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Shadow and Substance Abuse

Abstinence is not Temperance

By Paul M. Bischke, Co-director of the Drug Policy Forum of Minnesota

"Now these three remain, faith, hope and abstinence, but the greatest of these is abstinence" No, it's not the theology of St. Paul; but it clearly expresses an emerging quasi-religious ethic in America.

There's much recent evidence in both Washington and the Twin Cities that abstinence "from some drugs" is topping our list of social values. Moral fundamentals that once guided our civic life have been crowded out, to the peril of our city and our nation.

Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood is a prime example of abstinence serving as the organizing principle for public policy. Situation: drug sellers create black-market violence and compulsive users steal to buy their over-priced drugs, making Phillips a war zone. Current response: enforcing abstinence from cocaine, marijuana, etc., is of paramount importance; so say law enforcers from Janet Reno to our street-level police officers.

Now 90% of such inner-city violence is caused by unregulated black markets and not by the physical effects of the drugs. Reasonable response: thwart the black market through methadone maintenance, heroin or cocaine by prescription, and regulated marijuana sale. But those offering proof that such changes could make our cities much safer, as Ethan Nadelmann did in his recent U of M presentation, are shouted down by community leaders. The clinching argument: such programs could lead to less abstinence and any such trade-off is unacceptable. Conclusion: abstinence is more important than public safety.

In Washington, Republicans have launched a vote-seeking abstinence crusade declaring a "drug-free America" by 2002 (a perennial empty promise). Democrats quickly shouted "me too!" We'll soon see a dozen 'drug-free this-or-that' bills that extol abstinence above all.

Abstinence will supersede health: no medical marijuana please. It supersedes liberty: America now jails 400,000 abstinence violators, equaling the total prison head-count for all crimes in 1980. Abstinence eclipses equity: alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana by any objective measure, but drinkers face no proportionate penalties. Abstinence flies above fairness: abstinence violators regularly get harsher punishments than killers and rapists. Abstinence outranks education: abstain or lose student loans. Abstinence supersedes covenant: Constitutional rights to property, privacy, and due-process don't apply to non-abstainers.

Abstinence even ranks above human life: life-saving needle-exchange programs will go unfunded because they insult the abstinence ethic. Finally, abstinence supersedes truthfulness: honest discussion of drugs and the Drug War are officially unwelcome.

Abstinence is over-rated. It's really the dumbed-down second cousin of a true wisdom that knows how to stop over-indulgence without tossing all other values out the window: namely, the virtue of temperance.

Today's abstinent "drug-free" ideal is a far cry from this classical Christian virtue, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1943). "[Temperance] now usually means teetotalism. But [originally], it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining but going the right length and no further." Choosing abstinence may be necessary or desirable, particularly if one is addiction-prone or among others who are. "But the whole point is that [one] is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. The moment he starts saying [the pleasures] are bad in themselves, he has taken the wrong turning."

The nimble principle of temperance demands abstinence when it's needed: pleasure drugs are clearly inappropriate for kids, expectant mothers, and drivers. Yet true Christian temperance remains positive about pleasure without being permissive. It takes situational details into account­­how much, how often, by whom, under what circumstances­­acknowledging the true complexity of humanity's interaction with pleasure drugs. Trying to govern this complex sphere of life with the shallow, rigid negativity of abstinence inevitably leads to chaos, as Phillips shows.

Yet even temperance doesn't stand alone: it's part and parcel of "The Four Cardinal Virtues" along with prudence, fortitude, and justice­­ancient Christian wisdom that America is tragically ignoring.

Prudence discerns right and just action in light of all the important features of a situation. Our government's refusal to abandon a failed Drug War­­that spawns violence and corruption, wastes money, cancels liberty, and allows HIV to spread­­is a violation against prudence.

Attacking social or ethnic minorities who sell and use certain drugs while the smoking/drinking majority live in peace is cowardly, a violation of fortitude. And punishing drug users who do no tangible harm is blatantly unjust.

Are there pleasure drugs for which moderation or temperance are impossible? Perhaps. But we must ascertain this in the just clarity of truthfulness rather than the Drug-War-style fog of fear mongering. We must respond to substance abuse with prudence informed by loving compassion, taking to heart St. Augustine's advice: "such things are cured not by bitterness, severity and harshness, but by teaching rather than prohibition, by gentle admonitions rather than threats."

Drug War America has embraced an idol, a sham substitute for godly, ethical virtue. As long as we worship this 'golden calf' of abstinence, our communities will suffer. Only the robust virtues of our Judaeo-Christian heritage will bring us peace and order on the issue of drugs.

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