Why We Get High, Part 4: Alcohol, The 800 Pound Elephant in the Room

by on August 6, 2010 · 8 comments

in Culture, Health, History

mann bars-south-beach-jim-grant-sm

Beach life through the lens of a bottle. Photo by Jim Grant.

The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, better known as the Prohibition Act, was ratified in 1919 and came into effect on January 16, 1920. The passage of this Act not only prohibited the consumption of any alcoholic or intoxicating beverage but also the possession, sale, or even transportation of it.

ProhibitionThe result? Alcohol was more readily available to the public during prohibition then before or after it. There were over 300 speakeasies in Chicago by 1927, more than twice the number of saloons in Chicago before 1920. The law was flagrantly violated and ignored by the American people. The profits to be made from illegal alcohol contributed significantly to the rise of organized crime, and the networks built upon its distribution and consumption gave these gangs a lasting relationship with otherwise law-biding citizens that persisted long past the booze ban.

Prohibition supporter John D Rockefeller summed up the failure of the “Noble Experiment”, saying,

“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

It’s been nearly 80 years since prohibition was repealed. The 21st amendment to the Constitution, which ended the dry era, largely left implementation and enforcement of laws regulation the booze industry to the States, resulting in a patchwork quilt of laws.

In recent years, the legal status of alcohol has become more uniform, driven by market forces (the liquor lobby) and a movement of civic activists concerned about the societal costs associated with drinking. The result, from a consumer’s point of view, has been a rather bi-polar relationship with drinking.

alcohol prop skyyOn the one hand, we are subjected to massive amounts of marketing telling us in a million different ways that our self-image will be enhanced by consuming various brands of alcohol. It’s just like what the tobacco companies did for many years, even after their particular products were proven to be a serious health risk.

As the Rolling Stones put it:

When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tell me

How white my shirts can be

But, he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke

The same cigarettes as me… (Jaggar/Richards, 1965)

On the other hand, states and municipalities have enacted a plethora of laws designed to criminalize alcohol consumption. It’s become a major source of revenue for the criminal justice system. Have two drinks with dinner and you’re flirting with a DUI conviction should you drive. Open a beer on the beach and you have a good chance of some unpleasant personal experiences with the gendarmes. However, you’re welcome to have a drink in any of the dozens of bars in the business districts adjoining those beaches.

prohibition cartoonWhile prohibition failed as a government sponsored social experiment, there is widespread evidence that the human species has failed to learn to cope with its genetic and market driven urges that can lead to the overuse and abuse of alcohol. With our most fundamental needs (nutrition, shelter, procreation, etc.) largely met through the social and technological advances (also known as civilization) of the past 50,000 years, our brains/consciousness have not had time to make the evolutionary adjustments to the challenges that our “brave new world” presents us with.

Therefore, our other drives, like the ones that lead us to experiment and to need social acceptance, have been given an unrestricted opportunity to express themselves. Put another way, genetically speaking we’re still hunter-gatherers as far as the way our bodies and minds operate while our environment has changed to offer a whole set of challenges. Nowhere is this more evident than the rash of health issues we now face based on the modern day diet.

Alcohol_vs_marijuanaIt’s pretty clear that alcohol is the driving force behind much of the acts of violence that we human beings inflict upon each other. The extent that alcohol is a factor in violence is much greater than most people realize: there is a tangible connection between drinking and 60% of all homicides and 50% of all sexual assaults. According to a 2002 Justice Department report, two-thirds of victims of domestic violence reported than alcohol played a role. While it’s true that there are numerous other factors involved in violent crimes, at the same time there can be no denying that alcohol is a significant factor.

This general lack of recognition/perception of the negative impacts of drinking is evident at every level of society. Many in the professional sports would were seemingly shocked when former player Chris Carter told ESPN, “The number one problem in the NFL isn’t steroids, it’s alcohol.” And, of course, there haven’t been any Congressional hearings on that subject. The $100 million that beer companies spend annually on NFL sponsorships makes that a taboo subject. The industry is quite generous when it comes to supporting politicians as well, with its PACs coming in the top five in recent election cycles. Perhaps that’s why underage drinking was eliminated from the government’s anti-drug programs during the Bush administration.

Our legal intoxicants like alcohol are something that we as a society would just as soon not talk about. Like every subject or experience that we ignore, there is a certain amount of guilt that associated with it, and THIS is the psychological underpinning for the “not another vice” argument that voters use to reject marijuana legalization initiatives, even when they know intellectually that government sponsored prohibition has failed. Surveys show that nearly half the population believes that near one half the adult population in the United States consider marijuana to be as or more dangerous than alcohol.

In the book Marijuana is Safer, So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (2009, Chelsea Green Publishing), the authors posit two approaches than can be taken to overcome this perception:

The first option is to demonstrate—in a far more powerful and convincing manner than they have so far—that the harms associated with the criminal prohibition of marijuana far outweigh the harms of marijuana itself. The second option… is to persuade the American people that the use of cannabis is not only less harmful than they currently believe, but that making it available to adults would actually reduce the use of a more harmful substance.

hard timesThe difficulties here lie in that much of the actual research into intoxicant use/abuse/long term use is filtered through the lens of biases that favor the status quo. More importantly, we’re STILL avoiding a much needed conversation as a society about, as the Beatles once put it, fixing “a hole where the rain gets in and stops his mind from wandering.”

So, where is all this leading us?

I’ll be going down that road in my next, and (probably) final essay, “The Future Stoner”, to be published after the weekend.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar oBak August 6, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I’d like to say that this image is a bit misleading. There have been quite a few cases (at least at SDSU) where dudes get some girl high, and she no longer has the energy to stop them from taking advantage of her. So yes, marijuana does contribute to sexual assaults.

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avatar JEC August 9, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Years ago I was participated in an experiment conducted by the Calif. Highway Patrol studying intoxication and driving reaction time. Alcohol distorts perception causing drivers to believe they are driving slower; smoking pot does the opposite. Watch out if you drive under the speed limit – police are taught to suspect you of smoking pot. Result, most intoxication accidents involve alcohol. Pot smokers get rearended.

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avatar doug porter August 6, 2010 at 2:07 pm

the page at RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network), the nation’s leading anti-sexual assault organization on Drug Facilitated Assault says:
Alcohol remains the most commonly used chemical in crimes of sexual assault, but there are also substances being used by perpetrators including: Rohypnol, GHB, GBL, etc. , They then list all the drugs commonly used in instances of sexual assault. Marijuana doesn’t even make the list.
I have no doubt that pot gets used in combination with other drugs in some sexual assaults. But there is nothing in the way of statistical evidence to link pot use with violent behavior, unless you want to go back to the stuff from the v1930’s that claimed it made white women horny for black men.

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avatar Sunshine August 6, 2010 at 2:28 pm

As a retired Drug/Alcohol Counselor, I have seen first hand what Alcoholism does to an individual trapped in its grip. 9 out of 10 drinkers can do so normally, you know, socially. It’s the 1 out of 10 that is bodily and mentally different from his fellows. This one cannot, after a time, differentiate the true from the false when it comes to alcohol. While fully capable in most other situations, this one, after taking that first drink experiences what was coined by Dr. Silkworth as a Phenomenon of Craving. In the alcoholic, the first drink (not the 15th) sets off the well known spree that ends with feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse. The first drink makes the alcoholic crave another, and another, and another, and just one more for the road and on it goes to the bitter end.

The true alcoholic does not suffer from lack of morals or intelligence. It is not about their lack of willpower or being weak minded. Most of them I’ve met and worked with over the years were quite gifted in many respects ~ except when it came to alcohol. Science has shown how, in the alcoholic, that the chemical process of breaking down alcohol in the body is not the same as in those “normies” who drink socially. The body of an alcoholic simply does not process the alcohol effectively and that sets off the primary problem for the alcoholic ~ the one in his/her mind ~ that they can drink this time and it will be different. The first drink sets off the Phenomenon of Craving and the alcoholic is rendered powerless once again to control how much they consume. In no uncertain terms, when an alcoholic continues to drink, the results are one of these: insanity or death. Period. Insanity or Death. whoa. But once the alcoholic has a few drinks even these startling facts fad away and the rampage begins once again. Unless the alcoholic can find a solution their future doesn’t look very promising.

Any of this feel personally familiar? Know someone who ruffly fits this description? Don’t despair, there are solutions. One program that has consistently worked since 1935 is Alcoholic Anonymous. Simply contact your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous and speak to someone about your concerns either for yourself or a loved one. They will listen and offer suggestions as to what you can do. And as the name of the program suggests, you can remain anonymous ~ even on the phone.

Feel free to contact me personally through the OBRag and I will be glad to correspond with you via private e-mail in greater detail about any concerns you may have for yourself or for a loved one who you feel may have a problem with alcohol.

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avatar Dave Sparling August 7, 2010 at 8:45 am

Make anything illegal and humans will pay more money to get it. I remember when I first moved back to Maryland, I was working and a fellow worker told me he knew a bar where we could buy COORS BEER for only 5 bucks a bottle. Being from Phoenix I said no way it is $1.50 a six pack. Of course at the time it was illegal to sell Coors in Maryland and D.C., people were smuggling it in and it was all of a sudden the most popular beer in the area. Some humans are going to use drugs and alcohol in moderation, some to excess, banning them only increases the profit of those selling them.

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avatar Hubcap August 7, 2010 at 9:29 am

The alcohol industry is itself one of the primary forces behind keeping marijuana illegal. I recall reading somewhere (of course that makes it true!) that the largest contributor to the ONDCP is Anheuser Busch.

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avatar Goatskull August 7, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I’m heading to PizzaPort for a nice cold OB Chronic.

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avatar Diane August 8, 2010 at 1:47 am

Much of the violence I experienced as a child, from gun violence to physical, and sexual abuse, had an alcohol influenced component. Imagine if my Dad had sat in his car smoking a joint, instead of holding a gun and bourbon bottle. When thoughts of suicide cross his mind, I wonder,would he still think, ” this is an event to be shared with my young daughter? ”

Way to bring it home Doug.

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