Religious Community Workers – Nation must recast the war on drugs

June 20, 2009 – When you say, “A priest, a minister, a rabbi and a nun,” it’s usually the lead-in to a joke — but here they were, seated in the pews of St. Mary’s Episcopal in 600px-Religious_symbolsHarlem. We had called them together for an interview about the drug war and we would have been hard-pressed to find a group that knows more about the damage drugs can do. As prison chaplains and community organizers, these clergy members have seen it up close, and their thinking about how to deal with the problem is undergoing an evolution. The teenage slaughter in Chicago — 26 students shot dead this year — is a reminder of the state of siege that has turned our inner cities into free-fire zones.

Rabbi Michael Feinberg believes drug prohibition is at the root of this chaos. Feinberg, who heads the Greater New York Labor Religion Coalition, said: “The war on drugs has caused as much devastation to communities around this country as the drugs themselves.”

As a Catholic chaplain at Riker’s Island Correctional Facility for 20 years, Sister Marion Defeis has seen an endless parade of dazed young women facing major time — often for having been duped by a boyfriend into carrying a package through customs. After watching this meat-grinder in action, she could see that the outside world was as violent and drug riddled as ever — nothing had changed. Today she is an outspoken advocate for reform.

She and other community leaders are alarmed by the open warfare between youth and law enforcement. “My father was a New York City policeman,” Sister Marion said, “and the police, many years ago, were the people we went to if we were in trouble. And unfortunately, we see that’s not the case today.”

The Rev. Eddie Lopez , a United Methodist pastor, who works with young people in the Bronx, said: “It’s amazing when you get youth groups together, whether it’s in our churches or our communities, and how they talk about police abusing them and stopping them and frisking them. We know we have a drug problem but war is definitely not the answer. We need to find the moral, just, and effective way to solve this problem, and I think that lies outside the criminal justice system.”

The Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, who hosted the gathering at the church in Harlem, is white, but he’s familiar with the inequality of drug war punishment.

As Sister Marion put it: “The word on the street is, if you’re white and you’re famous you go to rehab. If you’re poor, you’re black, you’re Hispanic, you go to jail.”

For these spiritual leaders, that is a central issue. They believe we have infected our society with a deadly virus called “disrespect for the law.”

The positive lesson kids should be learning — crime does not pay — is false. Crime pays very well and everybody knows it. On the street you can’t conceal the fact that the guy with the babes, the bling, and the bundle of cash is the dealer.

Charles Thomas, head of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative in Washington, sees a groundswell for reform with more than 750 clergy working to help change laws in Congress and in their states. He noted that the United Methodist Church has taken an official position opposing criminal penalties for drug use.

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, calls the drug war, “arguably the single most devastating, dysfunctional, harmful social policy since slavery.”

What these people of faith and public servants have in common is a vision of the future in which drug addiction is seen as a medical problem to be treated by doctors instead of cops.

The Rev. Edwin Sanders, senior pastor at Nashville’s Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, said the world would be totally different if that adversarial relationship did not exist between law enforcement and young people. He looks forward to a time when our inner cities are no longer occupied military zones, addicts have access to treatment and drug dealers can’t make a nickel. “I think of the term peace officer,” he said.

Mike Gray lives in Los Angeles and is chairman of the Common Sense for Drug Policy.


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