Thursday, February 6, 2014

Faith, Drugs, and Legalization

As our culture bumbles about trying to figure out a sane way to handle psychoactive substances, what's clear is that we're a long way from an answer.  The War on Drugs, started with such bright-eyed and martial certainty back in the 1980s?  That hasn't quite panned out, in the way so many things in the Eighties weren't quite the great idea we thought they were.

What this War has done is fill our prison-industrial complex with nonviolent prisoners of war, and while that's a great profit center for corrections corporations, it's not exactly a great basis for a growing and productive economy.  Neither, quite frankly, is spending the equivalent of an excellent vocational school's tuition on every prisoner every year a great use of tax dollars.

Also somewhat ironic, as someone who was in high school when this whole War began, is the reality that more kids are using psychoactive substances in school than they were when I was a teen.  They're legal and prescribed, of course.  But they are drugs all the same, ones used to suppress the very profitable spiritual pain our shambles of a culture inflicts on us.  Sort of like the sedatives one might mix into the feed for the stressed milk-cows in a factory farm to keep them from getting restive, I suppose.

Odd, odd society, we have created.

Now, though, we're walking the War back a little bit.  Blanket criminalization has been given a generation to work, and it has not.  Cultural attitudes towards certain substances, marijuana in particular, are beginning to shift.  After a dallying around with trojan horse tomfoolery around "medical" marijuana, that particular substance is now fully legal at the state level in both Washington state and Colorado, and that appears likely to spread.

In this in-between time and in this grey area, people of faith have to come to terms with the relationship between faith and psychoactive substances.  How can we be both faithful and engaged with a culture in which a variety of different substances are consumed, particularly given an inconsistent and morally ambiguous legal environment?

Here, it helps to ask:  what is the impact of a substance on the personhood of a child of God?

This is central to my understanding of the spiritual ramifications of substance use.  If a substance substantially compromises the integrity of a person, it needs to be avoided and resisted.  I'm talking about the whole person, meaning both one's physical integrity and one's integrity as a free being.

If a substance compromises health and physical well-being, it is to be avoided or consumed with caution appropriate to the level of risk.  Alcohol, for instance, can be consumed in moderation without major physical side effects, but if it is consumed regularly and in quantity, it'll do damage.  Taken in significant excess, it can kill you.  I'm Scots-Irish, and at least one branch of my family tree withered and died because of that substance.  Marijuana, on the other hand, is remarkably nonlethal.  You cannot overdose on it, although panic responses to the psychoactive effects are not uncommon.  But smoking it does have negative impacts on respiratory health.  As does smoking, generally, which is why I avoid the nicotine in tobacco.

There are other, more physically dangerous substances.  Heroin, as the recent tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded us, is astoundingly and tragically risky, as the dose required to cause the effect is perilously close to the dose required to kill you.  Meth?  Meth is a monster.  It devours your body.

And with meth, we turn to the second and more significant spiritual danger: your liberty and your moral agency.  There are substances that compromise your fundamental integrity as a person, which can come to dominate and destroy the will.  Their impact on our minds and bodies is so substantial that no free being should engage with them.

Meth is such a substance.  It is both physically destructive and profoundly physically addictive.  Heroin and other opiates can also create powerful physical addictions.  Cocaine, once a "soft" or "party" drug, is surprisingly addictive.  It's just powdered ego, after all, so I suppose that's to be expected.

The substances that are powerfully destructive of liberty...meaning a normal, healthy human being would be personally compromised by them...must be faithfully resisted.  Being followers of the Nazarene, we don't do that coercively and through the power of the sword.  That means avoiding their use personally, providing nonjudgmental and loving supports to those who find themselves trapped by those substances, and working to help addicts rebuild their lives.  It's a tough road, particularly with nasty beasts like meth.  The Christian response to such substances needs to be the same as our response to the Powers that destroy life.  Our goal is to set the captive free and to break every chain, after all.

But here as in most places, binary thinking fails, because other substances fall into grey areas.  Alcohol, for instance, can be fine for one person, and a life destroyer for another.  Marijuana can be casually consumed by one person, and another might fritter their life away with it.  Some personalities just tend more towards patterns of addiction.  Here, the Christian response goes beyond just providing supports.  As a faith-people whose love of liberty extends to those who aren't us, we have to insure that our own actions are not encouraging or creating opportunities for others to harm themselves.

Does that mean that we cannot consume alcohol, because alcoholism is a real and terrible problem for  many?  Does that mean, in states where cannabinoids are legal, that we cannot consume them?  Some Christians take that approach, and I'm willing to respect it.  I tend to take a relationship-driven approach, one that allows me to act in ways I know do not compromise my integrity.  But that approach is leavened by the fundamental duty of every Christian to care for others.  If I know the person I am with is an alcoholic, I will not take actions in their presence that might compromise them.  If I know my actions will shape a still-forming child's view of the world, I will let that knowledge guide me.

Their journey to wholeness I hold as of equal importance as my own freedom. 

 And that, as a friend once said, is the whole fulfillment of the law.