Why Marijuana Decriminalization Should Be a Christian Issue

Last week, the Economist published an article illustrating a widespread failure of American Christianity. Entitled "Rough Justice" with the subheading "America locks up too many people, some for acts that should not even be criminal," the article detailed the practice of mass incarceration and revealed some startling facts: 1 in 100 American adults is living behind bars. When we narrow the field to young black men, it's 1 in 9. Put another way, we have incarcerated 1 percent of our neighbors.

Our war on drugs is one of the leading contributors. Those who insist that the United States is a "Christian nation" would be hard-pressed to find evidence for it in our nation's drug policy, which condemns millions of our neighbors to be warehoused behind bars for nonviolent offenses. The Economist article brings to light a systemic denial of Christian love and compassion, particularly toward those struggling with addiction.

But on the same day the Economist published "Rough Justice," something else happened that few would immediately associate with the biblical command to love our neighbor: the California Affiliates of the ACLU endorsed Proposition 19, the ballot initiative to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Christian communities looking for a smarter, more compassionate, and more successful way forward in fighting drug addiction would do well to consider the merits of marijuana decriminalization.

The ACLU has long recognized that prosecution of marijuana crimes is among the most successful vehicles of mass incarceration that unfairly targets minorities. According to a statement from the ACLU of Southern California, California made 60,000 marijuana arrests in 2008, the majority of them young men of color. In Los Angeles County the marijuana possession arrest rate of African Americans is more than 300 percent higher than the same arrest rate of whites, although blacks made up less than 10 percent of the county's population, according to a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance. The same report also reveals that more white youth use marijuana than black youth, despite the dramatically skewed arrest rates.

Communities of faith have historically offered a different response to drugs, leading the charge when it comes to meaningful treatment for addiction. At the core of the Christian tradition is the belief that redemption is available to all, which is precisely why the two greatest commandments are so alike: loving God with all your heart is like loving your neighbor as yourself because God's love is equally available to you and your neighbor, no matter who you are or what you have done. Many Christian communities bring this conviction to action when it comes to drug addiction, opening their doors to clinics and 12-step programs and providing direct services like addiction treatment and counseling -- programs rooted in the value of compassion.

Yet that value of compassion, the belief in redemption, and the love of our neighbors as ourselves are all conspicuously absent from the practice of mass incarceration, the criminal justice system's answer to the problem of drug addiction. While treatment programs work towards healing, reconciliation, and empowering people with the tools to build a healthy life, incarceration only puts those goals farther out of reach.

California's marijuana policy is no different. Even a misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest can prevent someone from obtaining a job, a home, and even educational loans. By making employment and education even more difficult, this punitive approach to drug abuse all but eliminates the basic tools for pulling oneself out of the pit of addiction and into a sustainable healthy lifestyle. Often this leads to further drug use, crime, and ultimately incarceration.

A profoundly different response to sin is modeled by the Incarnation. In becoming human, Christ entered a broken world and took the burden of sin upon himself. He embraced sinners with open arms, using fellowship and love to offer a way out of sin and a path toward healing. Ultimately, the purpose of the Incarnation is to offer redemption and salvation to any and all sinners who accept the offer. This is the lynchpin that holds the two greatest commandments together. If we truly love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, we inevitably turn to our neighbors and reflect God's Incarnational acceptance by loving them as we love ourselves.

California's Proposition 19 provides one unlikely opportunity to live out this Incarnational model. Far from signaling a Christian approval of using marijuana, Christian advocacy for decriminalization signals disapproval of the retributive response to drug abuse. Incarceration must be reserved for those who present real threats to the public safety of our communities, not for individuals struggling with addiction and marijuana abuse. As Christians, we already know the compassionate response to addiction is far more successful as a road to healing than the retributive one. Yet each year the prohibition of marijuana sends tens of thousands of youth -- disproportionately black youth -- into a cycle of incarceration and addiction with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Locking our up neighbors without a way to work towards healthy lives is a fundamental denial of compassion and love. Decriminalizing marijuana closes one pipeline into that cycle and makes it possible for more people to receive meaningful drug treatment. Prop 19 is about more than freeing up jail beds and raising tax revenue; it's about firmly standing by the value of compassion and refusing to address social problems by locking our neighbors behind bars. Throwing away the lives of young people as a response to smoking marijuana only engenders a far greater sin than drug abuse.

"Love your neighbor as yourself" should not be seen as a personal virtue to be checked at the door of the county courthouse. Christian communities already provide perhaps the nation's largest network of drug-addiction programs rooted in compassion and love. It's time they advocated for public policies that align with those same values.