A License to Drink?

Mark, I am curious about the basis for your assertion that doubling alcohol taxes “would reduce the rates of homicide and motor-vehicle fatalities by several percent.” I agree that the tax rate per ounce of pure ethanol should be the same for different alcoholic beverages, but in my view the appropriate rate is zero. I oppose special taxes on alcohol because they punish the majority for the sins of a minority.

In principle, I do not object to the idea of demanding that people convicted of driving while intoxicated stop drinking for a specified period of time as part of their sentence. It does seem analogous to demanding that they stop driving, and (unlike in the case of alcohol taxes) the burden is imposed on individuals who have actually harmed others (or at least endangered them).

But if enforcing such restrictions entails issuing everyone a revocable “drinker’s license,” this narrowly focused solution becomes a broad burden on drinkers generally. It transforms a right into a privilege, inviting activists, public health officials, judges, and legislators to invent new reasons for telling people they may no longer drink. These may include excessive consumption that hurts only the drinker himself or even misdeeds with no connection to alcohol at all, just as driver’s licenses can be suspended for offenses (marijuana possession, for example) that have nothing to do with driving. Instead of requiring all drinkers to obtain, maintain, and present licenses that allow them to consume alcoholic beverages, why not require people convicted of drunken driving to demonstrate their sobriety through ignition interlocks and/or random, unannounced testing?

I notice that both Mark and Jonathan Caulkins want to limit this discussion (and drug policy debate generally?) to reforms they consider politically feasible. I’m happy to discuss modest changes that can realistically be achieved in the short term, and I welcome the contributions that both Mark and Jonathan have made to reducing the harm caused by the war on drugs. But I reject the idea that more dramatic changes, such as the full-scale decriminalization of marijuana or the wholesale repeal of drug prohibition, should always be off the table because they’re not going to happen anytime soon. Clearly, such changes do happen: Drugs that once were legal are now prohibited, and vice versa. Talking about big changes in the law is part of the process of making them happen. Those of us who see drug prohibition as a great injustice are in this for the long haul; we realize that it took many years to reverse other egregiously wrong policies that were once considered beyond debate by serious people.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In their lead essay, Earth and Fire Erowid stress the importance of developing responsible, fully informed relationships toward psychoactive drugs. Although drug prohibition has persisted for decades, the overwhelming majority of adults have tried at least one illegal drug, and these substances aren’t going away any time soon. Sadly, prohibition itself has stunted our knowledge of these substances, and, as in so many things, ignorance is both dangerous and irresponsible. Provocatively, they criticize even the word “drugs” as a tag for illegal psychoactives: Lumping them all together, they write, betrays a lack of understanding of their vastly different effects, risk profiles and — yes — benefits.

Response Essays

  • Jonathan Caulkins argues that the responsible use of psychoactive drugs is an overstretched concept, if by “psychoactive drugs” we mean everything from caffeine to heroin. In many cases, he argues, temperance may be the only responsible “use” of a given substance.

    Further, state prohibitions on pleasurable but risky acts are hardly confined to this area of law; their violation is not a genuine form of civil disobedience as long as pleasure itself is the real goal of the act. And the risks remain regardless. Duly enacted laws in a democracy deserve far more respect than this, and following the law is a part of the responsibility of all citizens.

  • Jacob Sullum notes that temperance and abstinence have been wrongly conflated, and that the Aristotelian view of temperance encompassed all of the moderate, reasoned, and honorable pleasures of life. He reiterates that virtually everyone uses psychoactive drugs of one kind or another, and that the overwhelming majority of use is responsible. He challenges the notion that the state has any interest in the private actions of individuals that do not harm anyone else, and he terms the impulse to protect people from themselves “unethical” and “an open-ended rationale for government intervention that logically leads to totalitarianism.”

  • Mark Kleiman takes up a theme already addressed by the other participants, namely the distinctions to be found within the catchall category “illegal drugs.” He notes that the risk profiles, motivations for use, and public health considerations of these substances are so far removed from one another that it may make no sense to continue to treat them as similar in public policy. Given the choice between full legalization and the status quo, he would choose the status quo, but, he argues, these alternatives should not be the only ones we consider.