In his column in the Miami Herald last week, Leonard Pitts Jr. opens with a simple statement: “Maybe we should legalize drugs.” He doesn’t have to be more specific in what he’s asking for because he knows that we know what he means. He reasonably assumes that we know that we’re not winning a “war” against drugs, that local and regional laws regarding marijuana have relaxed over the last 20 years, that drug convictions are often wildly imbalanced along racial lines, that we continue to say one thing and do another in America regarding the social integration and marketing of alcohol as it compares to illegal drugs, and that we’re still a nation in love with pills if they will assist our sex or grow our hair back or relieve our pain, however we decide to define “pain.”In wrapping up his argument that legalization should at least be discussed if we are looking to end the violence and suffering caused by illegal drug traffic, Pitts cites a statistic from 1914, when the first federal drug law was ennacted. At that time, the government estimated that 1.3 percent of Americans were addicted to illegal drugs. Pitts claims that number was the same in 1970, and remains the same today.I deduce that Mr. Pitts wants us to come to a “Some things will never change, therefore… ” conclusion, but that’s a little dark and without hope for me. I would counter propose that we keep illegal drugs illegal but devote something akin to the money and energy that we spend fighting illegal drugs… on legalizing sobriety. Of course I’m stretching “legalizing” to mean endorse, encourage, and inculcate sobriety into more of a national cultural value. Maybe “natural cultural value” is more like it. You might say, “But we constantly encourage and promote sobriety.” I’m not that sure.We did take a step last week, when the House of Representatives approved a bill allowing the FDA to regulate tobacco products. Americans want a product defined as a drug (nicotine) conveyance system to be under the purview of the federal agency that deals with legal drugs. That makes sense. From that, would defining beer, wine, and liquor products as “alcohol conveyance systems” help us with that part of our national substance and sobriety problems? Because if we ween everybody off coke and other illegal things only to have them drink alcohol (our big national legal drugs) to excess in replacement, we’re not really getting anywhere.I’m not denying that there are addictive predispositions or personalities or even genetic roots to substance problems. But indulge me for a moment, just as Mr. Pitts suggested in proposing legalization that we at least talk about it. Suppose every promotion for sporting event tailgate parties had to carry the headline, “Planning on getting bombed and obnoxious before the big game?” And then you’d see the four-color advertising for beer specials. Imagine liquor ads (now flourishing on TV because of sagging advertising revenues) representing alcohol as intrinsic to sexual seduction having to carry this mandatory voiceover: “Because we always tell you women will yield if you get them loaded on our product.” I’d settle for a simple “Beer always opens the door to sex!” in every ad showing young men making that exact assumption. These changes would come from a consensus that we now wanted to consistently represent sobriety, not intoxication, as the desired state of being. And this approach assumes that irony still appears ironic. (TV ads that parody “Clean Coal” are betting that we still get irony.) But if we began quietly representing alcohol consumption as being at odds with a (new!) national cultural value of sobriety as our more desired state over even mild intoxication… would we then plant the seeds of a turnaround in our appetites for the stronger stuff?I’m asking if we can have a national cultural value of alcohol behaviors as an earned reward or necessary adult play accessory and simultaneously wring our hands about messages and wars on harder drugs. We tried taking booze off the menu in 1920 and that led to violence that was in some ways a template for our drug violence. Still, it’s not about adjusting our public service announcements or putting a bigger warning on packages. It’s changing what our behaviors are in default situations. Consider even a partial list: It’s the Holidays, so drink. It’s Halloween, so drink. It’s football, so drink. It’s Thanksgiving, so drink. It’s Memorial Day, so drink. If the cultural default were instead… “Tomorrow is a holiday. Think I’ll stay healthy and not make an ass of myself in front of my kids…” would there eventually be an ensuing impact regarding drug behavior?I enjoy wine and mixed beverages and I’m not trying to take you down a personal road one way or the other. But in visiting Wisconsin last week, I was once again exposed to that state’s schizophrenic alcohol dilemma. They desperately want to prevent drunk driving deaths, and yet they have a culture of beer as celebratory lubricant and beverage of choice for… everything. If we carefully studied the number of messages in all of American media /culture regarding “Let’s have a drink!”, would we still be flabbergasted at the sturdy pervasiveness of our illegal drug use? All that death in Mexico is really taking the fun out of drugs. Now if we could take the need out… or at least talk about the need.
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