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