All Commentary
Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Benjamin Rush and “Medical Marijuana”

How Lies Become Truths

Last November the U.S. Supreme Court considered the appeal in Ashcroft v. Raich, regarding approval for so-called medical marijuana, that is, for marijuana by prescription. Hearing the case, Justice Stephen Breyer stated: “Medicine by regulation is better than medicine by referendum.”

This is a Hobson’s choice: in either case, the individual is denied free access to the drug of his choice. Regrettably, some libertarians view the quest for medical marijuana as a cause deserving their support. In a vain effort to bolster their case, they mistakenly appeal to the authority of Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), the “father” of American psychiatry and a champion of the therapeutic state.

The following bogus statement, attributed to Rush, is quoted and requoted from one author and website to another: “Unless we put medical freedoms into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship. . . . All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a republic. . . . The Constitution of this republic should make special privilege for medical freedom as well as religious freedom.” Rush never said any such thing, and anyone familiar with the history of psychiatry ought to recognize that the quotation is an obvious fabrication.

Rush crusaded for the medicalization of personal and social problems and their coercive control by means of “therapeutic” sanctions. He invented numerous diseases, among them the malady he named “derangement in the principle of faith or the believing faculty.” He described it as follows: “[P]ersons who deny their belief in the utility of medicine, as practiced by regular bred [trained] physicians, believing implicitly in quacks; [and] persons who refuse to admit human testimony in favor of the truths of the Christian religion.”

Like the advocates of medical marijuana today, Rush regarded his policies as humane and “mild.” In fact, they were brutal: “Lying, as a vice, is said to be incurable. The same thing may be said of it as a disease. . . . Its only remedy is, bodily pain, inflicted by the rod, or confinement, or abstinence from food.” For good measure, he added: “Terror acts powerfully upon the body, through the medium of the mind, and should be employed in the cure of madness.” Rush went so far as to invent a new “therapeutic” device—actually, an instrument of terror and torture—which he presciently called the “tranquilizing chair.”

Not only did Rush oppose the kind of “medical freedoms” the bogus quote attributes to him, he also diagnosed “the excess of the passion for liberty” as a form of mental illness. Lamenting this passion, “inflamed by the successful issue of the [Revolutionary] war,” he explained: “The extensive influence which these opinions had upon the understandings, passions, and morals of many of the citizens of the United States, constituted a form of insanity, which I shall take the liberty of distinguishing by the name of anarchia.” Disappointed with his political efforts, he declared: “Were we to live our lives over again and engage in the same benevolent enterprise, our means should not be reasoning but bleeding, purging, low diet, and the tranquilizing chair.”

The temptation to believe what we want to believe rather than what is true is very powerful. This explains why many bogus quotes and false tales become virtually indestructible. Mark Twain wisely observed: “[The] maxim that ‘Truth is mighty and will prevail’ [is] the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved. For the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sewn thick with evidences that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal. . . . How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!”

Examples abound. One of the most successful fabrications is H. L. Mencken’s hilarious hoax about the history of the introduction of the bathtub into the United States. Written during the war-time Prohibition of 1917, the piece ostensibly memorialized the 75th anniversary of this fictitious event. Decades later, Mencken wrote: “The success of this idle hoax . . . vastly astonished me. . . . It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity. . . . ” But it went on prospering and in fact is still prospering.

The bogus Rush quotation—without a scintilla of evidence to support it, and with a plethora of evidence against it—has become a “fact.” A Google search of the World Wide Web reveals dozens of entries for it. But not a single author supplies a verifiable source for it.

Witches Were Really Mentally Ill?

It is important to remember that this is not the first time “humanitarian” hagiographers of psychiatry have repainted ugliness as beauty. Famed psychoanalyst and historian of psychiatry Gregory Zilboorg recast Johannes Weyer (1515–88) from medieval demonologist into a protopsychiatrist who allegedly “recognized” that witches were “mentally ill”: “[Weyer] leaves no doubt but that one conclusion is warranted: the witches are mentally sick people.” With similar disregard for the truth, psychiatrists have created the legend of Philip Pinel (1745–1826) as a “reformer” who “struck the chains off the insane.” In fact, what Pinel did was to medicalize the justification for incarcerating innocent persons in insane asylums.

Regarding the marijuana debate, Gilbert K. Chesterton, the celebrated Christian humanist-humorist- philosopher, said all there is to say on the subject: “The free man owns himself. He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog.”

Sadly, the individuals and organizations that make use of the bogus Rush quote have no interest in separating medicine and the state. If they had such an interest, they could use a genuine quote to support their cause. Mocking the would-be statist meddlers into our diets and drugs, Thomas Jefferson reminded Americans that “in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, the potato as an article of food. . . . Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now.”

  • Dr. Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) was a Psychiatrist, academic, and champion of individual rights. He devoted much of his life to campaigning against many aspects of conventional psychiatry, in particular involuntary psychiatric treatment and commitment.