How should we view the war on drugs? Is it a failure and should we try something different? Or are drugs so dangerous that waging war on them is the only appropriate response? We’ll discuss these and more with our guest Christina Dent around her new book, Curious: A Foster Mom's Discovery of an Unexpected Solution to Drugs and Addiction.

Christina Dent is Founder & President of End It For Good, a nonprofit advocating approaches to drugs that prioritize life and the opportunity to thrive.

Episode Transcript

Sean: How should we view the war on drugs? Is it a failure and should we try something different? Or are drugs so dangerous that waging war on them is the only appropriate response? We'll discuss these questions more with our guest, Christina Dent. She's the author of a brand new book called "Curious." Subtitle is really what got my attention, "A Foster Mom's Discovery of an Unexpected Solution to Drugs and Addiction." I'm your host, Scott Rae.

Sean: I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.

Scott: This is ThinkBiblicaly from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. Christina, thanks so much for joining us. So glad to have you on with us.

Christina: Thanks so much for having me, Scott.

Scott: Now, you start out in your book and you make quite an admission that your parents, your kids, and yourself have had no experience at all with illegal drugs or addiction. So what gives you such a passion for this subject of ending addiction and changing how we approach it?

Christina; Yeah, and actually that's one of the reasons why I wrote the book. I was hopeful that my particular experience as a bit of an outsider on the issue who came in in a unique way through being a foster parent would give a voice and maybe a perspective to people that felt a similar connection to maybe my background growing up in a conservative Christian culture, born and raised in Mississippi, have lived here my whole life. And I really wanted to help people see what I got to see through being a foster mom. And that was meeting one of the moms of one of our, or the mom of one of our foster sons. And her name is Joanne. Before I had met her, I did not, like you said, didn't know anything about drugs, addiction. I did not use drugs in high school or college. My undergrad degree is in Biblical Studies. It was not part of my world at all. And so when I met her in my early 30s, I thought I kind of had the world figured out. This is how things work. If you do good things, good things come to you. If you make bad decisions like using drugs, well, you know, that's, you've made your bed and now you can lie in it. And so in many ways I had a lot of empathy, but I did not recognize how easily that empathy could shut off until I met her. And I found myself bringing her son to his first visit with her after he came into foster care—straight from the hospital, straight after being born. So he's this tiny little premature newborn, this adorable baby. And I bring him to his first visit with her and I pull up in the parking lot and get out of my car, take his car seat out and turn around to go inside. And here comes this woman running across the parking lot—weeping—and she runs over to me and she starts kissing this little baby. And this is my first time meeting Joanne. And I felt really suspicious of that. I thought, "Ah, come on, this is not real. This is uncomfortably raw emotion, and maybe she's just trying to get me to put in a good word with a social worker." Part of me wanted to believe it and a big part didn't because it was really challenging what felt comfortable to me about this situation, which is that I am the good person and she is the person who needs to make a change in their life.

And so that experience of just meeting her and watching her spend an hour with him, coming back to pick him up and seeing her sitting on that couch in the visitation room with her son sleeping on her shoulder, just drinking him in. She's not on her phone. She's not doing anything other than sitting with her eyes closed, just drinking in every moment that she has with him. And that continued after she left to go to inpatient drug treatment in another part of the state, she would call me every day and she would say, "Can you put me on speaker phone?" And she'd sing to him over the phone. And this experience, it didn't change my whole life immediately, but it did continuously erode this belief that I had grown up with, that people who use drugs are bad people. People who struggle with addiction are even worse people. And what you do with really bad people is you arrest them and incarcerate them. And as I got to know Joanne, I got to see who she really is, which is a mom like me who loves her son just as much as I love my three sons. And her addiction was a really complex health crisis, but I could clearly see that arresting her and putting her in jail for that would be so destructive for her, for her son. And as I began to put that into these other convictions that I had around being pro-life, around being pro-family, about wanting stable families and parents raising their children, all of that began to become very uncomfortable as I really sat with the outcome of what would happen and what is happening to thousands of people like Joanne every day.

Sean: Now, you had your share of adverse childhood experiences. Would you briefly tell us about them and kind of how these experiences had an impact on you and really the risk of someone else developing an addiction, even though in particular, it didn't happen to you?

Christina: Yeah, so I did have hard experiences during my childhood. I tell a number of those in the book because I think it's an important part of illustrating that what happens to us when we are young deeply impacts us when we're older. I was actually thinking about this in a way that I don't tell in the book, but our house was hit by a tornado—and this was in my early adulthood. I was home at the time, an absolutely terrifying experience. And I was thinking about that while I was laying in bed because the wind kicked up suddenly outside and it does not matter how many years—it's been 15 years since that happened—every time there is no wind and then the wind suddenly kicks up and I hear the tops of those trees brushing back and forth suddenly and kind of violently. My heart rate skyrockets, my whole body goes into like, fight or flight mode. And I go back to that moment because that's exactly what happened when that tornado came through. There was no storm prior to it, it was quiet outside and suddenly the wind kicked up and within 30 seconds the tornado was on our house. And so, that is just another example of, my body remembers that, it's not just my mind, it's my body remembers this feeling and it triggers this reaction.

And so as I began learning after meeting Joanne about what really gives someone a risk of addiction because I could see in her it's not because she's a terrible person and she had been struggling with addiction by this point for almost 20 years. And so I wanted to know what is it? 'Cause clearly it's not the things I had grown up thinking that it was. And the more that I read and learned, the more I learned that drug use and addiction are responses, they're not causes and the way that we kind of think of them, the problem is drugs or the problem is the addiction. They are responses to other things going on in a person's life. The choice to use a substance is a choice to change the way that you feel, to try to feel better than you do right now. So when you think about something like childhood trauma, children who experience physical violence, sexual violence, that might be watching a parent be harmed in a domestic violence situation, could be growing up in an unsafe neighborhood. There are lots of these experiences that are called adverse childhood experiences. And what research has shown is that if a child has gone through five or more of those adverse childhood experiences, they are seven to 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs or become addicted to them. Not because they're bad kids, but because they're hurting kids. And hurting kids who grow up become hurting adults who are looking for ways to cope. And that broke my heart because what we're doing by incarcerating people who are caught in possession of a drug or who are struggling with an addiction, we're using trauma to deal with a problem that's actually oftentimes caused by trauma and made worse by trauma. I love your episode a couple of weeks ago with Matt Martins where he talked about the criminal justice system is a system of physical violence. Criminal justice is physical violence. You think about that idea of a person who is already suffering and needs to find healing for that suffering, being put into a system that is designed to create more suffering in a person's life. And I think if we can sit with that, it will become very clear, very quickly to us why that has not worked to produce the positive outcomes that we want.

Scott: Now, Christina, you talk in your book about once you got to know Joanne and her little guy Beckham, you started doing a lot more research on the subject of addiction and some of the causes. And you specifically cite what's called the “Rat Park experiment” being super influential in changing your thinking about that. Tell us about what that experiment was and how did it change your mind?

Christina: Yeah, it was one of the things that I continue to come back to because the imagery behind it is so striking and so understandable for someone like me that doesn't have a background in sort of the academic side of understanding addiction. So, there's a researcher whose name is Dr. Bruce Alexander. And when he was a young practitioner—he was a psychologist as well—and so he was working in an addiction treatment center and he didn't want to work there, but it was where he had been assigned to work. And he thought, oh gosh, these people are terrible people and trustworthy people, all of the same things most of us grew up hearing. And so he went to work and what he found was pretty quickly he realized, wait a second, as I'm talking to these patients, they're not actually talking about the drugs, they're talking about the other things going on in their life that are causing this need for them to change, to self-medicate, to numb the way that they feel. So, he was also a professor at the time and he went and told his students about his experience in this clinic. And they said, “No, no, no, those people are lying to you. That's not true. And it's not true. And we know that because of these experiments that were done with rats.” Where you take rats, you put them in what's called a Skinner box, it's just a little empty box, and you can do experiments with them in there. And so a separate researcher had put these rats in a box, had given them access to drug-laced water or plain water. And it turns out that the rats would use the drug-laced water over and over again, sometimes using it to such a degree that they ended up overdosing and dying. So, Dr. Alexander looks at that and he says, well, that's not an experiment that seems like it's in line with how rats are. Rats are very social creatures. And so, I wonder what would happen if you gave the rats the opportunity to still use that drug-laced water, but what if you put them in a different environment? What if you put them in an environment where they had everything that makes for a happy rat life? So, he and his colleagues built what they called “Rat Park” on the floor of their laboratory. And they put wood chips down, they had little exercise wheels, they had tin cans for the rats to play in, and they had lots of rats, together, everything that would make a rat happy. And they also put the drug-laced water and the plain water. And what they found is the rats almost never chose the drug-laced water. And even when they did choose it, rarely, they never used it excessively. They were happy and fulfilled in their little rat lives. And so, Dr. Alexander took that—now you can't do an experiment like that, it would be inhumane to do that with humans—but he took that learning and said, this matches what I'm seeing in the clinic, working with people. And he has spent the last 50 years doing research, talking with people, working on this other way of understanding addiction.

That addiction is not this focus on a drug and this kind of demon drug, and the drug is controlling people and it's all about the drug. But rather, the drug is just a coping mechanism, it's a response to other factors in a person's life. And so if we want to address addiction in a meaningful way, we have to stop focusing on the drug, which is the coping mechanism, and start focusing on the deeper issue, which is why does that person feel the need to use that? Why do they feel the need to change the way that they feel? And why would that need become so powerful to them that they would give up many other things that are important in their life in order to not feel all of the things that are inside of them? And I think that's the question that's in front of us as a country as we grapple with a severe mental health crisis, addiction crisis, overdose crisis—is, are we willing to start shifting away from focusing on the drug and how can we ban more drugs? How can we incarcerate more people and try to punish them out of their drug use? Shift away from that and say, this is a complex health crisis, and we need to start digging deeper into why people feel the need to change the way that they experience their lives, and how can we help them build lives that they want to be fully present for so they can live out all of who God has made them to be, and all the giftings, all the opportunity and ability that they have. That's the life that we want for people. How can we help them get to that life and heal to a degree that they're able to embrace that life?

Sean: So, Christina, what do you think is the societal damage from the war on drugs, or even just kind of individually telling a drug addict, stop using drugs and you will have a meaningful life? So what's the damage of that message kind of culturally and individually as you see it?

Christina: Yeah, I think it has a lot of different ways that it impacts us. So, when you look kind of broadly speaking at the impact of how we approach drugs and addiction, it ends up affecting people's educational opportunity, their housing opportunity, the stability of the families they grow up in, and the stability of the families that they form as adults. It affects employment opportunities, it affects public safety. This actually just came home to me, again, last week at church. My book had just come out and a man came up to me and he said, "Hey, I just heard about your book coming out and I'm gonna get a copy and read it, but I know what it's about." And he said, "I struggled with a cocaine addiction in my early years and I have a drug charge because of that. And that was 32 years ago and I still have a felony on my record. And I still have been barred from employment opportunities my whole life because of that cocaine addiction that I was struggling with.” And even up to, we think, "Gosh, surely we have moved past this. Like surely we can look at the man and say, 32 years ago, this should not still be barring him from opportunity." But he just a couple of years ago tried to get into trucking, like long haul trucking, truck driving. And he made it almost the entire way through the process. They were super excited about him. Yes, this is gonna be great. And the last question was, "Do you have any prior felony convictions?" And he said, "Yes, I do. This is from over 30 years ago when I was struggling with a cocaine addiction at the time." And they said, "I'm sorry. We can't take you because of that." So, here is a man who has wanted to move forward in his life, has been trying to provide for himself and his family. And his entire adult life has been saddled with this criminal record from our decision to use the criminal justice system to try to deal with the health issue that he was dealing with.

Now, that's not plastered across everybody's forehead. You don't walk into church and look at him and go, "Oh gosh, he's got a felony." That's a very painful thing for someone to have in their life. I didn't know that prior to him divulging that to me after my book came out. But that's happening to people all over the place. This is shocking, but this is true. One in four American adults has a criminal record. One in four, not all other felonies. One in four. One in two American adults has had a close family member arrested—that’s just shocking that we have come to rely so much on the criminal justice system to address all things in society that are wrong, whether or not it's the right tool for it. And so many of those begin with a drug possession charge. And then often that just spirals as a person experiences a lot of harm in the criminal justice system. It's very common for people to experience all kinds of violence, physical, emotional, mental, sexual violence, very common in jail and prison environments. And so, it's actually moving people away from the kind of life that we want for them to have. And I think it is to the degree that we not only have people who can't get jobs, but we're losing 100,000 Americans a year to overdose deaths. We have crime that's destabilizing entire countries south of our border and contributing to serious challenges that we're facing. I think all of these things are connected. They're all connected to how we handle drugs and addiction.

You know, I'm always thinking about like, what's the thing that my grandkids are gonna look back on and say like, "Grandma, how could you not see? How could your whole society not see?" Because that's what we do. We look back on previous generations and we say, "How could you not see?" And yet I think this is one of the issues they're gonna look back on and say, "You had the research. You knew that addiction is largely driven by pain and suffering in a person's life. How could you continue to use a system that perpetuates trauma to try to deal with this?" And I think we have a chance to be willing to admit today that we need to change course and to be courageous enough to take the steps to do that. And I think what we have as hope on the horizon, if we're willing to do that, is incredible opportunity and reduction of harm in people's lives. And for me as a Christian trying to live out my faith in the world, gosh, I wanna see that in so many ways. And I think this is a big way we could see it.

Scott: So Christina, I'm sure you get a lot of pushback in various areas for this, but one of the common criticisms is that these drugs should be illegal and should be criminalized precisely because they are so dangerous and addictive. And I think particularly the way that fentanyl has entered into the market for this, I wonder if that has changed the way you might think about decriminalizing drug possession. How would you respond to those?

Christina: So, I'll tell you a story about fentanyl. This happened a couple of years ago. My youngest son was four at the time and we were at the baseball fields. And he went into the restroom and it's an old cinder block building with very heavy doors. He came out and got his finger stuck in the door—and I'll say finger stuck is a nice version of that. We ended up at the hospital. He needed stitches to repair his finger. And as we are waiting and he's crying, the nurse comes in and she says, "Hey, Mrs. Dent, I'm just gonna give Brandon some fentanyl that's gonna help with the pain. It's just gonna get him ready before the doctor can do the stitches." Now, this is happening at the same time that the fentanyl overdose crisis is ramping up. Fentanyl is in the newspapers at this time. And the idea that we get is that fentanyl is a drug that kills everyone who takes it, that is completely unable to be used in any kind of productive or healthy way, that it is always dangerous and always lethal. And here is a nurse who's giving my four-year-old fentanyl. And she comes in a couple hours later and she says, "Hey, it's starting to wear off. I'm gonna go ahead and give him a little more fentanyl as we're waiting on the doctor to come and do the stitches."

And I think it's a good example of what drug prohibition does to a drug. So, the best way to make a drug very, very dangerous is to prohibit it. Because when prohibition starts, you take away all regulatory control. There's no quality control. There's no age restrictions. There is an incentive to make that drug as potent as possible. That happens today at sports stadiums with alcohol. When you think about people tailgating on the outside, they're largely drinking beer. But if they can't drink alcohol legally on the inside, they start drinking hard liquor. It's because when you have to smuggle a drug, you need the biggest punch in the smallest package. So, if sports fans are responding to the forces of prohibition by smuggling a flask of liquor instead of smuggling a six-pack of beer, which is a very understandable decision, how much more are gangs, cartels, terrorist organizations, these are the people who sell illegal drugs at the broad level. At the community level, it's just people in our community, oftentimes people struggling with addiction who are trying to make enough money to make it by. But when you think about who is making hundreds of billions of dollars a year on illegal drugs, it is the large industries behind them. And those are criminal organizations, and they have a financial incentive to get the biggest punch in the smallest package. And fentanyl is a response to that. It is a very potent synthetic opioid. And somebody said, you know, it used to be you had to smuggle a shipload of heroin. Now you can just smuggle a suitcase of fentanyl and you can mail it through the postal service. It doesn't have any scent to it. So, as long as we continue to prohibit popular drugs, we will continue to get higher and higher potency drugs and that loss of any kind of regulatory control over it, whether that's an age restriction to purchase or whether that is how do you even know what's in it? People are buying what they think is heroin and it's actually fentanyl, or it's a combination of 50 different items that have been mashed together into this little bag of powder that somebody buys on a street corner. It's incredibly dangerous and the margin of error is very, very slim. So, I think we're thinking about that backwards actually. It's not, are there drugs that are too dangerous to allow to be legally regulated, but rather the more dangerous a drug can be, the more important it is that we have some sort of regulatory control over it. Otherwise it's a complete free for all out on the street. And for you and me who probably are not using heroin, I know I'm not, it's hard for us to believe, to really see that like this is available anywhere. You can buy any drug you want off of social media and have it delivered to your door. Drugs are available everywhere, whether or not we choose to see that. And so the choice before us isn't are there drugs or are there no drugs, but how are people going to be accessing those drugs and what is the drug that they're gonna be getting their hands on? And is it going to be something that can be dosed appropriately? Is it something they might be able to access under a doctor, or at least a pharmacist care? We have some options of how to regulate, not perfect options. There is no world where we get a perfect world with drugs. But when we look at what's causing so many people to die, it's contamination and lack of regulation on the drugs they're using. And that's only getting worse because illegal drug use has doubled in the last 20 years. So the number of people that are using contaminated drugs, that are using drugs that are gonna have fentanyl in them, drugs that can't be dosed appropriately, that number of people has doubled in the last 20 years. It's up to now where one in 10 Americans have used an illegal drug recently. That's a lot of people that are risking death because they are using something that they want to use and they're willing to go to any lengths to get it, but they're not using a regulated supply of drugs and it's causing incredible sorrow and suffering for so many families who are losing a loved one to a preventable overdose.

Sean: One in 10 have used an illegal drug, like you said, and earlier one in four with a criminal record. This is a massive issue. And in some ways, we've just kind of tapped the case that you make in your book, "Curious." And I'm guessing a lot of people listening are thinking, I'm curious where else she's gonna go and answer some of the questions about drug control and criminalization. We obviously don't have time to get into the depth of the book, but maybe just personalize it. For somebody who's trapped in drug addiction, what hope would you give to that individual?

Christina: What I would want them to know is that they are, number one, loved by God, and number two, that there are reasons for the suffering. And whether or not they have even delved into those reasons, that you haven't gone crazy. This isn't because you've lost all moral compass and just gone off the deep end. I hear people say that. They think, “I've just gone crazy. I don't know, I'm acting against my own values.” There are reasons behind this. And the amount of shame that people carry who are struggling with addiction is monumental. And I want them to not bear that weight. That's not to say that you're not gonna have regrets over decisions that you've made or people that you've hurt, but that bearing that weight of shame is not helping you. And I want for them to be able to let that go and to be able to walk into looking at how can I face the reasons behind my addiction, the real causes of my addiction, which is not the drug. It's whatever the drug is helping you cope with. And how can I then look for a pathway that will work for me? And that's part of what I talk about in "Curious" is broadening the scope of pathways we're willing to consider, whether that is through the use of medication, whether it's different types of recovery settings, whether that is something as cutting edge now, as psychedelic treatment for addiction that's just being tested and is coming down the pipe very quickly for people. Does not work for everyone certainly, but for some people can be a really helpful tool. So especially in faith communities, it can be really hard for people to feel like there's options. It's oftentimes what they're told is, you need a spiritual transformation, and that has to happen or you can't exit your addiction. And that can be really hard for people who are already Christians who are struggling with addiction. There are loads of people sitting in our pews who are struggling with an addiction. And so we need to be willing to look beyond, to look at what are the mental health issues, what are the suffering maybe from many years ago in your life that's still coming back to haunt you today. It could have spiritual components. It could be many other things. And so can we open the door to lots of pathways to recovery and support people one step at a time instead of only celebrating when they get all the way to this amazing, thriving life. That's just not how human change works. We change excruciatingly, slowly over time in almost every area of our lives. So, can we, instead of holding our joy, holding our support for people until they meet the highest bar, can we celebrate with them every step along the way? That's what I would want for people. That's what I would want for their families. And that can be really, really hard. And I would encourage people, if you have a loved one who's struggling with an addiction, to learn about CRAFT, it's Community Reinforcement And Family Training. It is an evidence-based approach. It's for family members. It's not for the person struggling with the addiction, it's for their family members. It's how they can engage in a healthy relationship with their loved one. And it's been shown to actually increase the chance that their loved one is gonna make a positive change in their life as well as preserve that relationship, which is so important because addiction can take a massive toll on families. And CRAFT is a tool that people are using and finding incredibly helpful to keep their family together and also just keep their sanity, trying to walk with a loved one through addiction.

Scott: Christina, we’re so appreciative of your book. It's so provocative and there's so much good food for thought here. This is definitely an outside the box view of how to deal with addiction. Though we have had some very well-respected people go public with the need to decriminalize drug possession. But your book spells it out, I think, in a lot of good detail. So, I wanna come into our listeners' yearbook entitled "Curious." The subtitle is "A Foster Mom's Discovery of an Unexpected Solution to Drugs and Addiction" by our guest, Christina Dent. Thanks so much for being with us. I suspect we're gonna get some good questions from our listeners. And maybe we can have you back on to help us answer some of those in the future.

Christina: Absolutely, thanks so much for having me. I'd love to hear from people. They can email me, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the book. Let's have a dialogue, it's one of the things I love most is just having good conversations on a tough topic like this. I think that's how we begin to find a better path forward.

Scott: Appreciate that. This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. The podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our master's degree in Christian apologetics, now offered fully online. Visit in order to learn more. To submit comments, ask questions, or make suggestions on issues you'd like us to cover, or guests you'd like us to consider, you can email us at, as If you enjoyed today's conversation with Christina Dent, give us a rating on your podcast app and please share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.