The Government’s Role in Alcohol Consumption

For those of you outside the state of Washington, you may not have heard that there were, not one, but two different initiatives on our ballots that sought to privatize our liquor industry. As of this morning, neither one looks as if they are going to pass.

I have to admit to being ambivalent about one of the initiatives (I-1100 – *pdf), and outright hating the other (I-1105 – *pdf). Mostly this was due to concerns about taxes and such, although I did believe that I-1105 would end up with us having a far too permissive result when it came to liquor oversight. Not from an individual point of view, mind you, but rather a corporate one. When it comes right down to it, I have more faith in individuals than I do in institutions.

In the end, I voted for I-1100 because I believe that in the long term, I believe that the government should get out of the liquor business. But when it lost, I was okay with that too, as our state government still needs the income. I-1100 would be a better bet in a good economy.

All of that aside, the initiatives made me ask some interesting questions about alcohol and hard liquor. Namely, what IS the appropriate amount of government oversight on it? I have no qualms about taxing the stuff, but I wince everytime someone wishes to limit its sales based off of …well, let’s call it a more prohibitionist outlook on life.

I’m not so naive to think that there aren’t people who abuse alcohol. Clearly there are. Also worth noting is the recent study published in The Lancet (sort of the English equivalent to the New England Journal of Medicine) that posits that alcohol is the most destructive drug by far, moreso than heroin and crack, let alone tobacco or marijuana.

For all of this, a great many in the Western world deem alcohol an acceptable (and encouraged) means of altering one’s consciousness. But only to a point.

The question I have is this – where is that point? And more importantly, who gets to decide where that point is?

The reason this question is of some importance is that, if we, as a society, deem alcohol as a necessary evil, what should dictate the means in which we instill measures of social control over this very harmful drug?

Here in America (and to a slightly lesser extent, Canada and the United Kingdom), that control was instilled by moralists, those who believed that alcohol was simply wrong at face value, and that no one should have access to it. These were the people who led us into Prohibition. While it took us only thirteen years to figure out alcoholic prohibition doesn’t work in a free society, these moralists still held sway over the laws that were enacted immediately after the repeal, laws that were restrictive and sought to limit a citizen’s accessibility to liquor (and to a lesser extent, beer). Many of these laws are still on the books today.

The problem in using morals as a basis for law making is that it paints everyone with a broad brush. From a moralist’s point of view, everyone is susceptible to the evils of drink.

This clearly isn’t the case. Many people use alcohol responsibly. A lot of this is the result of proper education (see the success of the MADD campaign as just one example), and a fair amount is simple experience (which comes with varying amounts of cost). The reality is that the great majority of drinkers out there do so with varying degrees of responsibility.

Which leads me back to my question – where is the point of social control? Where is the point where responsible drinkers have access to alcohol yet restrictions are tight enough that limit abuses?

I clearly don’t have the answer to this question, nor any influence to make it address it even if I did. This is the role of government. But until the government faces that fact that our society enjoys access to substances that alter our consciousness (be it alcohol, pot, or crack) in a way that benefits us, this question is likely to remain.