Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Alcohol and legality

I am wondering, why is alcohol legal and most other drugs illegal in almost any country in the world? In fact when people say "drugs" most people don't include alcohol in that, which is ridiculous, it is a very powerful drug.

Please note, I am not interested in whether it should be illegal. It is clear that legality of a drug has very little impact on how widespread its use is.

It is beyond debate that alcohol is very, very harmful. It kills hundreds of thousands every year, it is extremely addictive, and it has a huge part in stimulating violent and anti-social behavior.

In other words it is clear that the reason it is legal is not that it is less harmful than other drugs in general. So why is it?

Is it simply that a "critical mass" of the population find it impossible to stay off alcohol and for that reason a ban simply does not work? The failed prohibition of the nineteen-twenties in the USA is evidence for that. If not, I don't know. There must be some psychological reason, or at least a social one.

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Featured comments:

ttl said...

It's not so much a question of why alcohol is legal (with the exception of a few years, it has always been that), but rather why produces such as hashish and heroin are not.

The idea of forbidding the use of hashish and heroin came from the U.S. Other countries gradually followed suit. For the full story, read Harry Browne's excellent article Free from the Nightmare of Prohibition.


Anonymous said...

Alcohol is actually a pretty safe substance, as far as drugs go. Furthermore, a lot of beverages which include alcohol are actually good for you. One can consume amounts of alcohol small enough not to cause the ills (liver disease or just drunkenness) while still getting the benefits.

Cannabis, on the other hand, does cause harm without causing any benefits. Unless you call a clouded brain a benefit. Same with most of the other illegal drugs, they usually do a lot more harm than good, even in small doses.

But that's not what you're asking, of course. The "why" is really quite simple, too. If it hadn't been for good old brewers and distillers, the human race probably wouldn't have survived the dark ages. Water was often disease-ridden, especially in cities, and so beer and wine were safer alternatives. Not to mention that beer is actually quite nutritious.

After thousands of years of use, it would be very hard to get rid of it. Maybe even impossible. Widespread use of other drugs, such as cannabis and large quantities of nicotine, are a much more recent phenomenon.

Addendum: I'm not commenting on the medicinal use of any drug. Heroine, cocaine, cannabis, morphine and whatnot DO benefit certain people in a medicinal way. Just not the general population. At least I hope that most of us don't need any of that stuff.

Pascal (an MD) added:

"One can consume amounts of alcohol small enough not to cause the ills (liver disease or just drunkenness) while still getting the benefits."

Perfectly correct, medically speaking. The real problem with alcohol is that, in case of abuse, it can become as addictive and harmful as heroin itself, an official hard drug. Far worse that hash.
Marijuana also has medical uses and benefits in small moderate amounts. (Sorry to contradict you Anon, but it's a fact. I know my job.) But it bears the stigma of "drugs". Ironically, not only did some well-known poisons become medical substances (under the right dosage and indication), but narcotic drugs too:
-Morphin for pain relief. No comment. Its addictive power is still a problem and warrants mandatory precautions, but it's still irreplaceable.
-Opium was simply the first means for general anesthesia.
-Cocaine. It is known for its local complications on the nasal septum. These are due to an intense effect of local vaso-constriction. Basically, if you sniff coke too much, your nose tissues will get deprived from blood and die out. But for local surgery, and once again rationally employed, it's hugely useful.
End of the scientific lecture already, class dismissed. Let's move on.

It's always a matter of how you use it, and how reasonably. Not that one could try everything and anything out of course (some nasty stuff is all risk anyway), but pleasure is an intrinsic part of life. Even guilty pleasure. Strict rigorists are emotional amputees, and usually endure the heavy consequences on their psyche.

I'm currently working on reducing my "addiction" to chocolate, before I start getting fat or having dental problems. After all, I have inocuous substitutes available. Like the love and laughter of small children. "Consume without moderation"! :-)))

Interesting historical perspective on alcohol use, thanks for posting it.

"Unless you call a clouded brain a benefit."

(hehe) It's all a matter of point of view. Living in Lebanon, I reach the same result regarding the national and political situation, through natural means like meditation. Mondo relaxing, dude. ;-)

Some other "drugs" are of widespread use in some parts of the world. Experience proves that in such cases, imposing its eradication by law is utopic until the mentalities change. Too many people chew coca in Bolivia, or suck on the qat around the Red Sea (Yemen, Somalia...). One might as well put out a law against masturbation, daydreaming, or eyeing passing beauties.

I fully agree with Terry. The TOBAL attitude (There Oughtta Be A Law) is simply idiotic. You can (and should) forbid unconsented second-hand smoking in public places. But you can't just make the stuff illegal nationwide, "even in the privacy of your own home and when when no children are present", like some anti-sodomy laws in the USA. A bad response to a bad habit. I see France, where smoking is steadily receding. It's by an all-out effort on changing the MENTALITIES. First, they increase the taxes a little, every year. Anybody who was considering quitting gets a higher incentive, the others just pay more and don't complain very much. (All prices increase anyway, just moreso for smokes.) Second, everything is done to ensure that one isn't forcibly exposed to a rude smoker. I a more polite era, they were considerate, and asked themselves (and others) whether it would be a bother. Today, the loss of such etiquette made a law necessary. [Don't visit Lebanon if you're allergic to common daily rudeness, trust me.] And finally, anybody who's trying to quit receives all the medical support avilable, and social security take a good part of the expenses in charge. After all, it would have to pay for the secondary illnesses anyway, which is far more costly, socially as well as financially.

I foresee (and hope for) a time where smoking becomes seriously marginal. But I do not expect to see this behavior eradicated. And to be honest, as much as I heartily hate smoking, I don't think I WANT to see it eradicated. A reasonable amount of unreasonableness is a necessary ingredient to the best possible world.

I'm more worried about the future of alcohol consumption. Drinking and driving is already very difficult to fight, even with maximal legal intimidation. (Now THAT's necessary there.) But anything's possible, if we "give Time some time".

Finally, I find great interest in the approach of Holland: they chose not to outlaw narcotic drugs, but to control its use in a legal frame. I fully approve. First instant benefit: like with the ending of Prohibition, the mafias lose their (very) juicy monopole, and can be pursued with the tranquil collaboration of the product users. The quality of the substance is protected as well, thanks to regulations. Moonshine was as much of a calamity as clandestine abortions (relatively speaking).
The same should be done about similar cases like prostitution. Its worst evil by far is the consequent human slavery.

A world with absolutely zero evil would probably be one of the greatest evils imaginable.
Just ask the Soviet paradise... :-P

posted by Eolake Stobblehouse @ Tuesday, June 19, 2007   11 comments links to this post

11 Comments:

At 19 Jun 2007 15:54:00, Anonymous ttl said...

It's not so much a question of why alcohol is legal (with the exception of a few years, it has always been that), but rather why produces such as hashish and heroin are not.

The idea of forbidding the use of hashish and heroin came from the U.S. Other countries gradually followed suit. For the full story, read Harry Browne's excellent article Free from the Nightmare of Prohibition.

 
At 19 Jun 2007 17:09:00, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alcohol is actually a pretty safe substance, as far as drugs go. Furthermore, a lot of beverages which include alcohol are actually good for you. One can consume amounts of alcohol small enough not to cause the ills (liver disease or just drunkenness) while still getting the benefits.

Cannabis, on the other hand, does cause harm without causing any benefits. Unless you call a clouded brain a benefit. Same with most of the other illegal drugs, they usually do a lot more harm than good, even in small doses.

But that's not what you're asking, of course. The "why" is really quite simple, too. If it hadn't been for good old brewers and distillers, the human race probably wouldn't have survived the dark ages. Water was often disease-ridden, especially in cities, and so beer and wine were safer alternatives. Not to mention that beer is actually quite nutritious.

After thousands of years of use, it would be very hard to get rid of it. Maybe even impossible. Widespread use of other drugs, such as cannabis and large quantities of nicotine, are a much more recent phenomenon.

 
At 19 Jun 2007 17:10:00, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Addendum: I'm not commenting on the medicinal use of any drug. Heroine, cocaine, cannabis, morphine and whatnot DO benefit certain people in a medicinal way. Just not the general population. At least I hope that most of us don't need any of that stuff.

 
At 19 Jun 2007 22:50:00, Anonymous terry hates prohibition said...

they're trying prohibition here where tobacco is the target but the fools are wasting their time, it didn't work with alcohol and certainly will never work with tobacco.
i agree that booze is a common drug and if tobacco is forbidden then so should booze. my opinion.
but fools are everywhere especially here in the states. great post eolake.

 
At 20 Jun 2007 01:46:00, Anonymous Pascal said...

"One can consume amounts of alcohol small enough not to cause the ills (liver disease or just drunkenness) while still getting the benefits."

Perfectly correct, medically speaking. The real problem with alcohol is that, in case of abuse, it can become as addictive and harmful as heroin itself, an official hard drug. Far worse that hash.
Marijuana also has medical uses and benefits in small moderate amounts. (Sorry to contradict you Anon, but it's a fact. I know my job.) But it bears the stigma of "drugs". Ironically, not only did some well-known poisons become medical substances (under the right dosage and indication), but narcotic drugs too:
-Morphin for pain relief. No comment. Its addictive power is still a problem and warrants mandatory precautions, but it's still irreplaceable.
-Opium was simply the first means for general anesthesia.
-Cocaine. It is known for its local complications on the nasal septum. These are due to an intense effect of local vaso-constriction. Basically, if you sniff coke too much, your nose tissues will get deprived from blood and die out. But for local surgery, and once again rationally employed, it's hugely useful.
End of the scientific lecture already, class dismissed. Let's move on.

It's always a matter of how you use it, and how reasonably. Not that one could try everything and anything out of course (some nasty stuff is all risk anyway), but pleasure is an intrinsic part of life. Even guilty pleasure. Strict rigorists are emotional amputees, and usually endure the heavy consequences on their psyche.

I'm currently working on reducing my "addiction" to chocolate, before I start getting fat or having dental problems. After all, I have inocuous substitutes available. Like the love and laughter of small children. "Consume without moderation"! :-)))

Interesting historical perspective on alcohol use, thanks for posting it.

"Unless you call a clouded brain a benefit."

(hehe) It's all a matter of point of view. Living in Lebanon, I reach the same result regarding the national and political situation, through natural means like meditation. Mondo relaxing, dude. ;-)

Some other "drugs" are of widespread use in some parts of the world. Experience proves that in such cases, imposing its eradication by law is utopic until the mentalities change. Too many people chew coca in Bolivia, or suck on the qat around the Red Sea (Yemen, Somalia...). One might as well put out a law against masturbation, daydreaming, or eyeing passing beauties.

I fully agree with Terry. The TOBAL attitude (There Oughtta Be A Law) is simply idiotic. You can (and should) forbid unconsented second-hand smoking in public places. But you can't just make the stuff illegal nationwide, "even in the privacy of your own home and when when no children are present", like some anti-sodomy laws in the USA. A bad response to a bad habit. I see France, where smoking is steadily receding. It's by an all-out effort on changing the MENTALITIES. First, they increase the taxes a little, every year. Anybody who was considering quitting gets a higher incentive, the others just pay more and don't complain very much. (All prices increase anyway, just moreso for smokes.) Second, everything is done to ensure that one isn't forcibly exposed to a rude smoker. I a more polite era, they were considerate, and asked themselves (and others) whether it would be a bother. Today, the loss of such etiquette made a law necessary. [Don't visit Lebanon if you're allergic to common daily rudeness, trust me.] And finally, anybody who's trying to quit receives all the medical support avilable, and social security take a good part of the expenses in charge. After all, it would have to pay for the secondary illnesses anyway, which is far more costly, socially as well as financially.

I foresee (and hope for) a time where smoking becomes seriously marginal. But I do not expect to see this behavior eradicated. And to be honest, as much as I heartily hate smoking, I don't think I WANT to see it eradicated. A reasonable amount of unreasonableness is a necessary ingredient to the best possible world.

I'm more worried about the future of alcohol consumption. Drinking and driving is already very difficult to fight, even with maximal legal intimidation. (Now THAT's necessary there.) But anything's possible, if we "give Time some time".

Finally, I find great interest in the approach of Holland: they chose not to outlaw narcotic drugs, but to control its use in a legal frame. I fully approve. First instant benefit: like with the ending of Prohibition, the mafias lose their (very) juicy monopole, and can be pursued with the tranquil collaboration of the product users. The quality of the substance is protected as well, thanks to regulations. Moonshine was as much of a calamity as clandestine abortions (relatively speaking).
The same should be done about similar cases like prostitution. Its worst evil by far is the consequent human slavery.

A world with absolutely zero evil would probably be one of the greatest evils imaginable.
Just ask the Soviet paradise... :-P

 
At 20 Jun 2007 02:56:00, Blogger Saradevil said...

I think if you are going to limit all the pleasures of the world you still have to throw the world at least a bone. Which explains booze, cigarettes and mostly unregulated sex.

Mostly.

 
At 20 Jun 2007 17:01:00, Anonymous Monsieur Beep said...

Pascal says:
A reasonable amount of unreasonableness is a necessary ingredient to the best possible world.
Well said! There's a lot of u..ness in the world.
I love my glass of wine which I'm having with dinner (noodles with a dry wine or a beer are a perfect match, to my weird taste ;-)

 
At 21 Jun 2007 01:42:00, Anonymous Pascal said...

I've just read the article from your link, TTL. I'm shaken. I had no idea it was so bad.
And I found out that I am not the only one to have understood certain things. Some influential people have too. Which is good news!!!

One does come to wonder, at some point: "Is it possible? Can political leaders REALLY be that abysmally stupid for so long, after they've made the mistake before?"
Well, YES. They really can be. Time and time again. :-(

"With great power comes an equally great responsibility."

I'm beginning to think the firearms culture has very little to do, relatively, with America's criminality problems. I still believe Heston is an extremist, but probably not the first one deserving to go straight to Hell, do not pass Go, do not collect a $200 tax-cut. Not the first one by far. What are a few shootings compared to arbitrary justice and rampant crime in a whole country?

Saradevil, I heartily agree with your sense of priorities. You tempting devil, you... :-)

In the movie Fortress, starring Christopher Lambert, the inmates are forbidden to have sexual DREAMS. Yes, their very dreams are monitored. And Chris in incarcerated for having a baby without a State breeding permit.
Stories of dystopia always make me uneasy, but I'm addicted to them. Like a virologist studying Ebola. I need to learn, always more.

 
At 22 Jun 2007 19:26:00, Anonymous Ashley said...

Alcohol is actually a pretty safe substance, as far as drugs go …

Excuse my French but that's total fucking bullshit. Alcohol kills hundreds of thousands a year via health problems, it wrecks families, ruins job productivity, contributes to child abuse, and kills completely innocent third parties constantly; more than guns. At least 10,000 and upwards of 20,000 are killed annually by drunk drivers in the US alone.

Same with most of the other illegal drugs, they usually do a lot more harm than good, even in small doses.

Where are your figures for this, anonymous? Bet they came from a political handout. All intoxicants are potentially dangerous. Just because wine has a little grape skin and aspirin in it does not make it safer than anything else and there is nearly no health research on the Schedule I drugs b/c it would be illegal to do.

Recent post on the matter—Incarcerex.

(I think all drugs should be legal, I just think it's insane that cocaine and pot are considered dangerous and alcohol is not; also, the only "drug" I use is whiskey so I have no ax to grind.)

 
At 22 Jun 2007 21:36:00, Anonymous Hangar said...

Eolake on alcohol: ...and it has a huge part in stimulating violent and anti-social behavior.

In other words it is clear that the reason it is legal is not that it is less harmful than other drugs in general.


I'd suggest that in expecting less harmful drugs to be legal you've got it exactly back to front. Perhaps part of the reason that alcohol is legal is because it leads to violence.

Remember that the modern legal attitudes to drugs were set during the run up to the First World War. Where would the fun be in having a world war if all the population you wanted to conscript into your army were laying around dopped up to the eyeballs feeling much too mellow to go fight in trenches anywhere?

 
At 24 Jun 2007 01:23:00, Anonymous Pascal said...

Ashley said...
"All intoxicants are potentially dangerous."


True, my dear, but this statement is scientifically incomplete. The full truth is, all active substances bear potential risks, by essence and definition. Everything labeled as "drugs", be they intoxicants or medications.
It's one thing we've been taught in Med School and with much emphasis: no prescription is entirely inocuous, we must always assess the expected benefits against a non-nil risk.

I'll just give an example with "harmless, ordinary" Paracetamol. Overdosage, as in some suicide attempts, is terribly damaging to the liver in sufficient quantities. Far more than the normal ones, I reassure you. And then there is chronic (ab)use, seemingly innocent. Some batty people took the habit of taking one pill, three times a day, "preventively". Well, after a year of that uncautious habit, there was some severe and irreversible kidney damage. No need to panic, a year is a very long time compared to NORMAL use. But useful to know.

Aspirin is well known for its heart protecting effect. Indeed, by decreasing platelet clotting, it markedly decreases heart attack risks. But take too much of it, and that beneficial effect becomes a plague, with stomach ulcers and spontaneous bleedings, potentially fatal. Always follow indications and recommended dosage. And discontinue one full week prior to any surgery, or you'll have to postpone until it wears off.

Speaking of surgery, general anaesthesia bears a rare but very real risk. In some instances, totally impossible to predict in advance, it causes what is called "accidents", and the patient may die or remain comatose. It is well documented, and the reason is unknown. It is also well known that this unavoidable risk is far, far smaller that that of NOT doing any surgical operations, which save millions of lives. But... this means that an operation under general anaesthesia should only be undertaken when justified. Imagine, if it happened because of something futile like cosmetic surgery, not to repair some mutilation, but to conform to some current fashion trend like siliconed boobs or averted lips. It can happen. It certainly has, on occasions.

And, finally, there are the classic allergies (rather common with Penicillin, for instance). Always remember yours.

On a more optimistic note, I'll mention the "antabuse effect", which I'm very fond of. Some medications were found to have an unusual side effect: they cause vomiting in case of alcohol intake. So they'll very efficiently tend to deter one from getting drunk, and as you can expect they're used in that goal when adequate.

"Where would the fun be in having a world war if all the population you wanted to conscript into your army were laying around dopped up to the eyeballs feeling much too mellow to go fight in trenches anywhere?"

Ha ha ha, good one Hangar!
Besides, the sound of your alias (is that a nordic name?) just reminded me of what the Vikings used to do: drug some captives with a violence-inducing mixture and send them as a first wave against the enemy. They were the famous "Berzerk"-ers. The first kamikazes: greatly efficient psychological weapon.

 

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