Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative is a 501(c) 4 political lobbying organization committed to mobilizing people of faith nationally to bring about drug policy reform.
Unitarian Universalist Beginnings
The Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative was founded in November of 2003 as an outgrowth of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) two-year action issue study on drug policy reform. Completed in June of 2002, the study culminated in the development of a Statement of Conscience reflecting official stances and policy recommendations of the UUA based upon analyses by congregations and district leaders. This study was fundamental in establishing the Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform in 2000, which came under the leadership of Executive Director Charles Thomas. Thomas independently established the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (IDPI) in 2003 after seeing that multi-religious action was necessary if drug policy issues were to be effectively addressed.
Today, the organization is administered by Executive Director Charles Thomas and Field Coordinator Troy Dayton in its Washington, D.C. headquarters with the help of interns and volunteers. An interreligious Board of Directors which is comprised of individuals with previous experience in drug policy work also contributes to the shaping of the group’s lobbying initiatives.
Naming the Issues
Currently, IDPI is working on three main agendas, all of which were inspired by the UUA’s 2002 Statement of Conscience:
- repealing the mandatory prison sentencing for drug offenses;
- repealing the amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1998, which delays or denies financial aid for drug offenders; and
- stopping the arrest of seriously ill medical marijuana patients.
Since the name “drug policy reform” is fairly vague, the group has turned to a process of naming its issues when employing support. Thus, when individuals sign up online to be added to IDPI’s advocacy list, they can indicate exactly what type of reform they support. Support for particular actions also varies from issue to issue according to the religious communities and the denominations or sects within those communities that are involved.
Overall, Dayton noted that “most people are shocked that religious communities are interested in drug policy… They assume that all religious groups are fundamentalist…But these issues are universal.” According to Dayton, those religious communities who do not support certain IDPI initiatives do so mostly because their communities have not developed an official stance on the issues, not necessarily because they oppose the work of IDPI.
Most of the interfaith coalition building for the organization takes place among the heads of religious groups on an ad-hoc basis. However, speaking engagements at meetings like the Progressive National Baptist Convention and at the UUA General Assembly are helping to build formal coalitions with religious leaders. The group has also reached out to other interfaith groups for support, like the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. Once these coalitions are built, members sign on to public policy statements, provide support via speaking engagements, and provide connections with people on the local level.
In the future IDPI intends to move to local religious community congregations nationwide to strengthen its grassroots support. Currently, its main advocacy list comes from a network of Unitarian Universalist advocates, but efforts to include other religious community members are being made. Visiting local congregations to host guest sermons or messages, setting up informational table displays, and speaking at church forums on particular issues are some of the ways staff and volunteers are broadening the base of local support.
Acting on Issues Nationwide
Thus far, IDPI has led initiatives in states such as Maryland, Vermont, and Montana. In a recent Montana election, for example, IDPI gathered support for a medical marijuana petition on the ballot by petitioning local religious communities. Through another local project, IDPI and the United Methodist Church Superintendent in Maryland are working to divert nonviolent drug offenders into rehabilitation programs.
On an individual level, IDPI advocates are involved in writing letters to the editors of local newspapers, sending letters to legislators, calling congressman or meeting with them, and educating their own congregations on drug policy concerns. To keep these advocates posted on the current issues, IDPI sends out monthly e-mail updates and posts website alerts.
Advocacy like this is bringing national attention to this young organization. For instance, in June of 2004 the Washington Post released a full-page article which highlighted public support from religious groups working with IDPI for the legalization of medical marijuana. This religious support served in the key argument for the medical marijuana bill when it was debated on the floor of the House of Representatives. For Dayton, this illustrates the importance of gathering religious people to affect change in areas like drug policy reform. “They bring credibility to the work,” said Dayton. “Many politicians are weary of engaging in these issues, but religious groups give politicians political will and moral courage to vote for what is in their hearts.”