesitation saying these were as “genuine” as my encounters with God in my conversion or call to ministry. Moreover, I would say these experiences left me permanently changed, with a deeper appreciation of being fully present and in the moment. I have less anxiety and more confidence that there is life beyond this one. I feel more connected to other human beings, and—I think—I am more loving towards them.
There is a natural tendency for those of us raised in American Christianity to view this kind of spiritual experience as somehow “cheating.” Shouldn’t mystical visions require days of fasting prayer, long pilgrimages, and long dark nights of the soul? But this attitude is what we call “achievement spirituality.” It has its roots in the notion that we have to earn God’s favor, and that mystical fellowship with God simply couldn’t be as simple as opening your hand to receive it. Moreover, plant medicine is not a substitute for those other disciplines and experiences; but it could enhance or supplement them.
We also know that there are certain regions of the brain that relax during intense prayer and meditation, regions responsible for maintaining a distinction between self and the world, what’s “in here” and what is “out there.” This sense of separateness can be overwhelmed in an entheogenic experience. Distinctions between self and universe, or self and God, can fall away. One comes to know in a powerful way that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
If the church is to have a mature and justice-seeking approach to drug policy, we need to recognize that a) certain plant medicines have sacramental importance to many people, b) even our own Christian traditions in the West may owe more than we suspect to the sacramental use of plant medicines in our ancient history, and c) plant medicine will likely affect religious practice in the future .
Prayer: Holy Mystery, we see you hidden and revealed in sacraments like baptism and eucharist. Open our eyes to the sacramental around us every day—in food, in neighbors, in plants, in work and play, and in our very breath. Amen.
Housekeeping: On Monday, I shared the origins of the War on Drugs, which was weaponized for the sake of white supremacy and imperialism, to attack the “antiwar left” and black communities. Yesterday I shared how the church’s individualistic perspective on drug use and addiction distracts us from looking at systemic solutions. Today, my goal is to describe the importance of plant medicine to religious practice. Tomorrow, I will talk about harm reduction as an important goal for the drug policy of the future.
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.
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.
Prayer: 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.
“[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.
Prayer: 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.