In 1822, a Presbyterian from Lower Canada, Mrs. John Forbes, established the first known temperance organization in Canada. Hers was a Christian argument for a Christian audience. Nearly two hundred years later, the Canadian government legislates against drug use through some arguably Christian images and imperatives while religious actors and faith-based organizations across Canada continue to discuss this country’s so-called “drug problem.”

But how do they do so? And, to what effect? This forum, and its accompanying community workshop, provided an opportunity for scholars, policy-makers, and service providers to examine the legacies and contemporary significance of religion for the ways drugs are imagined and legislated against today. Specific attention was paid to the question of decriminalization—in light of three developments. The first is a recent shift in Canadian drug policy towards the criminalization of drug use. This includes increased penalties for drug offences and mandatory minimum sentences. The second is the United States’ own punitive approach to drug consumption. The criminalization of crack cocaine alone tripled this country’s prison population. The third is today’s unprecedented levels of drug violence in Latin America. There have been at least 60,000 drug-related murders in Mexico since 2006.

These are three deeply interrelated developments—at the level of public policy, political economy, and, this forum argued, religion in the public sphere.

For their kind support of these events, we would like to extend our thanks to the Religious Diversity Youth Leadership Project, the Religion and Diversity Project, and the Department for the Study of Religion.


“drug” by Luca Serazzi CC by 2.0

Theme Report

Prepared by Judith Ellen Brunton and Ayesha Valliani

Click to download

Featured Events


Wednesday 20 March 2013, 3:00-5:00 p.m. • The Great Hall, Hart House, 7 Hart House Circle, University of Toronto St. George campus

How does religion shape public opinion about the decriminalization of drugs in and beyond Canada? What does Canada’s increasing religious diversity do to this debate? And, thinking comparatively, how does religion frame arguments for or against the decriminalization of drugs in the United States and Latin America? This special focus on decriminalization allowed the forum to assess the influence that religion exerts over processes of criminalization and the implementation of punitive policies.

RPS Forum, Great Hall, 20 March 2013. L-R: Ethan Nadelmann, John Joseph Mastandrea, Donald MacPherson, Kevin Lewis O'Neill
L-R: Ethan Nadelmann, John Joseph Mastandrea, Donald MacPherson, Kevin Lewis O’Neill
Forum Guests

Donald MacPherson
Advocating drug policies based on principles of public health, scientific evidence, human rights and social inclusion, MacPherson is Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. He is the recipient of the Kaiser Foundation National Award of Excellence in Public Policy in Canada, and the Richard Dennis Drug Peace Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform. MacPherson is currently Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Rev. Dr. John Joseph Mastandrea
Minister of spiritual growth and pastoral care development at Metropolitan United Church, he is a BSc in Chemistry, Master of Divinity, Master of Religious Education, Master of Arts and Ministry of Spirituality. Ordained in 1989, he completed his Doctorate from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2009. Volunteer work includes: membership in the Toronto Area Interfaith Council, Police Chaplain to 51 Division, and Chair of the World Aids Concert Committee, a benefit for Casey House, a speciality HIV/AIDS hospital in Toronto.

Ethan Nadelmann
Founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights., Nadelmann received his BA, JD, and PhD from Harvard, and a Master’s in international relations from the London School of Economics. He taught politics and public affairs at Princeton from 1987-94, where his work on drug policy attracted international attention. He is widely regarded as the most prominent proponent of drug policy reform.

Kevin Lewis O’Neill
A cultural anthropologist, O’Neill is an Assistant Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies. His ethnographic work addresses the politics of Pentecostal Christianity. His first book was City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala (2010) and his current book project is Securing the Soul: God, Gangs, and Guatemala. He has initiated a historical, ethnographic book project, For Christ’s Sake, which explores Christianity and the (de)criminalization of narcotics in the Americas: this RPS forum is part of that project.

Forum Videos

Community Research Workshop

Thursday 21 March 2013, 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. • Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto St.George campus

An opportunity for scholars, policy-makers, and service providers to examine the legacies and contemporary significance of religion for the ways drugs are imagined and legislated against today.

Workshop Presenters

Bela McPherson, MSW & Carol Strike, PhD
Aboriginal mothers who use substances and child welfare: using the seven sacred teachings to re-frame the issues and responses

McPherson is Mohawk, and a community researcher and private practitioner in Toronto. Her research is focused on Aboriginal health and well-being and indigenizing social work education. Strike is Associate Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. Her research is focused on understanding how individual, social and structural inequities impact on the health and well-being of marginalized populations.

Paul Christopher Webster
Church-based support for harm reduction: A Christian challenge to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives

Webster is an award-winning freelance writer, including documentary film and print journalism on religious freedom and the political dynamics of substance abuse and mental health.

Daniel Werb
Harm reduction and religious values: A case study from British Columbia

Warb is Senior research assistant at the Urban Health Research Initiative, a division of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and is also co-founder and research coordinator for the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.