Safer Deals: The Pastors

“Safer Deals: the Pastor” was published in Crawford, Texas’ Lone Star Iconoclast this week, describing some of the unusual alliances that have been formed between religious groups and secular activists in order to help medical marijuana research gain credibility. MAPS isn’t mentioned explicitly but Professor Lyle Craker’s DEA lawsuit for a MAPS-sponsored marijuana production facility is mentioned.

Good Samaritans Fight For Human Rights In Drug War
Monday, December 04, 2006
By: Nathan Diebenow – Associate Editor

This is part of a multi-part series on the Drug War originally appearing here.

CRAWFORD — The Revs. Alan and Nancy Bean never dreamed of being on the front lines of the “war on drugs” — let alone actually getting involved in it in their small West Texas town.

But in 1999, these two ordained Baptist ministers were called to form “Friends of Justice Tulia” to get the word out to the national media, NAACP, the ACLU, and the Justice Department that there was something fishy about a local drug sting.

The sting itself initially received glowing yet nasty coverage in their hometown newspaper.

“When I first heard about the drug sting, actually I didn’t know that everybody was black. The race of those arrested was not given in the newspaper account, which is what I was going on,” Rev. Alan Bean told the Iconoclast. “What got me was that they were described as scumbags and known drug dealers in an editorial in the Tulia paper.”

Indeed, 39 of the 46 people arrested for allegedly dealing cocaine were African American and so poor that they had no houses or cars of their own. Moreover, the “drug kingpin,” a 57-year-old pig farmer who lived in a run-down shack, was convicted and given a 90-year sentence.

Yet as the first of the trials were happening, Rev. Bean questioned the verdicts more closely: Why should the sentences be so long? How could there be 46 drug dealers in a town of 5,000? How could any jury convict any alleged criminal on the testimony of a single narcotics agent?

To Rev. Bean, this style of due process just didn’t make sense biblically.

“The Bible says that nobody is to be convicted except on the word of at least two witnesses. That’s not just a passing reference in the Bible. Moses said it. Paul confirmed it. Jesus confirmed it. I mean, no matter who your favorite figure is in the Bible, they said it,” said Rev. Bean. “That teaching isn’t just there because it appealed to somebody. It just made sense. It’s not just to take any single person’s word for anything, particularly when a person’s freedom is riding on the line.”

As this lone undercover agent — Tom Coleman — was basking in the spotlight of his work, more information surfaced. Coleman made his living working low-level law enforcement jobs in country towns. His position was funded through a federal anti-drug program that reached rural areas outside of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

However, Coleman made for a lousy undercover agent, never wearing a wire, taking photographs and videotapes, nor hiring a partner to verify his work on the Tulia sting. Still, a number of predominately white juries believed him and sent the defendants to prison with terms ranging from 90 years to 400 years, the latter given for one man with a prior conviction.

With its team of racially-integrated and persistent volunteers, the Friends of Justice eventually obtained media exposure. An article in the Texas Observer and a documentary on the irregularities of the Tulia case convinced several civil rights organizations to take the case seriously.

Coleman — who had received a “Lawman of the Year” award for this work in Tulia, though he himself had a criminal record — was later indicted for fabricating evidence and suppling false trial testimony. Texas Gov. Rick Perry eventually pardoned the defendants, releasing them from prison. Tulia’s drug task force was also closed in a $6 million settlement with the victims.

Friends of Justice continued fighting for reform to the criminal justice system in Texas by lobbying the state legislature in 2001 and 2003. In fact, the Legislature ended up passing a bill requiring corroboration for confidential informants in drug cases.

“We weren’t able to have it applied to police officers because of strong opposition from the police union in Texas, but I don’t think that anybody has tried to do what they did in Tulia since then — at least on such a massive scale basing a case on one person’s testimony,” said Rev. Bean.

The group has also expanded its operations by offering counseling for at-risk youths, advocating the reform of the parole system, monitoring elections, and encouraging civic participation from Mexican-Americans.

Looking back on the case, Rev. Bean said he realized that the residents of Tulia were unfairly singled out as racists because the news media got the story wrong. Instead of sensationalizing the racial aspects of the case, though the effect of the “War on Drugs” has been catastrophic on the African American community, the media should have zeroed in on the injustice and failure of federal drug policy, he said.

“When you look at incarceration rates especially related to the ‘War on Drugs’ around the country, Tulia is hardly the only town that is locking up a bunch of black people and using the ‘War on Drugs’ as a proxy for racial profiling,” he said. “I felt the real question was, ‘Why are we locking up so many people — period?’ And only secondly, ‘Why are we locking up so many people of color?’”

“Tulia is just a window on a national problem,” he added. “Tulia tells you what the problem is because it’s such a small little town, and there are so few players in the story so you can see what’s going on.”

‘I was hungry’

As people of faith like the Beans have fought for the rights of citizens affected by the drug war in their own locales, mainline denominations have sought to change drug policies on the national level.

This past June, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with its 2.4 million members became the largest religious group to support seriously ill patients who want legal access to medical marijuana. It voted approvingly by consensus on a resolution introduced by the Homestead Presbytery in Nebraska.

The resolution named the various pains and illnesses patients say marijuana use helps to alleviate, mentioned professional organizations that support medical marijuana, and reiterated its 1971 stance on “issues of dependency and abuse of various chemical substances,” but adds that “conclusive evidence is lacking that (marijuana) produces permanent physiological effects or automatically leads to the use of more serious, addictive drugs…’ (Minutes, PCUS, 1971, Part I, p. 147).”

The resolution also quoted the New Testament: “Jesus said, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…’ (Matthew 25:35).”

“As people of faith, we are called to stand up for humans who are suffering needlessly,” said Rev. Lynn Bledsoe, a Presbyterian minister from Alabama who works as a hospice chaplain. “It is unconscionable that seriously ill patients can be arrested for making an earnest attempt at healing by using medical marijuana.”

“It is the job of religious denominations to give voice to those who cannot speak up for themselves,” said Rev. Jim McNeil, a representative of the Homestead Presbytery in Nebraska. “We pray that Congress will have the compassion to stop this war on patients.”

However, the U.S. House was not swayed a week later to pass a bill that would have stopped the use of federal funds to arrest medical marijuana users in the 11 states that have medical marijuana laws.

Even so, PCUSA joined the ranks of six other religious groups that had already given support to patients seeking medical marijuana. Those religious bodies include the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, Union for Reform Judaism, Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The organization that helped the Presbyterian Church (USA) write its medical marijuana resolution was Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative. According to its website, the Initiative “was established in November 2003 to mobilize people of faith and religious groups behind more compassionate and less coercive alternatives to the war on drugs.”

“Legislators who give lip service to moral values had better be consistent on the medical marijuana issue,” said Charles Thomas, executive director of the IDPI, after the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment died in the House, 259 votes to 163.

Thomas, a Unitarian, decided to organize the religious community in 2001 upon leaving the Marijuana Policy Project after co-founding it 15 years prior. He aided his denomination in its resolution calling for an end to drug prohibition.

IDPI took the torch to organize faith groups around changing drug policy from previous efforts: Religious Leaders for a Moral Drug Policy and Clergy for Enlightened Drug Policy. RLMDP’s founder Fr. Joseph Ganssle, OFM and CEDP’s founder Rev. Andrew Gunn, a United Methodist minister, are both members of IDPI’s Leadership Council.

Strange Pew-Fellows

IDPI organizers are quick to note that no religious denomination has yet to publically disapprove of medical marijuana. Seventy-eight percent of the American public is also behind doctors who prescribe marijuana for their suffering patients, according to a November 2005 Gallup poll.

Still, Congress voted 264 to 162 against legalized medical marijuana last year, and the Supreme Court has backed the federal government in its power to arrest even medical marijuana patients protected by state law.

This past April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration again rejected the use of marijuana for medical purposes favoring “alternative FDA-approved medications in existence for treatment of many of the proposed uses of smoked marijuana.”

To combat the FDA’s claims that marijuana has no medical use, unusual alliances have been formed between religious groups and secular activists. In one instance, the United Methodist Church and Americans for Tax Reform, a pro-corporation group led by Grover Norquist, both have supported an activist’s call to allow the U.S. government to remove its monopoly on research-grade marijuana at the University of Mississippi.

“The fact that some choose to abuse the cannabis plant illegally is immaterial,” wrote Norquist in a letter to the DEA Administrator Karen Tandy last November. “The use of controlled substances for legitimate research purposes is well-established … It’s in the public interest to end the government monopoly on marijuana legal for research.”

The DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse disagrees, though they have the authority to license marijuana growers but won’t for fear doing so would increase the chances of improper use.


Aside from the medicinal uses of marijuana, religious leaders have recently rallied behind ballot initiatives regulating the sale and use of controlled substances on grounds doing so would curb violent crime.

This past election cycle, almost three dozen clergy from 15 different denominations endorsed Question 7, a measure that favored the sale of legalized marijuana to adults aged 21 and older at stores regulated by the state of Nevada.

While voters in Nevada rejected the bill 56 percent to 44 percent, the issue is expected to return in 2008 or 2010.

During the campaign, the Rev. William C. Webb, the Senior Pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Reno, said that while drugs ruin the lives of their users, laws can ruin lives as well.

“If there has to be a market in marijuana, I’d rather it be regulated with sensible safeguards than run by violent gangs and dangerous drug dealers,” said Rev. Webb, an African-American civil rights leader in the Southern Baptist/Missionary Baptist denomination.

Even ministers from smaller, more conservative denominations spoke out in support of the Nevada initiative.

Rev. Jerry Pruess of Laughlin, a retired pastor from the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, said he was thankful that the country had the courage to end alcohol prohibition when it did last century.

“Even the most conservative among us do not advocate that we return to that disastrous policy, which made violent criminal gangs rich and wreaked havoc on our streets,” the Rev. Pruess stated. “It has now become obvious that it is time to abandon our experiment with marijuana prohibition in favor of a system of strict regulation with sensible safeguards like those proposed in Question 7.”

Nevada had already twice approved a state constitutional amendment allowing marijuana for medicinal purposes, but no state is permitted to enforce neither medical marijuana nor marijuana regulation measures because the federal government lists the drug as an illegal controlled substance.

Take The Christians Bowling

Dr. William Martin, M.Div., Ph.D., a senior fellow for Religion and Public Policy at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, last year told members of the Drug Policy Alliance’s conference that conservative Christians should not be written off as potential supporters of drug policy reform.

In an email to the Iconoclast, Dr. Martin said that he has thought about writing a book on “Drug Policy Reform for Religious and Social Conservatives,” but he is currently unaware of any efforts by conservative Christians to stop the “War on Drugs.”

While lobbying the Texas Legislature, Rev. Bean had to talk with representatives who happened to be Christian conservatives in order to convince them to send his proposed legislation to the floor for consideration. He offered drug reformers this observation:

“I found that a lot of these guys really care about justice, and if you can frame the issue biblically, if you can say, ‘Moses said it. Paul said it. Jesus said it, and I think this is why the Bible teaches it from beginning to end that this is wrong,’ they will perk up and take notice because you’re talking their language. You’re bowling in their alley.”

He added, “Frame the issue in terms they are used to and are comfortable with, which is something that liberals are very bad at often because either they aren’t familiar with the biblical traditions or they tend to see religion in general as sort of a sink-hole of corruption or superstition or whatever reason. There’s a lot of ignorance about religion on the Left and that has made progressive people a little bit vulnerable.”