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Drug War Policy Sermon

[The following sermon text is reproduced by permission, and all of my annotations are italicized.  Although Rev. Schaibly never suggested it, I would like to ask that if you wish to support his ministry of great courage and truth, please send a contribution to the address below, or, better yet, visit any Sunday morning at 9:30 or 11:30 to make your donation in person.  Thank you very much.  -- webmaster]

Sermon on the Drug War Policy
Delivered by the Rev. Robert Schaibly on August 6, 2000
First Unitarian Universalist Church
5200 Fannin Street at Southmore, Houston, TX  77004-5899

My mother died of cancer last month.  She had been a smoker most of her life.  Because I suffer physically in the presence of smoke, and because I love my mother I have been interested in cigarette addiction.  She tried to stop a few times.  In early years her children chided her, but as time passed we surrendered.  She got down to filters and then down to the mildest o f the filtered cigarettes.  She was treated for breast cancer six years ago.  Cancer was found in her lungs and liver early this year.  Today the average American woman lives to the age of 77, and Mom almost made it.

During this time remarkable changes occurred in her family and in the nation.  President Nixon named the first Drug Czar.&nb sp; One of his first goals was to list drugs in order of their danger, but he was prevented from doing this because tobacco and alcohol were at the top of the list and far outpaced all the drugs that followed.  The New England Journal of Medicine then came out and said, "No one ever died from smoking marijuana."

At a personal level, in 1988 my mother was greatly pained that I was diagnosed with throat cancer and was treated.  As a result I became even more sensitive than before; even incense burning is an irritant.  At the national level warnings were put on cigarettes, and an honest fellow named Dr. Everett Koop became Surgeon General of the United States.  In 1988 he released findings that tobacco is as addictive as heroin in 1988 and this explained why mother's effort to stop smoking had failed.  [NYT, May 17, 1988]  Ex-heroin users regularly report that tobacco's grip is harder to break than heroin's.  The recidivism rate is 75% for both types of addicts, although about 50 million Americans had managed to quit by 1990, leading some to hope that this once socially approved habit was going to go the way of the spittoon.

At the local level, cities began to initiate clean indoor air policies for restaurants, airports, and other public buildings.  In the 1990s it became known that the tobacco industry had in fact manipulated the level of nicotine in cigarettes so as to catch customers.  People began suing tobacco companies.  Mother said it was wrong because decades ago everyone knew it affected our health adversely.  Because Mom died last month she missed reading about how tobacco companies pressured the World Health Organization, known as WHO, not to try to stop cigarette sales to third world countries.  They created front organizations, misrepresented research, pitted other organizations against the WHO, and lobbied to cut the organization's funding.  [See NYT Editorial, "An Ugly Move by Big Tobacco," August 3, 2000]  Indeed, years earlier tobacco companies had pressured the United States to apply sanctions to foreign companies that would not allow their product to be sold.  Foreign countries argued they simply cannot afford the care tobacco users require; they can't immunize their kids much less support a cancer center like M. D. Anderson.  Thailand was restricting American tobacco imports and advertising.  The American testified that this product is the best in the world, and the Thai representative replied, "Certainly in the Golden Triangle we have some of the best product [alluding to opium poppies], but we never ask the principle of free trade to govern such products.  In fact we suppressed them."  Dr. Everett Koop said before Congress, "When we are pleading with foreign governments to stop the flow of cocaine to our shores, it is the height of hypocrisy for the US to export tobacco."  [Quoted by Noam Chomsky in "The War on (Certain) Drugs," 1993]  We currently export American cigarettes as part of the Food for Peace program, and this export is subsidized.

Anthony Lewis, columnist for The New York Times, writes, "When you think of the relative harm done by tobacco and drugs, it is amazing that tobacco company executives are treated as respectable people.  They wear suits, and they have fine lawyers, but they do much more harm than drug peddlers."  (But of course they ARE drug peddlers.)

The other interesting sociological phenomenon that happened in the 1990s is pharmaceutical companies directly advertising their prescription drugs to us as the prospective patients.  This meant that we can read about drugs we might want, and ask our doctors -- and maybe pressure them -- for a prescription.

And this is my first point, and I do not expect all of you to buy it, but would you be open-minded enough to consider it as you read print media and advertising:  All these people are dealers who push their product.  But we in the United States deal well with tobacco because in spite of enormous propaganda from tobacco companies, we have good education on the subject, and adult smoking has declined.  425,000 deaths a year are attributed to smoking; 100,000 deaths a years are attributed to alcohol.  Incidentally, 45,000 people a year die from using prescription drugs and over the counter medications!

Many people have commented that throughout history humanity has used drugs and most of that time drugs were not outlawed.  For the most part it goes over our heads, because what most of us use is legal:  caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and for some Americans, cannabis -- about ten states have decriminalized possession of marijuana.  When I am ill I go the Medical Center, and get a prescription.  I forget that most of the people in the world have no access to such facilities.  When we use whatever drugs we use, for the purpose of reducing pain, relaxing muscles, restoring a sense of well being and pleasure, we may feel superior to others when in fact we are only more shielded by our privileges.

I was a minister in Chicago in the 1970s and Barbara Edgecombe was a parishioner who found the church.  She eagerly joined and later decided to go to seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister.  She has been a minister for over 15 years and she presently serves the congregation in East Lansing, Michigan.  In December of 1996 her townhouse was stormed by six police officers before breakfast.  She had only recently moved into the townhouse.  She was being treated for breast cancer with chemotherapy.  She told the police she had never heard of the man they were lookin g for.  Assuming she was protecting him, an officer ordered her to get down and he pushed on her back to make her lie on the floor.  "Please close the door, I'm in chemo and I'm terribly cold."&nbs p; He pushed her face into the carpet and did not close the door.  After concluding the man they sought was not there, they continued to question her and she explained she had no idea who he was.

After they left she was treated at the hospital for a sprained back that had many bruises on it.  The Head of the Narcotics Unit returned later that morning to assess property damages and to apologize for the unfortunate mistake.  He said the element of surprise is critical to drug busts, and that though they try to take every precaution, from time to time something like this happens.  His implication was that such assaults are the price we lawful citizens have to pay if we want to win the war against drugs.  Barbara's story is tame compared to the stories of people who have lost their lives by zealous enforcement agents.  Barbara says, "People are gradually becoming accustomed to the infringement on civil rights.  We aren't seeking alternatives."

Let me tell you about someone who is seeking alternatives.  If you do not already know her you must meet Frances Burford, a member of the Board of Trustees of First Church.  She wrote a study resolution for the Unitarian Universalist congregations of North America and it was passed at the last General Assembly.  It calls for the reformation of drug policy in an effort to reduce use , preserve and regain our rights as citizens under the Constitution, to stop scapegoating minorities, and stop interfering in the internal affairs of other nations.  The use of illegal drugs has put thousands of nonviolent people in jails and prisons.  The United States was contrasted with the nations that comprise the European Union.  Europe has 100,000,000 more people; the United States has 100,000 more prisoners.

We have two million prisoners.  Only Russia has a higher rate of citizens incarcerated.  Almost 60% of federal inmates are drug offenders -- half of them first time nonviolent offenders.

80% of all arrests are for possession of drugs.  44% of those are for possession of marijuana.

Most of the prisoners are black, 2/3rds of them, although overwhelmingly users are white.  (Only 13% of the regular users are black.)  Our punishment is not only disproportionate to the crime, our enforcement is racist.  The same amount of crack used in an urban setting is more s everely punished than cocaine used in a suburban setting.

Our prisoners directly cost the government $23,000 a year each, and indirectly cost the nation broken families and lost income and governmental subsidies if the breadwinner is in jail.

So Frances Burford has prodded the UUs [Unitarian Universalists] to honor our covenant to be open-minded and honest.  This is part of a growing national movement.  Walter Cronkite -- I digress momentarily to tell you his father was a Montrose physician and president of the Board of this church during the 1930s, and we have the 16 year old Walter's signature in the Membership Book from that time -- Walter Cronkite has asked for a non-partisan blue ribbon commission to do the same kind of study.  Neither the Republican nor the Democratic parties will touch it, yet.

But things grow worse year by year.  We certify nations that are our allies in the drug war.  We certified Mexico in spite of evidence that Mexico is a primary transit route for cocaine and a major producer of marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines.  It is ironic that we should have a system of certification and decertification; it allows the drug consuming United States to vilify those who supply its drugs.  Very soon President Clinton will visit Colombia for a day to highlight the gift of over a billion dollars to help Colombia fight drugs.  We insist that countries spend their resources to stop drug production, even as we insist that countries let our tobacco companies advertise and sell cigarettes.  This is one reason we are called the arrogant Americans.

My heart goes out to the people of Colombia, a nation one and a half times the size of Texas.  What is happening is exactly what the Nobel Prize winning novelist from Colombia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, feared five years ago.  [NYT, March 11, 1995]  "My worry is that the United States will use the fight against drug trafficking as a pretext for intervention.  The addicts supply themselves as easily as buying milk or newspapers.& nbsp; And yet we are accused of not doing enough against drug trafficking."  He said drug trafficking is deforming Colombian society .  "The notion of easy money is Colombia's worst problem."  What ought to happen?  In 1995 Garcia Marquez said, "All the money that Colombia invests in fighting drugs ought to be invested in the U.S. to research synthetic cocaine."  Then, just as outlaw gardeners took away the marijuana business from Colombia, outlaw American chemists could take away the cocaine business!

With the new grant from America the rebels and the Army will fight more fiercely than ever, applying pressure to the common people who wish only to raise their children and work and live their lives.  We here in Houston can expect another wave of immigrants desperate just to earn a living in safety.

If all Colombia were defoliated, there would still be drug production someplace.  The idea is flawed; we cannot win a war against suppliers because there is no end to suppliers, the profits are so attractive.  It is like fighting the primary principle of capitalism:  the demand is high; the profits are so tremendous that you can lose 75% of your product and still make lots of money; the product is cheap to produce and easy to transport.  [The Nation, April 28, 1997]

Although we have destroyed thousands of acres of coca, farmers planted new coca faster than existing crops were eradicated and production jumped 15%.  The global production of opium doubled in ten years in spite of agreements that Turkey honored not to grow poppies.  We cannot stop suppliers.  We cannot seem to reduce the quantity.  An economist calculates that if we could "seize an inconceivable 50% of the cocaine shipped from Colombia this would add less than 3% to the retail price in this country.  The effect on drug use in the United States would be barely perceptible."

The government released a fact sheet on the war on drugs earlier this year.  While the federal budget to fight drugs went from one and a half billion dollars a year up to 16 billion dollars a year, the price of one gram of pure cocaine fell from $300 in 1981 to $100 in 1997.  For heroin the price fell from $3,500 to $1,100.  Only marijuana has gotten more expensive, but at the same time it has become more potent.  Drugs are at least as plentiful as ever if not more so.

The philosopher George Santayana said, "Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim."  That describes us.  We were only trying to protect human life and reduce crime.  But what have we wrought?

The Quaker Walter Wink writes, "It is a spiritual law that we become what we hate.  Jesus articulated this law in the Sermon on the Mount when he admonished, 'Do not react violently to the one who is evil.'  The sense is clear:  do not let evil set the terms of your response.  Applied to the drug issue, this means, 'Do not resist drugs by violent methods.' " [Friends Journal, February, 1996]

During these 20 years of the Drug War the prison population more than doubled; in February it crossed the two million- person mark and the bulk of the increase is from drug convictions.  Local jails hold more than another half million persons.  Quite often prison guards are identified as dealing drugs in the prisons themselves!

And this is why we say the policy must be abandoned.  Perhaps you here today are in different places on a spectrum that goes from being worried about drug use and its connection to domestic violence and babies born addicted, to those of you who may be libertarians and want no controls.  Most people are frightened of legalization because it will mean greater drug use for at least a short time.  Most Americans still think legalization would constitute surrender to immorality; some may see drug use as sanctioned, but probably it will be at least as socially disapproved as cigarette smoking is.  We were in Amsterdam a few weeks ago and as you may know, pot and hashish are available in some coffeehouses.  Some shops sell other drugs for mood changing.  Almost no crime and I think no violence is associated with drug use there, in spite of the fact that the country's reputation undoubtedly attracts visitors whose intent is to do drugs.  In England doctors prescribe heroin for addicts and there too the crime that normally finances drugs is low.  One addict said, "For once we could work and live like humans."&n bsp; We can't help thinking how many American addicts could work and live like human beings if they did not need to prostitute themselves or steal to feed a habit.

Many people are advocating a policy called "harm reduction," which seeks to limit the damage from both the war against drugs and the consequences of drug use.  Harm reduction would mean treatment on demand when an addict is done for, it would mean more education, honest education about responsible use that kids now lack, methadone clinics, and the needle exchanges that a dozen agencies and two Surgeons General have advocated.

These drug-supplying countries are poor.  The effect of their putting money into fighting drugs at our insistence is disastrous; it is pouring money down a hole rather than investing in social needs.  Democracy is undermined by the great bribes paid to elected and appointed officials by drug cartels.  [Eve Bertram and Kenneth Shape in The Nation.]  One might argue the same thing here:  10% of the Miami police department has been fired for corruption related to drugs.  [Bruce Southworth]

But even in rich America some citizens are looking askance at the price of the drug war.  Confiscated drugs are sometimes missing, beginning with 80 pounds of heroin in the custody of the NYC PD taken from a storeroom only the police have access to.  [Chicago Sun Times, "More heroin missing in New York," Dec. 16, 1972]  Such stories abound.

In psychotherapy change can occur when a feeling of safety is established and we know we can talk about our issues.  But we do not have even that.  When Clinton's Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested we study alternatives including legalization she was attacked from all over and her boss declared he would never even study the issue.  The fear is too great.  If we could at least talk about it, we might reach the next step and own the fact that the problem is ours, not Colombia's, not Turkey's, not anyone else's but ours.  We would have to own the fact that we have a problem with drugs.  And then we would be open to exploring the possibility of changes that would please us.

Thirty years ago Consumers Union called for the legalization of marijuana [Wash. Post, Nov. 28, 1972] and in 1978 President Jimmy Carter asked Congress to allow adults to grow and buy and consume cannabis in appropriate settings.  Seventy million Americans admit to having tried it.  [Marijuana Policy Project, 1999]  Both leading presidential candidates apparently have experience with illicit drugs.  So does that mean we can talk about it?  Well, they think they can't but you can.  The issue transcends partisan politics.  The National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr., has written, "It is our judgment that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states."  [Reported by Anthony Lewis in NYT, Feb. 5, 1996.]  Governor Johnson, Republican of New Mexico, braves the indignation of the drug warriors saying, "You're going to get a critical mass here, and all of a sudden it's just going to topple."

There's a Houston chapter of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas.  It meets every third Monday at 7 p.m. in Room 302, right here at First Church.  If we educate ourselves and if we educate our community, we can connect with enough people to create that critical mass, and it's just going to topple.

The Economist magazine of London wrote about the war on drugs, "That misguided policy has put millions of people behind bars, cost billions, encouraged crime and spread corruption while failing completely to reduce drug abuse."  Yes.

The drug war policy is immoral and must be reformed.  Amen.


[At this point in both the 9:30 and 11:30 church services, applause erupted spontaneously.  -- webmaster]

Addenda [by Rev. Schaibly in the printed edition]

There wasn't time to make the points that Mandatory Sentencing has angered many judges and triggered the resignation of at least one, US District Court Judge J. Lawrence Irving of San Diego; that there is no deterrent effect:  "It found to the contrary, that states with higher incar ceration rates also had higher rates of drug use."  [Anthony Lewis, NYT, July 29, 2000]  There was a scandal January through March 2000 that government had paid for anti-drug stories on television and in magazines, both questioning the truthfulness of what we are taught, and the integrity of the editors responsible.  The Houston Chronicle, Monday, August 7, 2000, has a front page story about the corruption of paid informants in drug cases and a sheriff's deputy who imported great quantities of marijuana and cocaine for the purpose of capturing dealers, addicts, etc.  The columnist, Arianna Huffington, commented on the horror expressed by many, politicians in particular, at the raid on the home of the uncle of Elian Gonzales, Cuban child held hostage in Miami; she said that raid was nothing compared to regular raids by Drug Enforcement agents!

 [Note:  Videotapes of this excellent sermon are available for a donation of $10.00 or more, which includes priority mail.  Contact sermon@dpft.org for details.]

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