In 2001, Mexican president Vicente Fox made something of a splash when he, contrary to his campaign rhetoric, came out in support of the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. Fox noted that, despite the number of people imprisoned for drug trafficking, and despite the legal penalties for the possession and use of substances, drug use was going up, not down.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
In the United States, at least, the criminalizing of drugs -- and this includes alcohol, too, for the period of 1920 to 1933 -- was very much the product of a religious crusade. This is vital in considering the role religion should play in present-day government, or if it should even play a role at all.
This might sound odd coming from an adherent to a religion that makes little distinction between the civil and the religious. In Judaism, laws concerning property rights are just as much a part of the Torah as laws governing sha'atnez. There are not separate judicial systems for "religious" and "secular" law; rather, Judaism is an all-encompassing system that demands rigorous observance, whether a rule is delineated as between man and man (bein adom l'chaveiro) or between man and God (bein adom l'Makom).
But the interlocking feature of civil and religious law is very much a characteristic of theocracy, or at least of a self-governing community, such as existed for Babylonian Jewry during the time of the Talmud Bavli, but that we don't have today. Clearly theocracy is not wrong; indeed, observant Jews the world over pray three times a day for the ingathering of the Jewish exiles to the Land of Israel and for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty -- for a time in which theocratic rule will both be the norm and be perceived as just.
In the present day, without the proper conditions, however, theocracy, as I argue in the second chapter of my book Orthodox Judaism, Liberalism, and Libertarianism, is problematic. As I note there:
"When a society moves away from simply protecting the individual's right to act as long as the individual is not harmful to others and protecting people from injurious behavior initiated by others -- from assault, thievery, fraud, deceit, slander, and the like -- and into the realm of the economic and the moral, countless problems result. It is only too easy for a country to enmesh itself in a morass of rules, regulations, expropriations, and programs from which it cannot extricate itself."
But move toward a theocracy it does, albeit something I term a secular theocracy. In a nutshell, from both sides, special interest groups are determined to have their agendas legislated at taxpayer expense, dictate morality, and have us abrogate the use of individual conscience, often in the name of protecting ourselves from ourselves.
In a place and time where the standards of morality may vary from religion to religion, from culture to culture, even from individual to individual, legislating morality is tricky, if not impossible. We may disagree with someone's belief or practice, but we have to be very careful, lest someone disagrees with our belief or practice, and tries to legislate it out of existence. Of course, that is something that has already been done in Switzerland and Sweden with shechita.
While we, as part of a community, may feel something is morally wrong - -- take the illicit drug example above -- it is also important to realize that making laws based on one's religious beliefs has consequences, sometimes quite dire.
Thus, the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, while on its face designed to fulfill "international treaty obligations," was spearheaded by the Reverend Charles H. Brent and William Jennings Bryan, men of great religious conviction and prohibitionist tendencies -- in other words, special interests who wanted to ban or regulate substances based on their deeply-held religious beliefs. The United States was now able to regulate opiates and coca-leaf derivatives, but we also got more than we bargained for: black markets in opium, heroin, and cocaine; more addiction; wasted federal funds used to police drug traffic and imprison those who were now criminals; and the introduction of impurities into illegally trafficked substances.
The era of Prohibition, launched by a constitutional amendment no less (the Eighteenth), was the product of a very zealous religious Temperance Movement. Widespread sobriety would now become a reality, tipplers would be on their way to reform, and religion would play a much greater role in society. Instead, there was a massive increase of crime, gangsterism, alcoholism, and yet more wasted federal funds.
But, one good law leads to another, and soon such prohibitionist tendencies led to the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act -- which was also adopted partly because of gross misinformation that the use of marijuana led to "murder, insanity and death." Which led to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which in turn led to the current "War on Drugs." In fact, some $35 billion are spent on this "war" annually, with more money being expended on nonviolent drug offenses than on violent crime. And people still take drugs.
Today, we take it for granted that drugs are bad. After all, the government says they are, has endless laws and regulations concerning them, and has spent billions of dollars telling us to "just say no." Most are not available on the free market, and if we request too much of the same one, our doctors or pharmacists may get suspicious and turn us down, give us a lecture on the dangers of substance abuse, or inform on us.
Of course, this diatribe isn't meant to convince anyone of the legitimacy of recreational drug use. The Torah itself, in parshas V'eschanan, is explicit in mandating that we guard our health: "Only, take care of yourself, and take care of your life " (Deut. 4: 9); and, "Guard your lives well " (Deut. 4: 15) Regarding smoking, which involves the use of a drug, nicotine, Rabbi Menachem Slae has written an entire pamphlet, "Smoking and Damage to Health in the halacha," while numerous religious authorities have been exceedingly critical of the habit. Kal v'chomer harder substances. Still, alcohol, which is classified as a depressant -- the same drug class as a barbiturate - -- and can at times be more deadly, addictive, and violence provoking than many street drugs, is very much a feature of Jewish life.
And it wouldn't help to know that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations -- it's even alleged that Jefferson recommended cannabis to help relieve headaches. Today's authorities would just say that people were not as informed back then as they are now, and didn't realize the danger inherent in the use of such things.
Actually, the danger lies in the pernicious hidden social costs and economic waste wrapped up with the government's taking an active role in trying to stamp out drug use and lay down moral standards. But, one might be led to ask, if it's not the government's responsibility to do so, whose is it? As in the days before hyper-regulation, it's the responsibility of those whom the government would, it seems, like to replace: parents, teachers, peers, and religious leaders.
The benefit of government non-involvement is that communities can regulate themselves. The money expended on ineffective federal efforts can instead be used locally, in a much more efficient fashion. Religious communities can initiate their own education, prevention, and rehabilitation programs. And for those who have no moral problem with substance use, well -- we may not agree with them, but as long as they are consenting adults and do not impinge on our rights, we would have to exercise tolerance.
Those who were looking forward to Vicente Fox's signing into law the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use were not just people who wanted to take a quick hop over to Tijuana and indulge their yetzer haras for a few days. Many of them saw this as an opportunity for big government to scale back, with the hope that it might continue down the road of allowing people be responsible for themselves, for freely-associating groups to self-regulate their own moral systems. Many saw this as a step in the direction of reducing public expenditures, and of eventually eliminating the profit motive and violence so common in black markets. And it was going to take some of the theocracy out of government.
So it was no surprise that this year, with pressure from some of Mexico's neighbors, that Fox, who had been so intent on Mexico's sovereignty, vetoed the legislation.
One further note, perhaps best left for the linguists: Among the ingredients of the anointing oil found in Exodus (30: 23) is one called k'nei-bosem, usually translated as "sweet calamus." Calamus is an aromatic plant, which Rashi translates literally as a "reed of spice." Take away the final mem, run the two words together, and you've got something that sounds like "cannabis." Coincidence?
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.