Thank You for Getting Drunk

In Christopher Buckley's novel Thank You for Smoking, three lobbyists -- one each from the alcohol, tobacco and gun industries -- meet regularly to commiserate over their status as social pariahs. A

Dec 12, 2002 at 2:06 pm

In Christopher Buckley's novel Thank You for Smoking, three lobbyists — one each from the alcohol, tobacco and gun industries — meet regularly to commiserate over their status as social pariahs. According to campaign finance records from last November's election, lobbyists working toward drug law reform would not be welcome at these gatherings.

Of the 114 individuals or entities who donated to Ohioans Against Unsafe Drug Laws — the group created to defeat the November ballot measure that would have offered treatment instead of prison to first- and second-time drug offenders — nearly one-third were beer, wine and liquor distributors and retailers. No other group garnered a broad base of financial opposition anywhere near that rallied by the alcoholic beverage industry.

While both health-care organizations and financial services companies donated more than the alcohol industry's cumulative $30,000, they did so with large contributions from few entities: Four healthcare concerns donated a total of $35,000 and seven financial services companies kicked in a combined $157,500. Such scant participation is not indicative of industry-wide organization against the measure.

On the other hand, the broad support shown by Ohio's alcohol distributors and retailers points directly to the influence of a larger force on these businesses, and a review of industry documentation shows that alcoholic beverage makers and sellers are intent on clearly delineating their products from illegal drugs and on defending that wall of legality from encroachment.

In 1995 the Century Council, an organization that promotes responsible drinking and is funded by the country's leading distillers, named as its chairman and CEO John Lawn, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency under President Reagan. In reporting this hiring, Healthy Drinking magazine praised Lawn for helping to sharpen the divide between legal and illegal drugs.

"[He] scrupulously avoided confusing use with abuse and drinking with drugging," reads the magazine's coverage.

According to a 1998 New York Times story, the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) hired William Bennett, former President Bush's drug czar — a position formally known as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — to similarly delineate the differences between alcohol and drugs in a speech to the group's members.

"I thought it would be really neat to have him come talk to the beer wholesalers about how bad drugs are and how good beer is," NBWA President David Rehr told The Times.

A scheduling conflict postponed Bennett's speech. In the intervening months, Body Count, his book on the country's ongoing battle against illegal drugs, was published. A portion of this book discussed liquor.

"Make no mistake, liquor is as much a part of the problem as drugs, perhaps a bigger part," the book states.

Bennett's speaking engagement at the NBWA national conference was immediately cancelled.

The NWBA continues its mission to sharpen the distinction between alcohol and illegal drugs by, among other things, attempting to strike the prevalent phrase "alcohol and drugs" from the vocabulary and psyche of the country's policy setters.

"Some federal agencies have pursued a policy of linking licensed beverages with illegal drug use," says the group's official public policy statement. "To some groups 'substance abuse' means 'alcohol and other drug abuse'."

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group representing makers and marketers of distilled liquors, similarly bemoans the "too often used phrase 'alcohol and drugs'."

Indeed, these two terms are often linked. The federal government's repository for substance abuse research is the National Clearinghouse of Alcohol and Drug Information, and Ohio's highest office dealing with substance abuse is the Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services. In the early 1990s, the New York state public school system even instituted a program that instructed teachers to not make a distinction between alcohol and other drugs.

Perhaps the most powerful coupling of alcohol and illegal drugs came from Clinton Drug Czar Barry McCaffery, who made alcohol the centerpiece of his anti-drug campaign and labeled it "the biggest drug abuse problem for adolescents."

While avoiding association with illegal drugs is part of the alcohol industry's attempt to promote the image of responsible drinking, Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, believes its opposition to drug law reform is primarily motivated by the competitive threat that some illegal drugs pose.

"With a lack of marijuana available, many people, particularly young people, will go directly to binge drinking," said St. Pierre. "Conversely, if marijuana is available, there is generally less drinking."

Several studies support St. Pierre's claim. The most comprehensive of these was co-authored in 2001 by University of Michigan researcher John DiNardo and University of Montreal researcher Thomas Lemieux.

DiNardo and Lemieux examined changes in the prevalence of alcohol and marijuana usage from 1980 to 1989 by a large sample of high school seniors from 43 states. During this period, the federal government forced states to increase the legal drinking age to 21 by threatening to withhold highway funding.

DiNardo and Lemieux found that higher statutory drinking ages are somewhat effective in reducing alcohol consumption among young people. However, they also noticed that the change had an additional, unintended consequence: It increased marijuana consumption. As obtaining alcohol became more difficult, a statistically significant number of students turned to pot.

"When two goods are substitutes, policies which successfully ration demand for one good will generate an increased demand for the other good," the study says.

Similarly, several authors and researchers have noted that the first large-scale use of marijuana in the U.S. began as a response to Prohibition. As the supply of alcohol dwindled and its black market price skyrocketed, tea houses — establishments in which marijuana was sold and smoked — proliferated in the country's metropolitan areas.

A 1970 report by three UCLA researchers further demonstrates this substitution effect. The study examined the impact of Operation Intercept, President Nixon's ambitious but short-lived attempt to restrict the flow of marijuana from Mexico to the U.S in 1969.

Of the patients in the study who reported a decrease in their normal consumption of marijuana because of the short-term success of this action, more than 50 percent reported that they increased their consumption of alcohol.

St. Pierre believes the alcohol industry is familiar with these and similar studies.

"Considering that these organizations have hundreds and hundreds of well-paid, well-motivated employees, I have to imagine that they are very aware of this research," he said. "I can only imagine the conversations I would hear if I were a fly on the wall."

If drug law reform never happens in this country, it should be because an educated, informed society decides against it. It should not be because getting us drunk is more profitable to an entrenched industry than allowing us to get high.