True Temperance

To say that “modern humans must learn how to relate to psychoactives responsibly,” as Earth and Fire Erowid do, is not the same as “denying or denigrating an individual’s right to choose temperance,” as Jonathan Caulkins suggests. First of all, what the Erowids are preaching is temperance. Aristotle defined that virtue this way:

The temperate man holds a mean position with regard to pleasures… . Such pleasures as conduce to health and bodily fitness he will try to secure in moderation and in the right way; and also all other pleasures that are not incompatible with these, or dishonorable, or beyond his means… . The temperate man desires the right things in the right way and at the right time.[1]

This was the approach initially advocated by the American temperance movement: moderation enforced by self-discipline. Eventually activists concerned about alcohol abuse adopted a different goal, demanding abstinence enforced by law. That change was driven by the conviction that voluntary temperance was a dangerous illusion because alcohol was inherently addicting—the same sort of false belief that underlies the prohibition of the currently illegal intoxicants. I realize Caulkins is merely following semantic convention when he uses temperance to mean abstinence. But the equation of temperance with abstinence lies at the heart of the ideology behind the war on drugs, according to which all use of illegal drugs is abuse.

Recognizing the error of that view does not mean insisting that everybody must get stoned. For some individuals, abstaining from certain drugs might be the most responsible way of relating to them. If you do regrettable things when you drink, have bad trips when you use psychedelics, or go on binges when you snort cocaine, these drugs may not be for you.

Still, very few people consistently avoid psychoactive substances. Even those who ostensibly do, usually for religious reasons, tend to make exceptions. Mormons, though officially drug free, do not eschew chocolate, and they disagree about whether caffeinated beverages other than tea and coffee are permitted. Mostly Mormon Utah leads the country in antidepressant prescriptions.[2]

The point is not to mock the Mormons for their inconsistency but to suggest that the urge to achieve altered states of consciousness (often, but not necessarily, with the help of drugs) is deeply rooted in human nature. As the psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel has shown, this is not a tendency limited to “modern humans” (or even to humans). For as far back as we have archeological evidence, and in cultures all over the world, there are indications of psychoactive drug use.[3] Nowadays the options for those seeking to satisfy what Siegel calls “the fourth drive” are more numerous and varied than ever before, so in a sense it is harder to be well-informed and choose wisely. At the same time, it is easier to obtain relevant information (from sources such as and find the drug that is right for a particular person and purpose.

Caulkins suggests it’s unrealistic to expect people to make responsible drug choices, saying, “A prospective user’s ex ante claims to know he or she will not be among those whose use gets out of control should be met with the skepticism appropriate for rooms full of people all describing themselves as above average drivers.” But while it’s impossible, by definition, for all drivers to be above average, Caulkins himself concedes that the vast majority of people are able to use drugs without causing serious harm to themselves or others. This majority probably would be even bigger in the absence of prohibition, which most deters those least prone to abuse, creates additional drug hazards, and makes it harder to inculcate a culture of responsible use.

Indeed, Caulkins argues that it’s impossible to use illegal drugs responsibly, because “the responsible decision is to obey the law.” He claims it’s wrong to disobey a prohibition approved by the majority, except through open civil disobedience. While the illegal status of a drug creates additional risks that a prudent user must weigh, including the possibility of arrest and the unreliable quality of black-market products, I can’t agree that people are morally obligated to obey an unjust law.

I see the drug laws as unjust because they go beyond the proper function of government by punishing people for actions that violate no one’s rights. By likening drug use to speeding and to driving while intoxicated, Caulkins obscures the distinction between self-harming behavior and behavior that endangers others. Still, he clearly believes it’s appropriate to forcibly protect people from risks they voluntarily assume, whether by using drugs, “riding a motorcycle without a helmet, driving without a seatbelt, or swimming when there is no lifeguard” (even in your own swimming pool?). I see “laws designed to protect people from their own poor choices” as unethical impositions and dangerous precedents, based on an open-ended rationale for government intervention that logically leads to totalitarianism.

We are not going to resolve this issue here, but it might be helpful to consider suicide: Does the government have a right and/or duty to prevent people from deliberately killing themselves? If so, perhaps it also has a right to prevent them from engaging in activities that might lead to death or serious injury, or even to the more benign fate of a drug habit (involving marijuana or legal opiates, say) that causes little measurable harm. But if the government does not have any business second-guessing someone’s decision to commit suicide, it’s hard to see how it can justifiably use force to stop him from smoking pot or snorting cocaine.

“Just as I would not want the Erowids to denigrate someone’s choice to pursue a drug free life,” Caulkins writes, “I would never deny someone who opts for a drug-related life the chance to try following the Erowids’ Principles.” Yet clearly he would, because “the responsible decision is to obey the law.” That injunction is inconsistent with the Erowids’ approach to drugs, which says we should decide whether and how to use them based on a rational assessment of their risks and benefits, as opposed to blindly heeding the arbitrary distinctions enshrined in our drug laws.

Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist, is the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use (Tarcher/Penguin).

[1] Aristotle, Ethics, translated by J. A. K. Thomson. New York: Viking Penguin, 1976, pp. 139, 141.

[2] Julie Cart, “Study Finds Utah Leads Nation in Antidepressant Use,” Los Angeles Tiems, February 22, 2002.

[3]Ronald K. Siegel, Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1989.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In their lead essay, Earth and Fire Erowid stress the importance of developing responsible, fully informed relationships toward psychoactive drugs. Although drug prohibition has persisted for decades, the overwhelming majority of adults have tried at least one illegal drug, and these substances aren’t going away any time soon. Sadly, prohibition itself has stunted our knowledge of these substances, and, as in so many things, ignorance is both dangerous and irresponsible. Provocatively, they criticize even the word “drugs” as a tag for illegal psychoactives: Lumping them all together, they write, betrays a lack of understanding of their vastly different effects, risk profiles and — yes — benefits.

Response Essays

  • Jonathan Caulkins argues that the responsible use of psychoactive drugs is an overstretched concept, if by “psychoactive drugs” we mean everything from caffeine to heroin. In many cases, he argues, temperance may be the only responsible “use” of a given substance.

    Further, state prohibitions on pleasurable but risky acts are hardly confined to this area of law; their violation is not a genuine form of civil disobedience as long as pleasure itself is the real goal of the act. And the risks remain regardless. Duly enacted laws in a democracy deserve far more respect than this, and following the law is a part of the responsibility of all citizens.

  • Jacob Sullum notes that temperance and abstinence have been wrongly conflated, and that the Aristotelian view of temperance encompassed all of the moderate, reasoned, and honorable pleasures of life. He reiterates that virtually everyone uses psychoactive drugs of one kind or another, and that the overwhelming majority of use is responsible. He challenges the notion that the state has any interest in the private actions of individuals that do not harm anyone else, and he terms the impulse to protect people from themselves “unethical” and “an open-ended rationale for government intervention that logically leads to totalitarianism.”

  • Mark Kleiman takes up a theme already addressed by the other participants, namely the distinctions to be found within the catchall category “illegal drugs.” He notes that the risk profiles, motivations for use, and public health considerations of these substances are so far removed from one another that it may make no sense to continue to treat them as similar in public policy. Given the choice between full legalization and the status quo, he would choose the status quo, but, he argues, these alternatives should not be the only ones we consider.