Churches look for alternatives
to the controversial war on drugs
by Donald E. Skinner
Steve Jens-Rochow has had close-up experience with the drug scene
in Florida. He owns an apartment building where some previous tenants
had been drug dealers. There's still one living next door and drug
couriers ride bicycles through the neighborhood. "I used to be
a staunch supporter of the war on drugs," he says. "I thought
if we only tried harder we could get them to go away. But after 15
years I've figured out it's not working. Now we need to come up with
some solution to it."
your congregation can participate:
A Study/Action Resource Packet on An Alternative to the War on Drugs was mailed to all congregations in October 2000 by the Commission on Social Witness and the UUA Department for Faith in Action. It's also on the UUA Web site (click here), which includes study questions, advocacy actions, and resources. A packet may also be requested from Rob Cavenaugh at the UUA Washington Office for Faith in Action, 2026 P Street NW, Washington DC 20036-6097 or (202) 296-4672, ext. 15. Send questions to email@example.com.
An Alternative to the War on Drugs will be discussed again at General Assembly this June in Cleveland, when congregations will be urged to study it for another year. At GA 2002 delegates will either adopt a UUA Statement of Conscience based on it or decide to study it an additional year. Either way, congregations are encouraged to take up this issue at any time.
Many Web sites are devoted to drug war issues. The Web site of UUs for Drug Policy Reform (UUDPR) -- www.uudpr.org -- includes updates on pending drug policy changes and the names of public officials. Other helpful sites include: druglibrary.org (major drug studies); drugsense.org (general information about drug war alternatives); and mapinc.org (a collection of 53,000 news clippings about the drug war).
-- Donald E. Skinner
Jens-Rochow is denominational affairs chair at the Unitarian Universalist
Church of Fort Lauderdale, which began talking about the drug war
issue after delegates at General Assembly last year selected "An
Alternative to the War on Drugs" as the top "study/action
issue." Each year one such issue is identified and congregations
are encouraged to study and act upon it for the next several years
under the sponsorship of the UUA's Commission on Social Witness.
The drug issue inspired passionate debate within his congregation,
says Jens-Rochow. "We have a wide diversity of opinion. Most
people are in favor of more humane treatment for drug users. We also
have a couple of staunch believers in the drug war. So we've had great
In the past year many other congregations have taken up this issue.
At the First Parish in Waltham, Massachusetts, the congregation held
four seminars on successive Sundays on the drug issue. It heard from
a local lawyer, viewed the PBS Frontline documentary "Busted,
America's War on Marijuana," and developed its own "statement
of conscience" about the issue. Members are looking at ways of
lobbying legislators on drug issues and they hope to form a drug-issues
reading group. They also organized a district-wide meeting of all
those interested in the issue.
The UUA has an independent affiliate, UUs for Drug Policy Reform,
which is working with congregations on this issue. Charles Thomas,
UUDPR's president, is encouraging congregations to begin by studying
the drug issue for a year or more by inviting speakers, reading books,
and holding study circles. Then, he said, congregations will be prepared
to advocate change.
He believes UU congregations can provide a continental example. "The
thing we do best as UUs is pushing the envelope. The stronger the
position that we can take on this, the more encouragement it gives
Drug war opinion is beginning to shift, says Matthew Elrod, a Canadian
who is Webmaster for several drug issue-related Web sites, including
The Media Awareness Project (mapinc.org), which has more than
50,000 news clippings. "The momentum is building for change,"
Elrod says. "There's no doubt there's been a major shift in editorial
opinion in recent years. One study found that well over 80 percent
of editorials and op-ed pieces now call for some type of reform."
Advocates of drug war alternatives generally suggest the following
approach: Repeal criminal drug laws and treat drug addiction as a
social and medical problem. Advocates of change say that drug use
should not be viewed as a crime unless others are being harmed, and
that prohibition increases drug-related crime and strengthens the
organized crime system.
At the UU Church of Fresno, California, the congregation began its
study of the drug issue with a sermon by the Rev. Bryan Jessup, followed
by a community workshop. The church is also part of the local Metro
Ministry group which is investigating drug issues. Church members
also have their sights on openings on a local alcohol and drug abuse
council and a mental health advisory board. "It's too soon to
tell where we'll end up on this, but we know we want to do more than
talk about it," says Robert Valett. "We hope to help change
At the Bellingham, Washington, Unitarian Fellowship, the congregation
picks a different social justice theme every six months. It chose
the War on Drugs in February. The church sponsored a community forum
to which about 60 people came, two-thirds of them non-UUs. Another
forum was planned for the spring. "It was an issue that people
felt strongly about, saying changes need to be made," says Coral
Dudek, church administrator. "It's generated a lot of enthusiasm."
Frances Burford, of First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston,
is one of those who helped convince GA delegates to select the drug
issue. "This issue encompasses so many other issues that are
important to UUs: poverty, racism, militarism, the environment, prison
expansion, and civil rights," she says. "The drug war violates
every one of our seven principles."
"So much of the war on drugs is being waged on very moralistic
grounds: 'Drugs are bad. Period.' I thought it needed a religious
and spiritual direction and that's something that we UUs can do better
than any organization I can think of."
"This is not advocacy of drug use," says Thomas, "but
it is a judgment of what might be the most effective way of reducing
drug-related harm to individuals and to society."
XV:3 (July/August 2001): 54-55.