Drug Use – A Health & Social Crisis

When faith engages with politics, there is almost always friction and, frequently, collision. Add into the mix a social issue reaching across lives, across social and cultural boundaries and it may almost seem like a blood sport.

The challenge is that politics works most simply when there are two sides, the wrong and the right, and we are invited, indeed compelled, to choose.

The consequences of faith are rarely so simple.

I follow Jesus, who commands me to love God, to love my neighbours, and to love my enemies. This leads to a challenge more profound than politics and deeply searches what makes us human and how we care for each other.

The politics of drug legislation are frequently conducted in loud voices, with stereotypes of addicts and crime readily available. The truth of those who are trapped in drug use – legal and illegal, dependent and recreational – is far more complex, far more human and far closer to each of us than we dare admit.

At some point, our society decided that harmful drugs like alcohol and tobacco could be legal, despite the damage they cause. Other dangerous drugs, like cannabis, heroin and ice are illegal, because we want to send a message about their risk.

The act of jailing someone for possessing a small quantity of these substances for personal use misunderstands the consequences of that decision. It also adds exponential harm to someone’s life, destroying options for some and offering little prospect of recovery for others.

Let me be clear: these drugs should be illegal and anyone profiting from their supply or sale should be punished appropriately under the law.

What if we understood people using drugs to be trapped in addiction, or using because of their pain? Can we understand drug use of all kinds as an example, among many, of human imperfection?

Addiction is a devilish brain disease.  It is a health and social problem which is shared by people each one of us knows and loves. We know it applies not just to illegal drugs but to alcohol, gambling and prescription drugs.

The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection. Yes, we need more treatment for addiction, but we also need more connected communities.

Johan Hari, Chasing the Scream

The first commandment of Jesus I mentioned earlier actually says “love your neighbour as you love yourself”, which reflects an astonishing depth of human understanding. If we attend to our neighbour, understanding their frailties (and capacities) because we understand our own weaknesses and strengths, how might our approach change?

The voice of faith is not the only one crying out for change. The Uniting Church (NSW & ACT) has spearheaded a campaign for over three years to make drug legislation fairer and to increase funding for treatment.

The Fair Treatment campaign now has more than sixty partners across law, medicine, the labour movement, community groups and treatment providers. These include the NSW Bar Association, Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, Australian Salaried Medical Officers’ Federation of NSW, Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace, National Zakat Foundation, NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association.

Commissioner Dan Howard conducted the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice and handed his Report to government in January 2020. For twenty months it has been gathering dust.

The campaign, like the Uniting Church, lives very much in the real world. The world of human frailty.  The world of compassion and forgiveness. The world where we walk – as congregations and individuals – the extraordinary path of loving our neighbours as we love ourselves.

We are calling for the money which is expended on punishing those caught in addiction to be used in treating addiction as a health and social problem.

Our current system clearly discriminates. It is extremely rare to find a privileged white person who has a criminal record for personal drug use. It is more common to find those who are poor and those who are on the margins of society to be incarcerated under this system, not least Aboriginal people and those who are homeless.

People will use drugs. More than 40% of adults have at some point in their lives. Many of them will be people close to us. We need a system – social and political – which offers people the possibility of restoration and life, and not punishment. We know our current system is not serving us well, least of all those who need it most.

This is not an easy path. Faith and justice rarely offer us convenience.

We are calling our community, and our political leaders, to consider how we might offer healing to people caught in drug addiction.

Hope lifts our heads, not fear.

This was written as an opinion piece during the drug decriminalisation debate.