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Weekly Poll: Religious Use of Psychedelic Drugs

By November 15, 2012

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Many religions require the use of drugs, including psychedelic drugs, in various religious ceremonies. This obviously conflicts with laws against the use of drugs -- so what should be done? Should the government prevent such usage, or allow it as a religious exception? If they prevent such usage, then they may be preventing an important part of religious rituals. If the Catholic Church could get exemptions for wine during Prohibition, then why should minority religions today labor under greater burdens? On the other hand, if these drugs are safe enough to allow religious exemptions, why should only particular religious people be able to skirt the laws? What would be "inferior" about my secular desire to use psychedelic drugs to investigate the nature of religious experiences?

We're bumping up against a real problem when it comes to accommodating religious believers: if it's so easy to make believers exempt from a neutral, generally applicable law, it can only be because no one will be harmed, but if that's the case then why are the rest of us prohibited from the behavior as well? If no one is hurt by believers taking psychedelic drugs in a religious ritual, what is the rationale for not allowing me to take the same drug at home? On the other hand, if use of such drugs is so dangerous that I have to be prohibited from doing so, then surely it's too dangerous to let believers use it.

One possible argument here is the low numbers of believers being exempt from the law -- if lots of people were engaging in the behavior, there would be harm. That's not unreasonable, but now we are implicitly conditioning the religious exemption on the religion remaining a minority faith. If the religion suddenly became very popular, would their exemption be in jeopardy? I doubt any defender of accommodations and exemptions would agree to that, which means that the argument from low numbers is really just a rationalization that can't be accepted.

Doesn't religious exclusivity of such exemptions have the effect of promoting irrational thinking? The government is basically saying that if you want engage in some prohibited behavior, you may be exempt from the laws against that behavior if you can prove that your desire is based on the belief that your ancestors were instructed to do this by spirits or other supernatural agency. If, however, you only want to do it after a cold, sober comparison of the risks and benefits, then we'll throw you in jail for trying. We might exempt you from the law if you can make a credible argument for the idea that you think you're obeying the instructions of gods, but we'll imprison you for decades if simply think you have rational, secular reasons.

How does that possibly make sense? If you say you killed because a god told you to, the best case scenario for you is to be found insane. If you say you need to use psychedelic drugs because a god told you to, you might be allowed. If you say you killed because you have good reasons to think your life was in danger, then even if you were wrong you might get off clean; if you say you use psychedelic drugs because you have good reasons to think it helps your mental health (or marijuana because you have good reasons to think it helps your physical health), then even if you are right you're going to prison. Am I mistaken in thinking that there is something very wrong in all this inconsistency?

October 3, 2008 at 11:42 am
(1) A.R. McFarlane says:

There is another angle to this question of drug use and religion. There is growing evidence that drugs may have been the original theophany (see Gordon Wasson & Carl A.P. Ruck). Most recently, D.C.A. Hillman argues that drugs were rift in ancient times in his new book: The Chemical Muse. These perspectives suggest that it is our crazy “Drug War” mentality, and the pharmacutical companies, that stop us from using nature’s chemical drugs and perhaps “seeing” god or thrones or the unity of all, etc.

So, yes, for everyone, no special exemptions, as then atheists too can have visions.

September 9, 2010 at 4:11 pm
(2) M. A. Rinella says:

My book Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Lexington Books, 2010) covers much the same ground, with a focus on the Platonic dialogues.

November 17, 2012 at 12:32 am
(3) barry says:

drug use should be a personal decision not decided by our insane drug laws, our drug laws cause more damage then drugs ever do. I am a 25 year long user of opiates 19 of which I used heroin (diacetyl-morphine) My life was put in ruins because of our drug laws, I worked to pay for my habit, never would I steal or rob, I am totally a non violent man never broken a law other than possession of heroin and yet I have been sent to prison 3 times for just this. Because I use drugs does that mean I am a bad person ? any who know me would allow me to watch their home or babysit their children and yet I was locked up 3 times 7 years total rite along with rapists,murderers,child molesters,ect… I cost the state of washington thousands of dollars to watch me for months and arrest me when I went to buy drugs and thousands to prosecute me in court and 35,000 dollars per year to house me with real criminals. We all saw what prohibition of alcohol did and it was so bad we made it legal, yet now we see the very same thing happening with other drugs and yet the war on drugs goes on, when will it end ? Please look at what portugal did with their drug laws, it would have been a life changer for me and its a good step in the right direction. They did it in 2001 and no one wants to go back it worked it has worked and would work here in the so called free-est country in the world.

November 17, 2012 at 4:44 am
(4) Borsia says:

As a “child of the 60s & 70s” I’ve taken most psychedelic drugs at one time or another as well as using pot, hash and a few others. I came through all of this without a scratch as did virtually all of my friends.
I can say that someone who has used these drugs sees the world around them quite differently than those who have not. There is no way to explain this to those who have not and those who have already know what I’m talking about.
A recent study of people suffering from clinical depression some types of schizophrenia and a number of other mental issues a single use of Psilocybin proved to be more effective than many sessions of counseling by Psychiatrists.
Psilocybin is the active ingredient in “magic Mushrooms” one of the many substances used in ceremonial rituals.
But why should such a beneficial drug be limited to use by religions?
Obviously its potential for secular atheist and everyone else is equal both physically and morally.
The simple fact about drug use is that just like alcohol, one of the world’s most dangerous drugs, of the countless millions who use it a small percent will develop a problem related to that use.
The “war on drugs” and anti-drug programs have made the problems much, much worse! The primary reason that newer more dangerous, more harmful drugs have been invented is that the original drugs ranging from the least dangerous of all drugs, marijuana, to the relatively harmless like Psilocybin or Quaaludes became too expensive or hard to obtain.
Whether we like it or not and regardless of how we might try to stop it recreational drug use is going strong, just as strong if not more so, than it was before the supposed war on drugs began. It will continue to go on forever.
For the vast majority of recreational drug users it will never be any more of a problem than a casual cocktail or a weekend 6 pack, both of which are more dangerous than most drugs,

November 17, 2012 at 5:48 am
(5) C Woods says:

I couldn’t answer your poll question because I have mixed feelings about drug use.

I would say that if a drug were harmful nobody should use it, but if not, everyone could. But there are diverse opinions and contradictory studies about whether a drug is harmful or not, and few definitive studies to prove the harm of many drugs. All drugs —even over-the-counter drugs —have side effects. When we each make a decision, alone or with our doctors, about using a drug, we take those into account. Do the benefits outweigh the possible negative effects?

I was in college in the 60s and sometimes it seems like I am the only one of my generation who has never taken an illegal drug. I’ve never had the desire. But I have friends who occasionally smoke pot with no apparent ill effects. And I’ve had friends who drink legal alcohol to excess and have ruined their own lives and the lives of their family members.

That being said, the U.S. “war” on drugs has been spectacularly useless. When Pat Robertson came out in favor of legalizing marijuana, it was the first time ever I agreed with him on anything.

Perhaps all drugs should be legal, but controlled, charge tax, & have big, scary warning labels (if appropriate.) It would certainly put a dent into crime, lower the price of currently-illegal substances, make them safer, put profits into legal businesses, put some cartels out of business (since the U.S. is one of their biggest customers,) lower the appeal of getting-away-with-something, & lower the prison population. We could use the money we save on prisons and gain on taxes to treat drug abuse.

Since so many prisons are now being run by private companies, they have lobbying efforts in place to prevent the legalization of currently-illegal substances. The higher the prison population, the more money they make. As long as those companies contribute to political campaigns, it’s unlikey laws will change anytime soon.

November 18, 2012 at 6:55 pm
(6) Deucalion says:

Drugs weaken the mind, making people more controllable. If religions are lalowed to use drugs to influence the minds of thier congregations then it essentially becomes a form of brainwashing, like the Assassins of Islam, who were given Hashish to make them more suggestible.
Plus, if they get to do it because of THIER beliefs in a god, why not me because of MY beliefs in personal freedom?

November 20, 2012 at 9:43 am
(7) Borsia says:

DC; I’m guessing that you have little if any experience with drugs, in particular hashish.
It wouldn’t lower your resistance to do anything you wouldn’t do otherwise and if anything makes you more introspective.
Most of these terrorists have been raised since birth to follow the cause. This has been reinforced by the actions of the West, especially the US & UK. Of course they have good reason to hate Israel above all, just look at what is happening in the Middle East to see their reasoning.
If someone has bombed your village and killed your family you don’t need drugs to want to strike back.
Opiates and cannabinoids tend to make people pacifistic and less prone to acts of violence.
Instances of violence by persons under the influence of pot or hash alone virtually never get involved in any violent activities. In cases where criminals are violent and these drugs are listed as present are almost always under the influence of other drugs, most often alcohol or meth, as well.
As to drugs weakening one’s mind the drug that does the most in this respect is religion.
It isn’t referred to as the opiate of the masses without reason. It certainly does more to promote violence than any other drug bar none.

November 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm
(8) Larry Gagnon says:

Whether a drug should be made legal is entirely a different question than whether someone should use the drug. I am a strong advocate in favor of keeping whiskey & wine legal even tho I have absolutely no intention of using either. I even think smoking tobacco should remain legal – a habit I find offensive. People often confuse the propriety of legality with the propriety of use. I can easily list 100 legal activities of humans that I regard as offensive (or downright disgusting) but I would strongly oppose making such activities illegal. The “war on drugs” is based on false premises and faulty reasoning. However, there are people who benefit economically from the war and others who are so sure of their own infallibility that they eschew truth and logic.

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