"New occasions teach new duties..."

By Rev. Howard Moody

The above are words from an old hymn but they could not be more contemporary than when applied to the illegal drug problem in this country. Few social problems in modern times have been so resistant to solution and so subject to misunderstanding as that of narcotic addiction and how to treat it. Years of research and study have only taught us how little we know. In the face of its intractability and complexity we have grasped at one facile solution after another for the past 75 years. Periodically, the media hypes and the politicians sound off about "the narcotic problem." Some years it is America's #1 social issue, then another time it fades into memory. But when people clamor for a new solution or something that succeeds in a world of unending failures, the politicians either clam up or appropriate millions for interdiction, new prisons, tougher penalties.

But then, any good politician knows what people are clamoring for. There never was a Caesar worth his salt who didn't know when to give his people circuses. The problem with circuses, instead of solutions, is that they are dangerous digressions that prevent us from dealing with reality. And the reality is, for example, in New York City there are probably 300,000 addicts and there are 30,000 treatment slots; and that comes from a fundamental but erroneous belief that drug abuse is a criminal act which calls for more jails rather than an illness which calls for more medical treatment.

The reality is, we have a monumental medical emergency called HIV/AIDS, and thousands of young adults (mostly African-American and Hispanic) are dying; the reality is that the largest number of drug users and abusers in the U.S. are white, but the ones getting persecuted, prosecuted and put away are members of an impoverished minority; the reality is that we have demonized and dehumanized the drug abuser so that unjust laws and "cruel and unusual punishment" are what he/she deserves.

How can ministers, priests, rabbis and Imams stand by in the face of such intolerable injustice to a small minority? Do we not have some God-given responsibility to educate ourselves and our congregations and to give some rational and compassionate voice of protest against the mindless and unmerciful law being used to make criminals out of "sick people"?

Do we, the servants of a just and loving God, have a primary obligation to speak up and help create a new climate of public opinion whereby our laws may be reformed so as to deal realistically and humanely with the victims of addiction? There are no simple solutions, but we need to clear the atmosphere of futility and resignation that have kept us repeating past failures, and contribute hope to counter the deadly fatalism that results in highly punitive laws and harsh penalties.

This is what our new recruitment campaign is about. This is the time for leaders of all faith groups to come forward and speak the voice of morality and conscience which has for far too long been silent.

Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy
237 Thompson Street
New York, NY 10012
Web: religiousleaders.home.mindspring.com
E-mail: religiousleaders@juno.com