The impulse to allow individuals to suffer the consequences of their actions is not a purely Christian one. I came to this realization as I listened to couple of radio interviews in conjunction with some new research and a proposal that drug addicts be provided not only a safe place to inject drugs, but also a clean and safe source of drugs — heroin, to be specific.
My initial reflexive response of surprise and disgust at the proposal gave way to curiosity as I listened to the proposer talk about two facts related to drug addiction of which I had not been aware.
First, a major contributor to drug overdoses and death is the unpredictable quality of street drugs. Street drugs, not surprisingly, are often laced with other drugs and chemicals, and can be either weak or alarmingly potent. It is not a wonder that drug addicts suffer adverse health effects when they do not know what they are injecting into their bodies. The fact that they are willing to take the risk associated with using street drugs indicates the level of desperation they experience. I am sure I do not adequately understand what they experience.
Second, according to the interview guest, research suggests that addicts who take medically provided drugs administered under supervision suffer few or no adverse health effects, and are often able to live otherwise normal lives. I was shocked to hear this. It exploded my image of what a “typical” drug addict looks like. Moreover, the long term cost of providing safe drugs and supervision is far less than the cost of providing health care to drug users who overdose and suffer adverse secondary health effects.
As I tried to reflect theologically on what I was hearing, I began to rethink my opinion toward supervised injection sites. For both health and economic reasons, the evidence presented in the interview suggests that citizens look more closely at the benefits of supervised injection sites and regulation of controlled substances often consumed on the streets.
Am I advocating for drug use, or worse, abuse? Certainly not. I agree that the goal of any responsible public health strategy is to ultimately eliminate recreational drug use. As a Christian, my goal is not to be mastered by drugs that may impair my discipleship before Christ. But as a Christian, in light of my call to make disciples, I also have to ask what my obligation is to those who are suffering from addictions that they are not able to overcome.
My traditional sense of justice inclines me to view drug use as criminal behaviour and to treat is as such. But in terms of constructing a Christian response to the human problems arising from drug abuse, the evidence suggests that criminalization may perpetuate, even exacerbate, the problem, creating an artificial problem to be punished harshly rather than seeing a tremendous need to be met with compassion and care.
What am I suggesting? Perhaps all I am suggesting is that Christians think more deeply about our mandate to care for the last, the least, and the lost. We need to reconsider the significance of Jesus’ words that “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Mt. 25:45 NRSV) It seems to me that one goal of Christian mission work may be to help people function without dependence on regular drug use, but in light of our theological commitments, this is surely a secondary goal.
What is more, if we are convinced that only people who are completely free of any addiction are able (or acceptable enough!) to come to Jesus, we are simply creating another problem in our theology of mission. In fact, we are fooling ourselves. How different is heroin from a number of other more respectable drugs of which Christians approve? Who comes to Jesus complete and whole? Yes, there remain difficult questions, and I do not have definite answers, but I think it is clear enough that we have some work to do to show ourselves both consistent and faithful in loving addicts as Jesus loves them — and us.