WWJD: Legalize pot? Evangelical leader becomes a ‘hippie hero’ of sorts

Nathan Zoschke

Pat Robertson is no stranger to controversy. Evangelical Christians love him. Liberals roll their eyes.

The 700 Club, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s flagship program, is the last place one may expect to hear advocacy for marijuana decriminalization and prison reform.

On March 1, co-host Robertson surprised viewers when he came out in full-fledged support for initiatives to decriminalize marijuana, citing the social ills and exorbitant costs created by the U.S. prison system.

I had to check to make sure I wasn’t reading The Onion. It turns out the article was on The Atlantic’s website, replete with a video of Robertson’s 700 Club segment.

Many of his points were incredibly valid; the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but accounts for 25 percent of the global prison population.

More than 70 percent of the federal prison population is incarcerated for non-violent offenses. More than half of federal prisoners are serving time for a drug-related offense, and in 87 percent of those cases, no weapon was involved.

The shocking racial disparity in the number and duration of prison sentences given to white and minority offenders adds injury to insult.

“I just think it’s shocking how many of these young people wind up in prison and they get turned into hardcore criminals because they have a possession of a very small amount of a controlled substance,” Robertson said. “The whole thing is crazy.”

Robertson pointed out that the state of California spends more money on prisons than public schools.

“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Robertson told The New York Times in an interview.

“I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

Over the years, Robertson has said some pretty off-the-wall things. However, he hit the nail on the head this time around.

The point Robertson made has been rehashed time and time again by libertarians and liberals who support drug decriminalization: the costly war on drugs has failed.

Robertson joked that he has become a “hero to hippies.”

Well, not exactly. He remains an impassioned conservative and a staunch foe of abortion, same-sex marriage and other progressive causes.

Regardless, it is refreshing to hear his perspective as an unlikely decriminalization supporter, especially one whose remarks aren’t likely to be well received by his usual audience of evangelical conservatives.

Although Robertson managed to throw in his usual attacks on the left (claiming liberals are somehow responsible for the large prison population), he should be commended for his voice of reason and compassion on this issue.

Contrary to popular belief, decriminalization of marijuana is not blanket drug legalization, nor does it correlate with increased use.

In 2008, PLoS Medicine, a journal of the Public Library of Science, conducted drug use surveys in 16 countries.

In the Netherlands, where drug policy model aims to reduce recreational drug use through decriminalization and strict regulation, 20 percent of respondents reported trying marijuana. That compares to 42 percent of U.S. respondents.

Robertson and I have different Christian perspectives, but I believe at the core of all Christian teachings (and the teachings of all major religions) is a respect for humanity and a commitment to forgiveness and compassion.

Non-violent drug abusers should be given treatment, not jail time.

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