Politics

Decriminalization for Dummies: A Faithful Catholic Approach to Drug Policy Reform

A response to Jeremy Lott’s “Bongs for Bishops?”

Man smoking marijuana 004

Prensa 420

With a bare majority of Americans supporting drug legalization, Jeremy Lott’s recent article "Bongs for Bishops" is right in asserting that the Catholic Church should enter the drug debate sooner rather than later.

The thrust of his argument is that 1) the Obama administration is inevitably moving towards drug legalization, 2) the Church should consider legalization because marijuana is an exception to the Church’s teaching on drugs, and 3) there are significant problems surrounding drug prohibition that could be resolved, in part or in whole, through drug legalization.

Although his recognition of the shortcomings of prohibitionist logic is noteworthy, his brief piece lacks the necessary nuance to explicate a proper approach for the formation of an optimal drug policy. Indeed, the terminological imprecision of Lott’s argument – further hampered by the ambiguity of the drug debate lexicon – leads him to reach a faulty conclusion by conflating the merits of drug legalization with those of simple drug decriminalization.

To be fair, current domestic drug policy is in desperate need of reform; the long-term effects of prohibition have left much to be desired. Imprisonment for drug crimes has disproportionately affected racial minorities, and incarceration provides few opportunities for uneducated and unskilled inmates to escape the drug economy. A 2011 Pew survey illustrated that 40 percent, or two in every five convicts, will return to jail within three years. Nearly 80 percent of drug users will commit a new crime, and 95 percent will relapse into drug abuse. Additionally, the US economy loses $193 billion in crime, health, and lost economic activity each year due to the War on Drugs.

Lott’s proposed panacea is the legalization of drugs, regulated and taxed by state and federal governments to provide an additional source of income. Theoretically, legalization would end the overcrowding of prisons, the unjust mass incarceration of minorities, and the high recidivism rate by no longer making drug use, possession, trafficking, or sale arrestable offenses. The main problem with this approach from a Catholic perspective is that drug use, abuse, dealing, and trafficking are all “gravely immoral” and should neither be encouraged nor condoned.

A number of viable alternatives exist to the equally deplorable options of legalization and prohibition, including the decriminalization of marijuana and the systematic rehabilitation and re-education of marijuana users. Used here, decriminalization means the removal of criminal penalties from drug possession and usage; marijuana possession and use would remain illegal but penalties like imprisonment would be replaced by administrative offenses (fines, community service, or other non-criminal penalties) while the sale and trafficking of drugs would still be treated as criminal offenses. Lott fails to make this distinction, thus overlooking decriminalization as an approach that simultaneously upholds Catholic teachings while mitigating most of the problems arising from prohibition.

First, it is curious that Lott continually implies the inevitability of drug legalization under the Obama administration. The official White House policy on drugs states the exact opposite in no uncertain terms. It seems that despite Obama’s copious personal experience with marijuana, pot is more socially harmful than he previously conceived.

Lott buttresses his argument by citing the Obama administration’s Clemency Project 2014. The Clemency Project shortened the sentences of low-level, non-violent offenders by retroactively applying more recently passed laws; most of these offenders were previously convicted under