The week after the election, a few of my students said that they were planning vacations in Colorado or in Washington state. They were kidding. I think.
On Nov. 6, voters in both states approved referenda that permit the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana, subject to the same sorts of regulations that apply to the use of alcohol.
Relaxed marijuana laws are at odds with federal laws, and the Drug Enforcement Administration acted quickly to remind the defiant voters that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance, and that the DEA's enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act will continue. Some experts suggest that it will take the Supreme Court to resolve this classic clash between the rights of the states and the authority of the federal government.
These events provide the occasion to consider the place and uses of "stupefaction" in our culture. I use the quaint term in homage to the iconic Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, the author of really big books, including the really, really big War and Peace. After a dissolute youth and a long, productive life Tolstoy adopted a radical version of Christianity and a drastic asceticism that resulted in 1890 in a short essay titled, "Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?"
Tolstoy laments the extravagant use of drugs in late 19-century Russia, including vodka, wine, beer, hashish, opium, morphine and even tobacco. In fact, he speculates that the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant wouldn't have been written in such a "bad style" if Kant hadn't smoked so many cigarettes.
Tolstoy's definition of a stupefacient was anything that dulled the mind enough to make it lose sight of its conscience. It doesn't take much: Tolstoy implies that the fictional murderer of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, was pushed over the edge by as little as a glass of beer and a cigarette. Tolstoy's answer was total abstinence.
Tolstoy was a genius, but his views sound unrealistic in a culture like ours, with its enormous capacity for and attraction to stupefaction. To us, stupefaction, in all its various forms and degrees, is a synonym for pleasure, and while it can certainly separate us from our consciences, we use it also, for good or ill, to separate ourselves from the stresses and tedium of life.
Tolstoy would probably have been more honest than we are: he might have thought a few cigarettes and a glass of beer preferable to the stupefaction of the modern pot-bellied, middle-aged American man who watches three football games on Saturday, two on Sunday, one on Monday, and one on Thursday, and maybe Friday, as well.
In fact, Tolstoy would have recognized that we stupefy ourselves in all sorts of ways -- booze and illegal drugs, of course, but also with plenty of legal drugs, food, TV, getting and spending, and enormous amounts of electronic entertainment, diversion and distraction, more than enough to keep our consciences at bay, as well as the realities of the bad things that are happening in the world. Stupefaction is at the heart of American life, and it might be healthier to admit that, in moderation, it's fun.
But Tolstoy's idealism probably would have been most offended by the irony and hypocrisy in our attitude toward marijuana, which accepts and even admires its admitted use by celebrities (Bill Maher, Willie Nelson, Cheech and Chong) and presidents (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama), while running up the world's highest incarceration rate by the disproportionate prosecution of minorities.
So, congratulations to the voters of Washington and Colorado for their realism and honesty. May other states follow suit. May the voters not befuddle their consciences and visions with excessive stupefaction. And may the Obama administration defer to the will of the voters and wind down the futile war on drugs.
Most of us will never live up to Tolstoy's rigid idealism, but we can reach in the direction of his integrity.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)