Sunday, June 22, 2014

Why Pope Francis Has Erred By Condemning the Legalization of Recreational Drugs

Francisco (20-03-2013).jpgBill Maher suggested Pope Francis is "no longer his friend" after condemning recreational drugs. I wouldn't go that far, but the fact remains the Pope is wrong.


Bill Maher on his last 'Real Time' observed that given "Pope Frank" had recently come out against the legalization of recreational drugs, he "could no longer be friends".  This is perhaps comedic license, but it is well to consider the Pope's condemnation and also why he is wrong. (As I have to note for my Catholic friends and readers again, if the Pope is not speaking 'ex cathedra' then what he says is not "infallible" - not that I buy into the infallibility doctrine in any case. )

For those who need to be caught up, Francis condemned the legalization of recreational drugs as a  "flawed and failed experiment" - now lending his voice and opinion to a debate that's been energized from the U.S. (mainly after pot legalization passed in Colorado and Washington) to South America.  Evidently, the Pope told delegates at a Rome drug enforcement conference that "even limited steps to legalize recreational drugs are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects."

At this point, one is justified in wondering if the Pope in fact displays the "Obama syndrome", i.e. deliberately tailoring his talk in order to fit the audience, as opposed to speaking from his own carefully forged, consistent principles. Anyway, he went on to say:

"Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: The problem of drug use is not solved with drugs! Drug addiction is an evil and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise."

In assorted news and media accounts the general take was that Francis was speaking from the perspective of his years ministering to addicts in the drug infested slums of Buenos Aires. At that time and in that context he often railed against drug abuse and drug traffickers. Which is fine as it goes, but he misses the point that it is the very legalization process which removes the drugs from the drug cartels and traffickers to the state  - where it can be specifically regulated as here in Colorado.(Though we must be cognizant that Argentina - Francis' homeland- has also recently legalized the recreational use of drugs).

The Pope also commits a secondary fallacy by implication. That is, that those of us who voted for Amendment 64 here in Colorado, for example, are also committing evil by then providing the legal basis for recreational use of marijuana. Since we are "compromising" - in  his mind - by voting to approve recreational drug use- then we must be siding with evil.

As I noted in previous blog posts the issue of "evil" is subtle and complex. We can agree - at least the rational humans- that evil doesn't exist as an external force or agency. This is the route of superstition. Then it follows evil inheres in human actions and can manifest in differing forms, such as practical evil, idealistic evil and others. For example, idealistic evil is that form which emerges when people stop thinking of others as human like themselves and instead put them into abstract brackets. The Nazis did it when they relegated the Jews in Europe to pests, then proceeded to construct gas chambers to exterminate them......like pests.

Practical evil can occur under the aegis and dictates of anti-human laws and edicts. For example, the "Jim Crow" laws in the South in the early 1960s which denied blacks service at lunch counters, and prevented them from using 'white' restrooms or 'white' drinking fountains, and making them sit in the rear of the bus.  Another example of practical evil is the current FISA law, which is actually a re-do of the original 1978 law, but now after having made Bush's illegal wiretapping legal. Thus, it paved the way for the indiscriminate mass wiretapping done by the NSA.

Drug trafficking falls under the rubric of personal evil, enacted to gain riches or the exploitation of others. But the error of the Pope is in conflating ALL drug use, including that protected under a state amendment, with "trafficking".

It is clear then that we need insights that are expanded beyond the Pope's narrow and provincial views, especially as he hasn't said one word about alcohol - the biggest recreational drug of all.

Insight can be gleaned again from Philosopher Alan Watts, in his book, 'Does It Matter' and the chapter 'Psychedelics and Religious Experience' (pp. 78-95). Watts, in the chapter, details his own experimentation with five "principal psychedelics" including: LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, di-methyl- tryptamine and cannabis.  He did so in order to find the "essential" core of the mystical experience and whether it might be accessed via one or more of these drugs.

The objective was to "expand consciousness to the point the individual discovers himself to be one continuous process with God, with the universe, with the Ground of Being..."

Note that Watts took LSD-25, for example, in an actual experiment conducted by Dr. Keith Ditman of the Neuropsychiatric Clinic of the UCLA Medical School (p. 79).   He was at first "unwilling to believe that any mere chemical could induce a genuine mystical experience."   Watts observed his first experience was "definitely not mystical" but after further experiments, now with Drs. Michael Agron and Sterling Bunnell with the Langley-Porter Clinic in San Francisco, this changed.  He states (p. 80):

"I was amazed and somewhat embarrassed to find myself going through states of consciousness which corresponded precisely with every description of major mystical experiences I had ever read. Furthermore, they exceeded both in depth and in a peculiar quality of 'unexpectedness' the three natural and spontaneous experiences of this kind I had in previous years."

Which is saying a lot! Watts goes on to assert that: "Of the five psychedelics I tried I found that LSD-25 and cannabis served my purposes the best."

What about the inherent "evil" of drugs as Francis claims? Basically, in light of the greater good of attaining mystical insight, Watts dismisses it as fictitious, misplaced. Which is how any serious rational observer would treat the absolutist proclamation of "evil". After going through an extensive discussion of the positive aspects of mystical insight conferred (e.g. awareness of relativity, awareness of eternal energy, awareness of all opposites as interdependent) Watts points to the biggest fear of the doctrinal religious (p. 88):

"Nothing could be more alarming to the ecclesiastical hierarchy than a popular outbreak of mysticism.- for this might well amount to setting up a democracy in the kingdom of heaven. And such alarm would be shared equally among Catholics, Jews and fundamentalist Protestants."

Ouch! Francis' shtick is busted. Watts goes even deeper (p. 91):

"Moreover, mystical experiences often result in attitudes which threaten the authority not only of established churches but also of secular society. Unafraid of death, and deficient in worldly ambition, those who have undergone mystical experiences are impervious to threats and promises. Moreover, their sense of the relativity of good and evil arouses the suspicion that they lack both conscience and respect for law."

In other words, the proscriptions against recreational drug use are not based on the drugs use per se, but on the users attaining states of conscious awareness believed to be detrimental to any society legislated and driven primarily by economic concerns. To quote Watts again (ibid.):

"Use of psychedelics in the United States by a literate bourgeoisie means that an important segment of the population is indifferent to society's traditional rewards and sanctions"

Meaning that some small kernel will never ever sell out to capitalist, material blandishments - aka consumerism. They therefore won't be driven to work 60 hours a week to purchase the next smartphone, notebook or whatever the latest fad is to drive consumption and joining the work-spend treadmill.

In the case of the Catholic Church or other authoritarian religions, recreational drugs will always be seen as "evil" because they inveigh against that very absolutist authority --  legislated by a top-down hierarchy which sees itself as the center of truth and power.  The "monarchical" image of the universe, if you will,  which "exhibits a specific distaste for religious insubordination."

Watts details also how this monarchical concept has diffused from the infected religions and also  polluted laws, as in the U.S., leading to the prosecution for drug and other offenses in many jurisdictions. As he writes (p. 92):

"How can a Republic be the best form of government if the universe is believed to be run as a monarchy? Thus, despite the theory of government by consent, the people of the United States retain, from the authoritarian backgrounds of their religions or national origins, an utterly naïve faith in law as some form of supernatural and paternalistic power."

He then adds:

"Our law enforcement officers are therefore confused, hindered and bewildered - not to mention corrupted- by being asked to enforce sumptuary laws, often of ecclesiastical origin, which vast numbers of people have no intention of obeying and which  in any case are immensely difficult or impossible to enforce."

Words which the other 48 states (apart from Colorado and Washington) might do well to consider, as well as Pope Francis  - when he's next tempted to bloviate on the "evil" of recreational drug use. I would also recommend he read Alan Watts' book as well, for real insights into the material world. One consideration for him to ponder might be how this material or natural world is "evil" if it is part of the Whole?  How can a plant or plants within it - which are the source of unity experiences via psychedelics - be the sources of evil?   They can't.  Hence, it follows that it is not the essence, the drug itself but rather its misuse which one must be wary of - but that can apply to vast spectrum: sex, alcohol, you name it. In this sense, the addictive character of whatever stripe (alcohol, drugs, sex etc.)  originates from a defect in brain dynamics. This is what needs to be treated and dealt with, not attempting to outlaw alcohol, sex or drugs.

The fault ("personal evil") is then in our misuse of what would ordinarily be a good, or a positive resource, not in the thing itself. Therein lies the irony and the bane of human existence, which most of us can't process but which Watts has encapsulated. That is, for most of us, the good to which we aspire always lies in the future because "we are unable to relate to the sensuous and material present". Sadly then, we "are most happy when good things are expected to happen, not when they are happening."

The legalization of pot in Colorado and Washington represent good faith efforts to turn that dynamic around  - even if most of the rest of the world, as well as the Pope, don't grasp it.


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