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The law on drugs

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, October 6, 2005

Timothy Leary was a Sixties radical, a revolutionary. Nixon called him the most dangerous man in America. From the perspective of the burgeoning counterculture no greater endorsement could be imagined.

But while the Weathermen and the Black Panthers advocated overthrowing the government by any means necessary (and violently for preference), Leary was seeking a revolution of consciousness, and the means he advocated were hallucinogenic drugs. While Huey Newton said (quoting Mao) that political power came through the barrel of a gun, Leary enjoined the new generation of young people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” which quickly became one of the signature phrases of the age.

After taking his Ph.D from the University of California at Berkeley, Leary went to Harvard where he founded the Psilocybin Project, which researched the therapeutic effects of hallucinogenic mushrooms and later LSD. In 1963 he was dismissed from Harvard but founded the Castalia Institute in Millbrook, New York to continue his studies, and as the Sixties continued he became the country’s most prominent advocate of the beneficial effects of LSD.

As Leary’s notoriety grew he inevitably attracted the attention of the authorities who eventually busted him for possession of marijuana and sent him to jail. Leary was made to take a series of psychometric tests to establish where he should be placed within the prison system. The test results, surprisingly, identified him as a strongly conformist character who would not attempt to escape. So Leary was assigned to a minimum security prison, from which he promptly escaped.

It was one of the greatest jailbreaks of all time. Not because escaping from the minimum security prison was especially difficult; it wasn’t. No, what makes it great is that the tests which resulted in his being assigned to a minimum security prison were ones that he had designed while on the faculty at Harvard.

Leary was raised an Irish Catholic, but he didn’t have much time for Catholicism or any other form of traditional monotheistic religion. But the tenor of his message was undeniably religious. He insisted that, used properly, psychedelic drugs had a sacramental effect and he composed a syncretistic theology which borrowed liberally from the I Ching, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Shamanism – though calling Leary’s views a theology probably makes it sound more systematic than it really was. Essentially, he surveyed different belief systems and seized upon whatever ideas seemed appealing, discarding the rest and seemed to regard the world’s religions with much the same attitude that a man with the munchies takes towards the contents of his refrigerator. It was the spirit of the age.

You can still find people, most conspicuously in rave culture, who advocate the use of drugs in fundamentally religious terms. But no well-known figure has taken up Leary’s mantle as prophet of the psychedelic revolution, and these days most of the arguments heard in favor of legalizing drugs are straightforward appeals to the right to privacy; people should be free to pursue their private pleasures in any way they see fit, provided that they do not harm anyone else.

The difficulty is that the boundary between public and private is rather more porous than this sort of argument typically assumes. This leads to problems, particularly for those who simultaneously advocate liberalizing drug laws and extending the government’s support for the socially disadvantaged, through welfare, the provision of health care to those who cannot afford it and various other programs of government assistance.

Since the public purse is filled through taxation, the more the state does to help those in need, the more interest the general public has in the ostensibly private choices of individuals. The public has an interest in matters of public expense, so if you wish to claim a right to have your health care provided by the state, then it should come as no surprise if the state claims a right to prevent you from ingesting substances that are likely to damage your health. In general, the more we expect from the state, the more we can expect the state to regulate and interfere in our lives. I am not a libertarian on this issue, but it seems to me the libertarian position at least has the virtue of consistency.

I do think a compelling case can be made for the legalization of marijuana, based on pragmatic grounds rather than any absolute right to privacy. The health risks associated with the drug are not trivial, but they are far less severe than most other illegal substances and comparable to substances that are currently legal, most obviously tobacco. But most importantly, the current law is rarely and erratically enforced, which courts the danger of arbitrary enforcement.

In the case of harder drugs, the problem is less one of erratic enforcement and more that in the case of the rich and famous, the laws are often not enforced at all. The endless stories of celebrity drug binges that saturate the media don’t just cater to a voyeuristic appetite, they also broadcast the fact that amongst the luxuries available to the very rich is the freedom to break the drug laws with something approaching impunity. The rule of law depends upon the idea that laws apply to rich and poor alike, otherwise people will be punished not for doing cocaine, but doing cocaine and not being able to afford to spend time at the Betty Ford Center.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.