Column: Drugs are not a moral issue

Column: Drugs are not a moral issue

This week,’ Leopard Print in the Ivory Tower’ attacks Festival of Dangerous Ideas speaker Peter Hitchens, and his views on addiction being a choice rather than a disease.



In six weeks, the late Christopher Hitchens’ lesser-known brother Peter Hitchens will be speaking at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on the immorality of drug-use.

His talk, “There is No War on Drugs” will take up the themes of his new book “The War We Never Fought”, which argues that the War on Drugs never actually happened. No, he hasn’t put this to the war’s tens of thousands of victims of gang and trafficking violence from South America to the Middle East.

The war never started, says Hitchens, because there are no real penalties for individual possession and because drug taking remains a socially acceptable past time. Meanwhile, everything’s turned to shit. Or, to use his specific words, drugs are making the West “a culture of violence, greed and selfishness.”

What distinguishes Hitchens’ argument from those normally leveled at drug use is its ethical approach; while such arguments are generally hedged on medical or legal grounds, Hitchens sees these concerns as secondary to his ethical conviction that “self-stupefaction of any kind is morally wrong.”

“Drug taking”, he writes with a Puritanical fervor rarely seen outside the 1600s, “is pure self-indulgence. It prioritises personal pleasure and instant gratification in a way that wreaks havoc with any kind of ethical framework.”

Now hold-up Hitchens, that last bit don’t fly with me.

Self-stupefaction may not (and does not) fly with Hitchens’ ethical framework, but to say it doesn’t fit with any kind of ethical framework is as bigoted as it is wrong.

Sure, if you think as Hitchens does that anything that gives gratification without hard work is wrong, then drugs fall into that category. So too does pre-marital sex, and television, as Hitchens details in his comprehensive disavowal of modernity, a.k.a his first book, dramatically titled “The Abolition of Britain.” That’s right, “abolition.” Caus if Britain has progressed since the Victorian era, it may as well not exist, right?

This charming book originally included a chapter passing moral judgment on the AIDS crisis, but unsurprisingly the editor scrapped it.

In direct opposition to his hedonistic brother Christopher, Peter’s is a philosophy of self-denial, a “no pain, no gain” bumper sticker on the battered windscreen of humanity.

And as with most bumper sticker logic, closer examination reveals it to be full of shit.

Puritanism calls sinful those human drives, be it for sex or stupefaction, which we can’t help and have no control over. And furthermore, which are perfectly healthy. Puritanism makes pleasure sinful and desire shameful, advocating repression and self-denial instead.

It genuinely stuns me that Puritan logic still holds traction in 2013, when all modern psychology demonstrates clear links between repression and psychic trauma.

Repression causes spiritual and emotional paralysis. This is a fact that was understood literarily hundreds of years ago. Oscar Wilde, persecuted for his sexual desire, wrote “to deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.” Years before him, William Blake offered a similar testament, asserting “he who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

Modern science and psychology have now confirmed what these renowned writers understood long ago: repression stalls emotional growth.

And yet Puritanism, as Hitchens illustrates, is anything but dead. Self-denial and the equation of pleasure with sin lives on in the major religions of today. It lives on in the “cult of virginity” in much of the world which produces practices like genital mutilation. It lives on in the “rehab” centres which to this day attempt to “cure” young Christians of their homosexuality. It lives on in the fervor with which we crucify welfare recipients as “dole-bludgers” for their heinous aberration from the Protestant Work ethic. It lives on in the slut-shaming of Miley Cyrus, and it lives on in Peter Hitchens dismissal of drugs as “self-indulgence”.

If we accept that science shows the link between self-repression and a kind of psychic trauma, then it can be argued that those institutions that perpetuate Puritanical ideologies are responsible for a form of emotional abuse. And if this is true, why aren’t we calling it out?

Hitch might consider pleasure without hard work to be morally wrong, but surely a far greater evil is the denial of pleasure and enjoyment in the only chance at life we get.

And puritanism is far more insidious than we realise. How often do you feel guilty for taking a sick day, even when you are genuinely sick? How often do people lie about the number of people they’ve slept with, even now that promiscuity no longer guarantees you VD or an unwanted baby? These practices, as innocuous as they may seem, are all a result of the Puritannical underpinnings of our culture that we inherited from centuries of religio-centricity.

Well I’m sick of being told by old men, forty years after the sexual and counter-cultural revolution, that I should feel ashamed for doing things I want to (where they don’t harm others). Hitchens can argue all he wants for the psychological impacts of drugs, or for the medical risks of taking unregulated substances, but his Puritanical moralising ends here.

Furthermore, Hitchens’ argument ignores the fact that for many, drug-taking is a spiritually profound practice. Without psychically traumatizing repression and self-denial, drugs can offer, just like religion, new insight into and appreciation for the nature of the world and the blessing of life. Drugs can promote a sense of oneness with others, and nature, that promotes social and ecological harmony. And drugs are scientifically proven to be invaluable in the alleviation of emotionally stunting psychological trauma.

So I invite you all to attend Hitchen’s “There is No War on Drugs” with skeptical ears. Because the diminishing grip of Puritanism isn’t the “abolition of Britain.” It’s its liberation. And with any luck, Australia’s too.



Annika Blau is a freelance writer from Sydney with a lot of opinions. Her writing explores what pop culture tells us about ourselves, and pairs the teachings of academia with those of the supermarket aisle. She wants to know why we don’t examine Kanye West with the same academic rigour as The Cantebury Tales, and finds Lady Gaga as revealing as the census. More of her writing can be found at annikablau@blogspot.com.au.

Read the rest of ‘Leopard Print in the Ivory Tower’ here.


(Banner image from Quinn Dombrowsky)