The Perverse Politics of Alcohol

Robin Williams’ death last week should remind us of what a reaper and binder alcohol can be. One of the many ways this drug can kill is to take a garden variety depression and turn it into the final circle of Dante’s Inferno. There is evidence that it played precisely this role in Mr. Williams’ tragic last act.

This would also be a good moment to remember that the corporations selling us this toxic drug are working politically to prevent more benign alternatives from being available to alcoholics.

The Science of Alcohol Addiction

For a lot of people, alcohol is not a bad drug. For people who find it easy to take or leave it, and to consume it in moderation, alcohol is a pleasant little buzz, and may even have positive health effects.

Then there are the alcoholics. Nature and nurture shorted these folks when the body’s natural sources of feeling good were handed out. As addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Maté points out in his brilliant book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, alcoholics tend to be deficient in dopamine – a source of motivation and incentive – and in endorphins – so named because they are endogenous morphine – the body’s own reliever of emotional and physical pain. The result of being without these natural highs is being chronically low: ill at ease, out of sorts, anxious, depressed, in a world of hurt.

The ineluctable allure of alcohol is that, at first, it cures, miraculously and instantly, these chemical deficiencies, and the chronic pain that accompanies them. Of course, the inevitable horror of alcohol is that long term dependence on the drug will multiply the original pain, and then some.

Overall, alcohol is implicated in about 88,000 deaths each year in the US. In particular, alcohol is involved in over a quarter of all suicides in the US (approximately 7,500 per year). In fact, suicide is 120 times more prevalent among adult alcoholics than in the general population. And more than one-third of suicide victims used alcohol just prior to death.

The Paid-For Politics of Alcohol

This picture of an irresistable drug and its inevitable carnage is bleak. But what if the picture could be brightened, with one stroke of the legislative pen? What if there were another drug that could perform the dopamine-enhancing function of alcohol, without leaving alcohol’s trail of tears?
In fact, there is. It’s called marijuana, a drug that performs the function of alcohol, but without alcohol’s lethal dysfunctions. In a study on the implications of legalizing recreational marijuana, two economics professors argue that indeed, when available, marijuana is often substituted for alcohol. Their evidence showed a correlation between increased marijuana use and less alcohol use for people ages 18 to 29 “[States that legalize marijuana] will experience a reduction in the social harms resulting from alcohol use,” the professors told the New York Times.
But is marijuana really less harmful? In a word, yes. While many people die from alcohol use, nobody dies from marijuana use. While alcohol is the smoking gun in 88,000 deaths per year, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) does not even have a category for deaths caused by the use of marijuana.

While alcohol is one of the more toxic recreational drugs, with a lethal dose to normal use ratio of 10 to 1, marijuana is one of the least toxic drugs: its lethal dose to normal use ratio is over 1,000 to 1.

In particular, suicides have actually been shown to decline in states where medical marijuana is available, because of its ability to relieve emotional pain. One study analyzed 17 years worth of statistics in search of shifts in suicide rates in states where medical marijuana was legal from 1990 to 2007. Comparing them to states where marijuana is still illegal, the study’s authors concluded that in states with legal medical marijuana, the suicide rate for males aged 20-29 decreased 10.9 percent, and for men aged 30-39, they saw a decrease of 9.4 percent.

At this point, something is terribly wrong with our picture. The legal drug is lethal. Its non-lethal alternative is mostly illegal. Why? As is so often the case, the culprit behind an irrational and, in this case, deadly politics is Big Money. The alcohol industry is a $1 trillion behemoth, with 40 percent of that market controlled by the three largest companies.

Together with other institutions that profit from the drug war – private prisons, police forces whose salaries and perks are often tied to drug war grants and arrests, and the tobacco industry – Big Alcohol is part of the Drug War Industrial Complex (DWIC). ). Together, the DWIC is the Money Man in the war against marijuana. In the fight against California’s pot-legalizing Prop 19, for example, the DWIC ran ads, organized rallies and spread myths about marijuana and George Soros to flummox voters. And it worked: Prop 19 lost. So did the alcoholics who lost a non-lethal alternative to their deadly drug.

After Robin Williams completed a rehab program in 2006, he said this about his demon: “You’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump.’ The same voice that goes, ‘Just one.'”

It is high time for good people to stand up to Big Money, and to the sorrows of alcohol. It is time to turn Robin Williams’ little voice around, by saying to politicians considering marijuana legalization: “Jump.”