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Why is alcohol more socially acceptable than drugs?

Posted March 13th, 2012 in Canada and tagged , , , , , by Adrian MacNair

About a month ago I got into an argument on Twitter with a woman whom has been a sponsor of mine for a couple of years. I didn’t really mean to get into an argument with her, but I enjoy friendly debate so much that I sort of let myself be sucked into the quick retorts, which is an easy trapping of the Twitter medium.

The argument quickly devolved into ridiculous accusations by the woman, followed by her withdrawal of support. This was regrettable, not because I lost support, but because I didn’t mean to offend her. At the same time I was unable to walk away when it was clear she was becoming emotionally invested in the conversation and was clearly not being a rational actor.

It all began with an innocent tweet about the Liberals discussing the possibility of legalizing marijuana at their annual general meeting. Now, as far as I remember, the context of the tweet was nothing more than an automatic message created when I pressed a button on a media website. I do this roughly 30 times every day when I come across interesting pieces of news and information, a routine I enjoy because I get to share ideas and stories with Twitter followers.

I think when I first received the tweet from her, I was taken aback because I didn’t really even remember the context of her remark. For whatever reason, she had interpreted my tweet as some kind of implicit support for the Liberals and marijuana, whereas none was stated or even implied. As I tried to explain myself, I found myself confessing that although I’m not endorsing the Liberals or their policy, I don’t really have a problem with legalizing marijuana. More on this later.

Once I had confessed my support for legalizing marijuana, things quickly got silly. She accused me of supporting a crime that is akin to raping and murdering people, and in response I told her she was being ridiculous. Which she was. I mean, whatever side of the marijuana debate you sit on, the fact remains that somebody ingesting a substance into their body in the privacy of their own home is a personal choice that impinges upon the freedom of noone else and harms noone else other than those who may care for the health and welfare of that person.

Feeling as though I was unable to get through to this woman, I tried to create some form of understanding that would bridge our worlds. So, recalling that we’d had a drink together, I suggested that alcohol is like marijuana, in that it’s a psychoactive substance that inhibits cognitive function and temporarily affects the biochemistry of the brain, resulting in various choices, thoughts and actions that might not ordinarily occur while not under the influence. The key difference, I explained, is that it’s convenient for her that alcohol isn’t a social pariah.

Alcohol is disturbingly socially acceptable considering it is indeed a narcotic that results in far greater social disturbance, pain, suffering, disease and death than marijuana and all of its hunger-inducing bad movie-watching propensities. I mean, if we were to designate the legality of narcotics based solely on their relative dangers to human health, alcohol would be far and away the most illegal, most hazardous substance one could obtain. The statistics alone bear out this unassailable fact. If recent memory serves, it wasn’t a marijuana-fuelled crowd of frenzied Canucks fans who trashed downtown Vancouver last summer.

Frankly, I don’t really care if people think alcohol is perfectly harmless and marijuana is the devil’s weed, but I do find it bizarre that one is socially acceptable and the other is character maligning. For instance, if I went on Twitter right now and said I was going to go and drink until I blacked out, I would like receive validation for my choice, an assumption I was exaggerating, and a few “been there, done that” replies. If, however, I announced I was going to smoke weed until I was baked, eat a bag of chips, and then pass out comfortably in my bed, I’d come off as a drug addict and an irresponsible human being.

One could argue that marijuana has broken through some of these social stigmatas, especially on the west coast, rendering such a comparison to lesser relevance. But even if we change the comparison from alcohol to cocaine, I still think the importance should be the placed in the responsibility of the user of the narcotic and not the narcotic itself. Allow me to further explain.

If we can agree that almost everything that can be ingested is inherently harmful to a person, including things you can buy in a grocery store like Nyquil and Advil, then what we’re left with is personal responsility and all that comes with accepting the consequences of that responsibility. Curiously, at this very moment there’s a lawsuit from smokers against Big Tobacco, suing the very companies who provided them with the freedom of choice to take something they knew was damaging to their health, despite it being legal.

Eating too much salt or sugar can be a health hazard. Consuming red meat or foods high in saturated and trans fats can be considered a health hazard. There are innumerable foods and drinks one can absorb that, given the body’s chemistry and fitness, can be fatal. Indeed, before science and technology and supermarkets, eating the wrong plant or mushroom would kill you, and serve as a warning to your tribe or people that it wasn’t good for you. So, it seems to me that anything an adult person consumes is based on requiring the proper education and moderation to handle it.

In that vein, a person can irresponsibly consume copious amounts of salt legally, resulting in very poor health and high blood pressure, while a responsible person can consume moderate amounts of cocaine illegally, and retain a relatively strong state of mental and physical health. Keep in mind this isn’t really even opinion, this is just a logical reasoning of how the human body absorbs chemicals and nutrients.

In my opinion, the person who is able to be a functional member of society whilst ingesting or imbibing an illegal substance is a more socially responsible individual than the person who is less able to function in our society because of the assorted health issues associated with the abuse of a legal substance. What it comes down to, I suppose, is a belief that people should be endowed with the rights and responsibilities of what goes into their own bodies, and what they do with their own bodies, whether we’re talking about drugs, suicide, abortion, or nutrition.

The only conclusion that I can come to as to why people would treat responsible users of illegal substances with disdain and scorn is that some people are inherently afraid of freedom of choice. They want to be told what is good and bad without putting that to a test of logic or reason. It’s easier to get angry at me for choosing the rational argument than it is to question the authority that is based on irrational and arbitrary control of substances. The irony here, which continues to evade our lawmakers and politicians, is that the forbidden fruit tends to generate even more interest than one that is freely available for the plucking.

It doesn’t take much effort to look around at countries and jurisdictions which have taken a non-punitive approach to drugs to see that decriminalization or even legalization does nothing to proliferate them. On the contrary, Portugal showed greater reduced rates of drug abuse and the associated violence and crime under decriminalization than its European neighbours which maintain a U.S. style vendetta against free will and choice.

I recall watching an interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper a couple of years ago in which he opined that drugs are controlled by dangerous and violent criminals, before proceeding to explain that’s why they have to remain illegal. The illogic of concluding that something that isn’t regulated or controlled would somehow be safer for the population when left in the hands of criminals did not escape me. One needs to look no further than alcohol’s prohibition as an example of what happened when the government absolved itself of responsibility, and banned the substance thoughtlessly and carelessly. Criminals moved in and created a black market for the product.

I don’t write this as an advocate for drugs or alcohol, and although I’ve consumed both in my life, I don’t presently do so. But to me it comes down to an issue of choice and the likelihood that a person can responsibly use a substance. There are a great deal of prescription drugs, like OxyContin, which are considered too dangerous and addictive to outright legalize. The question then becomes one of assessing the social harm to pushing something into the underground economy where criminals have no moral responsibility to care for a drug user in the same way that a drug company does.

The answer to that question is probably something similar to the legality of alcohol. Drinking responsibly, not driving, and offering a socially acceptable and welcoming means of escaping alcohol abuse, are all way of curtailing a problem which, for reasons of legality, we do not apply to drugs. It seems to me that the solution to many of the drug problems that exist is to take greater control of illegal substances, decriminalize drug use, and offer a more holistic approach to drug abuse that encourages people to seek out help before they become the sort of violent offenders and drain on our medical system.

14 Responses so far.

  1. JoeNo Gravatar says:

    One thing you didn’t mention in your article is the health benefits of mild alcohol consumption. A daily glass of wine is shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and aid digestion. There are almost no such benefits in the consumption of other drugs by otherwise healthy people. Yes some people with diseases are helped by marijuana but they are previously ill. Unlike the consumption of beer and wine the consumption of marijuana by healthy people will hasten illness not postpone it.

  2. I can dig it. Studies have shown moderate amounts of wine or some kinds of beer can be good for you. The primary benefits of marijuana are in pain relief or appetite inducement. It’s also pretty good as a sleeping aid. I used to use it to get to bed early so I could get a full 8 hours sleep.

  3. SUZANNENo Gravatar says:

    Consuming alcohol is acceptable but weed is not because you can consume alcohol without turning stupid, whereas the *whole point* of doing pot is to diminish your ability to reason and lose inhibitions. This is also why public drunkenness is illegal in some places, because if you’re drunk, you’re liable to do something stupid and possibly criminal.

    Reason and free will are the basis of freedom. If you do not have reason and do not have free will, then you cannot be free. You are enslaved. China had legal opium in the late 19th century. That did that country a whole lot of good *sarcasm*.

    Drugs make you stupid. That’s why they’re illegal.

  4. the *whole point* of doing pot is to diminish your ability to reason and lose inhibitions.

    That’s pretty debatable. Marijuana can be smoked in responsible, “token” amounts that merely relax a person. Very experienced marijuana users are rarely affected in any way because they’ve built up an immunity to the substance so that a joint is like drinking a glass of wine.

    So, in actuality both substances can be taken “without turning stupid” and both substances can result in stupidity. Alcohol, however, has a greater propensity for abuse, mainly because it can be abused more once the threshold is exceeded in blood alcohol level. It’s difficult to overdose on marijuana.

    It’s also debatable drugs make you stupid. If that were the case you’d probably say I’m stupid, which I’m clearly not.

  5. BecNo Gravatar says:

    When they can test this in the same way as ‘blood alcohol level’ I may get on board but until then, no.
    My other issue with marijuana legalization is that ‘they’ have all but made smokers, pariahs and remind these people regularly the cancer risks, the damage to lungs, the cost to medicare etc.
    So from a logical pov from my standpoint, why legalize another toxic lung product?
    It’s a bit of a contradiction, isn’t it?

  6. byranNo Gravatar says:

    Marijuana:
    - is a gateway drug. It’s a sliding slope for some to harder drugs.
    - causes cancer
    - leads to a life of underachievement, unproductivity and physical numbness.
    All of the above impact me because my taxes will have to go to pay for their healthcare and the necessity to make up for their lack of economic productivity in order to keep our standard of living up. Hardly a private activity that impacts only the user.

    Just because alcohol is permitted, doesn’t mean we should allow all drugs of similar potency. How will that better society exept make us all walking drug addicts?

  7. CytotoxicNo Gravatar says:

    Reason and free will are the basis of freedom.

    So to enforce our freedom…you’ll ban drugs.

    Slavery is freedom. War is peace., etc

  8. Bec,

    They already have testing for marijuana, especially in sports competition. It’s either present in the blood stream (intoxication) or it’s been converted into metabolites. That’s how sports competitions are able to determine whether an athlete is under the influence or has metabolized THC in the last 20 days.

    As for the cancer risks, marijuana isn’t a carcinogenic, nor does it have the attendant chemical additives of a cigarette. In that sense they’re not toxic. Having said that, there might be negative effects to the lungs from chronic marijuana use. But even that isn’t conclusive.

    One of the top MMA fighters in the world, Nick Diaz, is a prominent advocate of marijuana and has a medicinal card from the State of California. He’s also an elite athlete who partakes in triathlons, something that wouldn’t ordinarily be possible for a smoker. So the impact of marijuana smoking to lung capacity is unknown, and thing that’s largely because it’s been shunned from mainstream society and has more anecdotal than rigorous evidence.

    I’d also have to add that no doctors could, in good conscience and according to their Hippocratic oath, prescribe a toxic substance. Currently, most health jurisdictions in North America enable the medical prescription of Cannabis.

  9. Bryan,

    Anything can be considered a gateway to another experience. Marijuana never led me beyond to cocaine and heroin, but it’s true that some people go searching for a better “high”. The same can be said of any visceral and carnal experience.

    To repeat what I said to Bec, it’s definitely not carcinogenic, so you might want to take note of that fact.

    Nor does it necessarily lead to a life of underachievement or physical numbness, as I explained about the athlete Nick Diaz below. Furthermore a great number of prominent celebrities and personalities smoke pot recreationally. And to be perfectly honest, I’ve witnessed several successful, entrepreneurial, enterprising people smoke a doob at a party. They’re doing just fine.

    Does that mean everybody’s fine with pot? No. Neither is everybody fine with eating a McDonald’s Big Mac now and then. Everybody has a different body chemistry, metabolic reactions, and pre-existing health and genetic conditions that lead them to bad choices.

    But to answer your final question, society is already filled with drug addicts. If you read my whole piece you already know that legalizing drugs doesn’t make everybody drug addicts, as evidenced by jurisdictions where drugs have been either decriminalized or legalized, leading to lower incident rates of crime, addiction and other social negatives that exist under a system of prohibition.

  10. Marijuana is the safest drug with actual benefits for the user as opposed to alcohol which is dangerous, causes addiction, birth defects, and affects literally every organ in the body. Groups are organizing all over the country to speak their minds on reforming pot laws. I drew up a very cool poster featuring Uncle Willie Nelson and The Teapot Party for the cause which you can check out on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/01/vote-teapot-2011.html Drop in and let me know what you think!

  11. SUZANNENo Gravatar says:

    So to enforce our freedom…you’ll ban drugs.

    Freedom moral boundaries. If you don’t have them, then you can’t have authentic freedom. Having the use of one’s reason is a necessary prerequisite for freedom.

    But to answer your final question, society is already filled with drug addicts. If you read my whole piece you already know that legalizing drugs doesn’t make everybody drug addicts,

    When you legalize drugs, it creates a demand for drugs and increases the number of drug users. Many European jurisdictions go back on decrim/legalization precisely of all the ill effects that drug abuse brings.

    Drugs are trouble. Just like drunkenness. I don’t give a damn what the studies say, when it is decriminalized/legalized it’ll be everywhere and there will be more potheads in our world. No thanks.

  12. Freedom moral boundaries. If you don’t have them, then you can’t have authentic freedom. Having the use of one’s reason is a necessary prerequisite for freedom.

    The question is, who determines “moral boundaries”? You? In my opinion marijuana is 100 times less dangerous than marijuana, and really doesn’t present a moral issue or dilemma. This is an issue of personal freedom and personal choice. It’s like me telling you that you can’t take communion because wine and crackers are bad for you.

    What you’re doing is taking your own personal biases and prejudices against pot and using it as some pretext to help people, when in reality you just don’t want “more potheads in our world.” You’re hiding behind some argument about safety and freedom and choice, and putting all that power into arbitrary hands, eliminating the individual right to decide.

    It is, however, consistent with your political views on abortion.

    When you legalize drugs, it creates a demand for drugs and increases the number of drug users.

    There’s zero statistical evidence to prove this assertion. Legalization doesn’t increase a demand for something. What has been proven, however, is that illegality doesn’t stop the trade of something, it merely drives it underground where’s it’s unsafe to users and they’re forced to buy from criminals.

    For instance, marijuana is relatively harmless, but millions of people are forced to buy it from a drug dealer who profits from the proceeds of crime. They’d rather go to a botanist or a herbalist or a pharmacist but they don’t have that choice. The ill effects of drug abuse are all – and I mean that in totality – caused by illegalization.

  13. Northern Ontario ToryNo Gravatar says:

    An intriguing debate, but one that is hard to sustain without various parties becoming emotionally involved, no matter which side they are on.

    FWIW, I believe most of these arguments an be shortened to one constant: “Everything is bad for you; the only question is what will kill you first.” That is not meant to be cynical, but rather a realistic approach to life. As a man in his mid-forties, I look back and see how one thing after another has been declared as the worst thing you can ever do; later some of these claims are revised to say that they are only bad in excess……but what isn’t? As has been stated, individuals react differently to various substances. Perhaps it is simply the luck of the draw, or perhaps there are physiological reasons for why responses to substances vary among individuals. We all know now that smoking is bad for you, but people like George Burns (among others) live to the age of 100, while others die in their 30′s. Off the top of my head, I am inundated with calls that red meat, sodium, alcohol, drugs, trans fat, and sugar are “bad” for me. And yet, I read local and regional obituaries in the paper where people (some I have known) have been the epitome of a healthy lifestyle and suddenly die of a heart attack or stroke at a relatively young age.

    Having previously worked in a busy bar / restaurant, I would dispute the suggestion that you can consume alcohol without becoming stupid. I have seen far too many upstanding citizens become absolute, incomprehensible, babbling idiots and/or generally socially unacceptable people with the addition of alcohol. I’m not proud to admit it, but in my younger days I did some incredibly stupid things after having a few too many drinks. I still do like a nice cold beer, but I know my limits (BTW, one limit is absolutely NO driving if you drink). On that same note, I would dispute that any amount of drugs automatically make a person stupid. Again, from various bar experiences (as the bartender), I have seen some people become absolute idiots, while some people unexpectedly became the mellowest individuals on the planet. This should not be seen by me as condoning drugs, for I do not ……I simply recognize the different reactions among individuals observed.

    In the end, why doesn’t personal responsibility play a more important role? After all, nobody made you eat that 13th calorie-laden twinkie, or made you consume that 16th beer / whisky, or stuff an extra cheeseburger with fries into you, or even indulge in another toke / snort / hit of a drug. Whatever the problem is, there is help available these days; all that is needed is to step back and accept personal responsibility for choices (good and bad) we make in life.

    On a lighter note, there was a light-hearted song that mentioned “Don’t worry, be happy!” And that’s not bad advice. If you continually worry about what might happen, you are likely to become sick or die from the resultant stress.

  14. Thoughtful and interesting reply! I enjoyed, thanks.