The Drug That Pretends It Isn't: Car Accidents, Date Rapes, Domestic Violence-And It Goes So Well with Chinese Food and Pizza!

By Quindlen, Anna | Newsweek, April 10, 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Drug That Pretends It Isn't: Car Accidents, Date Rapes, Domestic Violence-And It Goes So Well with Chinese Food and Pizza!


Quindlen, Anna, Newsweek


Spring break in Jamaica, and the patios of the waterfront bars are so packed that it seems the crowds of students must go tumbling into the aquamarine sea, still clutching their glasses. Even at the airport one drunken young man with a peeling nose argues with a flight attendant about whether he can bring his Red Stripe, kept cold in an insulated sleeve, aboard the plane heading home.

The giggle about Jamaica for American visitors has always been the availability of ganja; half the T shirts in the souvenir shops have slogans about smoking grass. But the students thronging the streets of Montego Bay seem more comfortable with their habitual drug of choice: alcohol.

Whoops! Sorry! Not supposed to call alcohol a drug. Some of the people who lead anti-drug organizations don't like it because they fear it dilutes the message about the "real" drugs, heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Parents are offended by it; as they try to figure out which vodka bottle came from their party and which from their teenager's, they sigh and say, "Well, at least it's not drugs." And naturally the lobbyists for the industry hate it. They're power guys, these guys: the wine guy is George W's brother-in-law, the beer guy meets regularly with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. When you lump a cocktail in with a joint, it makes them crazy.

And it's true: booze and beer are not the same as illegal drugs. They're worse. A policy-research group called Drug Strategies has produced a report that calls alcohol "America's most pervasive drug problem" and then goes on to document the claim. Alcohol-related deaths outnumber deaths related to drugs four to one. Alcohol is a factor in more than half of all domestic-violence and sexual-assault cases. Between accidents, health problems, crime and lost productivity, researchers estimate alcohol abuse costs the economy $167 billion a year. In 1995 four out of every 10 people on probation said they were drinking when they committed a violent crime, while only one in 10 admitted using illicit drugs. Close your eyes and substitute the word blah-blah for alcohol in any of those sentences, and you'd have to conclude that an all-out war on blah-blah would result.

Yet when members of Congress tried to pass legislation that would make alcohol part of the purview of the nation's drug czar the measure failed. Mothers Against Drunk Driving faces opposition to both its education programs and its public-service ads from principals and parents who think illicit drugs should be given greater priority. The argument is this: heroin, cocaine and marijuana are harmful and against the law, but alcohol is used in moderation with no ill effects by many people.

Here's the counterargument: there are an enormous number of people who cannot and will never be able to drink in moderation. And what they leave in their wake is often more difficult to quantify than DWIs or date rapes. In his memoir, "A Drinking Life," Pete Hamill describes simply and eloquently the binges, the blackouts, the routine: "If I wrote a good column for the newspaper, I'd go to the bar and celebrate; if I wrote a poor column, I would drink away my regret.

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