An Anesthetized Culture: Further Reflections on Drugs

I recently wrote a piece for Crisis, entitled “Accepting Drugs: A Challenge for Culture and Evangelization,” in response to what I perceive as a general unwillingness of Catholics to take a stand on this pressing issue. Our society is quickly accepting recreational drugs, particularly marijuana, as a normal and a generally harmless phenomenon. The piece created a robust discussion in the comments, though many responses focused on two issues: a lack of nuance in approaching marijuana and the rejection of a substantial difference between drugs and alcohol. This is exactly the kind of conversation that has to occur as we formulate a Catholic response to the growing acceptance of drugs. I’d like to continue the discussion, clarifying some of the key issues.

First, I would like to begin by reemphasizing my general point in writing the previous article. I find that many comments (in general, not just for my own piece) focus on particular points out of the general context and purpose in which they are stated. My point is that drugs represent one, and possibly the most pronounced, attempt to escape from reality and from the use of reason in facing our problems. The trend that I perceive is that there is a general search for anesthesia in our culture. We have sought to eliminate pain and even a plain facing up to the reality of death and have created a culture that seeks comfort and prosperity above all else. What happens with this suppression of reality (life is meant to be hard and to include suffering) is that an underlying dissatisfaction sets in. Our attempt at utopia fails and leaves us isolated and miserable (generally speaking) and then we have to find even more exotic ways to cover this up. Enter drugs.

The growing role of drugs (both recreational and also pharmaceutical at times) reminds me of the use of soma in Huxley’s Brave New World: “Why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.” Accepting drugs is an important step toward the dystopia that Huxley saw emerging in the world. I think Pope Benedict’s sustained critique of drugs (which I quoted in the last article) points to the fact that drugs represent the presentation of a false reality that is directly in competition with the spiritual life. Ultimately drugs are a spiritual dystopia, one that seeks to eliminate the Gospel’s daily call to take up one’s Cross, deny oneself, and to follow Him. This is so harmful, because “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). It is not only drugs that seek to cover up our tribulations, but also so many other escape mechanisms: consumerism, promiscuous sex, and especially the ever increasing dominance of media and entertainment.

Second, many readers pointed out that lumping marijuana together with other drugs undermined my argument. I readily admit that different drugs create different reactions and that marijuana may create a lesser reaction than others. However, even marijuana creates the kind of reaction that I criticized under the general heading of drugs. Just a brief internet search brings up the variety of immediate effects of marijuana: euphoria, calmness, anxiety, paranoia, distorted sense of time, magical or random thinking, short-term memory loss, and depression (not to mention physical effects). Reactions to my argument stated that marijuana does not impair reason, which I had indicated using a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas. Here is a description of its effect on thinking: “These include distorted perceptions…difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and disrupted learning and memory.” This does not make it seem that there is no impairment of our higher faculties. In fact, there is no moderate use of marijuana that avoids this kind of mind altering reaction. People smoke marijuana to get high and that high is precisely what I am criticizing as an escape from reality, a cultural anesthesia.

What are the implications of legalizing marijuana? As a culture we are normalizing the kind of experience described above, allowing people to temporally “check out.” This creates a sub-culture that stands against facing up to reality, even when it is hard. This sends an important message to youth: drugs are a legitimate option for your life when you are feeling depressed or challenged. Go ahead and manipulate your mood and thoughts. This explains why marijuana is considered by many to be a gateway drug. Once you accept the premise of serious, interior alteration, it is hard to then draw the line. I find arguments in favor of legalization from a more libertarian bent to misconceive the understanding of law as something formative and ordered toward virtue and the common good. From a spiritual point of view, legalizing drugs creates another obstacle within our culture, pushing it further away from both the natural and divine law.

Third, is alcohol really different? Many readers noted that alcohol should be considered a drug. For starters, here is a brief summary of the chemical difference between marijuana and alcohol, which notes the profound difference between them. Secondly, alcohol is made out of substances, which are normally consumed for food. Transforming barley into beer or grapes into wine only enhances the natural substances, which generally have been consumed within the context of meals, openly and in society with others. This does not deny, of course, the possibility for abuse. That possibility does not contradict my argument, but precisely supports it. I am arguing that alcohol abuse is akin to the use of drugs in that rather than enhancing a normal experience of reality, it alters that experience and works against human flourishing. Alcohol, when consumed correctly, does not alter one’s mind, enhances the normal experience of reality, promotes good health and fellowship, and even can be seen positively within the context of the spiritual life.

This last point, on the spiritual life, reveals a deeper way in which we can appreciate the importance of alcohol in the Catholic tradition. I will reproduce in full the blessing of beer (which may be the closest thing to a catechesis on alcohol we have) I referred to in the previous article to draw this out:

Lord, bless this creature, beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Beer is something made by human hands and yet the prayer indicates that it is precisely by the kindness and power of God that it has been made. Creating it as the fruit of culture is an unlocking or perfecting of God’s creation that He intended in making us as rational beings. The production of beer is mentioned specifically as healthful, done in thanksgiving, and an occasion for help in body and soul. That is, beer, and other forms of alcohol, finds sanction within the Catholic tradition as promoting human flourishing. This is why some of the saints (see St. Brigid’s “Lake of Beer”) use the example of beer and other forms of alcohol as an image of the joy of Heaven: not because it breaks from reality, but enhances joy within it.

Wine should not be left out as within it we see the absolute highest use of the fruits of the earth. I find it fascinating that God would make use of bread and wine, products of human culture, in order to make His Body and Blood present on earth. This is a crucial sign that the objects of genuine human flourishing and culture point beyond themselves. The use of bread, which is a symbol of human sustenance, and wine, a symbol of joy and celebration (“wine to gladden the heart of man” Psalm 104:15) in the Eucharistic sacrifice shows that God intends our communal gathering and feasting to be the occasion of spiritual nourishment. This happens explicitly and supernaturally in the Mass and should happen more simply but also truly within our own homes: eating and drinking in support of our salvation. God works with human goods, not against them.

If the moderate use of alcohol is considered to be a use of drugs then we are equivocating. Drugs, as the word is normally used, indicates the use of a substance which brings the immediate feeling of being high, which is a withdrawal from ordinary experience and consciousness. Anything we ingest alters us, but we have to ask whether or not it is in accord with our good, specifically the good of our rational nature. The Catholic tradition has answered in the affirmative on alcohol and I would add that this is rooted within divine revelation itself! Now that drugs are becoming more and more widespread, it is time for Catholics to be very clear of the difference between alcohol and drugs. Drugs demand a negative response in relation to promoting the human good, both individually and culturally. They are an anesthesia, which further ingrains us in our attempt to withdraw from a culture that may incline us to want to escape from it, but desperately needs us to face it and transform it.

R. Jared Staudt


R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

  • lifeknight

    I am glad that red wine “qualifies” as medicinal, cultural and spiritual! I do agree that “drugs” in the sense you have demonstrated produce the escape from reality that needs to be faced–not erased.

  • Oremusman

    With regard to the subject of alcohol and its comparison to drugs, the author seems to confine his remarks to wine and beer.

    Shouldn’t an evaluation of hard liquor be in order as well? Couldn’t critics cite hard liquor, its questionable benefit, and the potential for damage it can do, as an arguable point?

    • Carl

      No, as author states there has to be full knowledge and deliberate consent, CCC 1857, to attempt to escape from reality, from use of reason, and anesthesia from culture.
      If a person spends their day graving that shot of liquor or any other alcohol, well ya I think there’s a problems here! A Friday night Margarita social drink with friends or family is no different than beer or a glass of wine. As far as direct consumption of liquor its really no different, rule of thumb is one shot equals one beer or glass of wine.
      The medicinal value of a shot of bourbon during bad head colds and suffering from the flu is obvious. In fact Night Time Medicines perform the same task, its not an attempt escape but get some rest.

  • AcceptingReality

    In the context that the purpose of life is to know, love and serve God your argument makes perfect sense. In that context freedom and liberty flows from “Life” in accordance with God’s will. But If one’s concept of freedom is simply the liberty to choose; and one’s sense of liberty sees reason as “the slave of our passions”, then your argument makes little sense.

  • W Meyer

    While I am opposed to the use of drugs, and the abuse of alcohol, I am also opposed to the prohibition of drugs and to the war on drugs.

    The reasons are fundamental: First, we have the precedent of Prohibition, which did not reduce the use of alcohol, but increased it, and also dramatically increased the incidence of violent crime. Second, we cannot force a person not to use drugs, any more than we can force him to believe in God. Third, as was true of Prohibition, the war on drugs increases the street value of the product, and the financial rewards to those who traffic in the product.

    Now, if we are serious about eliminating drugs from the culture, we must be serious about punishment. When the perceived benefits are less than the perceived cost, people will change their decisions. This applies to dealers as well as to users. However, we are so PC that we cannot bear to actually administer the sort of punishment required to achieve this result.

    Another approach worthy of consideration is to remove the criminal penalties, and at the same time remove the high value of the product. Smugglers buy those quarter million dollar boats out of their huge profits. Remove the profits, and the boats are gone, and so is the incentive to deal. The difficulty with this approach is that it can only be accomplished if we make drugs cheaply available. We would also need to educate people as to the health risks.

    But in the end, which do you prefer? Mandatory death penalty with no appeal and minimal delays for the dealers? Or de-criminalized drugs, cheaply sold, with a huge education program?

    One thing is beyond any doubt: What we have been doing does not work. At all.

    • Ford Oxaal

      I agree — the present system does not work. The amounts of money needing laundering are staggering, and have a corrosive effect on government and banking. The state should do to drugs what it did to cigarettes — control the commerce thereof, and propagandize against.

      • Adam__Baum

        If you were ever involved in the fiscal apparatus of distribution of the windfall that emerged from the Tobacco settlement, you would never cite the regulation of tobacco as something that would reduce “amounts of money needing laundering are staggering, and have a corrosive effect on government”.
        And that’s just the Tobacco Settlement moneys, that were SUPPOSED to be dedicated to specific purposes, but somehow always end up in the accounts that produce politicians bearing giant novelty taxes. The largesse from the taxes must be yet another ball of wax.

        • Ford Oxaal

          The settlement thing is a different subject — that was “wealth redistribution” aka theft. But I mean that the government seems to have been effective in reducing smoking through propaganda (though I don’t know what the stats are), or maybe just raising the price to the point of absurdity. Of course, an after dinner cigarette should not be an earth-shaking event. Demonization is going too far in the case of tobacco. I know a priest who says “better to smoke here than in Hell”. 🙂

          • Adam__Baum

            “I mean that the government seems to have been effective in reducing smoking through propaganda”
            It’s more than propaganda though. They have made smoking indoors illegal and are extending the forbidden zones all the time.

            For the record, I agree with the in-door bans. Doesn’t the American Cancer Society and other NGO’s get at least SOME of the credit?

            Of course there’s fiscal types like me in the halls of government teling legislatures about how the dimunition of smoking is impacting their budgets. (If you remember the accountant telling Mr. Potter what a threat the Building and Loan was in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, you got a good picture.)

            There’s something odd about taking the position that it’s good and proper for the state to profit from something that we acknowledge is at best a tolerable evil.

            • Art Deco

              I would like to be lumped with those who dislike the regulations promoted by fresh air fascists.

              • patricia m.

                I like it. In those situations it was very clear that “free markets” wouldn’t work. We needed regulations. Same thing goes for those who preach free markets on drugs. They are those deluded libertarians. Oh and please don’t forget the banning of trans fat foods as well.

                • Art Deco

                  Tobacco is not a stupefacient.

            • Ford Oxaal

              The money is there from drugs. It shows up on the country’s balance of payments as misc. It is huge. In the present scenario, the government tries weird things like running guns to the Mexican cartels. Maybe a sin tax makes sense. As for the government profiting from it, the only things standing in the way from government turning into a gigantic blood sucking tick in any sphere in which it operates are strong, intact families, and organized religion. So yeah, we’re on the ropes here.

    • Carl

      CCC 1903 Authority is exercised legitimately only when is seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. CCC1919 Every human community needs an authority in order to endure and develop.

      Using your analogy could someone argue with God’s law on prostitution (adultery)? People are going to do it any way so let’s make it safe, legal, and rare?

      No more mandatory death sentences to the lake of fire for unrepentant sinners of this world; everyone will be re-educated in purgatory with a huge education program. Eat sleep and be merry for tomorrow we die?!

      • W Meyer

        I posited two alternatives; you seem to assume only one. Brutal punishments for drug dealers might be very effective.

        • patricia m.

          Yeah, how about they do in some countries, capital punishment for drug dealers? It’s indeed a good idea.

    • Art Deco

      First, we have the precedent of Prohibition, which did not reduce the use of alcohol, but increased it,

      Um, no. Alcohol consumption per capita did not return to the levels of 1917 until around about 1970.

  • Christopher

    I would really like to agree with our learned essayist, and perhaps any lingering doubt I may have as to the essential difference between drugs such as marijuana and alcohol deserves some more thinking on my part…..Still, when I take even one goblet full of absinthe, duly diluted with water as one should, I cannot but feel that “reality” is suspended. The same can be said for other stronger drinks.

  • thebigdog

    Too often, habitual marijuana users become arrogant, cynical and paranoid — truly not enjoyable people to be around.

    • Motherofseven

      And this is a good reason to make marijuana illegal? Think about it. Drunk Drivers kill people with cars. Pot heads kill people with…. IRONY?

      • Adam__Baum

        When they had the chance, locomotives.

        Today, every railroader is subject to mandatory “for cause” and “random” drug testing, because of Gates.

      • patricia m.

        Pot heads kill people with cars as well. Or you really think every pot head smokes in his/her cozy room, come one.

      • thebigdog

        I wasn’t aware that I said anything about “illegal” FWIW.. I think smoking pot should be decriminalized for the practicalities of our judicial system.

        However, this fallacy that only alcohol causes auto fatalities must be exposed — also, many of the people I know who smoke pot also drink … some of them a lot. Alcohol and marijuana are not mutually exclusive.

  • gardener

    I read an essay in The Weekly Standard by Geoffrey Norman about the serious drug problem in Vermont. That same afternoon, watching TV, I saw a documentary (must have been from the 50’s or even earlier talking about the drug problem that was confined mostly in the slums of New York, Chicago and LA. They were going to solve the problem with a large government hospital to do treatments for drug addicts before the problem spread. That didn’t work too well, I guess. It was an interesting contrast on the same day.

  • Elat

    very important article. we have a whole generation on drugs, legal and illegal (the pharmaceutical industry kills hundreds of thousands per year now) and as you say, they all escape reality. Very dangerous, insanely tragic and extremely undercovered in media.

  • Brian

    The terminology in this article begs for further distinction, for it is true that alcohol is a drug, and to reject “drugs” in the sense implied in the article leaves little room for the acceptance of alcohol (especially with a very limited sense in the case that the percentage of alcohol in a beverage is not considered~scotch) Furthermore, it is also the case that marijuana is ingested in ways other than that which is taken as a given (smoked) in such a way that it’s potency is severely compromised (and controlled in a similar way to alcohol’s potency in beverages).

    Furthermore, the lack of distinction from illicit mood or mind altering drugs (implied meaning of ‘drugs’ in the article) and psychiatric medicine desperately needs to be clarified, for it is here that the purpose and distinctions are blurred. )

    Anyhow, i’m glad this article has been provided by this author, for it is definitely the case that this discourse needs to happen. For, while this is a laudable attempt to approach the problem, if this is the best commentary that we have, we’re in dire straights.

    My apologies for the lack of proper composition and revision in this reply, for it was done on the fly and while sitting at my desk at work. I will take this seriously and compose a proper response.

  • slainte

    Society has the ability, if its chooses, to diminish drug and alcohol use, just as it succesfully diminished cigarette smoking by making it uncool, offensive to everybody, and an unhealthful and very expensive thing to do. All of this without a legislature declaring it illegal.
    Social pressure is a powerful tool when properly directed.

  • There are three points I think should be made:

    First of all, the notion that moderate alcohol use is OK because it is “rooted in divine revelation” is a bit silly. Many Protestant denominations object to ANY consumption of alcohol. Also, back in the Bible times wine was often a safer alternative to contaminated water sources. And if you were to ask certain native American tribes, they would say that that their use of of hallucinogens like ayahuasca and peyote is most CERTAINLY rooted in “divine revelation.”

    Second, painting all recreational substances with the same broad brush is unfair, since they vary widely not only in their subjective effects, but also in their potential for addiction and physical harm, as this chart indicates:

    Finally, human beings have been seeking altered states of consciousness for as long as there have been human beings. Whether it’s smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, doing a bong hit, snorting a line of coke, dropping acid, or engaging in transcendental meditation, people will always have the desire to get a buzz one way or another. Call it “withdrawal from ordinary experience” if you like, but it seems to be a part of not only human experience, but animal experience also:

    • Carl

      Response to:
      1.) Self control is a virtue, gluttony is a deadly sin, Temperance is a virtue, not silly at all.
      2.) Street “recreation substances” are all about getting high and attempting to escape from reality. Author makes no broad strokes of a brush, he’s clearly defined what he’s talking about (second paragraph).
      3.) We live in a fallen world and we all suffer from concupiscence, you seem to be saying that we should celebrate our failings and enjoy ourselves.

    • Allan Daniel

      At first I misread you name as Polishbeer!

      It hardly matters that people have always sought a way to get high. When drinking or drug use removes you from the presence of God, it is an evil.

    • Adam__Baum

      “Many Protestant denominations object to ANY consumption of alcohol”

      That sounds like their problem.

      • R. K. Ich

        Aye, they lost more than Apostolic Succession and sacramental validity. Many forfeited the blessings of beer and wine to boot! O crudelis fatum!

    • redfish

      You’re dismissing the framing of it as a “withdrawal from ordinary experience,” but when people get in the habit of doing it — not just occasionally, or socially, but as a lifestyle — its not just because they want to experience an altered state of consciousness, but they feel something is wrong with their normal state of consciousness and they’re self-medicating. Its a problematic way of addressing life because people who do that often are often avoiding finding other ways to deal with life and they’re falling back on the drug as a crutch.

      You’re right its not a complete picture to paint all recreational substances with the same brush, without noting the physical addiction and harm. But reduced physical addiction and harm don’t reduce the moral issues involved with habitual drug use. The confidence that are no physical issues with cannabis often is what leads people to think there’s no problem with a habit.

      I’m not sure if elephants, reindeers, and horses use drugs to self-medicate; but I’m sure if they do, the situation is going to be the same as it often is with humans: that they’re going to avoid finding ways to cope off of the drug.

  • Allan Daniel

    Well thought out and expressed. I’d love to hear an extrapolation to mind-numbing use of cell phones and electronic time wasters. Few people think for lack of time.

  • patricia m.

    In all those comments I’ve never seen one tending about the addiction those drugs cause. The drug advocates here will say that alcohol also causes addiction. While the vast majority of people can and will drink socially, with only a few going into alcoholism, a lot of marijuana users will upgrade to harder drugs – or become addicted to it, needing it everyday in order to function – like tobacco users.

  • thomas p. mcmorrow

    We know mj dumbs folks down and kills brain cells. We also don’t know what’s actually in a bag of dope. It’s Russian roulette. In Atlanta, we have a anti-meth organizations, too.

  • Ted

    Interesting articles, and some very good points made. I think the real problem with the articles is when you almost glorify alcohol and make it a “spiritual” item and try to make the entire issue black & white, right & wrong. In attempting to make it into a very black & white issue, you lose credibility when using arguments trying to differentiate the two.
    Alcohol is a drug, and the dangers of alcohol are really not that different than drugs. There is a real fine line between alcohol being consumed for social reasons and escapism as you tend to stress. Alcohol has created lots of societal problems, including alcoholism, family break up and death. In reality is not any different than drugs would do. Yet it is socially acceptable and as you tend to try and argue, something to be celebrated.
    Escapism is part of the human condition, it is a need we all have. We escape reality in different ways from taking a vacation, going to a casino(also dangerous in many ways), immersing yourself in a hobby etc. We need to rest, we need to do things enjoyable, we need to play, it is part of being human. Many people create similar feelings of euphoria from doing physical things like sky diving, roller coasters and horror movies, music, TV, going out, which create similar feelings as alcohol & drugs. Why, because it is part of being human.
    This is why this is a grey issue. As society grapples with the costs of enforcing penalties for the prohibition of artificial substances against otherwise good people, it outweighs the societal problems the substances create. Hence relaxing the laws to control those substances. Which leads us to where we are now.
    If alcohol is such a celebrated item, then why do we prohibit it’s use for children? Because we know the dangers of it. We assume that once a person becomes an adult they can choose whether or not to use it.
    I am not endorsing the elimination of the present laws against drugs. And you are correct that we should be very concerned about present societal trends in this direction. We should speak out on this and be vigilant of it’s dangers and the problems it will cause and the further erosion of our lives and faith. But to glorify alcohol should not be the way to do this. Alcohol is just as dangerous, and should be approached in the same manner as drugs. Simply because it is a drug.
    Celebrating our faith is.

    • Carl

      Street recreational drugs can not be used in moderation and their medicinal value over tradition medications are highly suspect.

      Jesus’s first miracle was to turn water into wine and at one of His last moments He transubstantiated wine into his blood.

      Escapism and recreation are NOT synonyms.
      Drinking too much water can lead to intoxication/hyponatremia.

      Any activity that becomes an obsession/addition that leads us away from our true purpose is unhealthy and wrong.

      There are no gray issues on your list, all can be done safely and in moderation. NASCAR/Indy car racing and professional boxing would qualify as questionable activities because people have died and have received debilitating injuries. UFC is certainly an abomination.

      • Ted

        Do not disagree with you whatsoever. My main point is not to glorify alcohol. It is just as dangerous and we have absolutely no need for it and no need to draw a distinct line between recreational drugs & alcohol just because it is in the Bible and accepted societally because of it’s history. Alcohol is a drug no matter how much is consumed it does affect a human being regardless.
        Yes Jesus turned the water into wine, but why? because it was the societal norm at the time. Did the miracle say he drank? who knows. That was not in the Bible to say alcohol is great, it was the 1st miracle to introduce him into what he was to do at a celebration which is fitting, but if you notice he did do it reluctantly and only at the request of Mary his mother. And the last supper, again it was the social norm, not because he was saying alcohol is great. Again not the point of the miracle. If the societal norm of the region was beer & wings it would have been that at the time.
        The rest of my post was to illustrate how society got to this point and why it is deciding to relax the penalties and how it relates to human nature. Not saying that it is right. Not saying that we should just accept. Just that alcohol can be just as dangerous and not to be glorified. Simple.

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  • thomas p. mcmorrow

    You’ve got to wonder why American troops protect the poppy in Afghanistan so street drugs will be cheap on Carson Street in Pittsburgh. Too bad the msm won’t ask the Commander in Chief.

  • JessieM

    Again, you are coming to this conclusion and you have a right to your opinion, but you seem to make a lot of assumptions and generalizations in your description of marijuana. I don’t agree with you or pope benedict on the issue of marijuana. And we will see if my comments are again deleted by the author.

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