Abstinence first?

July 28, 2008

NGO criticisms on the idea that abstinence is the absolute priority

Some people think that the idea of total abstinence is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But this is not true. Of course abstaining from worldy pleasures like sex and drugs had an intrinsic value according to many religious traditions from the beginnings of the civilization, but the idea that total abstinence should be prescribed for mainstream society as the only ethically acceptable way is a modern idea. As Harry G. Levine points out in his article, the concept of “addiction” itself was discovered in the end of the 18th century, followed by the concept of total prohibition. Most church fathers, like most Greek philosophers, promoted the virtue of temperance (understood as moderation) instead of abstentism, and attacked Gnostic and Manichean groups who rejected even the moderate use of wine. In those times people who were in favour of total abstinence were considered heretics and “fools” (John Chrysostom) – in our times people who promote the idea of moderation with regard to drugs and drug policies are labeled as the “pro-drug lobby”. 


Watch our video on abstinence-absolutism!




Mr. Antonio Maria Costa, the head of UNODC is also one of the zealots of the abstinence-only approach. In his speech at the global NGO forum in Vienna he emphasized the absolute primacy of abstinence. “Governments, international institutions and you all should not shy away from proclaiming the importance of avoiding drugs. A for abstinence,” he said. We filmed the speech and asked some of the NGO participants to comment. We can learn from the video that instead of forced abstinence the majority of problematic drug users need basic help first to normalize their living conditions, they need protection from infections, death and crime. Abstinence as a goal is only useful if it helps to improve the health and well-being of people who use drugs – but it should never precede the health and well-being of those people.

Posted by Peter Sarosi