Drugs: Legalisation, Liberalisation and Harm Minimisation

shutterstock_170939975[1].jpgI got into an argument today over whether or not weed is moral or immoral and whether it should be legalised. Unfortunately it was two against one and I totally lost the argument, however it put me in a reflective mood for the rest of the day.

At one point I brought up the fact that alcohol is legal and yet it is by all accounts more harmful than weed; my opponents response was that alcohol is physically harmful whereas weed is mentally harmful (as if this makes any difference). After some protestation from me, they made a point which completely stumped me: It’s all about the intention. The intention when you drink a glass of wine is not to get drunk, whereas the intention when you smoke weed is to get completely baked “off your tits”. I was unable to answer this point. It raised the question for me, “Is it really sinful to smoke weed with the intention of getting high?” The Catholic catechism would seem to imply so. However after some reflection, I have come up with the answer “not always”.

Context is an important factor in the discussion. Is it wrong to intend to get high? I say “no”, so long as you are in an appropriate context. An appropriate context would be a weekend off from work or study, where you don’t have any other obligations to attend to and can well and truly kick back and relax. If as part of this recreational Sabbath you desire to alter your state of mind – via chemical assistance or otherwise – that is completely ok. People have many ways of altering their brain chemistry for the purposes of recreation, including dancing, listening to music, eating, drinking etc.  In this sense, smoking weed is just another form of recreation.

An inappropriate context for smoking weed and intending to get high would be if you are about to pilot a passenger aircraft loaded with people. The mild dissociative effects could be disastrous and cause you to crash the plane. Another inappropriate time to smoke weed would be right before your wedding, or before an important exam. There is a time and place for everything, however the time and place for weed is during recreation; not during everyday life. Exactly the same arguments can be applied to the responsible use of alcohol. It would be entirely inappropriate to turn up to work or your own wedding inebriated.

This principle can be extended to almost all drugs. No drug is intrinsically immoral so long as it is taken in a recreational context. If you have a weekend free and have no obligations to meet, then by all means take LSD and enjoy the profound spiritual experience that it provokes. If you are going to a music festival and there is some MDMA on offer, then by all means feel free to partake (Although MDMA is a complex drug and there is more to say about it).

Drunkenness is an interesting case, seeing as St Paul explicitly names it as a sin in his epistles. Speaking from experience, there have been times when I have socially drunk to the point of drunkenness, and yet I didn’t do anything sinful, feel any increase in temptation, say anything stupid. I just felt on a slightly different plane of reality. There have of course also been other times when I have been drunk and done lots of stupid things. And being drunk to the point of vomiting is a sign that you are physically disrespecting your body, which is the temple of the lord. However the state of mind of being “drunk” is not inherently sinful. It’s only if you get “totally wasted” and start saying and doing stupid stuff, vomiting etc.

Of course context is not the only consideration when tossing up the morality of taking drugs. Something else to consider is the side effects. If the drug is known to cause severe physical and mental harm even with casual use, it should not be taken – even in a recreational context – unless there is some way to offset this harm. For example MDMA is known to cause slight-yet-notable, permanent brain damage if it is taken alone. This is because MDMA works by increasing the rate of serotonin consumption in the brain to a point where the brain literally runs out of serotonin. At this point when there is no more serotonin, the receptors that would usually receive serotonin start to eat the dopamine in the brain instead. However dopamine is toxic to these receptors and ends up killing them off, leading to brain damage and an extreme hangover. All of this can be avoided simply by taking a serotonin supplement at the same time as the MDMA. In this way you get an awesome high and no hangover, no brain damage, no harmful effects. One friend of mine reported that he actually felt even healthier after the MDMA wore off than before he had ingested it, solely because he had also taken a serotonin supplement.

The sin with drugs is not so much the taking of them as it is the addiction to them. Smoking a casual joint every 3 months with some mates is completely fine. However if you get to a point where you are craving weed at every hour of the day and are sneaking out of the office at regular intervals to light up a fat one – this is a habit that is interfering with your life. It is similar to alcoholism: having a casual drink with the boys after work is fine, but once you’re addicted to booze it starts to invade every other aspect of your life.

Addiction is also relevant when it comes to some of the harder drugs: Heroin, Cocaine and Methamphetamine. In these cases, the drugs are actually physically addictive because they target the addiction center of our brain (The dopamine system). Theoretically it is possible to take these drugs casually without becoming addicted to them, and I have heard anecdotes from people who have successfully tried them without getting hooked, however the common story is that these drugs lead to total addiction and an utterly ruined life. In this situation you have to ask the question “am I tempting fate by taking this drug?” and the answer is very much “yes”. In this way, taking these harder drugs is immoral, because they are inherently addictive and as such are much more likely to lead to addiction and a ruined life.

Every drug has side effects which need to be considered too. For example excessive marijuana use can lead to schizophrenia. Excessive psychedelic use can activate latent bipolar. Excessive cocaine use can lead to mania and psychosis. None of these dangers make casual use of the drug inherently immoral, however they must be taken into account when assessing whether or not it is “tempting fate” to take the drug in any given situation. “Tempting fate” is definitely sinful.

The conclusion of the matter is that it is ok to desire to change your mental state (read as: get high), so long as it is in a recreational context and you have assessed the risks in your personal situation and found ways to mitigate them. For example when taking psychedelics it is advised to find a good “set and setting”, otherwise you run the risk of having a bad trip. Or as mentioned, when taking MDMA it is highly advisable to take a serotonin supplement such as 5-HTP so as to avoid brain damage. There is nothing inherently sinful about striving to change your mental state: monks do this all the time during intense contemplative prayer. Chemicals can be used to assist the process and so long as they are used in a responsible manner, there’s nothing sinful about them.

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The Need to Belong

Clockwork-Orange-34[1].jpg

“What do you think I should do with you?”
I sigh. Not this shit again. The unanswerable question. Haven’t teachers learned by now that asking the criminal student what their punishment is going to be only results in blank stares and a mumbling of “Umm..I dunno”? I mean, how the hell do you answer a question like that? “Well sir I think it would be most excellent if you give me a piggy back and buy me my lunch today” or “Oh please give me a good spanking sir! I’ve been a very naughty boy”. Even a hearty response of “Aye my lord!” would be as good an answer as any to this ridiculous question.
But do you know the funny thing? Every time the request for my most valuable opinion on this matter has been thrown at me, I’ve always managed to somehow produce the correct answer. It doesn’t matter what I’ve done; whether I’ve just murdered a classmate with a lead pencil for stealing my ruler (The bastard deserved it), I’ve burnt down the science block because science is the worst subject in the world (Who the heck designed that syllabus?!) or I’ve just stolen the bank account details of every teacher in the school: I always manage to smooth talk out of trouble.
Hell… It must go with the name. A-Lex: “Above the law”. Just give me time to make a considered response and I’ll have the words they want to hear, presented in Iambic pentameter with a British accent to boot. But don’t let that fool you into thinking I’m ‘lying’, oh no I could never do that. Everything I say is completely truthful and sincere. It has to be! And so here I am; faced with the impossible question again. One multiple choice answer away from a million and one dollars.
What did I do this time? Well let me put it this way: This is what happens when the clockwork orange doesn’t drink his milk.

I was born with a brain to rule the world, whether by anarchy or monarchy is irrelevant; all you need is something to think about and a good dosage of ADHD to keep you from thinking about it. I grew up free of added substances, and oh what a stroppy young lad I was! Centre of the universe, as all children tend to be, and ready to fight to maintain the position. Ironically I was filled with modesty and far from spoilt, it’s kind of the case when you come from a loving, yet quite dysfunctional family. Nevertheless, from a young age I had the criminal tendencies and loved them. My teachers and carers didn’t. I found myself in trouble every second day, but managed to hang on; the fire of my wrongdoings growing ever higher. Eventually the flames flew out of control; the straw that broke the camels back; I had performed the perfect lead pencil poisoning. We were sitting there in the library, cutting and pasting, or some other tedious task designed to keep a collection of five year old kids occupied, and my ruler had gone missing. I was filled with rage, someone must have stolen it! Lo and behold, there it was, in the hands of my best friend. I drew my lead pencil, immediately confronting him and demanding to know why he was holding my ruler.
“This is my ruler…?”
That was as good as an admission of guilt for me. I wore the best mask of rage a child of that age could ask for, and plunged my pencil deep into his chest.
His failure to breathe registered in my mind as the sign of victory and I pressed the pencil in harder, grinning sadistically as all that beautiful blood gushed from the wound. The other children screamed and ran for the Librarian, the fools, my friend wasn’t complaining; I hadn’t heard a word of protest from him. Foam, phlegm and other disgusting bile of the inner body was bubbling at his throat and coating his lips, which had begun to turn blue. I didn’t recognise the signs of imminent death, if I had I would have been as horrified as the rest of my class mates; and so in ignorance I assumed I was merely providing an eye for an eye, a pencil for a ruler, and enjoyed it as much as possible.
The librarian finally parted us, and everything that occurred next happened in such a whirlwind that to describe it in this linear fashion would not do it justice. I had killed him. To this day he still has to wear nappies to compensate for the damage I did, and to be honest, when you’re wearing pants like that, that’s as good as death to me.

It had taken them a while, but they had realised something was seriously wrong with me. And so, to the best and most expensive doctor I had to go.
“He doesn’t really seem to belong”
“I don’t WANT to belong”
“You don’t want to belong? aww, that’s too bad, because you see… You ‘need’ to belong. If you don’t want to belong, we’re going to make you. We’re going to make you a good boy.”
Drugs, prescription or otherwise, ruin life. I was administered cocaine with a brand name, and that ruined my life by fixing it.
So this is what it feels like to belong huh? Not half bad… 103% on every test, teachers falling over themselves to have me in their class, give me merit awards, call me the model student. Super concentration ability, incubated natural intelligence to the point of genius. Sounds good. Lack of sleep, the inability to talk to someone’s face, headaches, the loss of my sense of taste. Sounds good?
Changing school six times, losing sight of what it means to have a best friend, losing the creative side of my brain to logical, mathematical, computerised thought processes. This is what it means to belong? Alright.
What a Dreary world… I rebelled in much the same manner as I always had, but in much more controlled doses, and always escaping punishment.

Nine years on, and I’d lost my emotions. If this is what it means to belong, I still want nothing to do with it! Why do they keep telling us all that drugs are bad, while feeding them to me as if the whole country depends on it, and then I only end up like this anyway. Hypocrisy on every level! My dosage had doubled, tripled and doubled again, and I had had enough.

I didn’t drink my milk. And here I am; facing the consequences.
It seems rather sad to me, that I truly do need to belong in order to survive in this world. Belonging is annoying, but it’s something that has to be endured. The world doesn’t need another terrorist, murderer, rapist. The world needs a good leader, not a criminal. I know this and understand it. Hate it and accept it.

But it doesn’t stop me enjoying myself every now and then.
The door of the Principals’ office clicks loudly, locking the outside world away.
The one sir to rule them all slowly moves back towards his desk, his shoes thudding loudly and echoing off the walls with every step.
He sits down at the extraneously large table, rests his arms upon it, crosses his fingers together and glares at me over his glasses.
I smile and stare right back.
“I don’t know sir; What do you think I… should do with you?”

Alex Herlihy – 2010