Comments on Integrating Use into Life, Civil Disobedience

I fully agree with Sullum that saying modern humans must relate to psychoactives responsibly is not the same as denying an individual’s right to choose temperance. However, the Erowids’ full statement was

Modern humans must learn how to relate to psychoactives responsibly, treating them with respect and awareness, working to minimize harms and maximize benefits, and integrating use into a healthy, enjoyable, and productive life.

I explicitly wrote that “most of that assertion is innocuous,” but singled out the part about the necessity of integrating use into life as not respecting someone’s right to choose not to use a drug.

The rest of Jacob’s essay goes on to articulate clearly where he and I do disagree. We both agree that people are not morally obligated to follow a sufficiently unjust law, but disagree about whether prohibiting recreational use of certain psychoactive drugs is sufficiently unjust in

this sense. I believe a citizen’s general obligation to obey democratically enacted laws holds in all but extreme cases; examples of exceptions might include overtly racist laws such as the former apartheid laws in South Africa. A law can be misguided or ineffective or paternalistic without being unjust in the sense of nullifying one’s duty to obey that law.

As a final clarification, I’m not sure, as Sullum suggests, that I “clearly [believe] it’s appropriate to forcibly protect people from risks they voluntarily assume.” I approach such issues on a case-by-case basis, with a strong prior bias against government intrusion. However, if my side loses in the political process, and a restrictive law is passed, I think it is my responsibility to accept the disappointment gracefully and comply with the law (again, assuming the law is constitutional, is not akin to South Africa’s old apartheid laws, etc.).

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.