Toward Jesus' Drug Policy

Last week, I expressed among a group of solid Christians that I am in favor of decriminalizing all drugs. They didn't like the idea. They actually kind of looked at me like I had the plague and followed that up by expressing sentiments that I am out of my mind. So I came home and thought it through. This is what came of it.

The topic of decriminalizing drugs came up because of the recent votes in certain states to tax and/or decriminalize marijuana. Colorado voted to tax marijuana at 25%. Michigan voted to decriminalize possession. The group I was talking with didn't even want to decriminalize marijuana. I just jumped over that line and talked about decriminalizing all drugs.

I want to clarify something before progressing further. We can decriminalize all drugs, and I won't start using them. I am not making this point because I have an itch to do a certain drug. I am making this point because Jesus teaches us to love the least of these, and drug addicts should be considered in that list. We need to figure out how to help them instead of focusing on how to punish them.

Criminalizing drugs only hurts drug users without really benefiting society. Are we really loving addicts by calling them criminals? Instead of deterring them from drug use through imprisoning them, a loving society would try to give them the help they need. I want to be a loving society.

In a purely selfish way, criminalizing drugs like we do costs us dearly. We have to pay for the large prison system, the government bureaucracy that regulates these drugs, the legal system that oversees the laws, and the extra law enforcement officers who handle the crime of drug possession/use combined with the increased crime caused by the illegal distribution of these drugs. In 2010, the federal government spent $15 billion dollars on the war on drugs. If we add in the expenditures of state and local government, the amount spent on the war on drugs reached approximately $40 billion. This year, it is estimated that over 1.6 million Americans will be arrested for drugs. 16.8% of state prisoners were in prison for drug-related charges. 48% of federal prisoners were in prison for drug related charges. 25% of people on probation, 33% on parole, were drug-related crimes. Now, if this was working to create a better society and a system where fewer lives were destroyed by drugs, then I would be all for it. Spend the money. Imprison drug users. Save lives.

But what if our current approach isn't creating a better society? What if our current system causes more, rather than less, lives to be destroyed?

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Now, instead of imprisoning people, the State offers to get them help. And if they refuse help, that's their right. They will not be punished for having or using drugs and refusing help. We can just look at Portugal to see what would happen if drugs were decriminalized. Does it change our preconceived notions? What would happen if instead of using imprisonment as a deterrent we actually offered people help? According to a Cato Institute study, hard drug use went down in Portugal. Despite our instincts possibly telling us otherwise, the facts show that decriminalizing drugs caused hard drug use to go down.

Here's another disturbing fact. America has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prisoners. Something is wrong.

I just wonder if it really helps anyone to criminalize drug use and throw so many people in jail. Are the streets safer or more dangerous with an illegal drug market of any sort? Are people's lives improved by throwing them in jail for possessing/using a drug? Remember that decriminalizing drugs still means that drug users would be thrown into jail for violent conduct, theft, or any other law they may break while using or trying to obtain a drug.

I recognize that lives have been destroyed by drug use. That is not something to be taken lightly. But that is what I want to improve. I want less lives to be destroyed by drug use. When I talk about decriminalizing drugs, I am actually talking about creating a system where less drugs are used and less lives are destroyed. Those lives that have been destroyed that we want to cite as reasons drug use should be illegal are lives that were destroyed in our current system where drug use is illegal. I'm proposing a different system in the hope of getting better results. Less lives destroyed, not more.

What would happen if we actually let the love of Jesus influence our views? Not just on issues like the drug problems but on all the issues we face in this world. What if we actually let our views be defined by asking the question, "What is loving?" Would we live our lives differently? Would we stand up for different political agendas? Would we actually be used by God to help create a more just and loving society?


From The End of Sacrifice by John Howard Yoder:

"Deterrence, if it did work, would be immoral. The fundamental moral axiom of Western civilization, as stated in nonsectarian language, is that I should deal with each person--her or his rights, values, needs--as an end to herself or himself, not as a means to some other end. To inflict pain or death on one person for the sake of the interests of other persons, interests, which it is claimed that threat will protect, is to sin against that basic rule. Even more, of course, is this the case when the penalty is disproportionate" (87-88).


A few places that highlight the problem.

These 32 People Are Spending Their Lives In Prison For Nonviolent Crimes

A Living Death

And a followup that I wrote due to some complaints.
We Have Lost Our Prophetic Voice