Martine & Stephen



This piece appeared in the "Faith and Reason" column, The Independent, Saturday 15 July, 2000.


Sam Mendes’ film American Beauty tells the story of a middle-aged man who renounces a conventionally successful but inwardly meaningless existence in order to find authenticity and fulfilment. But the character’s bemused rebellion against the banality of suburban America catalyses an hysterical and violent turbulence in the adults around him. While the repressed forces he has unleashed finally destroy him, in so doing they trigger a liberating spiritual epiphany.

A key element in this story is the hero’s rediscovery of cannabis. Smoking pot is presented as an integral part of his existential and moral awakening. Instead of making him dissolve into uncontrollable giggling fits, cannabis is shown to be compatible with a mood of calm reflection that goes hand-in-hand with a renewed commitment to physical fitness. Yet the political leaders of this country, who would doubtless praise the artistic and commercial success of the young British director’s first film, routinely and comprehensively condemn the use of all proscribed drugs.

This is but one instance of the contradictions that surround the issue of drug use in our society today. Another would be the double standard applied to the achievement of physical as opposed to cultural excellence. While a sportsman will have his Olympic medals revoked for using drugs that enhance his performance, a rock star would not be stripped of his Grammy awards if it turned out that his songs were composed and played under the influence of an illegal substance. Why do we impose regulations on the behaviour of one but not the other? Why should the athlete be punished, but the artist not?

While drug use among writers and musicians may be frowned upon but tacitly accepted, its role in generating religious experience tends to be either dismissed out of hand, ignored or denied. Yet a significant proportion of those drawn to Buddhism and other eastern traditions in the 1960’s were influenced in their choice of religious orientation by experiences induced by psychoactive substances such as cannabis and LSD. Although such Western Buddhists would now tend to eschew the use of these substances and warn against the dangers of abuse, few would deny their role in opening their eyes to a life of spiritual and religious meaning.

The connection between drug use and spirituality is not, however, limited to the experience of a few aging hippies. The ritualised use of drugs is still practised among sadhus and shamans of traditional cultures from India to Peru. The current use of drugs such as Ecstasy at all-night raves is likewise associated with heightened states of individual consciousness as well as the forging of a deep ecstatic bond between participants. The language and symbols of Asian and American sacred traditions permeate the literature, lyrics and imagery of this underground dance culture as much as or even more than they did in the festivals and happenings of the ‘60’s.

It is all too easy either to dismiss such claims of spiritual significance for drugs as thinly veiled justifications for hedonistic indulgence or to invoke the tragic consequences of heedless excess as grounds for denying the validity of any drug induced experience at all. In so doing, we fail to recognize the spiritual aspirations that are seeking expression and fulfilment in this way. We likewise ignore the harsh fact that this society has lost the ability to address the religious feelings of a considerable section of its young.

When the broad culture sends out contradictory messages about drugs while politicians seem incapable of anything but blanket condemnation, to whom can people turn for informed and sympathetic guidance? If drug use is a spiritual issue, then surely this responsibility should fall on religious leaders. Yet the spokesmen and women of the mainstream denominations seem to have little to say on the subject beyond pious encouragement to abstinence. Buddhism is no exception. The taking of intoxicating drugs is listed along with murder, sexual misconduct, theft and lying as something every lay Buddhist is expected to relinquish.

Before we can even begin to have a serious discussion about the use and abuse of drugs in contemporary society, there needs to be an acceptance of at least the possibility that certain currently illegal drugs can produce life and performance enhancing effects. Such a shift in attitude will require both political courage from those entrusted with matters of law as well as greater openness, understanding and tolerance from those who offer moral and spiritual guidance.

Although we live in a world in which the widespread consumption of legal, illegal and prescribed drugs keeps growing, we seem incapable of conducting an intelligent and compassionate debate around their use and abuse. We might be reaching a point where the contradiction between what society permits and what people actually do in terms of ingesting psychoactive substances becomes intolerable. This contradiction both undermines the credibility of those in positions of political and religious authority and fractures the moral consensus needed to hold together an increasingly pluralistic society. Unless the hysteria and repressive blindness around drug use begin to diminish, a sane and constructive response to an issue that threatens to spiral dangerously out of control will elude us.

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