The late Christopher Hitchens forcefully condemned the use of ‘drugs’ as ‘pathetic, weak-minded escapism almost as contemptible as religion’. All the while, “Hitch” himself nursed a legendary penchant for that most common of legal highs: alcohol. The reason? Booze gave him delightful egress from the mundanity of others. Evidently, the old firebrand’s famous love of irony knew no bounds.
Before his ascension to the presidency, Barack Obama was asked to name the greatest moral failure of his life. In a typically slippery answer, he brought up the d-word. Now, Mr Obama is, of course, an eminently busy man. But one hopes that if or when he comes to recast his list of misdeeds — on the speaking circuit, perhaps, or in another book — drone attacks and dishonesty and support for deadly despots all dethrone the cannabis-related capers of a distant youth.
Plainly then, both these views are rather suspect. The fissures in each deserve to be explored and thereby widened. Such widening shall bring them crashing down, and on their ruins — with any luck — shall appear a stately pleasure-dome. In its shadow, one may or may not feel comfortable, but one cannot claim that it is threatened by such views as those so imperceptively espoused by Messrs Hitchens and Obama.
But before turning to scrutinise them further, one or two preliminary points need to be made. Firstly, a distinction ought to be drawn between the very many different kinds of drug. Much of what follows shall sit more comfortably with certain drugs than with others. For our purposes, those in the first group include cannabis, the classic psychedelics and MDMA. This is not to say that the arguments which will be advanced have no application whatever to other substances; it is just that such arguments better fit the features of the drugs named above. Secondly, it must be emphasised that drugs — be they legal or not — should if possible always be used responsibly. Too much of anything is bad.
So let us turn then to the charge of ‘pathetic, weak-minded escapism’. A dictionary may furnish us with a suitable point of departure. Escapism, at its simplest, is the ‘avoidance of banal or unpleasant realities’. If that is so, then vast swathes of human activity are at once indicted. The quaffing of booze, being in principle no different to the consumption of other drugs, falls squarely within the definition’s province. So too does engagement in various kinds of play, whether upon grass, before a screen or with musical instruments. The cinematic experience is arraigned, and, on Eliot’s view, ditto poetry. In point of fact, if Schopenhauer is to be believed, all art is escapism in so far as its sublimity forces self-suppression of the beastly Will. Hitchens, who so dearly loved literature, would doubtless disagree. Schopenhauer also noted that true genius entailed some degree of escapism, and to genius we can surely add procrastination, medication, meditation, conversation, religion, daydreams, holidays and humour, for all of these, to varying degrees, involve retreating from disagreeable situations.
We can see, then, that the goalposts are set so far apart as to denude the word ‘escapism’ of any critical power it might at first appear to have. It becomes almost meaningless. Of course, it cannot be denied that in taking certain kinds of drugs, one avoids ‘realities’. Nor can it be challenged that drugs are sometimes used solely to avoid such realities. But so too are each of the aforementioned things, and on a wider scale. So the question must be asked: is escapism a bad thing? Must we all be Manfreds, joyless and alone until our ‘solitude is solitude no more/But peopled with the Furies’? Must we, as the pious say, endure unaided this valle lacrimarum?
It is unlikely that any ordinary person would answer Yes. After all, such persons invariably indulge in alcohol — gin, for example, or a glass or two of red — and television and commercial fiction without even a moment’s hesitation. They do so to cleave, if only temporarily, the ‘clinging snaky roots’ of suffering and of self, in precisely the same way as might a user of illegal drugs. Escapism is natural, widespread and, it could be said, necessary.
But what is it that distinguishes the use of ‘drugs’ from these other means of escape? Is it, as Hitchens claimed, the element of weak-mindedness? In Hamlet, the protagonist avers that ‘the dread of something after death… makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others we know not of’. All too often, a similar fear paralyses he who scorns the use of ‘drugs’. Who, then, is weak-minded?
In fact, there is much to distinguish the use of drugs from more common routes of escape. Let us begin with the testimony of a man of science: the leonine adventurer Alexander Shulgin. Of MDMA he said:
I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible. The cleanliness, clarity, and marvellous feeling of solid inner strength continued throughout the rest of the day, and evening, and through the next day.
The woodpile is so beautiful, about all the joy and beauty that I can stand. I am afraid to turn around and face the mountains, for fear they will overpower me. But I did look, and I am astounded. Everyone must get to experience a profound state like this. I feel totally peaceful. I have lived all my life to get here, and I feel I have come home. I am complete.
The eloquence with which Shulgin expresses what he felt must come as a surprise to those who believe that the user of ‘drugs’ has a clod for a soul. At any rate, the effects of MDMA are not limited to tremulous euphoria and attunement to beauty. If Keats was right when he wrote that happiness lay ‘in that which becks/Our ready minds to fellowship divine’, then by most accounts, MDMA is a perfect path towards it. Many users report that the drug engenders a profound sense of connectedness. The bravado which one sees with certain other substances is nowhere to be seen, and in its place are peace and candour.
These qualities are not merely limited to MDMA. Alan Watts wrote of the feelings of connectedness to which LSD and other drugs give rise, of the ‘strong sensation of oneness’ one feels with others — something ‘presumably akin to the sensitivity which enables a flock of birds to twist and turn as one body’.
Mescaline, which occurs naturally in the peyote cactus, is apt to produce an acute sensitivity to beauty, as powerfully captured by Aldous Huxley:
I continued to look at the flowers, and in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitative equivalent of breathing — but of a breathing without returns to a starting point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning. Words like ‘grace’ and ‘transfiguration’ came to my mind, and this, of course, was what, among other things, they stood for. My eyes travelled from the rose to the carnation, and from that feathery incandescence to the smooth scrolls of sentient amethyst which were the iris. . .
And LSD, as Watts wrote, is similar in this regard:
A rotten log bearing rows of fungus and patches of moss became as precious as any work of Cellini — an inwardly luminous construct of jet, amber, jade, and ivory, all the porous and spongy disintegrations of the wood seeming to have been carved out with infinite patience and skill.
Indeed, it would not be controversial to affirm that the greatest virtue of the classic psychedelic drugs is the heightened perception which they bring. For example, ‘[a] journey into this new mode of consciousness,’ wrote Watts of LSD, ‘gives one a marvellously enhanced appreciation of patterning in nature’. He continued thus:
More and more it seems that the ordering of nature is an art akin to music — fugues in shell and cartilage, counterpoint in fibres and capillaries, throbbing rhythm in waves of sound, light, and nerve. And oneself is connected with it quite inextricably — a node, a ganglion, an electronic interweaving of paths, circuits, and impulses that stretch and hum through the whole of time and space. The entire pattern swirls in its complexity like smoke in sunbeams or the rippling networks of sunlight in shallow water. . .
Regardless of what one thinks of observations of this kind, their profoundness and permanence allow for the claim that the substances which give rise to them are at least in some way a better means of escape than many of those listed above. Could such keen understanding, such acuity, come from mindless play or procrastination? Of course, not everybody has the ability of a Watts or a Huxley to articulate their visions, but this does not alter the fact, expressed by the latter, that ‘the untalented visionary may perceive an inner reality no less tremendous, beautiful and significant’ than that perceived by the talented.
Escapism in the form of the drug experience, then, can be gloriously stimulating. It can drip with gravity and beauty. It can be absolutely earth-shattering. As such, it penetrates sobriety. People are changed by it: they can gain in humility; their friendships are often deepened; their creative impulses are often stoked. Surely only art can rival it. The interplay between sobriety and intoxication is therefore such as to make the word ‘escapism’, which implies mindlessness and total, inconsequential separation, ultimately unhelpful in this context.
But even during the drug experience, the charge of escapism can in some cases seem misplaced. For example, LSD’s power as an insight-yielding, problem-solving drug is well-documented. Beyond the resplendent swirling fractals and the sensory keenness, it facilitates deep reflection. It exposes one’s problems and allows one to confront them. This quality made it, once upon a time, a natural addition to the psychiatrist’s armoury: LSD, after all, ‘dramatically reaches into the roots of [mental] disorder, rather than merely disposing of the symptoms’. As such, usage can hardly be described as a fantastical escape from reality. Indeed, the drug’s therapeutic potential was affirmed by many, many psychiatrists before it became illegal:
(1) I had a vision, and I still have this vision, of mass therapy: institutions in which every patient with a neurosis could get LSD treatment and work out his problem largely by himself. . .
(2) During the first two years of our work with these compounds, we were in doubt of their value… We now consider that they give us therapeutic possibilities in areas where we were formerly powerless. In fact these drugs are of such great importance in our psychiatric instrumentarium that we can hardly think of doing without them. Indeed, this is a great step forward in psychiatry.
(3) Cohen… showed very well how low the relative risk of the therapy is, if it is carried out responsibly by qualified doctors. . . Our experience has shown that this risk can be reduced practically to zero in a well-institutionalized therapy. . .
(4) Many therapists were outraged because of this threat to their omnipotence. . .
We come thus to the end of this section of our analysis. We have established firstly that escapism is inescapable; secondly that it is no bad thing; thirdly that escapism by way of ‘drugs’ is capable of bettering escapism by most other means; and lastly that ‘drugs’ do not always entail a mindless and complete divorce from reality, but rather are able ultimately to shape it in the richest ways. When one remembers the caveat of responsible use, the credibility of certain drugs as relatively safe and useful tools increases further still. Hitchens’s view is therefore rendered very questionable indeed.
It is time now to turn to the charge levelled at ‘drugs’ by Barack Obama, among very many others: namely, that to use them is immoral. Once again, it is very difficult to discern a difference in principle between chugging alcohol and consuming other substances. But there is one distinguishing factor: legality.
The drugs discussed above are illegal in most countries, and have been for many years. Yet majestic though it seems and all-pervasive though it is, we know that law is not synonymous with conventional morality. Anybody who has, for example, incurred a parking ticket is aware of this, as are the millions of oppressed across the world. Thus the argument that drug use is immoral simply because it breaks the law is disingenuous. It deserves little attention, because it is manifestly clear that there must be some other factor at work.
And so we come to the thorny issue of health. Is the use of illegal drugs immoral because it may be injurious to one’s own physical or mental health? Is the use of alcohol immoral for the very same reason? What about junk food, or a lack of exercise? It must be noted at this point that morality comes in myriad forms, none of which can truly be shown to be more than merely phantasmal. Thus the use of drugs can be considered immoral on grounds of health, but he who believes this should be consistent and believe also in the immorality of any volitional activity which may be harmful to any person. In doing so, he would very likely indict himself. Moreover, on the off-chance that he holds Mill’s well-known words to be true — ‘over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign’ — he must consider whether it is morally justifiable to interfere with such sovereignty.
Of course, the argument from health presupposes that all illegal drugs are dangerously poisonous. It ignores the relative harmlessness of certain illicit substances as compared to alcohol and tobacco. Cannabis is one of these; psilocybin another; LSD still one more. Any such argument, then, is rendered useless.
By this stage, one feels that one has dealt with all the slings and arrows of the anti-drugs brigade. Yet one moralistic argument remains, and its principal purveyor is the commendably pigheaded Peter Hitchens, brother of Christopher. Up to this point, the intricacy of our analyses has been such that one glaringly important factor has been largely overlooked: pleasure. Many of those who take drugs do so because of the pleasure which usually ensues. Peter Hitchens disapproves; drug-taking, he says, breaks the link between hard work and reward. The same charge could be levelled at sex and music and fine cuisine and numberless other quotidian things, but these, for some reason, are not of course arraigned. Moreover, is such a link really so easy to break? Once the drug experience ends and the user resumes his humdrum existence, the link, having been suspended for a matter of hours, reappears intact and guides again the user’s behaviour. Only in cases of addiction, then, could this argument come close to succeeding, and not all users of drugs are addicts. One hopes that Peter Hitchens is cognizant of this, but here, after all, is a fellow who believes that cannabis is ‘one of the most dangerous drugs known to man’. . .
But Hitchens’s rather puritanical argument, perhaps by virtue of its relative sophistication, is not one that is regularly advanced by the ordinary po-faced opponent of drugs. The arguments from law and health are more often employed, as is the charge of escapism. Yet, as has been demonstrated, none can satisfactorily explain the aversion of their aquilifers. There lurks something underneath, then: a hash, perchance, of ignorance, fear and visceral disgust.
And of course, these things are not amenable to logic.