By Bob Smietana
The Rev. Edwin Sanders says churches should help heal the sick, feed the hungry and set prisoners free.
Even if they smoke pot.
Sanders, pastor of Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, is part of a group of clergy who want to end the war on drugs by decriminalizing drug use. They met this week in Nashville at American Baptist College.
Sanders said the so-called war on drugs has failed for two reasons. First, he said, addiction to drugs is a disease, not a crime.
"You don't criminalize and incarcerate people who have a disease," Sanders said. "You treat and care for them."
Second, Sanders said, the laws on drug use aren't enforced fairly. A report from the ACLU of Tennessee released Thursday showed that black Tennesseans are arrested on marijuana possession charges four times as often as whites. About 45 percent of those arrested for marijuana-related crimes are black, even though blacks make up about 17 percent of the state's population.
The war on drugs has led to mass incarceration of young black men, said the Rev. Forrest Harris, president of American Baptist College.
"The war on drugs is a moral injustice," he said.
Ethan Nadelmann of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates decriminalizing drug use, was one of the guest speakers at the conference, which ended Friday.
He said pastors and many other Americans, especially in the South, believe drugs are inherently evil. That's why jailing people for using them sounds so appealing.
"Deep down, we believe that putting these drugs in our bodies is a sin," he said.
Punishing people for alleged sins didn't work during Prohibition, Nadelmann said, and it doesn't work now.
Support growing for legalizing pot
A growing number of Americans seem to agree with Nadelmann. A Pew Research Center Poll released in April found that 52 percent of Americans polled supported legalizing marijuana use. That's up from 41 percent in a similar poll in 2010.
Nadelmann said 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, allow medical marijuana, and at least another dozen states no longer consider possession of small amounts of marijuana a crime.
The Rev. Enoch Fuzz of Corinthian Baptist Church in Nashville, who was not at the conference, was skeptical about legalizing drugs. Instead, he wants to see more money spent on treatment. He also would like the police to focus more on major drug dealers and less on the people who use drugs.
"We need to keep it criminal and increase our efforts to catch the big-time dealers, who are making all the money," he said.
Clergy at the conference said the consequences of a drug arrest can last long after a person gets out of jail.
Many drug convictions are felonies, and those with felony convictions have a harder time finding jobs or housing, lose their voting rights and sometimes are disqualified from getting financial aid if they want to go to college.
Pastor says hunger, war on drugs linked
A new proposal in the Senate would bar felons from getting food stamps, said the Rev. Derrick Boykin, associate for African-American leadership outreach at Bread for the World, an anti-hunger organization.
Boykin said Bread for the World doesn't have a position on decriminalizing drug use. But he argues that there's a link between the war on drugs and hunger.
When parents go to jail for possessing drugs, family members are left to fend for themselves. They lose the parent's income, so there's not as much money coming in to pay for essentials like food or housing.
Cutting off food stamps because of a felony conviction would hurt families, he said - "they won't be able to put food on the table."
This week's meetings were sponsored by American Baptist, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, a San Francisco-based network of progressive African-Ameri-can churches.
The Proctor Conference also has published Bible studies based on a book, "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander, which criticizes the war on drugs because of racial disparities in those jailed for drug arrests.
For many of the three dozen or so participants at the conference, the topic of drug arrests had a personal side. Members of their churches have been jailed for drug offenses as young men, and those arrests have haunted those men for years.
The Rev. John Jackson from Trinity United Church of Christ in Gary, Ind., who is a former Chicago police officer turned pastor, said there has to be a better alternative to jail time for drug use.
"God does not care if you smoke weed," he said. "God is not that petty."