On June 12, 2009, Protestants for the Common Good, with the support of Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, held a conference at Roosevelt University entitled “New Directions for Drug Policy.” At that conference, we called for local and statewide discussions concerning the reform of Illinois drug policy and have formerly worked independently and in coalition to increase the number of diversion programs available to low level non-violent drug offenders in Illinois since 2004.
At a press event on June 28, 2010, Kathleen Kane-Willis and Stephanie Schmitz released their research, “Heroin Use in Illinois: A Ten-Year Multiple Indicator Analysis – 1998 to 2008.” PCG spoke briefly about the role of faith-based groups in promoting treatment and harm reduction.
For more than a year, Protestants for the Common Good has been the most visible faith-based group engaged in the effort to legalize medical marijuana in Illinois, in the Compassionate Use of Cannabis Act, SB1381.
But we are not alone. Protestants, Catholic and Jewish clergy here in Illinois and across the nation have begun to speak out against the “The War on Drugs,” in favor of a more compassionate approach to addressing drug use and dependency.
These voices can be heard moving the discussion back to the core principles of faith. The Very Rev. Scott Richardson, Dean of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, San Diego, California, has asserted, “One of the reasons that we as religious leaders need to speak out against it (War on Drugs) is because we share responsibility for it.” He was referring to the fact that while people are suffering, we have often stood by and done nothing.
Rabbi Michael Feinberg, Executive Director, Greater New York Labor Religion Coalition, has said that “…the war on drugs has caused as much devastation to communities around this country, particularly low income communities, as the drugs themselves.” After thirty-five years of enhanced penalties, mandatory minimums, and lowered amounts constituting felony possession, drugs are now cheaper and more available today than they were when we initially declared this war in the mid-seventies.
For too many years, the faith community had been silent on the issues and questions concerning drug policy. For a while the only voices we heard from the faith community focused on and emphasized personal salvation and individual prosperity. More recently, however, the church has begun to reclaim its foundational principles of compassion and love for one’s neighbor.
St. Augustine has been quoted as saying, “Scripture teaches nothing but charity and we must not leave an interpretation of scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it.”
And what precisely is this compassion that religious leaders speak of? The most instructive sermon that I have heard to date suggested that compassion is when we dethrone the self and put another person there. In Christianity, the ultimate expression of compassion is found in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Let me put it to you this way: if you were drug dependent, what would you have society do?
If a loved one, a child perhaps, were in the heartbreaking throws of an addiction, wouldn’t you seek help in the form of treatment?
If your child were a young adult on the street addicted to heroin, you would pray to the God of your understanding that he or she be safe from harm, that he or she not contract any blood borne pathogens from dirty needles or that he or she not inject poisons prepared by amateur chemist. Until such time as he or she became sober and drug-free, your prayer would essentially be for harm reduction.
Rev. Edwin Sanders, Senor Pastor, Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, Nashville, Tenn., was observed on the streets of Nashville instructing injection drug users in the proper method of sterilizing a syringe. He was asked by a member of the media, “As clergy, how do you justify teaching people how to clean dirty needles?” And his response was, “For me to deliver on what I have to offer them as a man of the cloth, they need to be alive.”
As people of faith, we are called not to judgment but to compassion.