It seems impossible to eradicate the use of drugs in our society. The hippie generation of the 1960s celebrated their alternative lifestyle by using drugs. During the great music festivals, many were stoned while listening to their favourite bands. The same music was put on in the discos, and enjoyed by young people high as a kite. The hippie generation has grown up but that has not put an end to the use of drugs. In our own time, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is still going on everywhere.
In the USA, the government attempted to stop the increase of illegal substances by increasing the sentences. People caught with drugs were put behind bars, sometimes for many years. The result was that the population of the prisons increased but the use of drugs did not decrease. As strict punishment did not appear to solve the problem, several authors have been pleading for treatment as a more effective counter measure than imprisonment. There are indications that drug related crime has decreased recently where people caught with drugs are educated about the dangers rather than punished. But it remains to be seen whether this new policy will result in diminishing the use of drugs.
In the Netherlands, another solution is being tried out. The use of marijuana is decriminalized in the hope that the people will stick to using this, rather than go on to the more powerful drugs. The first reports appear to indicate that this has not led to the anticipated decrease in the use of those drugs and in drug related problems. In Canada, a shocking picture of gas sniffing native youths was on the front page of the papers. Even if this picture was staged, the reality of drug use among the native people is not denied. Nor is the problem limited to these young people. The Reformed community is not immune from this either. It happens that Reformed young people also use drugs, for example, at parties. Some are even selling it to sustain their habit.
We need to take a careful look at drugs. Can they be used, or are there good reasons for outlawing them? But we first need to ask what drugs are and what they do.
What are Drugs?
The word itself is used in two different senses.1 In a more general way, the word is used as an indication of any kind of medicine. Drugs are used to treat, and hopefully to cure, diseases. In this sense it also occurs in the word “drug store,” where prescriptions from doctors are filled out and sold. However, when someone is said to be “doing drugs,” this has nothing to do with making or selling medicine. The word has a second, more specific meaning. In that case, drugs are substances taken to affect the mind.
There are many kinds of drugs, and they can be ingested in different ways. Some drugs are inhaled while smoking, and others are directly injected into the bloodstream. Other ways are chewing leaves containing a drug and sniffing fumes of volatile substances. Whatever means are used, the purpose is always to alter the mental state of the consumer. Drugs affect the way people think, feel, and experience the world.
In a long process of thousands of years, people have learned to recognize the natural substances which exercise a direct influence on the mental state of people. In South America, the stimulating qualities of the coca plant were discovered. In China, the dreams caused by the “magic mushrooms” were enjoyed by the sages. The oriental poppy was brought to Western Europe in the Middle Ages, because its sedative qualities brought the people relief from pain.
During the twentieth century, developments in chemistry have led to the (sometimes accidental) discovery of many more drugs which alter the mental state. Those who want the extraordinary experiences drugs provide, can now choose from an astonishing variety of means to change the way they feel and perceive the world. These drugs provide different kinds of sensations, ranging from very relaxing to very intense. In several countries, they are relatively easy to obtain. However, drugs are not merely exotic substances produced and used in foreign countries, they can be produced in our own country and sold in our own cities. They can easily be avoided but they can just as easily be obtained.
It would be too easy to simply state that using drugs is always wrong. Many of the substances now outlawed as drugs, were once used for medical purposes. As mentioned before, opium was used as a pain killer during the Middle Ages. Particularly in the case of painful cancers, the pain could only be alleviated by pills containing an opiate. Cocaine was used as a local anaesthetic in the nineteenth century. It made it possible to perform eye operations. Amphetamine was originally made synthetically to treat asthma. And cannabis has helped patients suffering from nausea and vomiting, and it can be used to reduce damaging pressure in the eyeball.
Today, these drugs are seldom used for medical purposes, if at all. Better medicines are available, which are more helpful to alleviate pain and to treat diseases. The issue is not the medical use of these drugs, but their recreational use. Can these drugs be taken for enjoyment? Is that a proper application of these created substances?
Some approach this question from the perspective of benefits and risks. Most people want to get more out of life than the monotonous everyday events. They want some excitement. They think that drugs are a good way of providing themselves with enjoyable and extraordinary experiences. At the same time, the possible dangerous side effects of drugs must be considered. That requires them to make an informed decision whether it is worth it to use certain drugs. They have to ask themselves the question whether the benefits of this experience outweigh the risks involved.
Some negative results are that drugs sometimes cause someone to have a bad trip, and people who use them regularly may experience health problems in the future. 2 Many, in particular many young people, will accept the risks. They have a whole life ahead of them, and they want to enjoy life to the max. The danger of future problems cannot compete with the craving for enjoyment today. But parents will point out the negative effects of drug use. They attempt to convince their children that it is better to leave drugs alone.
There are valuable aspects to this approach of considering the pros and cons, but it appears impossible to convince other people. It leads to individual solutions. Everyone will make his own judgment concerning what is acceptable and what is dangerous. Some people will not be deterred by any risk. Their experience is much more important than any danger which may be the result of it. The basic reason why this approach fails to convince is the fact that no appeal is made to God and his will. Everything is decided on the basis of human insight concerning benefit and danger. People will make their own decisions, under the influence of their reason and of cravings which are hard to control. Our own view on right and wrong cannot be a good guide for we will bend it according to our liking.
We should listen to the will of God who has created all things, and who has revealed his will to us. He is the God of the universe and we have to obey Him. He has even sent his Son into the world to save us from our sins. The problem is how can we know God’s will concerning drugs, since the Word of God does not speak about drugs in any direct sense. We do not know whether opiates and products of cannabis were known in Israel, and we do not read about them in the Bible. Where do we find our basis for addressing the issue of drugs? Some Reformed studies have argued that using drugs is a form of slavery which Scripture condemns. It speaks of the slavery which makes people slaves of sin (Romans 6:6), slaves of impurity and wickedness (Romans 6:19). They are enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures (Titus 3:3). They are slaves of gods who by nature are no gods (Galatians 4:8), in slavery under the basic principles of the world (Galatians 4:3). Only Jesus Christ saves from the curse of this slavery. Set free by him, we may take off the chains of slavery to serve Christ in newness of life (Romans 6:19, 1 Thessalonians 3:13). 3 On closer inspection, these texts are not helpful in evaluating drugs. For example, the texts from the epistle to the Romans do state that we should no longer be slaves to sin (Romans 6:6) and that our bodies should be in slavery to righteousness (Romans 6:19). However, these texts do not indicate why using drugs should be seen as slavery to sin. In the epistle to the Galatians, Paul says that when they were Gentiles, they were slaves to gods who are not gods (Galatians 4:8). Now, they are in danger of becoming slaves of a system of observing days, months, seasons and years (Galatians 4:9). There is no indication that these warnings have anything to do with drugs.
We need to consider the biblical basis from which to approach the issue of drugs.
The Bible and Drugs
The Bible does not deal with drugs, or with drug addiction as such. That does not mean that we cannot know the will of God on drugs. God gave us clear directions on how to live. These should also be applied to drugs.
An important statement for this topic can be found in Romans 12:1, where the apostle Paul addresses the question what we should do with ourselves:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual worship.
This is a general statement on Christian life, emphasizing that our whole life should be dedicated to God. Our bodies are called sacrifices. That does not mean, obviously, that we must kill our bodies just like the animals were killed in the temple, for he speaks of living sacrifices. Paul wants us to know that we should totally dedicate our bodies to God. In other places, such as 1 Corinthians 6:13 and 15, he works this out in specific situations. Here, in Romans 12, he gives the general rule: We should devote our bodies to the service of God, to do the will of God, the good and pleasing and perfect. 4
When we apply this to drugs, the question of drugs must be answered in the context of the service of God. We cannot simply go by our liking or aversion of something, but we have to consider that we should serve God with our bodies. What do drugs bring about in our bodies? We have to confront ourselves with the question whether we are serving God when we do drugs.
Another important text is 1 Timothy 4:4:
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
The statement that everything God has created is good, goes back to Genesis 1. God created the world in stages, and on several occasions He surveyed what He had done and concluded that it was good. At the very end of creating the world, God saw all that He had made, and it was very good (Genesis 1:31). There is nothing wrong with the things God has created. They have their place and task in the whole, and fulfil the function God had in mind when He made them. We can thank God for them.
That applies to drugs, as well. They are created substances, and good. As we saw, the natural drug opium had an important function in suppressing unbearable pain. Synthetically produced drugs, as well, have useful applications. Gasoline can be abused as a drug, but it is normally used for driving cars. All things which God has created are good. They have their place and function in the whole of creation. We can use them in thankfulness to God. Actually, Paul emphasized that we need not stay away from the things which can be used with thanksgiving to God.
The reason is that the things God has created are sanctified by the Word of God and prayer. We can take “sanctified” in the sense of: included in the service of God. The most important question is now, how are all created things sanctified and suitable for the service of God? Paul answered that two things are needed for a holy use of the things God created: the Word of God and prayer. This refers to the two sides of the interaction between God and us: God speaks to us, and we speak to God. God speaks to us in his Word, the Bible. And we speak to God when we pray. To use some part of God’s creation properly, we should listen to God and his will, and use it in prayerful communication with God. In a living relationship of listening to the word from God and responding to God, we can use all things God has created.
God has created drugs, and He has given them certain properties. The question is now, whether they can be used for our enjoyment while listening to God and praying to Him.
Kinds of Drugs
Drugs work in different ways on the human mind. It is possible to divide them into several categories, according to their effect on the mind. We follow here a division of drugs as given by Schuckit, but in a different order.5
The stimulants make people feel powerful and alert. Well-known examples are cocaine and amphetamines. Weight-reducing pills have the same effect.
The depressants make people feel calm and tired. To this group belong Valium and similar drugs, barbiturates and alcohol.
The opiates are drugs that make people feel no pain. Opium and heroin are derived from the opium poppy plant. Also, methadone and most prescription pain killers belong to this group.
The hallucinogens cause intensified sense perceptions. The name is misleading for they do not cause hallucinations. Some examples are LSD, Mescaline, Peyote and Ecstasy.
Solvents and inhalants make people lightheaded, they feel as if they are floating. The volatile substances in glues, paint thinners, and gasoline are inhaled so that the desired effect is quickly achieved.
The cannabinols make people feel mellow. They are derived from the marijuana plant. The different kinds (marijuana, hashish, charas, ganja, bhang) are produced from different parts of the same plant.
In addition, also several prescription drugs, and even over-the-counter drugs could be mentioned. Schuckit includes among these caffeine and nicotine. They have mind changing side effects, but they cannot be brought together in a special category for these drugs have different effects.
This list shows the variety of experiences which can be caused by drugs. But there is a confusing element in this explanation. Several substances included in the list of drugs are openly sold in stores and supermarkets and bought by people who do not have any idea they are buying a drug. That applies particularly to alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. They are freely available. Actually the government, rather than preventing people from buying them, gladly rakes in additional taxes from the sale of these substances.
The question arises why the government allows some drugs to be sold, and outlaws other drugs. If drinks like coffee and wine are, in fact, drugs, why does it allow these to be sold and enjoyed? In fact, this argument is mentioned by people who want to legalize drugs.
In my opinion, there are good reasons for excluding alcoholic drinks, coffee and cigarettes. They cannot simply be equated with what we call drugs. Including them only causes confusion. It would not be good to spend too much time on them, when we want to concentrate on the mind-altering drugs. Therefore, we will limit ourselves and deal briefly with only one of these: caffeine.
Very few people on this continent would be “clean” if caffeine would be included among the drugs. There is a difference of opinion on the question whether it is a drug. J. Douma mentioned coffee, tea and coke as substances which affect the brain but cause little change in consciousness. He included coffee, together with sedatives and wine, among the drugs that need not be rejected.6
Can we include caffeine among the substances created by God which can be sanctified by the Word of God and prayer? Is it possible to use it in the service of God and can we thank God for it? Coffee does not affect the ability to make decisions, nor does it undermine people’s sense of responsibility. It has a moderately stimulating influence. All of this sounds positive.
On the other hand, there are people who emphasize the negative side of drinking coffee. Schuckit even distinguishes two kinds of addiction. He points out that many people develop a psychological dependence on coffee and other caffeinated beverages.
He adds that there is evidence that some people who regularly take caffeine, become physically addicted to it. They develop a syndrome of headache, sweating and a feeling as if they cannot think straight when they try to cut down on their coffee intake. According to Schuckit, this resembles mild withdrawal, pointing to a coffee addiction. “This seems to indicate a form of physical addiction in at least some people.”7
We can agree that withdrawal symptoms such as headache, sweating and disorientation are indicative of abuse of food stuff. Someone who had to skip breakfast, for example, would still be able to function properly. And someone who is ill cannot function properly, but that is not his fault. However, in this case someone has made himself dependent on caffeine to the extent that he cannot function without it. His weakness is not the result of an illness that has come over him; he has brought himself to the point that he has impaired his ability to work. If someone becomes physically sick if he has to go without coffee, there has been abuse of caffeine.
But the question is whether this is a necessary result of drinking coffee. Obviously not, for Schuckit distinguishes another case. He calls that psychological dependence. What, exactly, is this psychological dependency? Is that something evil? Schuckit distinguishes two kinds, 8and we have to look at these separately. The first kind is that someone is willing to pay heavily for the substance, by spending much time or money to get it, or by risking problems at the job or in relationships.
Again, we can agree that something is wrong when a person would neglect his work or get into trouble with the law in order to obtain such a substance. The point is that this would not apply to coffee. No one spends much money on coffee, nor does drinking it interfere with his work or with his life at home. Such problems do occur with drugs such as hash and marijuana, but not with coffee. It is hard to see how this argument could be used to reject coffee.
There is also another kind of psychological dependency, according to Schuckit. This occurs when someone is willing to pay a relatively low price for coffee, or when the substance poses few dangers. But it is unclear why he speaks in this connection about dependency at all. The fact that someone is only willing to pay a relatively low price indicates that he does not crave for it at all cost. In other words, there is no real dependency which urges him to acquire the drug. And if coffee is a harmless substance we need not worry about it further. If coffee is harmless, then psychological dependency on coffee, whatever that may be, is harmless. Schuckit’s argument does not prove that coffee is a harmful drug.
We can conclude that coffee, just as about anything, can be abused. But it does not alter the mind, and so make people unfit for work and life. It is a substance that can be used while working in the service of God.
Is it wrong for people to use drugs? That question cannot be answered in general terms, as is sometimes done. We can only determine that by studying the effects of the different drugs. In the following sections we will present a profile of several groups of drugs. This can only be done rather briefly and concisely, but it should be enough to provide us with the information we need to answer the question whether there is place for these drugs in a Christian’s life.
As was said previously, the two important stimulants are cocaine and the amphetamines. These are different in origin. Cocaine is derived from the leaves of the cocoa plant. South American Indians discovered that these leaves, when they chewed them, provided them with more energy. This helped them to do physical work at high altitudes. The amphetamines were discovered as a stimulating chemical during the twentieth century, and became popular with the hippie movement. As the effect of cocaine and amphetamines is very similar, they are usually taken together.
These drugs cause feelings of euphoria, energy and confidence in the people who use them. They activate the functions of the body, leading to improved coordination and strength. Some athletes used amphetamines for improved performance, but these substances are banned and athletes who are caught using them are disqualified.
But improving physical ability is not the only reason for people to use these stimulating drugs. They are often used at parties because they make people feel good in a group. These drugs make them talkative and adventurous, freeing them of negative feelings, and heightening sexual alertness. It is a preferred party drug, for it effectively removes inhibitions.
This group of drugs is very addictive. The effects are enjoyable, but they do not last long. Some addicts stay awake for several days, injecting amphetamines every few hours. When they stop taking the drug, they crash, feeling very depressed and hungry. Chronic use leads to tolerance and dependance. They crave this drug even when they know that it leads to health and psychological problems. Both physiological, as well as psychological reasons, cause addiction. As a result of biochemical changes in the brain, the addict needs more of the drug. And the psychological craving for another high urges them to repeat the experience.
How do we evaluate the use of these drugs? Several elements should be considered. They give the users a pleasurable high, and often increase their sexual desire. At parties, they result in breaking down inhibitions and causing a craving for sex. Some even sell their bodies for the pleasure provided by these drugs. It causes people to ignore their responsibility to obey one of the commandments which God gave for our own good and the benefit of the others.
In addition, the addictive quality of these drugs causes people to crave for a repetition of the experience. This addiction is an urge that needs to be satisfied before anything else. Young people who do not have enough money to sustain this habit go around selling it to others. Others go into prostitution and crime. Their addiction makes it impossible for them to take their place in this world and do regular work. They make it impossible for themselves to fulfil the task God has given to the people he created in the beginning (Genesis 1:28, see also Colossians 3:17). These drugs determine their lives and cause them to go against God’s laws. 9
These drugs were originally developed for their calming qualities but they have been widely abused. As a result, this group of drugs can be approached from two sides. On the one hand, they are able to give relief to people suffering from anxiety, on the other hand, they have been proven to have dangerous results.
The origin of these drugs was the discovery that barbituric acid could be produced synthetically. This led to the development of barbiturates which could be used as a medicine for calming people down. They give relief to people who feel oppressed by anxiety and they allow them to sleep. Although their addictive qualities were noted at an early stage, this was not generally believed until it was demonstrated by means of experiments in the 1950s. This led to the development of other sleeping pills to replace them. These, in turn, proved to have similar addictive and dangerous effects.
How can medicines made to produce sleepiness be used as drugs? The answer is that these drugs have a different effect in different situations. They produce sleepiness when someone taking these drugs is resting and quiet. But when someone is active and alert, the same drug will cause him to become excited and emotionally unstable. It is this feeling of wellbeing which makes the sedative drugs attractive to their users.
The result of addiction to sedatives is threefold. People who are under the influence of these drugs show the same characteristics as people who are drunk. They act sluggishly and when they speak they slur their words. They are no longer able to judge a situation properly, and they are emotionally unstable. The biblical statements against drunkenness can directly be applied to this situation:
"Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler, whoever is led astray by them is not wise."
Proverbs 20:1, see also 23:20, 21 and 30-35
"Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit."
The Bible warns against the kinds of effects produced by the depressants.
A second result of using sedative drugs is that it often develops into psychological dependance. People who have used it feel they cannot live without its mellow, soothing qualities. This makes it hard, if not impossible, for them to do their regular work in this world for which we have been created. What is more, depressants make it impossible for people to take their place in family life and in the work place.
The third result of being involved with these drugs is the danger of taking a lethal dose. Regular users of the sedatives become tolerant to their effects. They are no longer able to experience the euphoric feelings they enjoyed previously. In an effort to regain this blissful state, they may take an overdose and die as a result.
One author states that the depressants “contain both useful prescribed drugs and the most widely abused substances.” 10
The drugs derived from opium (morphine, heroin, codeine, methadone) also work as painkillers. Many prescription pain killers belong to this group of drugs.
There are several ways to make people insensitive to pain. One is to make the area where the pain “begins” temporarily insensitive. The dentist does that when he freezes a part of the mouth. As a result, a part of the body becomes insensitive. The opiates work differently, for they influence the place where the pain “ends” in the brain. The receptors for pain signals ignore these signals and instead transmit pleasant sensations. One is a sensation of extreme elation, followed by a calming effect and sleep. During this sleep, the drug user has pleasant dreams. It seems that particularly the initial exhilarating rush makes these drugs attractive to the users.11
Opiates do not only cause pleasure, but they have several negative side effects. One is the danger of sudden death. About one percent of heroine users die each year as the result of their habit. Some of these deaths may be the result of an overdose, but there are also other causes. Some die because their lungs have been filled with fluid. This is not the result of the heroine itself, but an allergic reaction to the quinine mixed with the heroine. A third cause of death is the nausea and vomiting resulting from it, which is dangerous for people who are malnourished. Further, an opium overdose may cause suppression of the stimulus to breathe, so that the person simply “forgets” to breathe.
Opium and similar drugs have proven to be very addictive. People who begin with using it once a week will eventually want to take it during the week, until they end up using it every day. People suffering from withdrawal symptoms know that another dose will make them feel better. This leads to the vicious circle of drug abuse. 12
Those withdrawal symptoms are very unpleasant. About four hours after a heroine injection, the user suffers from a feeling of anxiety and he craves the drug. After eight hours, persistent yawning, sweating, teary eyes and runny nose are experienced. After another four hours, the pupils are dilated, the hairs stand on end (“cold turkey”). This is followed by muscle spasms in the feet; later the whole body begins to ache. Between eighteen and twenty-four hours, the blood pressure goes up, body temperature rises, vomiting and diarrhea occurs. The symptoms disappear after about thirty-six hours. 13
The question of how to evaluate this drug should be considered in the light of God’s Word. The first and obvious problem is that people who use this drug willingly endanger themselves. The drug is potentially fatal: one percent of users die each year as the result of it. Using this drug causes a conflict with the sixth commandment.
Using an opiate has very negative side effects, even when it is not fatal. It takes control over people’s lives. The pleasure provided by the high becomes the determining factor for their lives. In other words, the craving for a high becomes the main drive in their actions. Rather than serving God, they are compelled to serve themselves. Connected to this is the fact that this drug prevents people from serving God in their work. They make themselves so sick that they can no longer do regular work.
It is far removed from the lifestyle the apostle Paul urged on us when he told us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, Romans 12:1.