1 June 2009
By all accounts, both statistical and anecdotal, New Zealanders rank high among the world users of mind-altering drugs. At the present time crystal methamphetamine, or “P” is a particular worry because of its association with extreme and unpredictable acts of violence. There is also concern about other illicit drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana, and licit drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco. But does the public discourse address the real issues behind drug use?
Headlines such as “The Scourge of P” or “The drug epidemic” seem to suggest that these substances have a life of their own and are able to infect society at large in the same way that a virus or bacterium can infect a more complex organism. Society has adopted a materialist approach to the problem of drug use, centred on the substances themselves, and on their physical consequences for the individual and society. This approach is entirely consistent with the secular, scientific and materialist ideology of post-Christian western civilisation. However drug use is itself an expression of that secular, scientific and materialist culture. Drugs are used by people who believe that they live in a material world, that the consequences of any act are predictable, and that the proper object of humankind is the pursuit of happiness.
Secularism has been loath to ascribe the problem of drug use to this social mind-set. Instead “anti-drug” campaigns focus attention on the substance itself and its social and physiological effects. These campaigns often mimic the drug user’s tendency to personify and enter into a pseudo-relationship with their drug of choice. The drug user glorifies the substance. The anti-drug campaigners demonize the substance. Thus the inanimate drug, rather than the animate user, becomes the object of attention Drugs are accorded the status of beings, which are deemed to have a character which ranges from the more or less benign (coffee and wine) through the problematic (other forms of alcohol, marijuana and tobacco) to the truly odious (heroin and methamphetamine).
Accordingly, society attempts to mitigate the social effects of drug use by the substance-centred strategy of controlling the supply. In the case of licit drugs that involves certain restrictions on the freedom to manufacture and distribute. In the case of illicit drugs it involves attempts to eradicate the substance itself by seizure and destruction at the point of production, importation, or distribution.
The reality is that such substances are not beings, they have no character of their own, and they are not a problem in themselves. The drug problem, such as it is, lies not in the substances, but in human society, and in the minds of the individuals who comprise that society. There is a common mind-set which seeks fulfilment in the use of drugs, and that mind-set is equally relevant to the use of all psychotropic substances. The secular state takes no fundamental measures to address the social and ideological factors which create the demand for drugs, because to do so would be to challenge the very basis of its own existence.
A demand centred approach to the problem of drug use would necessarily be a consistent approach, and a consistent approach would equally challenge the use of all drugs, including the licit drugs such as alcohol and coffee, not in terms of their effects, which are quite different physiologically and socially, but in terms of the social causes of drug use, and in terms of the ideology which justifies the use of drugs to mask and circumvent various forms of social dysfunction.
Secular states do not encourage serious investigation of the social, psychological, or political conditions from which people seek release through the use of drugs or violence, because any such study would inevitably point to the ideology of the state and the prevailing socio-economic order as the root cause of such behaviours.
Secular society is driven by its own internal logic to sanction the use of drugs as a material means to its stated end of individual happiness, but at the same time it cannot fail to be alarmed by some of the more extreme adverse consequences of indiscriminate drug use. It therefore chooses to categorise the problems associated with the use of drugs as merely circumstantial and consequential.
“Consequential” means that the merits of drug use depends upon the consequences arising from their use. To the secular mind this is common sense. And that is why government warnings about the use of alcohol or tobacco focus on the pathological effects such as lung cancer, liver disease, foetal alcohol syndrome and so on.
But consequential arguments are usually ineffective, partly because there is a widespread belief, among young people in particular, than the expected consequences will not apply to their particular case. (Link to the essay On Ground and Consequence) Human beings have an inherent faith in their own ability to survive even where others have succumbed. They believe that as individuals they can drive motor vehicles at speed without losing control, climb Everest without dying of exposure, drink alcohol without becoming alcoholic, or use heroin without becoming addicts, even while acknowledging that such consequences are not uncommon. And, in many, if not all, cases they are right. They believe that if they get drunk, the hangover will pass and the embarrassing behaviour will be forgotten or laughed off. And again, they are often right. The worst possible consequences of a particular pattern of drug use occur in a minority of cases, and the more common but minor consequences associated with drug use are not a sufficient disincentive to their use.
This presents a problem for those who try to argue against drug use on a consideration of consequences. They are frequently tempted to overcome the problem of the stochastic nature of adverse consequences by exaggerating both the probability and the degree of such consequences. But in the long run such exaggeration only serves to further undermine the credibility of anti-drug campaigns based on consequential arguments. Eventually, potential users not only disbelieve that the stated consequences will apply to themselves personally, they even come to disbelieve that the stated consequences will apply in the general case.
The “circumstantial” approach to the use of drugs is a conditional argument which implicitly acknowledges the weakness of the consequential argument considered above. Essentially, circumstantialism argues that the merits or otherwise of drug use depend upon the circumstances of their use, that is who uses them, when, and where. I will discuss these arguments in relation to the use of alcohol, because the secular approach is most refined, and best defined, in relation to the use of that particular drug. But the arguments would apply just as well to any other drug, whether currently legal or not.
The consumption of alcohol is legal for persons over a certain age. It is deemed to be more acceptable for men than for women, and more acceptable for women who are not pregnant than for women who are pregnant. It is deemed to be acceptable in various social settings, but not in truly public places.
These circumstantial restrictions and dispensations, while based on scientific and social evidence, fail to effectively regulate alcohol consumption because they have the perverse effect of encouraging the use of alcohol among both those who are granted dispensation and those who are subject to restriction. Those who have the dispensation take it as a sign that they can consume alcohol with impunity, when in truth they cannot. Those who are subject to restriction, on the other hand, such as children and adolescents, are effectively being taught that the consumption of alcohol is an indicator of social maturity and so will consume alcohol as a way of asserting their equality with adults. Likewise, women will drink to assert their social equality with men.
As well as the legal or indicative restrictions on the use of alcohol by minors and women, there are various restrictions upon the places in which alcohol may be consumed. These restrictions on the consumption of alcohol in public places actually serve to imply that alcohol is a positive force for the good in the lives of individuals, because in secular society the true life, the essential being, the authentic spirit of the individual is his or her private life. For the vast majority of the population, ordinary working life is an abnegation of the individual spirit which only finds nurture in the private life, in the privacy of the home, the shed or the bach.
In New Zealand the “true and private” self have long been falsely identified with the consumption of alcohol and the restrictions that the state places upon its public consumption only serves to reinforce that delusion. The unintended consequence, however, is that the private self of the human being seeks social expression and social validation, so that alcohol consumption inevitably spills out of the private and into the public domain. Thus the institutions of the state attempt to keep crowds of inebriated youth on one side of the imaginary lines which separate private from public property from Marine Parade to Castle Street.
These restrictions upon the use of a drug are at best a double edged sword. They may do as much harm as good, because they do not address, in fact they implicitly deny, the moral issues in drug use. Because they are inconsistent, contradictory, and based on inadequate models of human behaviour, the state’s restrictions on the use of licit drugs like alcohol and tobacco will never be fully effective. And the prohibition on the use of illicit drugs, such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine also tend to be ineffective, for the same reasons. The “War on P” is as much a scam and a sham as the “War on Terror”. Both are ideologically flawed, hypocritical, and wilfully ignorant of the causes of the behavioural phenomena which they purport to oppose.
In any real-world social order there may be a place for “supply side” controls, but they can never succeed in the absence of socially sanctioned moral opposition to the use of drugs, which materialism and secularism are simply incapable of providing. Secular societies will always seek material or “supply side” solutions to spiritual problems and they will always fail. The “demand side” of drug use can only be addressed by spiritual arguments which are, by definition, beyond the scope of a secular society.
Religiously based societies will seek, and invariably will find, spiritual solutions to the material problems of life. They can employ spiritual and moral arguments against drug use which have the virtue of consistency, applying equally to all drugs, whether licit or illicit. They can advance moral arguments which challenge the motivation for drug use by postulating that the purpose of human existence is not to “pursue happiness” but to do good in the reasonable expectation that “doing good” will lead to happiness for both society and the individual. A religious society in which the spirit is allowed to transcend the material conditions of human existence will not succumb to the fallacious belief that any material substance can elevate the human spirit to a higher plane of being.
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