Would Anti-Marijuana Activists Also Try to Keep Alcohol Illegal?

After I read the latest of Mitchell S. Rosenthal’s tirades against drug legalization in the Wall Street Journal, I must have fallen asleep and dreamed of a world in which marijuana is legal and alcohol is illegal. Not one of Coleridge’s opium-induced dreams, alas, so I didn’t wake up to write a classic poem. But I did wonder what op-ed the Journal might publish in such a world if people began to agitate for the freedom to drink alcohol. With the help of Matthew LaCorte, I discovered you wouldn’t have to change many words. I imagine it might go something like this: 

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves About Alcohol

By Rose Ethel Mitchell

Booze is always good for a giggle, and that makes it hard to take alcohol seriously. The news and entertainment media couldn’t resist puns on “LAX new rules” when California started the year with legal sales of alcohol for recreational purposes. TV stations across the country featured chuckling coverage of long lines outside the state’s new state-licensed liquor shops.

Legalizing alcohol isn’t just amusing. It’s increasingly popular with legislators and the public. And why not? No matter how drunk drinkers get, they’re nowhere near as useless in society as lazy pot-heads, right?  Drinkers don’t clear all the munchies off the grocery shelves or grow their hair out like hippies. But studies show that, unlike pot, alcohol leads to violence and aggression, especially with friends or partners.

A recent study found that alcohol is more dangerous than such legal drugs as cannabis and Ecstasy. We should not be raising a glass to the coming acceptance of alcohol use and dependency. Alcohol is far from safe, despite the widespread effort to make it seem benign. Drinking damages the heart, increases the incidence of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, and can trigger acute psychotic episodes. Many adults appear to be able to use alcohol with relatively little harm, but the same cannot be said of adolescents, who are about twice as likely as adults to become addicted to drinking. The new California law limits alcohol sales to people 21 or older, but making it available for recreational use normalizes it in society. The drug will be made more easily available to those under 21, and how long until the age limit is dropped to 18? Having some bubbly may enhance social interactions, but at what cost?

Adolescents are vulnerable—and not just to booze. That’s how they are programmed. They make rash and risky choices because their brains aren’t fully developed. The part of the brain that censors dumb or dangerous behavior is last to come on line (generally not before the mid-20s). Meanwhile, the brain’s pleasure-seeking structures are up and running strong by puberty. When you link adolescent pleasure-seeking and risk-taking to liquor’s impairment of perception and judgment, it isn’t surprising that a 2004 study of seriously injured drivers in Maryland found half the teens tested positive for booze.

Drinking impairs judgment—no small matter during the adolescent years—and it can do lasting harm to the brain. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has found that alcohol disrupts the brain’s communication pathways and can change mood and behavior, making it harder to think clearly and move with coordination. Long-term drinking can damage the heart, inflame the liver, increase risk of cancer, and weaken the immune system.

Most disturbing is a recent discovery about alcohol from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health which found alcohol is the third leading cause of disease around the world. The lead author wrote, “Alcohol consumption has been found to cause more than 200 different diseases and injuries.” While New Yorkers are sipping their “Long Island iced tea” or vacationers are singing about tequila, the facts show that their bodies don’t think these drinks are going down smooth.

Many experts are troubled by changing teen attitudes about drinking.   Half of adolescents have already tried illegal alcohol. Teen marijuana use and cigarette smoking have declined, and their abuse of prescription painkillers has fallen off sharply, but teen imbibing  continues to increase.  And a shocking 15% exhibit signs of alcoholism even in their teen years. This binge of facts will only worsen with legal alcohol.

No one can say how liquor legalization will play out. A perception of legal alcohol as safe, combined with sophisticated marketing, may well double or triple drinking. Warning of aggressive promotion, alcohol-policy expert Luke Farmer, who studied potential issues of a legal alcohol market for the New York City Council, pointed out last year: “The only way to sell a lot of alcohol is to create a lot of alcoholics.”

As we learn more about the realities of legalizing recreational booze, I suspect it won’t seem so funny anymore. Remember, potheads used to be good for a laugh too. A spaced-out pothead was a staple of Hollywood comedies in the 1960s and ’70s. Smoking cigarettes was considered cool. The reality of wrecked lives and ruined health eventually changed public perceptions of these addictions. Now liquor is becoming more widely regarded as a harmless amusement. That’s not funny, it’s tragic. Drinkers may enjoy a Scotch on the rocks, but the social effects will be rocky for us all.

It’s always hard to imagine a counterfactual. I wrote once about a world in which education was provided on the free market but shoes were produced and distributed by the government, and how people would have trouble imagining how a free market in shoes would work. In this case, however, we did go through an episode of substance prohibition, followed by legalization. And despite all the real problems created by alcohol use, we decided that a liberal system created fewer social problems than Prohibition. Surely we can imagine the same with regard to marijuana.