Drugs And Religion

From Dmitri Tymoczko’s 1996 article on William James:

Americans it is often remarked, are confused about drugs. The image of William Bennett giving up his cigarettes in order to lead the nation’s War on Drugs exemplifies this confusion. We tolerate cigarettes and alcohol but prohibit the recreational use of similarly mild intoxicants, including marijuana. We pour billions of dollars into law enforcement but devote only a tiny fraction of this amount to the medical treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts. Courts impose widely disparate punishments for the possession and use of chemically similar substances, notably crack and powdered cocaine. But perhaps the most egregious area of inconsistency involves religious drug use. Faced with the claim that drug use contributes importantly to religious belief, courts have made a number of confused and conflicting judgments. […]

The reasoning behind decisions that uphold the right to use drugs in a religious context is obvious: drugs play an important, even essential, role in the practice of many religious groups; the Constitution protects the free exercise of religious belief; therefore the Constitution protects the use of drugs. The reasoning behind decisions that reject the same right is that religious action, unlike religious belief, is not absolutely protected by the Constitution. The distinction was definitively articulated by Justice Owen Roberts in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940). "The [First] Amendment," he wrote, "embraces two concepts–freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute but, in the nature of things, the second cannot be." Thus the law, though it does not seek to prevent people from having certain religious beliefs, may prevent them from acting on those beliefs. Courts have held, for instance, that prohibitions on polygamy apply to Mormons, and that even Christian snake-handling sects are subject to regulations controlling the treatment of dangerous animals. Since taking drugs is an action, it is thus subject to government regulation.

But is this the right way to look at the situation? William James used drugs not because he had religious beliefs that encouraged him to do so but in order to generate religious or mystical beliefs that he otherwise would not have had. […]

More important, James’s philosophy gives us a principled way to think about the relation between religion and drugs. From a Jamesian perspective, religious toleration represents not just a commitment to individual freedom, not simply a hands-off policy on the part of the government toward questions of ultimate truth, but rather an affirmative decision to shelter certain useful though potentially false beliefs. Drug use, from this perspective, represents a similar sort of decision, but on the level of the individual rather than of the society. Just as a society might choose to nurture or tolerate certain sorts of illusions, pluralistically embracing both atheistic and religious subcultures, so, too, might an individual decide–as did James–to divide his or her life into periods of sober rationality and ecstatic religious intoxication. Drugs can allow even the most skeptical people, those who by constitution or upbringing are not susceptible to religious insights, to experience temporary periods of pleasing falsehood. Indeed, this is the real religious significance of drug use, from the Jamesian point of view–that it lets us choose, if only vaguely and temporarily, what to believe.

And This Is The Modern Bit Of The Middle East

News from Dubai:

A father-of-three who was found with a microscopic speck of cannabis stuck to the bottom of one of his shoes has been sentenced to four years in a Dubai prison. Keith Brown, a council youth development officer, was travelling through the United Arab Emirates on his way back to England when he was stopped as he walked through Dubai’s main airport.

A search by customs officials uncovered a speck of cannabis weighing just 0.003g – so small it would be invisible to the naked eye and weighing less than a grain of sugar – on the tread of one of his shoes.

A Weed Vending Machine

How on earth could one live without one:

After cinching up your doctor’s consultation, hit an AVM location to get your prescription approved, fingerprint taken, and a prepaid credit card loaded with your profile: dosage (3.5 or 7 grams, up to 1oz a week) and strain preference (choice of five, including OG Cush and Granddaddy Purple, the mildly hallucinogenic forebear to Prince). Then day or night, all you do is hit a machine and walk away with enough vacuum-sealed, plastic-encapsulated cheeba to adequately treat your illness, and guarantee your car never smells like new leather again.

Groovy Medicine

Scientific American has a very informative piece up about new research into the uses of LSD, psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs for mental illness:

Much remains unclear about the precise neural mechanisms governing how these drugs produce their mind-bending results, but they often produce somewhat similar psychoactive effects that make them potential therapeutic tools. Though still in their preliminary stages, studies in humans suggest that the day when people can schedule a psychedelic session with their therapist to overcome a serious psychiatric problem may not be that far off.

Awesome illustrations as well. Hat tip: Mind Hacks.

The Morality Of Potheads



Beyond the caricature of libertarians as, what, amyl-nitrate-huffing poofters (not that there’s anything wrong with that–there we go again!), I just don’t get the idea that what sometimes gets called the pursuit of happiness is in any way controversial. And if it is for conservatives, then it’s a good thing they seem to be in the shitter politically.

Amen. But I’d make a slightly different point. Dinesh seems to conflate morality with certain anti-pleasure codes, largely to do with sex and/or drugs. And so he places libertarianism in an immoral or amoral camp. But toleration is itself a moral virtue. And leaving others alone in a free society can and often does go hand in hand with quite strict personal morality in your own life. Some of that morality can be along the lines D’Souza admires: no sex outside heterosexual marriage and no drinking or smoking. There are plenty of libertarians in that camp. But others see morality as being more about how one deals with other human beings: the virtues of compassion, patience, civility, kindness, courage, honesty, toleration, humility and so on. This is the deeper and wider moral agenda that encompasses many, many libertarians. It seems to me that a focus on morality that is obsessed primarily with issues of personal pleasure or sex is a warped and misleading one. I’m not saying that morality is not a part of those areas of human life. I am saying that morality is far, far broader and deeper than that.

Merry Christmas. Enjoy your day – however you want to.

(Photo: Sergei Supinsky/Getty.)

Professor’s Little Helper

Nature has an interesting story on scientists using various cognitive-enhancing drugs to push their limits. It’s rather like the use of steroids by athletes – but they’re brain steroids, if you will. Mind Hacks notes:

These are the same drugs that have caused concern about their level of use among students, chiefly modafinil (Provigil) and methylphenidate (Ritalin), although other drugs such as Alzheimer’s medication donepezil (Aricept), non-amphetamine ADHD drug atomoxetine (Strattera) are also candidates.

I haven’t had a cow about the baseball steroids "scandal" because the only issue to me is whether some athletes have cheated by getting an unfair advantage over others. I don’t actually believe the use of steroids in sports is inherently problematic – as long as everyone gets a fair crack at the needle. I guess it’s because my own long-term use of testosterone replacement therapy has opened my eyes to the power and largely benign impact of moderate and responsible steroid use. I need it, of course, and when I’ve forgotten my dose (who wants to jab themselves if they can put it off?), I’ve experienced serious fatigue and marginal weight-loss. But I really can’t see the harm in aging men without HIV using testosterone or human growth hormone to ease the transition into geezerdom – or just because it makes you feel good or look hotter. It’s positively harmful for the young; but I tend to believe that adults should be allowed to put whatever chemicals they want into their own bodies. The line between medical and cosmetic or lifestyle usage seems to me to be rather blurry – and will get blurrier as science advances. So if a prof wants to do a little Provigil, it’s no worry for me. Why should it be a worry for anyone but the prof himself?