Defining drugs

My office at the University of Colorado is a three-minute walk from the Coors Events Center, built by the makers of Coors beer. That this seems completely unremarkable illustrates the remarkable rehabilitation alcohol has undergone since the collapse of legal attempts to ban it. And that rehabilitation exemplifies the astonishingly arbitrary way in which we deal with mind-altering substances.

Consider, for example, that we reflexively speak of “drugs and alcohol,” as if somehow alcohol was something other than a drug. But of course alcohol is a drug _ a particularly powerful, addictive, and potentially dangerous drug.

One measure of a drug’s dangerousness is the gap between the typical effective dose and the typical fatal dose. By this measure alcohol, which is fatal at a dose about ten times greater than that that produces the initial desired effect in users, is about as dangerous as cocaine and heroin, and vastly more dangerous than LSD or marijuana.

Several hundred Americans per year die from simple alcohol overdoses; perhaps 20,000 die in car accidents in which the drug is a contributing factor; tens of thousands die from diseases connected to alcoholism; and alcohol plays a role in enormous numbers of violent crimes, reckless sexual behavior, and other socially destructive acts.

Given such statistics, it’s hardly surprising that alcohol was the first serious target of the war on drugs. Yet the standard story of why Prohibition failed itself fails to explain what was wrong with the attempt to make America an alcohol-free nation.

The standard story is that Prohibition was a bad idea because it couldn’t “work.” It’s said the attempt to make America dry was doomed to failure because our legal system lacked the resources to stamp out alcohol use, at least at an acceptable price.

The problem with this story is it assumes that, if it were possible to eliminate alcohol use in America at an “acceptable” cost, then this would be a desirable thing. And that is a seriously wrongheaded belief.

The truth about alcohol is that, for all the damage it does, its net effect on society is strongly positive. Alcoholic beverages bring both simple and sophisticated pleasures to the 75 percent of American adults who drink them at least occasionally.

Alcohol encourages conviviality, making otherwise tedious social events palatable, and pleasant occasions even more enjoyable. Alcohol enhances meals, relationships, sporting events, and many other aspects of life. Human beings have recognized this for thousands of years. For example, the ancient Greek dramas, which remain among the greatest artistic achievements of civilization, were composed specifically for an annual festival to honor the god of wine.

In other words, to make America a completely sober nation, even if it were possible, would be a terrible thing. And this point applies to many other mind-altering substances as well, to greater and lesser extents. In particular, the socially harmful effects of marijuana are almost wholly a product of the fact that its use is prosecuted as a crime, while the drug’s beneficial effects may well be comparable to those of its far more dangerous legal cousin, alcohol.

It’s not even clear that it would be desirable to completely eliminate heroin and cocaine use, assuming such a thing could be done, which of course it can’t (one of the dirty little secrets of the drug war is that many people use these drugs recreationally for years on end with little or no adverse effect).

All drugs have both good and bad effects. Alcohol, whose compulsive use plays a part in a certain amount of human self-destruction, enhances the lives of most people who use it. And what is true for alcohol is also true for substances that are no more (and often less) dangerous, but which our government now demonizes, just as liquor was demonized not that long ago.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)