Christina Dent is not somebody who fits the regular profile of the activist who is working to end the war on drugs.
She is a conservative Christian who lives with her husband, her college sweetheart, and three small sons in Ridgeland, Mississippi. She has a degree in Biblical Studies, never has done drugs herself, and didn’t grow up knowing people who used illegal drugs.
“I used to subscribe to a typical, very conservative view of drugs as bad and drug use as bad,” Dent tells IWF. “I was for outlawing drugs. It was the right thing to do. I never really thought about it anymore than that.”
Yet Dent is the founder and president of End It for Good, a nonprofit devoted to ending prison time for drug offenders. It was an experience with a foster child that began Dent’s journey to a different opinion.
“When I took him to his first visit with his biological mother, at the local child welfare office,” Dent recalls, “I was very hesitant. I just could not imagine how a mother who loved her child could possibly use drugs while she was pregnant. To me that meant her child was better off with me. I wouldn’t have done what she did.
This isn’t what I thought a mom who would use drugs while she was pregnant would be like.
“I popped his car seat out of my van, and I turned around in the parking lot,” Christina continues, “and here comes his mom. And she is running across the parking lot weeping, and she runs over to us and starts kissing him, talking to him, and I’m just awkwardly holding his car seat, wondering what on earth is happening. This isn’t what I thought a mom who would use drugs while she was pregnant would be like. And that was the beginning of my getting to know her and realizing she is a mom like me.
“She really does love him that much, just as much as I love my three sons. Her addiction was not a lack of love. It wasn’t a lack of wanting to be free from it. It was this really complex health crisis that she was dealing with, but I could clearly see this was not a criminal justice crisis.”
Dent has described this experience as “the catalyst for months of reading, questionings, and listening” and she “tried to reconcile her beliefs as a Christian with the pain and suffering she was seeing first-hand,” as she learned more about her foster son’s mother. She changed her mind about punishment for drug offenses.
As the End It For Good website describes Christina’s transition, “The laws she thought were the answer to keep people from using drugs she now saw as causing more harm than help to people made in God’s image.” The nonprofit grew out of discussion groups Dent started holding, using Johann Hari’s book “Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” The discussion sessions started in 2017, and End It For Good was established in 2019.
“The more I learned about addiction,” Christina recalls, “the more it opened my mind to all of the other components of what happens when you prohibit drugs. I would say that the three things that changed my mind are: How drug prohibition increases crime; how it increases overdoses; and, how it increases the destabilization of families through the incarceration of consumers. And those three points are really the key cornerstones of the message that we have now been talking about through End it for Good for the last couple of years.”
End It For Good “invites people to explore how addressing drugs and drug use as complex health issues could dramatically reduce crime, overdose deaths, and the destabilization of families.” End It For Good does this through discussions and events. Author Johann Hari, Bruce K. Alexander (the Canadian psychologist who has studied addiction), and Leigh Maddox (a retired Maryland police captain, who has seen gruesome, drug-related violence first-hand and believes the war on drugs has failed) have all been guests on virtual discussions hosted by End It For Good.
Hari’s “Chasing the Scream”—the title is a reference to agonized cries from a woman addict—had a profound effect on the Dent’s thinking about drug policy. She picked it up when she was trying to make sense of her foster son’s mother’s predicament. “When I read ‘Chasing the Scream’ it answered a lot of questions for me that had been raised as I got to know Joanne,” (the mother of her foster son). She says, “It was so helpful that I started doing some posts on social media about changing my mind about drug policy. Then I had a few people commenting so, I just basically said to anyone who had posted on my social media would you be willing to come, and read this book and do a book discussion together? And so, I had 12 people who said yes, and we got together at a local restaurant. Everyone read the book and then we came together, had dinner and discussed it. And it was just an amazing thing to see all of these people, almost all of them were Christians, almost all of them were conservative, interested in and dialoguing about legalizing drugs. It just seemed like it was the twilight zone, but it went so well that I decided to do it again.
“We do education and advocacy work,” Dent explains. “We do a lot of community events, we travel all around Mississippi, and we host events where we invite people to come. We do a presentation for them — it’s like a 30-minute presentation, which is kind of my story mixed with what I learned on the journey that changed my mind about how we handle drugs and addiction — and then we facilitate dialogue about that. So far, we have done 26 of those events across Mississippi and we’ve had over 1,000 people who have come to those, everyone from state legislators to judges, sheriffs, pastors, therapists, educators, mayors. And so that has kind of been the core of our work.”
Christina Dent grew up in West Jackson, Mississippi, where her father was the business administrator of a small Christian school. Her mother stayed at home to raise the kids. “We lived in this tiny house, I think it was about 800 square feet, two bedrooms, one bath, a rental house in West Jackson,” Christina recalls. “My parents were committed to an intentionally simple lifestyle. And that was a very different childhood than mainstream culture. It felt like we did almost everything differently from everyone else, me and my brothers.
“We were homeschooled, and my mom read aloud to us almost every day, my entire childhood. She just thought that was such an important thing. Even in high school she would read aloud to us from classics—”Jane Eyre,” “David Copperfield.” And her life’s work was to pour love and learning into us and raise us to become adults who would contribute to the world in whatever way God called us to. And those were my mom’s and my dad’s goals for us. My parents did things differently. We had one car, not two cars. We never bought anything if it didn’t have a specific purpose. We didn’t buy Band-Aids with cartoon characters on them because they were more expensive than plain Band-Aids. There was no cable TV. Everything was simple and thrifty. No pajamas. Having a set of clothes that you wore only to sleep in—that was like crazy.”
But it was not a crimped childhood. “It was a great way to grow up,” Christina recalls. “My parents saved and they were able to be very generous. They gave to mission work around the world. They really had this kind of eye towards eternity and believed that they could enjoy lots of simple pleasures of family and marriage and church life that didn’t cost a lot of money, and they could be generous with the money that they did have and helping to spread the gospel around the world. And so that was what they did. We got to spend a lot of great time together because of that, and some of that time was spent taking some trips together. It was a really amazing experience. I treasure those years of being homeschooled and having all of that time to spend with her. I look back on that now and think what a gift it was that we all had.”
Johann Hari’s “Chasing the Scream”—the title is a reference to agonized cries from a woman addict—had a profound effect on the Dent’s thinking about drug policy.
Christina went to Belhaven University, a Christian college in Jackson, the capital. “I majored in Bible because I did not know what I wanted to do other than get married and have kids and live happily ever after,” she says, “and I thought, well, if I major in Bible, it will help me no matter what because it will be good for my life and my soul.” She met the man she would marry at Belhaven, Thomas, who was working for a degree in education. He was an elementary school teacher and now works for the Mississippi foster care system (which precludes their fostering children while he is employed there). They dated for one year and married during spring break of her senior year. They have been married 17 years and have three sons.
Dent is realistic when she talks about how now illegal drugs might be decriminalized. ‘‘I would say the best approach is to take each substance individually and say, ‘What’s the least harmful way to regulate this substance? For some of those that’s going to be through a prescription model. For some of those it can be through a dispensary model, like states that have legalized cannabis, where you don’t need a prescription for it, but you do have to be 21 to get in the door and to be able to buy it.
“And then there are many regulatory options in between,” she continues. “If you think about even how we handle alcohol, we have different kinds of licenses for alcohol, we have an age restriction to go buy it from a liquor store, we have on-site premises licenses for bars, we have rules around not drinking and driving to keep the community safe. So, we have already developed these different regulatory models for various substances, different ones for opioids and alcohol, different ones for Tylenols and Sudafed, and we can extend those kinds of regulatory options, or develop new ones, for other drugs that are popular. And there are lots of substances that people are using that are popular. I interviewed a guy who spent many years addicted to heroin and he said never in all his years of addiction did it take him longer than 12 hours to find heroin.”
Dent is realistic when she talks about how now illegal drugs might be decriminalized.
Some towns in Mississippi’s Delta region are experiencing terrible problems with drugs. Dent is asked about this. “That’s interesting,” she replies. “And it doesn’t surprise me because one of the key things that I learned is that drugs are always a solution attempt. They’re not the problem. They’re a solution attempt at other problems, so where you see the biggest drug problems happening, the question is always why? Why do people feel hopeless or alone? Why are their families breaking apart? And so, the places where you see the most addiction, highest addiction rates, are places where industry has left, where the amount of hopelessness or family breakdown is higher — and the Delta has struggled with economic difficulties. So that’s not surprising to me.”
If the criminal justice system is not the proper tool for handling drug use, as End It For Good contends, what is a better way? Christina, who is writing a book on the subject, proposes working to convince society that there is a better way to deal with the drug problem and by creating supportive communities “where people can find connection and work and dignity and have an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. The government is never going to create that for us. We can create that.” Not surprisingly, given her background, Christina insists that this is the job for individuals working together and the churches.
Christina Dent is living the intentional life that her parents always desired for her — though perhaps not in the field of legalizing drugs. Will wonders never cease?