Welcome! This page was initiated in 2015 by the Drug Policy Reform task force of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). ACSWP is the body designated to propose new directions for the church’s witness and ministry in our “drug-abundant” US society. The process of studying drug policy reform led to differing reports in 2016 and 2018, each of which was then circulated by the PC(USA) General Assembly.
Ending the “War on Drugs”
The task force determined that the “war on drugs” needed to be ended, and that it had only magnified the spiritual crisis of which drug use was often a symptom. As in all social witness policies, there is a Biblical and theological component—loud and clear in the call for “Healing Before Punishment”—as well as empirical data and comparison of public policy options. This webpage introduces several of those options, and then provides additional resources—for reading after you have read what our General Assemblies have said!
Given the continuing tragedies of opioid overdose deaths and mass incarceration of low level drug offenders in many states, we keep this page posted and welcome comments on the church’s policies (email@example.com). This page is also part of the church’s response to the social experiment now underway as states increasingly “legalize” or “decriminalize” marijuana. What does the PC(USA) have to say? How urgent is it to end the “war on drugs” that still causes terrible violence and corruption, both in the US and in countries whose militarized policing we support? What about the range of synthetic and more naturally occurring drugs and their potential benefits as well as dangers? As it developed, the original work of the task force was revised, opening up a number of vital issues.
Legal Regulation of Drugs vs. Decriminalization of Marijuana: Reports Differ
In 2014, the General Assembly chose to address several major changes together: legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, massive incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders and their continuing penalization, militarization of drug control efforts in other countries, the misuse of prescription drugs, and the need for greater support for rehabilitation and recovery from addiction. The overture brought by five presbyteries was wide-ranging in seeking to address the perceived failures of the “war on drugs,” and to help the church develop theological and programmatic resources for a more restorative and science-based approach.The Drug Policy task force appointed by ACSWP held hearings, interviewed experts and those involved in drug use and law enforcement, and met in 4 cities: Oakland, California; Denver, Colorado; El Paso, Texas/Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and Huntington, West Virginia. The task force developed an interim report that the 2016 General Assembly authorized to be circulated for comment in the church: “Drug Reform Task Force Interim Report (2016)”
That interim document received comment from congregational and presbytery study events and individuals, and was contributed as a draft to the UN’s Special Session on the World Drug Problem. Groups like Clergy for a New Drug Policy endorsed the report and used it in state referenda to reform drug laws: https://newdrugpolicy.org/2018/08/presbyterian-report-against-drug-war-does-it-go-far-enough/
As parent body of the task force, however, ACSWP revised the report substantially for the 2018 General Assembly, while retaining or modifying many of the original recommendations. This final PC(USA) drug policy report (background study and recommendations) is now posted: Putting Healing Before Punishment (2018).
Thus, a very instructive exercise is to look at the case the interim report makes for the “legal regulation” of marijuana and revision of the entire 1970 drug “schedule” to reflect scientific research. Then one may compare that stance to the case for “decriminalization” of marijuana in the second, approved report. The second report underlines marijuana’s potential health dangers and also emphasizes the dangers of the opioid crisis, replacing sections of the background study on other drugs and approaches.
Healing Before Punishment—Is this Possible without ending the “War on Drugs?”
The Drug Policy Task Force encouraged Presbyterians to engage in thoughtful exercises to better understand our current drug policies and imagine alternatives. A drug policy exercise presents 3 hypothetical legal frameworks, raising questions about abstinence, prohibition, and social control. The Task Force disliked “de-criminalization” because it left distribution networks in the shadows, and left marijuana still marketed by the same cartels and gangs. At the same time, the Task Force disliked “legalization” because it suggested just opening the gates to more psychoactive substances, just as legal regulation was reducing the use of tobacco and drinking while driving. Hence the Task Force preferred, “legal regulation,” stressing also the need for taxation and public health models. Legal regulation, for example, generally prohibits teenagers from using marijuana and other drugs, and all legal dispensaries from selling to those under 21.
Did the Task Force understate the potential dangers of stronger forms of marijuana? And do we still need a “war on drugs” to end the opioid epidemic and to prevent other kinds of drug trafficking? In revising the Task Force’s report, ACSWP felt it needed to emphasize the risks of marijuana to the brains of young people, which often continue developing in males up to age 25. The resulting 2018 report, adopted by the General Assembly, favors reducing the draconian and racist penalties on individual users of certain drugs (partly through the decriminalization of marijuana), but is concerned that legalizing drugs (it does not use the term “legal regulation”) could lead to “Big Marijuana” or other large and powerful companies, as with Big Tobacco and the transnational alcohol majors. A careful study of various forms of regulation can be found at https://transformdrugs.org/: “After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation” (2009). The interim report answers some of this concern in its look at the different models for regulating growers and marketers in Washington State and Colorado.
Abstinence, Prohibition, Treatment, Recovery, and Harm Reduction
Both the interim and the final report call for more research, and the endnotes to both reports are worth scanning at least. The emphasis on the dangers of marijuana is now being balanced by more appreciation of medical marijuana’s benefits, and other drugs, including psilocybin, and being studied more carefully. (The PCUSA General Assembly endorsed medical uses of marijuana in 2006). A January 2019 op ed addresses what is at stake in marijuana research, and by implication the need for much more research on other drugs: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/14/upshot/the-reasonable-way-to-view-marijuanas-risks.html.
Both the interim and final reports firmly consider alcohol and tobacco to be drugs, though they differ in attention given addictions and their treatment. The key issue for many persons in recovery, abstinence from all alcohol and drugs, is often a basis for continued prohibition or “zero tolerance” for various drugs. Do such views of prohibition necessarily lead to an emphasis on punishment, and does that mean unending drug wars? What if more public investment in treatment and therapy were made? Does the ‘harm reduction’ approach accept drug use and some percentage of addiction as inevitable, when we know that human desire can be shaped by faith and habit? We welcome suggestions of articles and books to add to the lists below and brief reasons why they are important to these several debates.
Help yourselves! The resources posted here come from varied sources and they are here to be downloaded and used for discussion in your congregations, college and university groups, and seminary training programs:
- Articles in the May-June 2015 issue of the online journal, Unbound, http://justiceunbound.org/journal/breaking-good/, which focuses on drug issues.
- Past policy statements on addictive substances made by the General Assembly, such as a fine 1986 study on alcohol use: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/Alcohol-Use-Abuse-Social-and-Health-Effects.pdf
- The Presbyterian Addiction Awareness Network of the Presbyterian Health Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA). That Network of counselors, persons in recovery, and others (currently on hiatus) helped guide the church in addressing drug as well as alcohol challenges. Their materials are sometimes dated but still contain much good pastoral and educational guidance, including material from Alcoholics Anonymous. See the Presbyterian Mission Agency resources below, one of which is also ecumenical.
- Past policy statements on concerns of the criminal justice system which impact such things as sentencing reform, police accountability, racial disparities in prosecution, and for-profit prisons.
Papers and Studies lifted up by the original task force:
- “War on Drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy,” June 2011
- American Civil Liberties Union—“The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” 2013
- Meso American Working Group, “Rethinking the Drug War in Central America and Mexico,” November 2013
Video and Film
- “The House I Live In,” feature-length documentary film on the drug war, 2012.
- “Bringing Down the New Jim Crow,” radio documentary series, five powerful audio segments.
- Gabrielle Glaser, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” The Atlantic, April 2015.
Books and Other Resources also lifted up by ACSWP:
- Addiction and Grace, Gerald G. May, Harper One, 1988 (This can be downloaded free: https://ericafifegunt.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/addiction-grace-by-gerald-g-may.pdf)
- Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari, Bloomsbury Circus, 2015
- Dealing Death and Drugs, Beto O’Rourke and Susie Byrd, Cinco Puntos Press, 2011(Elected officials write: http://www.cincopuntos.com/products_detail.sstg?id=174)
- Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out, Mike Gray, Routledge, 2000 (https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/drug-crazy-mike-gray/1122992238)
- Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Howard Campbell, University of Texas, 2009 https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/camdru
- The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, The New Press, 2011
- Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow, Daniel Hunter, Veterans of Hope Project, 2015
- To Die in Mexico, John Gibler, City Lights, 2011
- Victims & Sinners, Linda Mercadante, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996 https://www.wjkbooks.com/Products/0664255086/victims-and-sinners.aspx
Presbyterian Mission Agency Resources
Let us hear from you: As you read these materials, you may wonder about the differences between drug “abuse” and appropriate use and how these relate to the wholeness of the person that was the goal of Jesus healing ministries. What are the rights of individuals to ingest whatever substances they wish, absent harm to others? What is the church’s responsibility to help protect particularly children from harm and exploitation? You may wish to write the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy at firstname.lastname@example.org.