What with my recent computer troubles (I’ve had to format at least once more since writing that post, by the way), I’ve not been able to post anything with much substance in the past few weeks. To make that up to you, this post will a long one, albeit not my own words, so put the kettle on and dig out your reading glasses.
The War on Sin
In the United States, and in much of the rest of the world, it is currently illegal to seek certain experiences of pleasure. Seek pleasure by a forbidden means, even in the privacy of your own home, and men with guns may kick in the door and carry you away to prison for it. One of the most surprising things about this situation is how unsurprising most of us find it. As in most dreams, the very faculty of reason that would otherwise notice the strangeness of these events seems to have succumbed to sleep.
Behaviors like drug use, prostitution, sodomy, and the viewing of obscene materials have been categorized as “victimless crimes.” Of course, society is the tangible victim of almost everything human beings do — from making noise to manufacturing chemical waste— but we have not made it a crime to do such things within certain limits. Setting these limits is invariably a matter of assessing risk. One could argue that it is, at the very least, conceivable that certain activities engaged in private, like the viewing of sexually violent pornography, might incline some people to commit genuine crimes against others. There is a tension, therefore, between private freedom and public risk. If there were a drug, or a book, or a film, or a sexual position that led 90 percent of its users to rush into the street and begin killing people at random, concerns over private pleasure would surely yield to those of public safety. We can also stipulate that no one is eager to see generations of children raised on a steady diet of methamphetamine and Marquis de Sade. Society as a whole has an interest in how its children develop, and the private behavior of parents, along with the contents of our media, clearly play a role in this. But we must ask ourselves, why would anyone want to punish people for engaging in behavior that brings no significant risk of harm to anyone? Indeed, what is startling about the notion of a victimless crime is that even when the behavior in question is genuinely victimless, its criminality is still affirmed by those who are eager to punish it. It is in such cases that the true genius lurking behind many of our laws stands revealed. The idea of a victimless crime is nothing more than a judicial reprise of the Christian notion of sin.
It is no accident that people of faith often want to curtail the private freedoms of others. This impulse has less to do with the history of religion and more to do with its logic, because the very idea of privacy is incompatible with the existence of God. If God sees and knows all things, and remains so provincial a creature as to be scandalized by certain sexual behaviors or states of the brain, then what people do in the privacy of their own homes, though it may not have the slightest implication for their behavior in public, will still be a matter of public concern for people of faith.
A variety of religious notions of wrongdoing can be seen converging here — concerns over nonprocreative sexuality and idolatry especially — and these seem to have given many of us the sense that it is ethical to punish people, often severely, for engaging in private behavior that harms no one. Like most costly examples of irrationality, in which human happiness has been blindly subverted for generations, the role of religion here is both explicit and foundational. To see that our laws against “vice” have actually nothing to do with keeping people from coming to physical or psychological harm, and everything to do with not angering God, we need only consider that oral or anal sex between consenting adults remains a criminal offence in thirteen states. Four of the states (Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri) prohibit these acts between same-sex couples and, therefore, effectively prohibit homosexuality. The other nine ban consensual sodomy for everyone (these places of equity are Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia). One does not have to be a demographer to grasp that the impulse to prosecute consenting adults for nonprocreative sexual behavior will correlate rather strongly with religious faith.
The influence of faith on our criminal laws comes at a remarkable price. Consider the case of drugs. As it happens, there are many substances — many of them naturally occurring — the consumption of which leads to transient states of inordinate pleasure. Occasionally, it is true, they lead to transient states of misery as well, but there is no doubt that pleasure is the norm, otherwise human beings would not have felt the continual desire to take such substances for millennia. Of course, pleasure is precisely the problem with these substances, since pleasure and piety have always had an uneasy relationship.
When one looks at our drug laws — indeed, at our vice laws altogether — the only organizing principle that appears to make sense of them is that anything which might radically eclipse prayer or procreative sexuality as a source of pleasure has been outlawed. In particular, any drug (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA, marijuana, etc.) to which spiritual or religious significance has been ascribed by its users has been prohibited. Concerns about the health of our citizens, or about their productivity, are red herrings in this debate, as the legality of alcohol and cigarettes attests.
The fact that people are being prosecuted and imprisoned for using marijuana, while alcohol remains a staple commodity, is surely the reductio ad absurdum of any notion that our drug laws are designed to keep people from harming themselves or others. Alcohol is by any measure the more dangerous substance. It has no approved medical use, and its lethal dose is rather easily achieved. Its role in causing automobile accidents is beyond dispute. The manner in which alcohol relieves people of their inhibitions contributes to human violence, personal injury, unplanned pregnancy, and the spread of sexual disease. Alcohol is also well known to be addictive. When consumed in large quantities over many years, it can lead to devastating neurological impairments, to cirrhosis of the liver, and to death. In the United States alone, more than 100,000 people annually die from its use. It is also more toxic to a developing fetus than any other drug of abuse. (Indeed, “crack babies” appear to have been really suffering from fetal-alcohol syndrome.) None of these charges can be leveled at marijuana. As a drug, marijuana is nearly unique in having several medical applications and no known lethal dosage. While adverse reactions to drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen account for an estimated 7,600 deaths (and 76,000 hospitalizations) each year in the United States alone, marijuana kills no one. Its role as a “gateway drug” now seems less plausible than ever (and it was never plausible). In fact, nearly everything human beings do — driving cars, flying planes, hitting golf balls — is more dangerous than smoking marijuana in the privacy of one’s own home. Anyone who would seriously attempt to argue that marijuana is worthy of prohibition because of the risk it poses to human beings will find that the powers of the human brain are simply insufficient for the job.
And yet, we are so far from the shady groves of reason now that people are still receiving life sentences without the possibility of parole for growing, selling, possessing, or buying what is, in fact, a naturally occurring plant. Cancer patients and paraplegics have been sentenced to decades in prison for marijuana possession. Owners of garden-supply stores have received similar sentences because some of their customers were caught growing marijuana. What explains this astonishing wastage of human life and material resources? The only explanation is that our discourse on this subject has never been obliged to function within the bounds of rationality. Under our current laws, it is safe to say, if a drug were invented that posed no risk of physical harm or addiction to its users but produced a brief feeling of spiritual bliss and epiphany in 100 percent of those who tried it, this drug would be illegal, and people would be punished mercilessly for its use. Only anxiety about the biblical crime of idolatry would appear to make sense of this retributive impulse. Because we are a people of faith, taught to concern ourselves with the sinfulness of our neighbors, we have grown tolerant of irrational uses of state power.
Our prohibition of certain substances has led thousands of otherwise productive and law-abiding men and women to be locked away for decades at a stretch, sometimes for life. Their children have become wards of the state. As if such cascading horror were not disturbing enough, violent criminals — murders, rapists, and child molesters — are regularly paroled to make room for them. Here we appear to have overstepped the banality of evil and plunged to the absurdity at its depths.
The consequences of our irrationality on this front are so egregious that they bear closer examination. Each year, over 1.5 million men and women are arrested in the United States because of our drug laws. At this moment, somewhere on the order of 400,000 men and women languish in U.S. prisons for nonviolent drug offences. One million others are currently on probation. More people are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offences in the United States than are incarcerated, for any reason, in all of Western Europe (which has a larger population). The cost of these efforts, at the federal level alone, is nearly $20 billion dollars annually. The total cost of our drug laws — when one factors in the expense to state and local governments and the tax revenue lost by our failure to regulate the sale of drugs — could easily be in excess of $100 billion dollars each year. Our war on drugs consumes an estimated 50 percent of the trial time of our courts and the full-time energies of over 400,000 police officers. These are resources that might otherwise be used to fight violent crime and terrorism.
In historical terms, there was every reason to expect that such a policy of prohibition would fail. It is well known, for instance, that the experiment with the prohibition of alcohol in the United States did little more than precipitate a terrible comedy of increased drinking, organized crime, and police corruption. What is not generally remembered is that Prohibition was an explicitly religious exercise, being the joint product of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the pious lobbying of certain Protestant missionary societies. The problem with the prohibition of any desirable commodity is money. The United Nations values the drug trade at $400 billion a year. This exceeds the annual budget for the U.S. Department of Defense. If this figure is correct, the trade in illegal drugs constitutes 8 percent of all international commerce (while the sale of textiles makes up 7.5 percent and motor vehicles just 5.3 percent). And yet, prohibition itself is what makes the manufacture and sale of drugs so extraordinarily profitable. Those who earn their living in this way enjoy a 5,000 to 20,000 percent return on their investment, tax-free. Every relevant indicator of the drug trade — rates of drug use and interdiction, estimates of production, the purity of drugs on the street, etc. — shows that the government can do nothing to stop it as long as such profits exist (indeed, these profits are highly corrupting of law enforcement in any case). The crimes of the addict, to finance the stratospheric cost of his lifestyle, and the crimes of the dealer, to protect both his territory and his goods, are likewise the results of prohibition. A final irony, which seems good enough to be the work of Satan himself, is that the market we have created by our drug laws has become a steady source of revenue for terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Shining Path, and others.
Even if we acknowledge that stopping drug use is a justifiable social goal, how does the financial cost of our war on drugs appear in light of the other challenges we face? Consider that it would require only a onetime expenditure of $2 billion to secure our commercial seaports against smuggled nuclear weapons. At present we have allocated a mere $93 million for this purpose. How will our prohibition of marijuana use look (this comes at a cost of $4 billion annually) if a new sun ever dawns over the port of Los Angeles? Or consider that the U.S. government can afford to spend only $2.3 billion each year on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are now regrouping. Warlords rule the countryside beyond the city limits of Kabul. Which is more important to us, reclaiming this part of the world for the forces of civilization or keeping cancer patients in Berkeley from relieving their nausea with marijuana? Our present use of government funds suggests an uncanny skewing — we might even say derangement — of our national priorities. Such a bizarre allocation of resources is sure to keep Afghanistan in ruins for many years to come. It will also leave Afghan farmers with no alternative but to grow opium. Happily for them, our drug laws still render this a highly profitable enterprise.
Anyone who believes that God is watching us from beyond the stars will feel that punishing peaceful men and women for their private pleasure is perfectly reasonable. We are now in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we should have better reasons for depriving our neighbors of their liberty at gunpoint. Given the magnitude of the real problems that confront us- — terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the spread of infectious disease, failing infrastructure, lack of adequate funds for education and health care, etc. — our war on sin is so outrageously unwise as to almost defy rational comment. How have we grown so blind to our deeper interests? And how have we managed to enact such policies with so little substantive debate?
Wise words indeed. Sam Harris is a philosopher, neuroscientist and the kind of atheist who takes no shit from anyone. The rest of his book tackles the irrationality of belief, the damage it can do to society and highlights the reasons why religious tolerance is certainly a bad thing. This book should be on everyone’s reading list, but if you’re looking for a more concise attack on irrational belief, I’d also recommend Sam Harris’s other book, Letter To A Christian Nation. Weighing in at just over 100 pages, this is more of an essay than a book, so you’ll finish it in one afternoon.
If you’re one of those rare kinds of people with an attention span longer than 10 minutes, you might also like to watch The Four Horsemen — a discussion between Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet & Christopher Hitchens. It’s two hours long, so you might want to preroll beforehand.