A Voice from the Gospel: Ending the War on Drugs

This post originally appeared here on the Clergy for a New Drug Policy blog.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

With these words, Jesus spurns a Syrophoenician woman seeking healing for her daughter. His use of the word “dog,” an ethnic slur to refer to non-Jews, brands her as an outsider unfit to receive the mercy of God’s healing. These words tear at the hearts of all of us who see Jesus as a liberator, one who sought to bring the love of God to the marginalized. For the sake of my faith, I am glad the gospel does not stop there. And yet, in a country governed by policies begun during the War on Drugs, I too often see the story stopping there.

It stops there when an individual charged with felony possession of crack cocaine- a nonviolent offense- permanently loses the right to vote and access to government benefits.  It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

It stops there when repeat drug offenders receive life in prison rather than access to treatment programs. It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

It stops there when a heroin addict cannot receive methadone or other medication-assisted treatments, despite substantial medical evidence indicating the efficacy of such treatments. The faulty logic behind such policy: drug addicts should not receive drugs as a treatment. It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

In this passage of Scripture, a “dog” is one who does not deserve mercy or healing because of her social status. In the United States today, we use a different label, but it has the same meaning: criminal. As Michelle Alexander demonstrates in The New Jim Crow, one branded a “criminal” can experience many of the same forms of discrimination that African Americans experienced under Jim Crow. Furthermore, this label is disproportionately affixed to people of color. Through the criminal justice system, the legal subjugation of people of color continues.

Drug policy lies at the heart of this unjust system. In the last 25 years, the number of individuals sent to prison for drug-related offenses has exploded. Arrests for possession of marijuana – not harder drugs – have most driven the increase in arrests. These arrests disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos, who are more often incarcerated even though their rate of marijuana use is roughly equal to that of whites. As Michelle Alexander succinctly puts it, “Nothing has contributed more the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.”

The gospel story does not stop with the epithet of “dog.” At the insistence of the Syrophoenican woman, Jesus changes his mind.   He extends healing to her daughter. He shows that cultural barriers cannot limit the compassion of God.

Those of us who take this story seriously must do the same. This means challenging overly harsh drug laws that disproportionately affect people of color. Diversion programs, which offer treatment instead of prison time, need to increase. Mandatory minimums, which prevent judges from exercising mercy for non-violent drug offenders, need to decrease. We must reexamine policies that permanently bar those with a criminal record from voting and obtaining access to government benefits. This is the path of mercy, healing, and justice.

It occasionally comes as a surprise that I work part-time as a youth pastor and part-time with Clergy for a New Drug Policy. I certainly would never advocate that youth I work with experiment with drugs. There is too much evidence of the risks they hold for developing brains. But as much as I would not want them to try drugs, God forbid that they end up in the legal system for it. God forbid that youthful experimentation lead to an arrest record that could follow them for years. An arrest record could jeopardize their chances of obtaining employment and financial aid for college.

Like the rest of us, they are children of God. They are not dogs.

Image: Cristo e la Cananea, Annibale Carracci.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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