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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."

How 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 socialwitness@uua.org.

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 discussions."

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 other denominations."

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 some policies."

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."

UU World XV:3 (July/August 2001): 54-55.

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