AS MANY COUNTRIES MOVE TOWARDS a more enlightened and evidence-based approach to drug policy, with good results, the UK sadly clings to the harmful and unwinnable ‘War On Drugs’.
Indeed, the current government shows signs of doubling down and becoming even more regressive. Its recent white paper, Swift, Certain, Tough: New Consequences for Drug Possession so alarmed public health and criminal justice experts that over 500 of them signed an open letter to the Home Office, condemning its proposals.
As the experts explained: “The Home Office’s own research has stated that the £1.6 billion a year spent on drug law enforcement has little impact on drug availability. Home Office research has also concluded there are no clear links between intensity of punitive enforcement and levels of use. But punishment and criminalisation of people who use drugs has repeatedly been shown to undermine health and life opportunities of the most vulnerable individuals and communities, fuelling stigma and discrimination, and creating obstacles to proven health and social interventions. As drug related deaths reach new records, the Government should be targeting limited resources on health interventions proven to reduce harms. These proposals will do the opposite.”
Because addiction and the crime associated with the illicit drug trade has such a damaging impact on individuals, families and communities, government policy in this area would seem to be one in which the churches would be particularly engaged and vocal. The Church of England and other denominations have a strong track record on policy related to the harms of problem gambling, having been involved in detailed work on issues like Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. But when it comes to drugs, while churches and faith groups may do much work in supporting the victims of failed policies, they show little interest in addressing the problem at its root, by challenging the government’s approach. The pioneering work of the late Fr Kenneth Leech, who in 1998 managed to get drugs on to the Synod agenda with his paper, Drugs and the Church, seems to have been sadly neglected in the intervening years.
So it was very encouraging to see that last year, representatives of several denominations and Christian organisations gathered with drug policy experts to discuss, over two days, what they believed the Church’s position should be. The gathering at St George’s House was organised by Transform Drug Policy Foundation, with the involvement of Anyone’s Child, a network of families whose lives have been ruined by current drug laws and are now campaigning to change them.
The gathering resulted in an excellent paper, Drug policy and Christian ethics in which the discussions and eventual consensus of the group was summarised. This began with the statement: “We believe that drug prohibition in the UK has failed and has caused harm to many lives. Drug policies in the UK, and the Misuse of Drugs Act in particular, must be reformed as a matter of urgency. We believe that this is something which should be widely supported by people of the Christian faith.” This was followed by eight principles, rooted in Christian values, on which the participants believed future drug policy should be based.
One of the most interesting aspects of the paper is the discussion of the relationship between morality, theology, and legality. “The group further discussed whether it is easier for Christian communities to currently not query the law and to form their moral views around it. If the law says that drug use is illegal because, in principle, the law is there to protect, then the legal condemnation of drugs (prohibition) is supported. However, it was pointed out that this thinking leads to an uncritical approach to state and law. It shouldn’t be assumed that the law is necessarily always doing the right thing by society and members of the Christian faith should feel able to speak truth to power.”
This paper, written by Transform’s Ester Kincova, is a very welcome start to what I hope will become a much wider discussion, and perhaps be the foundation for a growing involvement in the debate on drug policy by churches in the UK.
For further inspiration, Christians could look to the US organisation Clergy for a New Drug Policy, which Ekklesia often links with through social media. Its Religious Declaration proclaims: “As voices of faith, we call for an end to the War on Drugs which the United States has waged, at home and abroad, for over 50 years. This War has failed to achieve its stated objectives; deepened divisions between rich and poor, black, white, and brown; squandered over one trillion dollars; and turned our country into a ‘prisoner’ nation.” It is worth noting that while the USA has one of the highest imprisonment rates per capita in the world, Scotland, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe.
It is this counterproductive use of prison sentences for drug use or possession which motivates many members of LEAP UK, a branch of the international Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Comprised of former and current members of the police, intelligence services, military and the criminal justice system, LEAP’s mission is to “reduce the multitude of harmful consequences resulting from our current drug policies” and advocate for evidence-based policies with a public health focus.
Given the disproportionate harms which current drug policy inflicts on the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, this is an area in which, by speaking truth to power, Christians could help achieve progress in both public health and social justice terms. It is an opportunity not to be missed.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden