Is it ever OK to secretly give someone drugs?

If a psychoactive drug would help family members cope with death, should it be administered to them without their knowledge?

Published May 2, 2005 7:10PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

When is it OK to help someone without their consent? I'm struggling with this moral issue and am curious as to your thoughts.

My husband, "Steve," and his best friend "Doug" have over the last several years become intrigued with entheogens, psychedelic drugs that enable a person to get in touch with their spiritual sides. I've dabbled a bit here and there so I understand their appeal, but I stop short of the levels to which Steve and Doug explore their inner minds. I'm baffled at the arbitrary nature of our drug laws, which allow a drug that dulls the mind, lowers inhibitions, kills people on the highway and plays a role in domestic violence to be legal, whereas a drug that simply makes you feel incredible love for humanity and gives an ability to see oneself without judgment has to be bought on the street.

Anyway. Doug just found out that his father-in-law is terminally ill and has but a few months to live. Of course this is causing the whole family a lot of grief and anxiety. Doug knows that if his in-laws were to partake of one of these entheogen substances it would give them an unbelievable calm about the situation, help them cope with the inevitable and possibly even learn to face death with confidence and peace. He knows they will never consent to take an illegal drug -- they accept blindly the propaganda about the dangers therein. So he told my husband today that he is contemplating slipping the drug to them without their consent.

Now, I know that Doug is probably right that this experience will change their perspectives and help them so much with the possibility of this man's death. But does that give him the right to do such a thing? By the same token, some yogis will test their students in ways that aren't immediately apparent. (The difference being possibly that the student signed up to learn from the yogi and therefore some kind of consent is implied.) Can you imagine a scenario when helping someone without their consent is morally justified? I'm thinking of pouring hydrogen peroxide on a screaming child's scrape or pulling an unconscious person from a fire, but both of these scenarios involve a "victim" who is unable to give consent. What about kidnapping your heroin addict brother and locking him in a rehab hospital? That would be help without consent. Is that OK?

I wrestle with these dilemmas, comparing Doug to a religious zealot who is trying to push his way of thinking onto the rest of the world. But at least a religious zealot leaves the choice up to the individual in the end, right? At what point can you really think you know what is best for someone else?

I'm not in a position to be able to effect any sort of change in this situation. Doug lives a zillion miles away and he and I aren't very close anyway. But I'm worried if he goes through with this I will lose any respect I possibly have for him, which might strain my marriage a bit, since Doug is Steve's very best friend. I was just hoping you might have a thought or two that will help me put my extreme reaction into perspective.

A Conscientious Samaritan

Dear Samaritan,

My thoughts on this are clear. What your husband's friend proposes is wrong and he should be prevented from doing it.

I would say it is OK to help someone without their knowledge only if the behind-the-scenes help is not in itself potentially harmful, if the person who is helped would likely approve if he were able, and if it does not violate any law or deeply held belief the person might have. So the giving of drugs to an unconscious person to save their life is certainly permissible; that's clear. In the case of pulling an unconscious person from a fire, the person has neither knowledge nor consent but would likely approve of having his life saved. That's clear.

What are other appropriate forms of helping someone without their knowledge or consent? Say someone's child needed an operation and you sent them some cash anonymously. In that case, you're simply making available to them something they can choose or not choose. They can throw the money away. They can choose not to have the operation. The element of choice is crucial. What would not be appropriate, in my view, would be to bribe the doctor to perform the operation regardless of what the parents wanted, or to lie to the parents in order to make them think the operation is both safe and necessary.

There's a difference between helping people without their consent and helping them without their knowledge. I actually think it is worse to "help" someone without their knowledge -- if it does not meet the tests above -- than it is to "help" them against their will. As long as you know what's being done to you, you can actively protest. The ability to protest preserves some measure of human dignity. A drug addict who is forced into rehab can defy the rules in rehab and continue using as soon as he gets out. He at least has some control over his experience; he has choices. Even in prison, one retains one's consciousness and can understand the sequence of events that led to incarceration.

In the case of administering drugs to someone without their knowledge, you're depriving a person not only of control over what goes into their bodies, but of control over consciousness itself. Neither governments nor individuals have this right. It's simply beyond the pale. It is totalitarian in spirit.

So what would be appropriate behind-the-scenes help in this case? I would suggest that your friend consult with hospice workers. Hospice workers know death. It's their specialty. They know what can be done to educate families about death. If family members are willing to meet with hospice workers to learn more, that would be great. But they should not be forced. One of the first things a hospice worker would probably tell your friend is that each family member must come to accept death in his own way, at his or her own pace.

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