Among Friends: Drugs, Brokenness, Violence, and Sin

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Is there any other aspect of our modern lives as complicated as drugs?

Drugs have extended our lifespans and saved us from once-fatal illnesses. They have also ruined lives, broken people, and led to epidemics of deaths. Recreational use has destroyed judgement yet also led to spiritual revelations.

The politics of drugs has put millions of nonviolent offenders behind bars. The economics of their manufacture has created an immensely wealthy pharmaceutical industry. The growing and trade of illegal drugs has upended governments and fueled endless wars around the world. Debates over legalization, regulation, and their contribution to rising healthcare costs have come to dominate political discourse.

In this issue, five Quaker writers look at our relationship with drugs. In many ways there’s nothing distinctively Quaker about the story, which is perhaps the first lesson. Johanna Jackson interviews a number of Friends and identifies four barriers that keep us from adequately supporting addiction recovery among Friends. The first barrier she calls “Quaker exceptionalism,” a form of denial that keeps us from acknowledging that Friends face the same temptations as everyone else. Of course we do. Many of us struggle personally with addiction or have close friends or family members in and out of rehab. Fellow members of our meetings aren’t immune, either. After mapping the barriers, Jackson goes on to provide solutions and to suggest ways we can supplement 12-step groups and other forms of therapy.

Eric Sterling also looks at what Friends can do, but from a different perspective: in the 1980s, he was an attorney with the U.S. House Judiciary Committee responsible for drug enforcement, making him a figurative “colonel” (as he puts it) in the war on drugs. He’s come to rethink those policies and wonders if Friends’ historic links to temperance movements made us too slow to confront the “social, cultural, medical, and legal catastrophes of drug prohibition.” He has a number of suggestions for Friends to re-engage in these debates and begin to advocate more effectively for drug treatments and the end of mass incarceration.

Drugs are of course not always bad, even in the spiritual sense. Joe McHugh’s medications help him center down and find the stillness to experience God. If drugs can both bring us to and drive us away from a communion with the Divine, how can we discern their use? McHugh gives us a thoughtful, tender, and vulnerable series of answers.

And finally, bookending our feature articles are two personal accounts of Friends struggling with drug addictions. Frequent contributor Andrew Huff works at an emergency shelter for the homeless and shares the heartbreaking story of the first time he felt really scared about one of the residents’ drug use. Delving into an even more personal, first-hand account, r. scot miller recounts his years as a habitual drug user in the gritty streets of 1990s Detroit. A turn toward religion and a discovery of Friends is part of his turn-around story, but Quaker exceptionalism appears again, and miller wonders if we’re attentive enough to the facts of violence, brokenness, and sin.


These five articles only scratch the surface of what Friends can do to address the role of drugs in our society. We hope you’ll join us online at to discuss these in the comments section of each piece.

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