Pubdate: Fri,  9 Aug 2002
Source: DrugWar (US Web)
Copyright: 2002 Kalyx com
Author: Daniel Forbes, for Drugwar com
Links: Many of the links from this web only article are at the bottom of this page.
Bookmark: (Forbes, Daniel)


The small, influential Unitarian Universalist church has issued the
rather remarkable call to: "Make all drugs legally available with a
prescription by a licensed physician, subject to professional
oversight." That's one element - certainly the most controversial - of
the denomination's recent Statement of Conscience, all of it meant to
be taken at face value. Entitled, "Alternatives to the War on Drugs",
the statement was approved through a process of amendments, debate,
lobbying by drug reformers in and outside the church and, finally, a
formal vote at the Unitarian Universalist Association annual General
Assembly, held in June in Quebec City. It was passed by the required
two-thirds majority of the 1,500 voting delegates among the 4,200 UUs
(as they often call themselves) in attendance.

Given that approval, it is now the church's policy to "denounce" the
war on drugs as it seeks "a more just, compassionate world." This
pursuit unfolds in the context that, "Our faith compels us to hold our
leaders accountable for their policies."

Other planks of the ‘platform' (for this is largely a political
document), include "a legal, regulated, and taxed market for
marijuana"; the elimination of criminal penalties for drug possession
and use; and punishment only for users who commit "actual crimes" such
as burglary, assault and "impaired driving."

A website associated with the UU effort calls for treatment available
on request, ending the practice of addicts deliberately getting
arrested since, "drug abusers seeking treatment are put on long waiting
lists while arrestees who might not even need treatment are being
forced into it."

Given the current funding climate, the statement has some
pie-in-the-sky recommendations on treatment, including nutritional
counseling; there's also a call for insurance parity regarding
treatment - a bit less of a stretch.

The product of two years of study and soul-searching, the statement
charges the Boston-based church's some 200,000 members, most of whom
deserve their reputation as socially active, ratiocinative liberals, to
ponder whether they can personally endorse the statement and - yeah or
nay - their subsequent response as people of faith.

(At that size, the church is somewhat like the tiny mythical country in
the 1959 Peter Sellers satire, The Mouse that Roared, based on the
novel by Leonard Wibberley. The Grand Duchy of Fenwick declared war on
the U.S., planning to grow rich on U.S. aid after its certain defeat.
Of course, the small band of invading archers happened to win, so…. )

Preaching on it in 2001, when it was being studied and discussed in the
UUs' 1,000 congregations, Rev. Elwood Sturtevant, of the Thomas
Jefferson Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY, declared that the
statement, resting as it does on the church's "purposes and principles
and covenants," will "help shape who we are as religious people and
[will] ask us to do something of consequence in our lives." Well and
good. But, he added, "The real question is, what will you make of such
a statement? Will you recognize that it has any call on you, or will it
be something simply to ignore?" In other words, now that the statement
is ‘official' church policy, will the drug reform movement be bolstered
by a flock of smart, committed new troops accustomed to the
increasingly stilted nexus of conscience and politics?

Will The Statement Be Heard?

Long-time drug reform activist Charles Thomas is eager to answer that
in the affirmative. Previously a staffer with the Washington,
D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project (current sponsor of a marijuana
legalization initiative on the ballot in Nevada as well as a medical
pot measure in D.C.), and now executive director of Unitarian
Universalists for Drug Policy Reform, Thomas has been working on
promulgating and passing the statement since the 2000 General Assembly
approved it for a vote this year. Estimating that the total membership
of the various national drug policy reform organizations is less than
30,000, Thomas figures it a significant increase if even a small
percentage of UUs become active reformers.

Under the traditional Protestant practice of ‘congregational polity,'
every UU congregation is independent - responsible, for instance, for
hiring, and firing if need be, its own minister. But with the statement
now formally approved, the church's Boston headquarters must pursue its
implementation in the national political arena. Operating independently
but with Boston's approval, Thomas's two-person, UUDPR office (and
whatever interns he can scrounge) has received funding from the
Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in Boston, as well as
from some individual congregations and two deep-pocketed funders,
including well-known ballot initiative backer, Peter Lewis.

Individuals are free to craft their own response to the statement. And
given UU's emphasis on personal autonomy, any church member, minister
or congregation is free to dissent as they wish. But the church as a
whole will throw its weight - however slight but politically
sophisticated - behind the nation's burgeoning reform movement. It does
so fully aware of the status quo's inequities and misapplication of
resources. As the not lightly designated Statement of Conscience
declares: "Our current drug policy has consumed tens of billions of
dollars and wrecked countless lives. The costs … include the increasing
breakdown of families and neighborhoods, endangerment of children,
widespread violation of civil liberties, escalating rates of
incarceration, political corruption, and the imposition of United
States policy abroad."

Saying that "United States government drug policy makers mislead the
world about the purported success of the war on drugs," the statement
calls for harm reduction as the yardstick of effective policy. And it
advocates "special attention to the harm unleashed" by current criminal
justice policies. Asserting that the crime associated with drug use is
a function of prohibition's "inflated street value," the UU General
Assembly decried the use of contaminated needles, "overdoses resulting
from the unwitting use of impure drugs," environmental degradation and
"property confiscation without conviction." UUs also castigated
inflexible mandatory minimum prison sentences, evictions from public
housing of generations of a family for one person's even minimal drug
offense, and similar loss of other government benefits.

To quote again from Elwood Sturtevant's sermon presaging the vote, he
said it's becoming increasingly apparent "there are things we think we
know that aren't so - often things we learned from the media without
having a real sense of perspective." He added that the "image of war
connected with drugs gave us sensationalism in the media and a need to
find enemies." An example of Grade-A hype, said Sturtevant, is the now
discredited myth of harmed-for-life crack babies; to penetrate the
official obfuscation, he cited Mike Gray's Drug Crazy and Dan Baum's
Smoke and Mirrors extensively.

Or, as one reform ally echoed the UU statement: "Every part of the drug
war stinks - it destroys lives, and communities and democracy. What's
more, it's blatantly racist." So said the Rev. Janet Wolf, a Methodist
minister and director of public policy and community outreach for the
ecumenical group, Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate
Drug Policy.

Recreational Archeology of the Mind

Most of these positions have been long-held by most reformers. But the
UUs also reach for the moon when they voted to "Make all drugs legally
available with a prescription by a licensed physician, subject to
professional oversight." Does that mean what it seems? Does it sanction
medically approved use - even recreational use - of just about any

Thomas said this part of the statement was "the most hotly debated"
issue at the General Assembly, but that it actually represents a
compromise between those who wanted to water it down and the delegates
pushing full legalization. Thomas himself treads a fine line,
maintaining that non-medical use by someone not a patient or an addict
is neither explicitly condoned or excluded. "I don't say recreational,
hedonistic, whoop-it-up use. Some do - it could be."

Other potential non-medical scenarios include the religious use of
psychoactive substances to achieve, said Thomas, "mystical levels of
consciousness" or perhaps to just learn how to be "a better neighbor."
And if curiosity about different levels of consciousness can be
belittled as mere recreational use, then, he said, "it's like
recreational archeology, digging into one's mind." As to using drugs
simply to relax, Thomas wondered whether to classify that as
recreational, medical or social. (Referring to marijuana, some wags
joke: It's all medicinal.) He did say that turning to drugs to fit in
with a peer group or to feel more grown up is the "least healthy reason
to use drugs."

That UUs react variously to anything, including the statement, is
perhaps the only axiom in the loosely teneted religion. Thomas believes
it "leaves an open door on what UUs can advocate. Even recreational use
can be heavily regulated, with liscensed, non-profit providers." He
noted that drugs have been a constant in human society. That fact
unassailable, should the decriminalization of possession and use ever
be achieved, Thomas says that leaves three main options for supply: the
current criminal, unregulated market; a loosely regulated, "more
libertarian, profit-oriented model"; or the UU statement's "medical
model, with the most heavily regulated market possible."

The medical model is akin, said Thomas, to providing contraception for
sex outside of marriage. Some sectors of society view that as immoral,
but he sees it as harm reduction. An ancillary benefit to the medical
distribution model is that users will end up discussing their potential
drug use - and therefore their lives - with a "nonjudgmental
clinician." That's good in and of itself, he thinks, but it also means
increased access to mental health services.

The medical route, while more regulated than the current illegal and
therefore out-of-control (beyond control) status quo, is obviously
quite controversial. Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice
Policy Foundation, said that, "Asking doctors to be a distribution
control point is a mistake. Doctors prescribe drugs to treat disease,
which is inconsistent with the reasons most people use currently
illegal drugs." As to the statement's reference to all drugs, Sterling
added that, given drugs' diverse nature, just as with beer versus
liquor, "different schemes of regulation are called for - different
regulatory devices achieving different types of control."

One observer, Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray,
believes that such regulation, though featuring consistent strength and
purity, can hobble, but never eliminate the black market. A staunch
reformer, Gray is the author of Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What
We Can Do About It.

In his sermon, however, Rev. Sturtevant argued that, "Study after study
has begun to show that the most useful controls are just that -
controls, not an absolute prohibition. That is, crime, abuse,
addiction, etc. are all lowest when addictive substances are not freely
available without restriction, nor when they are utterly prohibited,
but when the are regulated, in particular to keep them out of the hands
of children."

A Difficult, Awkward Position

Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist
Association, has the unenviable task of trying to actually implement
the statement. He described the shift from a criminal to a health model
as "a real sea change," though in his view, the church is not
advocating use of such drugs as heroin or cocaine. Acknowledging the
"possible criticism" that the policy might amount to a species of de
facto legalization, Sinkford said the bottom line is, "The war on drugs
has been a failure - criminalizing it has not decreased the huge
illegal business. And the underlying principle, [the statement's] the
underlying logic, is that it's a medical issue. Use is not a crime."

The plank regarding writing prescriptions puts doctors in a "difficult,
awkward position," said one UU minister, the Rev. Michael McGee of
Arlington, VA., who, along with his congregation's fellow General
Assembly delegates, fought its adoption. Some doctors may fall prey to
greed, McGee fears. He views the medical provision as "filled with
loopholes, and [UUs] marginalize ourselves if we go too far and to too
irrational a position."

Referring to the statement as a whole, Rev. Meg Riley, the church's
chief Washington lobbyist, admitted, "The debate on drug policy is very
skewed at this time - we're not in step. Our view is closer to what
folks believe at the grassroots level, but there's no legislative legs
in Washington for it right now."

Her colleague, Rob Cavenaugh, the UU legislative liasion in Washington,
said delgates feared the prescription provision would garner all the
attention. "But the theme is harm reduction and maintenance of a normal
life, as in the U.K. You have to rely on the medical profession to be
wise about who needs drugs for what reason," Cavenaugh said. Though
doctors writing scrip for all sorts of drugs won't be tested in the
real world anytime soon, Cavenaugh feels confident of their probity.
Speaking of this "radical" proposal, Prof. Walter Wink, a Quaker and
professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, said availability
by prescription "may scare the socks off many people." But, he added,
"It may push the issue to the left so the middle can slide over and
return policy to prior to 1910 - before drugs were criminalized."

Janet Wolf, the Methodist running Religious Leaders for a More Just and
Compassionate Drug Policy, said with a laugh that UUs are "often
further out on the edge, pushing the conversation in different

Prior to the statement's passage, UUDPR noted that it "gives us a
tremendous opportunity to ‘push the envelope' in the nation's drug
policy discourse." Pointing to his church's early adoption of such
causes as progressive sex education and gay clergy and gay marriage
that other mainstream churches now support, Thomas said that advocating
legal pot, for instance, "gives other denominations room." As in any
struggle, choosing to be on point makes you a target. Public criticism
or a decline in membership for an already small church may prove the

To effectively bear witness, it's probably best to avoid any mantle of
moral superiority. One of the statement's rare flirtations with
grandiosity is the acknowledgment that as a community of faith, UUs
have a "moral imperative and a personal responsibility to ask the
difficult questions that so many within our society are unable,
unwilling, or too afraid to ask."

But perhaps UUs deserve a bit of such talk, accustomed as they are to
the vindication of history - a good thing for a group that, while
pragmatic, is often in the forefront of social movements. They've
helped move the country forward on such issues as the abolition of
slavery, women's suffrage and gay rights. That said, the go to a doc
and get your drugs provision (aside from the rigors of finding such a
doctor) may be pretty much a pipe dream over the near-term. Or so a
mid-July message from the UUDPR's Thomas to his list-serve might
indicate. Though he told me the UUDPR's main short-term- that is, over
"the next several years"- goals are marijuana legalization and
decriminalization of other drugs, his e-mail stressing immediate goals
to his fellow UUs stated:

-"The general public is not yet ready for the long-term recommendations
in the … new Statement of Conscience (i.e., legalization,
decriminalization and medicalization). While we will spend some time
educating the public about these drug policy alternatives, our advocacy
work will focus primarily on the drug policy reform options that are
currently being given serious consideration by the public and various

Examples include: Medical marijuana; clean needle exchange; treatment
instead of incarceration; more effective drug education; and
eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences, racial profiling and
sentencing inequities, property forfeiture, and other excessively
punitive policies.

Therefore, even if you have some concerns about legalization,
decriminalization and medicalization, I encourage you to remain
involved with UUDPR. I'm sure that you'll be happy to find that most of
our action alerts will be on issues that you fully agree with."-

Soothing Ruffled Feathers

Such conciliatory muting of radical long-term goals might soothe the
feathers ruffled by the effort winning the statement's approval. (Rev.
Sinkford, who naturally doesn't want to see his term as the UU
Association president marred by contention, said the level of debate
was par for the course; Rev. Riley said the Quebec discussions were a
little more vigorous than usual.) For his part, Rev. McGee praised the
"healthy debate" and said his Arlington delegation agreed with most of
the statement. "But making all drugs available through a doctor goes
too far, we felt," said McGee.

He added that his members didn't have "much of a problem" with the
marijuana legalization goal. In a sermon this past January, he'd
stated, "The problem with the War on Drugs is that it does more harm
than do the drugs themselves." He then quoted prominent reform
advocates Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance and Nobel
laureate Milton Friedman and added, "The War on Drugs is in actuality a
war on minority groups."

But McGee expressed dissatisfaction with the process in Quebec, saying,
"It was not as transparent as it should be, and not as democratic as it
should be." Complaining that he didn't know who generated the original
statement first issued for individual congregations' consideration back
in 2001, he added, "We felt it was stacked against us." It was a less
than open debate, with no indication, said McGee, of who was commenting
on and revising the statement leading up to Quebec's deliberations.

Told of McGee's complaints, Sinkford replied, "It's very much a
democracy involving the free, responsible search for truth and meaning
by every individual."

Thomas noted that five UUs, under the auspices of the church's
Commission on Social Witness, produced three separate drafts of the
statement, the first circulating in mid-2001. The Comission on Social
Witness then sought input from every congregation in an attempt to
achieve some sort of consensus prior to June's conclave. As to McGee's
critique, Thomas said the Arlington delegates "offered a whole litany
of changes" in Quebec and "went there organized to try to gut it."
Declaring the spirited debate an appropriate part of the process,
Thomas said opponents' views were considered and rejected by the
General Assembly. He spoke at around a dozen UU congregations prior to
the GA, but failed in his attempts to gain an invitation to Arlington.

(Incidentally, the Arlington delegation included a high-level federal
official - someone involved in drug policy research and policy
formation, not law enforcement - who by dint of his position and
reputation, I believe is an overall supporter of current drug policy.
Of course, his efforts as a UU operating in this private realm to
influence the statement according to the dictates of his own conscience
are entirely appropriate.)

Flat-Out Marijuana Legalization

The statement flat out calls for marijuana's legalization, advocating,
"Establish a legal, regulated, and taxed market for marijuana. Treat
marijuana as we treat alcohol." (That this is the consensus different
factions can fall back on indicates the statement's uncompromising

John Chase is a board member of UUDPR as well as a pillar of reform
advocates, The November Coalition. Chase said, "If marijuana wasn't in
there, an awful lot of people would wonder why not." He felt conscience
did indeed mandate a call for pot's legalization as simply "the right
thing to do." Taking the long view, Chase noted that women's suffrage
took some sixty years of struggle to achieve, and pot's been illegal
for at least that long. In fact, UUs have been urging legalization for
some time, dating back to at least 1970, when (according to UUDPR) the
church issued a " ‘Marijuana Legalization' resolution support[ing] the
removal of criminal penalities for ‘growing, sale, trade and possession
of marijuana.' "

And the effort just might bear fruit before more decades of struggle
elapse. According to a poll commissioned by the National Organization
for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Foundation and released in December,
"61 percent of respondents said that in light of the increased
attention to the threat of terrorism since September 11, they oppose
arresting and jailing nonviolent marijuana smokers."

Surprisingly enough, a measure on the ballot this November in Nevada to
decriminalize possession of up to three ounces of marijuana seems, at
this writing, to be in a dead heat; its chances were recently boosted
by he since rescinded support from the board of the Nevada Conference
of Police and Sherriffs, the state's largest police organization.

Eric Sterling doubted that the marijuana plank of the UU platform would
create "broad opposition." And Cliff Thornton, president of the
Hartford, CT.-based reform advocacy group, Efficacy, Inc., (and not a
UU - as of yet) said most people looking at the issue "in earnest" are
looking to regulate marijuana in some fashion. Even Rev. McGee said
that his Arlington church members didn't have "much of a problem" with
the marijuana legalization goal, though he preferred some form of "full
decriminalization." After all, he observed, his use in college did him
no lasting harm.

This most widely used illegal drug raises another of the statement's
most controversial elements: the fact that there is no articulated age
limit below which any drug use is simply unacceptable. The church does
embrace the goal of "preventing consumption of drugs, including alcohol
and nicotine, that are harmful to the health of children and
adolescents." (Elsewhere, the statement refers to marijuana as a
"safer" - not safe - drug.) Drug warriors, of course, will reply that
all drugs are harmful, except of course the Ritalin and its ilk that
school districts - under the threat of banishment to special ed classes
- and parents alike foist on troublesome kids. For its part, UUDPR
advocates, "adequate supervision at gatherings of youth to ensure that
there is no non-medical drug use taking place."

Taking Real-World Drug Using Patterns Into Consideration

The church will soon incorporate a harm-reduction based drug education
curriculum as part of its religious education program, an effort (at
least compared to what's taught in public schools) perhaps as socially
advanced as the UU's sex education program was some thirty years ago.
Backed by national survey data, Thomas declared that a majority of high
school students do try drugs. Therefore they need a research-based
curriculum and "an open, honest discussion." Likening it to a safe sex
strategy, Thomas said, "To just say no and have no strategy for users
is what's extremely risky and detrimental." That is, users should be
approached with more than just attempts to hound them into sobriety -
whether through mandated treatment, kicking them off the chess or
football team, or denying federal loans for college.

For his part, Rev. McGee said, "That bothers me, that there's no line
in the sand. There needs to be a more precise age limit." His sermon to
his Arlington congregation declared: "The use of drugs, especially
those that are addictive, by our youth should be illegal. But the
punishment should not be so drastic that their lives are ruined if they
are arrested." I imagine McGee seeks reform of the Rockefeller drug
laws that ruin so many lives; I don't know whether he classifies
marijuana as ‘addictive.' But he does support harm-reduction education,
his sermon adding, "We need to provide our children with honest
information about all drugs, legal and illegal, and teach them how to
make rational and healthy decisions."

Thomas stresses harm reduction based on real-world drug use patterns
rather than specific age limits. With that lack of an aged-based line
in the sand, UUs part company with the stated positions of many of
their fellow reformers who've articulated policy for such organizations
as NORML, which unabashedly states that, "marijuana smoking is for
adults only, and is inappropriate for children." Allen St. Pierre,
NORML Foundation executive director, said that NORML basically leaves
it to society to define the consensual age limit as reflected by the
legal consumption of alcohol.

In the absence of any UU age-limit declaration, some rely on the
implicit. Cliff Thornton worked with Thomas and others on the
statement. He said, "Talking of responsible drug use involves
regulation and control, which means age limits. So a cut-off at age 18
is intended." John Chase figured that with the statement's provision to
treat marijuana like alcohol, "Age is not defined, but the inference is
strong that it's only for adults."

Asked about the ambiguous age limit, Rev. Sinkford, in effect, undercut
the statement's potential impact, saying it in and of itself does not
"attempt to write legislation." He added, "The hope is to shift our way
of responding to drug abuse to something more like alcohol and

Use, Abuse and Cognitive Liberty

If the position regarding youth use is open to interpretation, the
statement is clear in its rejection of the stark zero tolerance
policies that have sprung up in so many settings. It contends that use
"does not necessarily mean" abuse or addiction. Opining that any notion
of a drug-free society is "unrealistic," the statement calls for
understanding of those who "use drugs for relief or escape."

It adds, "The war on drugs has blurred the distinction between drug use
and drug abuse. Drug use is erroneously perceived as behavior that is
always out of control and harmful to others." Conflating all use with
abuse - certainly the attitude, divorced as it may be from reality,
which dominates official circles - allows, says the statement, for
scant "study, discussion, and consideration of alternatives by
legislative bodies."

Distinguishing between use and abuse raises the thorny issue of
cognitive liberty, the right to control one's consciousness.

As a people of faith, the statement says, "Through acceptance of one
another and the encouragement of spiritual growth, we should be able to
acknowledge and address our own drug use without fear of censure or

While implicit in the statement, the autonomy of one's own mind is not
articulated as such. Pragmatism being one of the burdens of his office,
that's OK with Rev. Sinkford. Asked about cognitive liberty, he said,
"I deplore the situations abusers find themselves in - we have to
wrestle with a response." Holding his feet to the fire on the topic
produced only: "I'm more inclined to focus on the outcomes of the war
on drugs, which have been quite simply a failure." Given the
government's current, overt attacks on civil liberties, (the issue to
be studied over the next two years for a GA statement in 2004),
Sinkford believes that the more abstract issue of cognitive liberty
will probably take a back seat.

Thomas maintains that zero tolerance policies are "antithetical" to
UUs' acceptance of one another. He added, "Trust in the transforming
power of love. Coercion and punishment mean you've given up hope in
human nature, in faith in God, in love that can cure."

Rather than punishment, the UUDPR site states that when drug use "is
having a quantifiable negative impact" on an individual, his family or
the congregation, he "should be confronted firmly but lovingly."
Rhetorical gloves off, Thomas said treating a health issue as a crime
posits an almost idolatrous relationship to a government improperly
granted the power to punish sin.

As to identifying ‘sinners,' the statement says that urine testing
should be "imposed only upon employees in safety-sensitive
occupations." Sterling, for his part, felt that went too far, given his
belief that testing "is appropriate in drug treatment and criminal
justice settings."

(The Supreme Court's recent endorsement of wide-spread drug testing of
any student involved in after-school activities will of course
back-fire, driving kids from pursuing interests shown to be the best
route to avoiding problems with drugs. Rev. Sturtevant referred to
Prohibition's unintended consequence of moving many drinkers from
(softer) beer to (harder) liquor, just as urine testing may now cause
kids to switch from the pot which lasts so incriminatingly long in
one's system to far more dangerous drugs.)

Smooth Stone or Wave Maker?

So is there any chance that all this isn't just a nice smooth stone
dropped in a deep dark well - that falling tree that no one hears?
Sterling felt the UU effort might have some impact on the drug-war
debate, "but it's unlikely to affect professional politicians."

In a political environment where the federal government uses taxpayer
funds to broadcast the notion that smoking pot funds terrorists, Thomas
acknowledged it's "a David and Goliath struggle. But one demonination
needs to take the lead." After two years focusing on getting the
statement passed, Thomas declares himself ready for "direct public
witness to the media and to public officials." Despite what he termed a
genuine consensus on the need for drug reform, McGee felt that, "9/11
changed the whole social justice agenda around."

Thornton said there are plans afoot for Charles Thomas, himself and
other activists to visit UU churches around the country. "But I don't
think [the statement] will have a monumental effect; I don't think
people will get up in arms." And John Chase, who'll also be speaking at
various congregations, admitted it's a "very small" church. Hoping for
some impact, but fearing there may be none, he's gonna "keep pressing."

Even McGee, despite his reservations, said, "We take the statement
seriously. It'll be part of the Religious Education curriculum, and
we'll devote time and energy and resources to it." Some of those
resources will be devoted to political dissemination, though the effort
in Washington will be primarily reactive rather than proactive. Without
the sheer political heft for daring offensive maneuvers, defense by
necessity becomes a virtue. Or, as Sinkford put it, "Alternative
religious voices are even more important as religious discourse has
been dominated the last several years by the religious right."

Rev. Meg Riley, director of the UU Washington office admits her's is a
largely reactive effort. She said, "When concrete legislation comes up,
like the Rave act [attacking music promoters], we'll write letters, use
list serves and engage people in our congregations." UUDPR's site
agrees that, "Even more often than the reform organizations are able to
pass good bills, they are able to defeat new bills which would make the
existing laws even harsher."

"We take the Statement of Conscience quite seriously and will use it as
opportunity for advocacy … to raise the issue and apply pressure,"
Sinkford maintained- necessary since, as he put it, open and honest
discussion of drug policy rarely happens today.

Specific issues Riley is hoping to move on include reforming the Higher
Education Act that denies federal loans to any college student with a
drug conviction, curbing racial profiling and addressing disparate
sentencing policy. All of these are more modest and politically
acceptable than the goal of marijuana legalization.

Thomas, however, has been rolling his boulder uphill a long time, and
he appreciates the need for incremental action. One chink in the armor
is a bill introduced in Congress by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) to
federally reclassify marijuana so as to be available with a doctor's
written prescription, thus ending federal prosecution of patients and
dispensaries that operate legally under state law in Maine and
throughout the West. In a late July e-mail to activists, Thomas
indicated his office will "be contacting UUs who live in the districts
of the 120 congressional ‘swing votes' on this issue." As to any
potential congressional vote this Fall on whether to permit voting on
or implementation of the D.C. medical marijuana initiative, Thomas
asked committed UUs to, "Encourage your minister and social action
coordinator to get involved. Perhaps print out a batch of pre-written
letters and set up a table at coffee hour to encourage others in your
congregation to sign them."

Then there's promulgation at the personal level. UUDPR says UUs can
push acceptance of "the worth and dignity of drug users," at such
events as parent-teacher meetings, scout meetings and with companies
doing drug testing. Asked about this potentially risky strategy, Thomas
said, "Spiritual leaders have the courage to go into the lion's den and
speak truth to power." Courage and truth alone, however, don't ensure
declawing that employer or (teacher-alerted) child welfare lion.

But, according to Methodist minister Janet Wolf: "Every voice matters.
Silence involves complicity with the way things are. UUs have a strong
history of challenging the system." She feels that just raising the
discussion that current policy is doing more harm than good is a huge

So does Judge Jim Gray, though even more emphatically. He said the UU
effort, "is pivotal. That this group with no axes to grind except what
they think is right is challenging the bureaucracy is rather radical."
Gray feels that once discussion challenging the basic premise of the
drug war is legitimized, "then the whole shooting match is over."

Looking for Allies

Small as it is, the church can hope to rely on its reputation, as
Quaker Eric Sterling put it, as "an influential denomination that's
highly regarded and highly active." Quoting Jesus's maxim that a bad
tree yields bad fruit, Thomas acknowledged that many other churches
"don't see the rotten tree of prohibition." Indeed, one of the giant
Baptist denominations won't be joining the reformers' ranks any time
soon. Thornton, who is black, said the statement won't have any impact
on black churches, "who don't know UUs." He added that some black
ministers are willing to provide him with a platform, "but they're not
ready to get out in front on this issue."

But there is real hope of alliance with some of the more liberal
Protestant churches, and even the U.S. Catholic bishops have landed
squarely on the safe ground of calling for "reduced penalities and more
treatment," according to the UUDPR site.

One possible ally is the 1.4 million member United Church of Christ,
which joined with the UUs on progressive sex education way back when.
Sinkford declared it, "our closest cousins, with the same roots in New
England." And Walter Wink, the Auburn Theological Seminary professor,
also thought the United Church of Christ a good candidate, sharing
forebears as it does with Unitarian Universalism, along with a "liberal
Protestant tradition" and a strong tradition of self-governing

United Church of Christ spokesperson Ron Buford said his church looks
forward to studying the UU statement since the current policy's
criminal justice implications trouble the UCC and may well be addressed
at its next synod. Echoing some of the UU statement's concerns, Buford
pointed out that many in the UCC feel that criminal penalties fall
inequitably on people of color. He added, "It also affects children, so
many of whom end up in foster care. Our feeling is we need to find
other solutions, including treatment rather than incarceration. There's
a disproportionate punishment for drug offenses when so much white
collar crime, for instance, is minimally punished given its
consequences for society."

Wink, a Quaker himself, noted that the Quakers passed a consensus
statement calling for drug reform back in the early 1990s. This June,
ABC reported that a Philadelphia-based, regional Quaker group,
along with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the UUs and the Progressive
Jewish Alliance all "lent their support to a call by the National
Coalition for Effective Drug Policies to redirect efforts to curtail
drug use."

Wink was also quite taken with Rev. Janet Wolf's group of liberal
clergy - "quality people with not many troops" in his view - who were
once prominent opponents of the war in Vietnam. Wolf says her group
began investing in community organizing staff around a year ago,
working to "be prophetic and bear witness" at the local level at
synagogues, mosques and churches. Saying that many congregations of all
stripes have little knowledge of drug issues beyond the NA meetings
they host, Wolf wants to define the local connection, such as how
mandatory minimum sentencing hurts individual communities. "Our task is
the theological issue of the squandering of lives of so many of God's
creatures who come out of jail with the same brokenness or worse."

James Russell Lowell, 19th-Century American poet, ardent abolitionist,
Unitarian and son of a Unitarian minister, phrased it a bit differently
in words the church has set to music. Hymn 119, Once to Every Soul and
Nation, reads in part: "Once to every soul and nation comes the moment
to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil
side…." It ends, the organ swelling, "Then it is the brave one chooses,
while the coward stands aside, till the multitude make virtue of the
faith they have denied."


Daniel Forbes  writes on social policy. His recent
report on state and federal political malfeasance geared to defeat
treatment rather than incarceration ballot initiatives was published by
the Institute for Policy Studies. Much of his work, including his
series in Salon that led to his testimony before both the Senate and
the House, is archived at

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Links from the above article:

Unitarian Universalist church

Statement of Conscience

Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform

Drug Crazy

Smoke and Mirrors

Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy

Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

Judge James P. Gray

Unitarian Universalist Association

The November Coalition

poll commissioned

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Foundation

measure on the ballot this November in Nevada

Cliff Thornton

Efficacy, Inc

cognitive liberty

Higher Education Act that denies federal loans

a bill introduced in Congress by Rep. Barney Frank

National Coalition for Effective Drug Policies

His recent report on state and federal political malfeasance geared to defeat treatment rather than incarceration ballot initiatives was published by the Institute for Policy Studies

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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake