Faith-Based Drug Wars: Bush Recruits Religious Youth Groups as Ground Troops for the 'Drug Wars'
by Bill Berkowitz
August 21, 2003
What do advocating "religious hiring rights," a $4 billion workplace retraining bill, and the war on drugs have in common? The short answer: Bring on the faith-based organizations!
Although more than 30 months have passed since President Bush announced the centerpiece of his domestic agenda -- his faith-based initiative -- and no significant broader efforts to fund his initiative has emerged from Congress, the administration continues to move ahead on a number of fronts.
Bush's latest faith-based proposal involves enlisting religious youth groups in the war on drugs. According to the Washington Times, the administration recently printed 75,000 copies of a guidebook to the drug wars called "Pathways to Prevention: Guiding Youth to Wise Decisions." The 100-page pamphlet "seeks to teach youth leaders how to handle questions and concerns about substance abuse." In addition to the publication, there's a new Web site and an e-mail newsletter.
The new anti-drug project is built around three premises which are spelled out in a fact sheet titled "Marijuana and Kids: Faith":
1) "Religion plays a major role in the lives of American teens;"
2) "Religion and religiosity repeatedly correlate with lower teen and adult marijuana and substance use rates and buffer the impact of life stress which can lead to marijuana and substance use;" and
3) "Youth turn to faith communities… [but] most faith institutions [with]… youth ministries [do not]… incorporate significant teen substance abuse prevention activities."
Krissy Oechslin, assistant director of communications at the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, the nation's largest marijuana policy reform organization, is concerned about the faith-based effort. "We do not oppose efforts to teach kids the truth about drugs. But the one thing that will likely be conspicuously missing from this faith-based initiative is any discussion about the effects of our drug laws," Oechslin told me in a telephone interview.
"You can talk all you want about prevention and reducing demand but the fact of the matter is, nearly 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana violations in 2001; nearly 90% of those were for simple possession," Oechslin pointed out. "Despite the fact they are in a religious setting, they will likely avoid significant ethical questions raised by the drug wars, such as whether kids should be put into prison for using marijuana. If you talked with John Walters about this he would probably say that these kinds of questions are irrelevant to the conversation."
Bush's faith-based anti-drug effort is the latest in a series of moves advancing his faith-based initiative. In late-June, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Organizations spelled out its position on a concept called "religious hiring rights." In a position paper titled "Protecting the Civil Rights and Religious Liberty of Faith-Based Organizations: Why Religious Hiring Rights Must Be Preserved," the administration argued religious organizations that receive government grants should be allowed to hire anyone they darn well please.
At least two pieces of legislation with "religious hiring rights" provisions are currently under consideration by Congress: "The School Readiness Act of 2003," H.R. 2210, allows religious organizations receiving government funds to provide Head Start services to discriminate in their hiring practices; and the $4 billion Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act -- passed by the full House on a party-line 220-204 vote -- also included a similar faith-based exemption.
'Faith: The Anti-Drug'
At a press conference surrounded by Christian, Jewish and Islamic community leaders, John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said: "Faith plays an important role when it comes to teen marijuana prevention. We are urging youth ministers, volunteers and faith leaders to integrate drug prevention messages and activities into their sermons and youth programming and are providing them with key tools and resources to make a difference.
"As long as [America's youth] have, in their minds, the expectation that drug abuse comes as a rite of passage, we will continue to lose too many of our young people." (Isn't it amazing how many press conferences Bush Administration officials have held surrounded by Christian, Jewish and Islamic religious leaders?)
"The reality is a lot of people don't know how to talk about these issues," said Jim Towey, the Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "According to data from Monitoring the Future, 90 percent of teens in the U.S. are affiliated with a religious denomination and 43 percent of eighth graders attend religious services weekly. Churches, temples and mosques are well positioned to cultivate anti-drug values and teach effective coping tools to deal with negative peer pressure," said Towey.
The new campaign's slogan -- "Faith. The Anti-Drug" -- appears to indicate that Walters, appointed drug czar by Bush in May 2001, is turning down the volume from an earlier anti-marijuana ad campaign focused on teens. That high-powered effort was aimed at linking teenagers using marijuana to the funding of terrorist organizations and support for terrorism.
Walters, characterized as a "drug 'hawk'… well known for his moral condemnation of drug use and his criticism of Clinton's drug war techniques," by Salon's Janelle Brown, pointed out that "we need to be candid" about the situation confronting America's youth. Being candid, however, has not been one of the drug czar's strong suits.
If Walters were truly candid he would talk about the billions of dollars wasted on the war on drugs; he would talk about the succession of cynical anti-drug advertising campaigns run by high-powered and well-connected ad agencies whose only success has been in lining its own pockets with tax-payer funds; and he would talk about the hundreds of thousands of people languishing in prisons because of marijuana-related convictions.
In May, 2002, the Village Voice's Cynthia Cotts reported that a Wall Street Journal article citing the results of a Walters-authorized survey -- conducted by the private research firm Westat and the University of Pennsylvania -- "shows the government's anti-drug ads have completely failed to slow down teen drug use. Over the past five years," Cotts writes, "the feds spent $929 million to spread the message, and what did they get? A quarter of high school seniors still use illegal drugs, and after seeing the ads, some 13-year-old girls started smoking pot."
If the new emphasis on faith-based interventions sounds like the repackaging of an old idea, well, that's because it very well might be. Last year, when the president announced his National Drug Control Strategy, FY-2003, "compassionate coercion" was the term coined and touted as a key element for success. Under the heading "Healing America's Drug Users" a White House fact sheet said: "Getting people into treatment -- including programs that call upon the power of faith -- will require us to create a new climate of ‘compassionate coercion,’ which begins with family, friends, employers, and the community. Compassionate coercion also uses the criminal justice system to get people into treatment."
Bush's advocacy of "religious hiring rights" and the administration's grafting of faith-based organizations onto the drug wars cuts to the heart of church/state separation, says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. According to Lynn, this new anti-drug effort is another administration attempt to blur those lines. In a Press Release issued by Americans United Lynn said, "The Bush administration seems to think there's a 'faith-based' solution to every social and medical problem in America. The project announced today is one very small part of a larger crusade that raises troubling constitutional concerns."
"The White House is ignoring vital constitutional safeguards," continued Lynn. "The Constitution calls for a separation between religion and government, not a merger."
Lynn pointed out that Walters recently appeared at a Riverside, Calif. "Teen Challenge" facility whose treatment program "relies on conversion to fundamentalist Christianity as its form of treatment." Only evangelical Christians are hired to carry out its work. In testimony before Congress in 2001, a Teen Challenge official noted that some Jews who participate in the program convert to Christianity, becoming what he called "completed Jews." Many Jewish leaders found the term offensive, the AU Press Release pointed out.
This far, says Jeremy Leaming, Communications Associate at Americans United, government funds have not been awarded to Teen Challenge or any other religious organizations for John Walter's new anti-drug initiative. "But," he added, "we are watching the situation closely."
"Bush's whole drug policy is in reality one gigantic faith-based initiative," Bruce Mirken, the Marijuana Policy Project's director of communications, commented in a recent e-mail. "It's sure not based on science or data, particularly in regard to marijuana. The government's own figures show that marijuana use by kids under 21 has gone up over 2000% since marijuana was banned, and a National Research Council study commissioned by the Drug Czar's office reported in 2001 that the evidence shows little or no relationship between the severity of criminal sanctions and rates or frequency of drug use.
"If the government announced a program to reduce unemployment, and unemployment subsequently rose 2000%, that policy would be toast faster than you can say 'Bill Bennett loves to gamble,'" Mirken pointed out. "But the administration believes, with deep religious conviction that drugs are bad and must be banned. It's truly a faith based drug policy, and it ruins lives every day."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.