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Bush's Born-Again Drug War

Despite Constitutional restrictions requiring the separation of church and state, George W. Bush's ardent Christianity remains the staple of his administration's anti-drug platform.
 
 
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Listen to George W. Bush speak about substance abuse and it's apparent that one is listening to a preacher, not a president.

"There are faith-based organizations in drug treatment that work so well because they convince a person to turn their life over to Christ," Bush divulged to the religious journal Christianity Today. "By doing so, they change a person's heart [and] a person with a changed heart is less likely to be addicted to drugs and alcohol."

Despite Constitutional restrictions requiring separation of church and state, Bush's ardent Judeo-Christian faith – the President is a practicing Methodist who "accepted Jesus Christ into [his] life" in 1986 – remains the staple of his administration's anti-drug platform. Whereas previous administrations commonly framed their anti-drug arguments in secular terms (i.e., former President Richard Nixon's "War on Drugs" or the Reagan administration's "Just Say No" campaign), Bush's drug war, at least rhetorically, resembles that of a religious crusade. GWB's bottom line: Only through "God's will" may one be "saved" from the temptations of illegal drugs. It's a stance that many drug law reformers view as not only ineffective, but possibly illegal.

President Or Proselytizer?

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

While stories recounting the President's prior alcohol and drug use – so-called "youthful indiscretions" – are well publicized, not as well known is his 1986 spiritual awakening that led him to quit his use of intoxicants cold turkey. It's this personal journey that led Bush to reach his conclusion that other drug users – recreational pot smokers in particular – must also undergo their own, albeit coerced, religious conversion to achieve drug abstinence. After four years in office, it's clear that Bush is willing to use the bully pulpit and Congress' deep pockets to accomplish his goal: a drug-free, religiously indoctrinated America.

As President, one of Bush's first actions was to sign an executive order establishing a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, presently headed by "Faith Czar" Jim Towey. In 2002, the Bush administration awarded nearly 500 faith-based programs – including several drug "education" and treatment programs – $477 million in taxpayers' funding.

In 2002, Bush doled out an additional $568 million in federal funds to 680 self-identified faith-based groups – programs like the fundamentalist Christian drug-treatment project "Set Free Indeed," which 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." To date, the Bush administration has funneled several million dollars to "Set Free Indeed," and the President singled out its founder by name during his 2003 State of the Union address, lauding it as a shining example of federally backed, faith-based drug treatment.

Religion has also been the theme of several new high-profile anti-drug campaigns launched by the administration. In 2003, just months after being tapped by Bush to head the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Karen Tandy threw her weight behind a grassroots anti-drug campaign called "Pray for the Children." The group's website maintains that, "The power of prayer is unequaled" in influencing adolescents from refraining from drug use. Regarding her endorsement of the program, 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."

Also last year, Bush launched "Faith. The Anti-Drug," a multimillion dollar campaign to encourage the religious community to incorporate pot abstinence into their spiritual teachings.

"Faith plays a powerful role in preventing youth marijuana use," announced Drug Czar John Walters – himself a disciple of notorious "virtuecrat" and former drug czar William Bennett – at the campaign's kickoff party. He added, "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."

The Anti-Drug?

But are such campaigns "making a difference?" Are they even appropriate? Critics resoundingly say "no" on both counts.

"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, a faith-based initiative watchdog group whose membership includes over 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."

It's also potentially unconstitutional, according to Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. that argues for the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. "This is a massive shell game," he says. "The administration insists no public funds will be spent on religion, then turns those funds over to groups that openly brag about how much religion they have in their programs. The level of duplicity is staggering."

However, according to drug law reformer Charles Thomas, founder of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative, religious faith can play a pivotal role in drug policy; though not in the way Bush decrees.

Faith teaches that it's essential that America's drug laws be just and compassionate, Thomas wrote in the May/June issue of the interfaith journal, Fellowship.

"People of faith may play an essential role in building public support for treating drugs as a health issue instead of a crime," he explained. "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."

Bush, however, has escalated criminal drug law enforcement during his presidency and overseen the arrests of nearly 5 million Americans for drug crimes, most for no more than minor drug possession. Like the Crusades of old in which religious transformation typically occurred "by fire and sword," the Bush administration ultimately believes that today's drug users' federally ordained path to redemption is best achieved by way of a jailhouse conversion.

This article originally appeared in Canada's Heads Magazine.

Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for The NORML Foundation in Washington, DC.