Social issues have long separated conservatives from progressives. As a wave of cities and states continue to legalize marijuana or even decriminalize all drugs and decriminalization at the federal level was recently proposed in Congress, most Christian leaders on the right and left are silent on the contentious issue. Though some clergy members and churches have called for an end to the War on Drugs, it has yet to become a strong movement in the church as a whole.
Over 90 percent of Americans believe cannabis should be legal for either recreational or strictly medical use, according to PEW. Also, support for cannabis legalization is surprisingly supported by a majority of Christians, even demographics you may not expect including white, Republican Evangelicals and Catholics according to the Voter Study Group.
Pastors, however, find themselves on the other end of the spectrum. Three in four (76 percent) Protestant pastors think marijuana should be illegal, according to a new LifeWay study. Almost the same amount, 78 percent, believe it is morally wrong to get high by smoking marijuana. This close correlation possibly reveals an important point: Pastors may tend to believe whatever is immoral should also be banned–when it comes to drugs at least.
However, if they take a more critical look at the policies our government employs to mitigate drug use through force, they may find the means more morally abhorrent than the intended ends. They would discover that, just like alcohol prohibition, banning substances like cannabis results in more violence, worse drug use, and severe harm to minority communities. There is a more effective and peaceful way to deal with substance abuse.
Throwing more people behind bars hasn’t brought about victory in the War on Drugs. In fact, the United States still spends over $41 billion annually on its programs. Every 25 seconds, someone is arrested for drug possession. Incarceration rates have only ratcheted up with arrests and imprisonments over tripling during the last 40 years. Now, nearly one-fifth–over 500,000 people–of the incarcerated population is there on a possession charge. Despite “cracking down” on these victimless crimes, these policies clearly have missed their intended effect of curbing drug use. Yet Christians from both political parties have cheered on this deadly agenda for decades. From the early days of Nixon “declaring” the war on drugs to widespread evangelical support in the 1990s, Christians have mistakenly believed that government is the answer to drug problems.
There is no conflict between Christians opposing drug abuse and simultaneously denouncing drug prohibition. The church’s role is to teach Christ’s commandments and moral teachings to his people, not solicit government support for suppression of non-violent vices. When we look to the government as the moral leader of public life, the results are disappointing at best. More often, though, their involvement just ends up increasing the scale of violence in the situation.
Christians need to abandon the mindset that when it comes to drug legalization whatever the government says is legal is OK, end of story. While God uses governments to punish sin in certain circumstances, Christians sometimes mistakenly believe that we need laws to eradicate sin. As we well know from the New Testament, God’s law exposes sin rather than atones for it, and the law alone certainly does not solve sin’s problems. How much more so is this true of human law? The moment we begin looking to the government for morality instead of the church, we are in trouble.
The church throughout history has played a role in providing care to the sick and hurting. Addiction is a health problem and deserves to be treated as such. Imagine if you were to learn your child was taking heroin. Would you want to hand them over to the police to be thrown in prison? I doubt it. You would probably seek to figure out why and how you could help them to solve their problem and get better. People currently in the grip of drug addition deserve no less consideration than your child would.
Restoring relationships, urging repentance, and giving grace is key when it comes to caring for those battling addiction. Families, communities, and churches can all work together to provide this support to those struggling with addiction. Throwing hurting people in prison actually separates them from the support structure they need to recover.
Taking mind-altering substances can certainly be sinful. It can be harmful to personal health, marr one’s ability to make good choices, and ripple out pain and hurt throughout the drug abuser’s family unit and community. But unfortunately, unjust punishments for drug users have ruined far more lives than the drugs themselves. As Chistians, we should oppose such barbarism. We ought to oppose the government’s War on Drugs while, at the same time, supporting those affected by drugs with a message of love, forgiveness, and hope.
It is possible Christian leaders who find the Drug War morally troubling may choose to avoid the issue publicly for fear of sending the wrong message to vulnerable teens and young adults who may be tempted to experiment recreationally–a valid concern. But it also sends the wrong message to tacitly support such a wrongheaded, violent, and unjust public policy. Too many lives are at stake for pastors to continue to remain silent on this deadly issue. It is time for them to speak out against the War on Drugs while also investing resources toward being a light to individuals, families, and communities affected by drug abuse.
We can oppose the use of drugs and the over-criminalization of drug use simultaneously. American Christians, regardless of political party, need to come together to embrace our role in addressing drug abuse and call on our elected officials to end the Drug War.