Civil Disobedience (6): The Duty to Dissent
Final Fortnight

Freedom and Drugs

Drugs_are_bad Should people have the freedom to take whatever drugs they choose? 

Let us begin by examining this issue in relationship to the law, then later examine the issue irrespective of the legal position.

Recreational chemicals of almost all kinds – excepting alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals such as anti-depressents, anxiolytics and “sex drugs”  being peddled by corporations (rather than individuals or crime syndicates) – are illegal. Consequently, if one is to make the decision to take drugs, there is the question of one’s relationship to the law. Where there is a conflict with religious freedom, as in the instance of using marijuana as a sacrament, a clear case can be made for non-compliance, but otherwise the position is shaky. 

The taking of drugs for entertainment purposes is hardly a legitimate form of protest – anyone who claims to do so because of the hypocrisy of the legal pharmaceutical industry versus the illegal “cottage industries” is on shaky ground, since unless the drug taking is done publicly there is no genuine claim for civil disobedience. Therefore, one must to some extent hold the law in contempt to take illegal recreational chemicals, although perhaps a Libertarian (or someone similar in outlook) may claim that their core political beliefs are as vital to them as any religious belief, and thus acquire a duty of non-compliance in this way.

Let us presume, however, that we are dealing with someone who for whatever reason chooses not to respect the law, and decides to take recreational chemicals illegally. What system of ethics might apply? 

Counter-culture icon and psychologist Timothy Leary devised two simple rules which he felt would be sufficient to denote the major ethical boundaries of drug use:

1) Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow man.
2) Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his own consciousness. 

Leary was also keen to speak out against taking mind-altering substances about which one was not sufficiently informed. His guidelines in this regard came in three parts: set, setting and dosage. In other words, one should be responsible in the context in which consciousness-alteration by drugs was attempted: ensuring a positive mind set, a supportive and safe setting, and an appropriate dosage – thus requiring a reasonable prior knowledge of the effects of anything taken. (It has been remarked that while Nancy Reagan was saying “Just say no”, Timothy Leary was saying “Just say know”).

Furthermore, in the context of powerful mind-altering substances such as LSD (although the provision can be easily extended to similar substances such as cocaine and ecstasy), Leary advised taking such substances no more than four times a year, suggesting the equinoxes and solstices as a convenient way of keeping track. Leary was a researcher who considered LSD a potentially valuable therapeutic tool for rehabilitating prisoners and providing other psychological benefits to the community, and it should be considered that while self-experiment with these potentially dangerous chemicals is the only option while they are illegal,  under a legal framework the use of these drugs could be conducted under clinical supervision.

Leary also advocated  the use of opiates for inducing euthanasia, and indeed used heroin and morphine as part of his own process of dying, having been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.  (I do not believe he suggested the use of opiates in any other context). Morphine is already used by hospitals to ease a terminal patient's final days which, while not strictly euthanasia, is seen by some health care professionals as being tantamount to it. The extreme physiological addictive properties of opiates make them inappropriate for any other use, and there is a sense in which the heroin addict is in the process of conducting a form of lackadaisical suicide.

I question to some extent Leary’s “commandments”, although his suggestion that if you are to take the more powerful drugs you should constrain your frequency is eminently sensible, even if it overlooks the possibility that you might do better to refrain entirely. The trouble with the first commandment is that one cannot help but alter the consciousness of “thy fellow man”: I’m altering your consciousness right now as you read this sentence, and if you choose to leave a comment you will alter my consciousness too. We simply can’t live together and not have effects on each other’s consciousness.

Similarly, should we really not intervene to stop someone from altering their consciousness? When I have seen friends disappear into a drugged-out haze on prescription anti-depressants that have been thoughtlessly given out without the necessary accompanying therapy, I have spoken out against it. Mindlessly patching over depression with personality-disabling drugs is not something I am willing to support – regardless of the legal status of those drugs. 

The decision to take any particular drug – legal or illegal – should rest ultimately upon the shoulders of the individual, but it need not be made in isolation, and it certainly should not be made in ignorance. Learn about anything you might take, and if you choose to proceed in taking a particular drug, do so responsibly. If you are taking a prescription pharmaceutical, ask your doctor or nurse about its effects, or look it up on the internet. (You may also wish to check whether your doctor has shares in the pharmaceutical company that makes a drug they are recommending: doctors cannot be presumed to be impartial in our current circumstances). If taking an illegal recreational chemical, the same general kind of provision should always apply. Never be tempted to take a drug about which you know nothing.

All this said, I do not advocate the recreational use of any drug, even though I have been a recreational user of several – including alcohol, which of all the things I have taken has caused the most damage to me through reckless misuse while in my twenties. I believe, in common with the Buddhists, that it is infinitely better to find happiness without resorting to chemicals. However, in a world as crazy as our own, I feel that there is nothing inherently wrong with people using drugs to help them relax, take them to new mental states, or simply for entertainment, provided it is done with forethought, care, and respect for both oneself and others. 

For Foster Nichols, whose views on this subject may differ from those presented here.


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You left caffeine and sugar(s) out of your list of corporate controlled, and therefor legal, drugs. They both alter consciousness and are both addictive. They are also two of the most commonly accepted drugs, even among people who shun drinking and medication. Corn derived sweeteners, in particular, have been shown to have severe addictive and debilitating effects on the human mind and body.

I think 'forcibly' is pretty clearly implied in Leary's first rule. Or perhaps 'illicitly'. I choose to read your blog. I do not choose to have someone drop X in my drink at a party. To negate this rule by stretching it so thin as to be nonsensical isn't the most sound of reasoning.

You also don't break Leary's second rule by speaking out against prescription drug abuse. You do not steal their medication or lock your friends in a room, right? Again, you're stretching the meaning too thin, I think.

I believe that to have a sensible approach to this conversation, we need to draw firm clinical distinctions between the physiological and psychological effects of various substances. Perhaps alcohol and marijuana can be discussed as comparable substances, but lab drugs (both legal and illegal) ought not be lumped in with them, legally or socially. Opiates belong in yet another strata of the discussion.

We also need to take into account the socio-political reasons behind the legal status of drugs. While the censure of marijuana is now a tool of cultural marginalization, it was originally banned because its non-potent relative, hemp, threatened the cotton and timber industries.

Anyway... I think this topic is much bigger than a single post and you perhaps do it a disservice by trying to gloss over it in one go.

...and for the record, the only drugs I currently use are caffeine (daily) and ibuprofen (rarely).

I agree with Corvus when he says this topic is much bigger than a single post. I also agree that your poking of Leary's "commandments" leans to the letter and not the spirit (by which you surprise me as you are often a staunch upholder of both or the sprit in this sort of thing).

Still, it is a tricksy subject, with many people only having information piped to them by propaganda, and it is easy to start flaming nonsense with this sort of post, so perhaps this was a toe-in-the-water moment?

I like those commandments of Leary's by the way - nice idea. I seriously think we, as a society in the west, were harmed by the "Just Say No!" campaigns. I wish we had been taught the ups and downs of these things, rather than getting a lesson on how to think like an extremist.

It would be great to have been taught stuff on how to exist in our society instead of some of the rubbish they made us learn.

It was such a surprise to learn when I was younger that less than 100 years ago things like cocaine were widely available in everything from the iconic soft drinks to toothpaste and boiled sweets. Not to mention, pop into your cornershop chemist and pick up a quarter of hashish, some laudanum and a little coke for the week ahead.

I find the hypocrisy with which the govt. can choose to allow us to drink alcohol, but deny us other similar drugs is reprehensible. I wonder if the alcohol lobby group keeps other drugs from being made lawful - like the cotton growers making sure hemp was illegalised...

I would love to comment in detail on the morphine-in-final-days item. Unfortunately I can't legally do so.

Chris, are you playing a different language game than Leary? I suspect his "altered consciousness" in his two rules implies "by the use of drugs"; your reaction to it implies you have a broader interpretation of the term.

If one assumes Leary implies "by the use of drugs", then I agree with his commandments - they match my own views quite closely. However, my agreement hits me in the wallet due to the society in which I happen to live, and in which I happen to contribute money towards the care and rehabilitation of drug users, both via taxes I pay for the NHS and via private medical insurance premiums. So, let's add another dimension: In what way, if any, is a society obliged to take care of (say) its drug addicts?

My own drug list...
[Y] Alcohol
[Y] Sugar
[Y] Chocolate
[Y] SSRIs (
[Y] Morphine

Here's an old blog entry of mine. Is that tacky?

[12 Mar 2006 | Sunday]

"Just Say No" is one of those phrases that people use when bitching about the Reagan 80's. I can't even remember hearing it in any other context at this point. Bumper-sticker-liberals turn to it for at least three reasons. It sums up an era (created entirely by conservatives, no doubt) of sugar coated crap culture, old boy networks, cold war broad strokes. It sounds indefensibly stupid. And, of course, it fits on a bumpersticker. It's the "depends on what is is" of it's day.

But consider:

"The Just Say No movement began in 1985 in an elementary school in Oakland, California with a simple message: Just Say No, when someone offers you drugs or alcohol. This message spread nationwide when it gained the support of First Lady Nancy Reagan."

"Just Say No" must rank up there with Mickey Mouse and the Joe Camel in terms of brand recognition. Hate the phrase if you want, but be fair. Like Mickey and Joe, it was meant for gradeschoolers. Not for you.

It's an explosion of choice minutiae! :)

Ok, firstly: is this issue too big to deal in one post? Yes, certainly. But I don't want to dig into this area too deeply as we are on our way "out the door", so to speak. Besides, I feel attempts to move it to a larger stage move beyond the scope of this subject and into political economics, which is certainly too far in this context as we're supposed to be talking about ethics.

Secondly: I omit sugar and caffeine and more besides. It's true, but I think it's clear that this is just a quick aerial reconnaissance rather than an in depth piece; I never claimed to be exhaustive, and had hoped that the gaps would spur further discussion.

Thirdly: a number of people complaining about my poking of Leary's commandments until they broke. My point here is: they break easily, therefore they aren't very well worded. ;) I don't think the commandments hold up very well as instructions, and although you all can suggest ways they can be fixed, many of you will have very different ideas about where to fix them. That's just no good for something like this which is supposed to be marking a boundary.

What the two commandments boil down to is a Libertarian attitude towards drug taking - that those who take illegal drugs tend towards Libertarian views isn't enough for me to believe that this is the right model here.

I believe people *do* sometimes get out of their depth (both with legal and illegal drugs), and it can be reasonable for people to intervene against the will of the individual - I may not want to void individual judgement to the state, but I will consider it in the context of friends and family. I believe people sometimes need rescuing from themselves - although how one finds this boundary is quite beyond me!

We are all deeply interconnected - acting as if we only alter consciousness with drugs, or that drugs are the chief means by which we alter each others consciousness seems to me to vastly overlook the social issues just of living together, never mind taking drugs. Thus, I reject Leary's commandments both as worded and, I suspect, in any revised and clarified form.

By all means give it a go, though - I could be persuaded... ;)

Fourthly: "Just Say No." I appreciate the point here, that it's intended to be speaking to children and not adults, as is the new "above the influence" campaign, and I'm not against anti-drug campaigning, as long as its reasonable. The reference to Nancy Reagan in this piece is, after all, to feed a pun and not for criticism.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

It's an explosion of minutiae because, I suspect, the main thrust of the piece is a statement of your own beliefs.

A side observation: For whatever reason, the blog entries that are statements (rather than questions) seem to me to have become more common, and more assertively worded and defended, since you moved out of the UK.

Peter: I dare say you are correct. These "discussion of ethical issues" pieces tend to be put together in a stream-of-consciousness style, which often results in them being statements of my own beliefs.

"For whatever reason, the blog entries that are statements (rather than questions) seem to me to have become more common, and more assertively worded and defended, since you moved out of the UK."

Interesting observation... Part of this is the course of the "Ethics Campaign" as a whole - the closer to the political boundary at the back edge of the topic we've come, the more assertive I've tended to be, I think. I don't know to what extent (if any) my being in the US has affected this process, but it may only be tangential.

There were more questions early on because there were a lot of topics kicking around where I was still exploring; now on the back end, I have surer footing. (Before the Kant piece, I didn't have a solid framework to build on; since moving into "Justice", I have depended upon this to make cases).

But also, I found that posting questions didn't necessarily promote discussion as well as making a firm statement that people could then buck against. So to some extent there has been a conscious move against the more open question format.

Do you miss the questions? The only one which really worked well in my recollection was "The Trolley Problem", and that had the benefit of being a dilemma in the first place. :)

Do you miss the questions?

Yes. I feel I can respond to a question, or a position-plus-question, whereas a brick-wall* assertion of a position leaves me blinking and wondering whether I can respond, let alone how. This is a problem with my reading of the situation, which tends to go "asserted position => strongly held views => being shot at if I try to present a different viewpoint".

* Hmm, interesting first choice of metaphor there, I'm going to leave it in as it shows something of how I feel.

Peter: it's interesting; I wonder how many others feel this way? Because I think I have consciously moved away from the more open question format because I felt it *wasn't* encouraging discussion. It's ironic, therefore, to hear you reversing the assumptions here! :)

As for my strongly held views, to be honest, Freedom of Belief is my strongly held view, everything else is flexible for me. :D

Sometimes I put up posts that seem to display a far stronger viewpoint than I myself would usually hold, and generally this is an attempt to foster dialogue (on the observation that I get more comments when people disagree with me than when they agree).

And sometimes, as in the case of "Animal Rights?" I find the position I'm arguing is actually opposed to my own personal beliefs on the topic, which I find fascinating in itself! What I believe as an individual, and what I choose to publicly argue are not always the same, although I never play "devil's advocate" - I always argue a position I consider worth defending, if you see what I mean.

(I haven't responded to your comment on Sexual Beliefs yet as I want to give other people a chance to wade in before I say anything more on the subject.)

I had noticed less traffic from you in the comments recently - I guess it's because of the firmer stances. Sorry about that!

Anyway, only two more major posts left in the "Ethics Campaign" now. I'm looking forward to getting to the end perhaps a little too much - I hope I don't rush it. ;)

Best wishes!

I had noticed less traffic from you in the comments recently

It's winter, and I have my usual dose of Seasonal Affective Disorder. This makes me less communicative (and more argumentative - sorry!) than usual.

Work has also been frantic. This doesn't help when keeping up with blogs.

Does freedom of religion cover religious use of drugs?
Ok, so I am a shamanistic wiccan. Traditionally mushrooms are used to help us go the the spirit realm and have prophetic visions. They are now illegal in most places. Can I still use it for religious purpose?

Propecia: this is a valid question. In practice, each law-enforcing entity makes their own ruling in this regard. The spirit of the international law allows for this possibility - but can justifiably ask for "legal strength" evidence that your religious tradition has sufficient grounds to allow for sacramental use of hallucinogens.

In the US, for instance, Native Americans are allowed to use peyote for religious ceremonies.

I think, in the case of neo-Pagan Wiccans, the struggle is not to establish the validity of the religious tradition in general - this should be a slam dunk - but rather to establish the necessity of the mushrooms to the rituals of the religion. And here you will hit a problem because most neo-Pagan Wiccans do not use hallucinogens in their practices, so the case becomes weaker.

It is still possible to fight this case, but whether you would win is far from certain.

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