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July 21, 2004 - United Press International (UPI)

Drug War Light On Compassion

A UPI Outside View commentary

By Paul Armentano

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Washington, DC, Jul. 21 (UPI) - Listen to George W. Bush speak about substance abuse is like listening to a preacher-not a president.

Previous administrations framed drug policy in secular terms, like the Reagan administration's "Just Say No" campaign. Bush's drug war rhetoric resembles that used in religious crusades.

"There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar," Bush told author David Frum in his 2003 biography "The Right Man." "I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the powers of prayer."

Examining the administration's anti-drug strategies makes it clear Bush believes what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Since establishing his Faith-based and Community Initiatives program in 2001, Bush has liberally granted federal dollars to drug treatment and education groups reliant on religious transformation-not medical treatment and counseling -- to combat drug use.

One particular group endorsed by Bush, the Set Free Indeed ministry in Baton Rogue, La., states: "We rely solely on the foundation of the Word of God to break the bands of addiction. Once a person ... recognizes that only God can set them free, the rebuilding process can begin."

Bush has also embraced the grass-roots anti-drug campaign "Pray for the Children," which maintains, "The power of prayer is unequaled" in influencing adolescents from refraining from drug use.

Regarding the administration's endorsement of the program, Drug Enforcement Administration head Karen Tandy explained, "Drug abuse is a scourge that attacks a person's soul as well as body, so it's fitting that the solution should engage the soul as well."

Most recently, the president launched "Faith. The Anti-Drug," a multi-million-dollar campaign to encourage the religious community to incorporate marijuana and drug abstinence into their spiritual teachings.

"The sustaining power of faith is a safety zone in times of temptation," the campaign's materials state. "The teen whose faith is strong can visualize (God's) higher plan and say with confidence: No thanks, I don't do drugs.'"

But while Bush's religious conversion helped him overcome his own drug addiction, critics argue that the administration's "born again" anti-drug agenda harms more than it helps.

"Religious drug treatment programs (like those favored by Bush) turn back the medical clock to the 19th century," says Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network, whose membership includes more than 7,500 religious and community leaders.

"The president values programs that say: 'We can pray you out of your addiction' more than programs that say: 'we will treat your addiction with counseling, medical treatment and spirituality.' Even more outrageous is his insistence that taxpayers foot the bill for his dangerous approach."

That is not to say there exists no place for spirituality in the ongoing drug policy debate. As Charles Thomas, founder of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative, writes in the May/June issue of the interfaith journal Fellowship, religious faith can play a pivotal role in drug policy -- though not necessarily in the way Bush decrees.

Faith teaches that it's essential that U.S. drug laws be just and compassionate, says Thomas. "People of faith may play an essential role in building public support for treating drugs as a health issue instead of a crime. Regardless of whether or not it's immoral to use drugs, it certainly is wrong to punish people solely for using drugs. Personal morality issues should be addressed by the faith community and family, not by cops, courts and prisons."

The president, however, has escalated criminal drug law enforcement during his presidency and overseen the arrests of nearly 5 million people in the United States for drug crimes-most for no more than minor drug possession.

Regrettably, like the Crusades of old where religious transformation typically occurred "by fire and sword," this administration ultimately believes that today's drug users federally ordained path to redemption is best achieved by way of a jailhouse conversion.

(Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation in Washington. The NORML Foundation is a sister organization to National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which works for the "repeal of marijuana prohibition." Armentano can be contacted at

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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