Re-Examining our Nation’s Responses to Drugs

An Introduction from the PC(USA)’s Drug Policy Task Force

Author Rev. Gordon Edwards
Author Rev. Gordon Edwards

We begin with some disturbing data:

  • The United States has less than 5% of world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated people.
  • Even though whites outnumber blacks five to one and both groups use and sell drugs at similar rates, African Americans comprise 35% of those arrested for drug possession, 55% of those convicted for drug possession, and 74% of those imprisoned for drug possession.
  • Police departments receive federal government subsidies of cash and equipment according to the number of drug arrests they make.
  • Violence in Latin America associated with drug production and trafficking increases as the same production and trafficking supply the demand of the United States.
  • The drug war’s criminalization of drugs has not meaningfully reduced the availability of those drugs.
  • The industry of private prisons has made incarceration a money-making business, removing the state from responsibility to help incarcerated people rehabilitate and be able to reintegrate into society.
  • In the face of these problems, many other countries as well as states and localities within the United States are calling for and often undertaking new approaches and reforms to drug policy.

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The United States has less than 5% of world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated people.
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Author John Lindsay-Poland
Author John Lindsay-Poland

These are merely some of the reasons that the sessions of two congregations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) submitted an overture to the San Francisco Presbytery for the 221st General Assembly (GA) to establish a Drug Policy Task Force to examine current national, state, and local drug policies and to make recommendations for engaging the faith communities. The task force will help our communities become more aware of the realities surrounding drug policies and their impacts on diverse populations. It will also offer tools for people of faith to pursue reforms to the ways that our society views and treats persons who use, produce, or sell drugs. This overture subsequently gained concurrence by six other presbyteries, was presented to the 221st General Assembly, and was approved.

The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) has established the drug policy task force. The Task Force is comprised of persons involved in both the legal/criminal justice and the treatment and rehabilitation sides of the discussion: two pastors, a judge, a counselor, a doctor, a legal consultant, and a theologian. A sociologist on ACSWP is a current liaison to that Committee. One of the mandates from the GA is to hold four hearings in various sections of the country addressing issues related to those particular communities.

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The parallel relationship between the war on drugs and the dramatic increase in incarceration of Black and Latino people in the United States has become evident to us.
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The initial hearing took place from February 12-15, 2015, in Richmond, California, at the Sojourner Presbyterian Church, one of the congregations where the overture originated. The second hearing will be held in El Paso, Texas, from April 30-May 3, 2015, and will address some of the international dynamics of ‘the war on drugs’. June 18-21, 2015 is the date of a hearing in Denver, Colorado, to examine the impact in their communities of the state’s legalization of marijuana. The final hearing will take place in Charleston, West Virginia from September 17-20, 2015, to listen to people in less urban environments.

PIlls Public DomainAn important part of General Assembly’s charge to the task force is to “serve as a clearinghouse for information and discussion of relevant issues; [and] create an online presence with diverse, creative, and fact-based information in support of local church study groups.” We are also to “keep individual members, churches, and presbyteries within the PC(USA) informed of relevant policy reform initiatives or action for which they may want to exercise democratic advocacy on their own.”

To that end, we are developing an extensive bibliography, both for our own study and to highlight learning resources for Presbyterians across the country. As we learn of the work of various organizations and institutions that address aspects of drug policy, we will post links to those in which Presbyterian churches and members can participate. The hearings also include visits with local, state, and federal officials, and individuals are making further visits between hearings. The task force is encouraged to engage the PC(USA) members in conversations regarding the range of drug policies and the consequences of their uneven enforcement. Along with discussing the impact of the war on drugs internationally, we are also looking at ways that other nations implement policies that are more humane than punitive. The bibliography and other resources can be found on a dedicated webpage on the ACSWP website: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/acswp/drug-policy-reform-resources/

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While most people think of the word ‘war’ in drug war as a metaphor, increasingly we are seeing military rules of engagement, weapons, tactics, and approaches to drug law enforcement, both in Latin America and the United States.
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At the Richmond (CA) hearings, the parallel relationship between the war on drugs and the dramatic increase in incarceration of Black and Latino people in the United States became evident to us. This relationship also substantiates the perception the war on drugs is a war on people of color. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has a chapter delineating this reality.

New Jim CrowThe long-term effects of incarceration on individuals, their families, and communities are often overlooked. This is a social issue as well as a tax-burden. Criminalization of drug offenders does not merely stop at the arrest and/or conviction of individuals. The ripples of this criminalization expand throughout our society and into the future – both of the individual (loss of voting rights, felony record impeding employment upon reentry into society, etc.) and of society as a whole (increased expenditures for an ever-growing population of incarcerated people, perpetuating racism, etc.). Mandatory sentencing laws have bound the judiciary and have eliminated other considerations that are at play in an individual’s life. Our society faces tradeoffs: incarceration rates increase at the expense of community health and humane treatment.

Countries as diverse as Switzerland, Portugal, and Uruguay have decriminalized aspects of drugs with more positive results in health and public safety than the ‘war on drugs’ model, which deploys army and militarized police forces in the United States, Colombia, Mexico, Afghanistan, and other nations. While most people think of the word ‘war’ in drug war as a metaphor rather than a real war, increasingly we are seeing military rules of engagement, weapons, tactics, and approaches to drug law enforcement, both in Latin America and the United States.

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The task force is encouraged to engage the PC(USA) members in conversations regarding drug policies and the consequences its enforcement is having on individuals, communities, and society at large.
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The task force understands its work as pastoral and attentive to the health and well-being of our communities and society. Law enforcement in the war on drugs has too often been directed at the drug user or street seller rather than the biggest or even most violent actors of the drug trafficking industry. The steady demand from our society has created violence in neighboring nations, as well as within our own streets and cities. Furthermore, the scope and nature of that demand raises profound theological and spiritual questions about how we are to seek human wholeness and redemption in a “drug-abundant” society.

soldier public domainAt times already in this process, the information we have received has surprised even experienced task force members. As noted in the overture, “Unexamined assumptions in drug policy and in many people’s responses to drugs, as well as the extensive institutional structures and incentives that support current drug policies, mean that efforts to modify or transform policy can be controversial and difficult.” The work of opening the eyes of our society to the devastating realities that the war on drugs creates is a primary challenge for the task force, even as we broaden and deepen our own understanding.

We encourage readers of Unbound to be engaged with us in this journey. We encourage congregations to explore the local dimensions of the drug war with law enforcement personnel, district attorneys and judges, treatment providers, individuals and families impacted by incarceration and addiction, and mental health officials – as well as reading and discussing some of the suggested material. If you are in the vicinity of our hearings, you are invited and welcome to attend. Just last weekend, the task force led a workshop at the Presbyterian Compassion, Peace, and Justice Training Day that accompanies Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, DC. We also invite you to respond to the survey developed in that workshop, available online at Survey Monkey.

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AUTHOR BIOS: Rev. B. Gordon Edwards (Broken Arrow, OK, Chairperson) is Executive Presbyter of Cimarron Presbytery, and served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Stillwater, OK. He also serves as a member of the Payne County (OK) Drug Court Board. He previously was chair of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, and attended McCormick Theological Seminary.

John Lindsay-Poland (Consultant, Oakland, CA) Poland has written about, researched, and organized action for human rights and demilitarization of US policy in Latin America for more than 30 years. From 1989 to 2014, he served the interfaith pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), as coordinator of the Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean and research director. He is author of articles, reports, and books on U.S. military bases, policy, and history in Latin America, including Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama (Duke) and The Rise and Fall of “False Positive” Killings in Colombia and the Role of U.S. Military Assistance, 2000-2010. He helped to organize and participated in the 2012 US-Mexico Caravan for Peace, and has visited Ciudad Juarez four times as part of work to address drug policy, gun trafficking, and violence in Mexico.

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