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I thought a while about how to write this. There are a lot of opinions out there about how a decision like this one should be philosophical or religious. After practicing psychiatry for over 30 years I have to come down on the side of practical. The most practical decision I think that anybody can make is to stop using intoxicants, at least to the point of intoxication. I don't really care what your current intoxicant is. It could be alcohol or cannabis or heroin. Deciding to stop it will only improve your life and the lives of your family and friends for any number of reasons. At this point I am a witness to the thousands of people who have stopped and seen those improvements. I am also a witness to the unfortunate thousands of people who did not stop and ended up dead, incarcerated, homeless, chronically mentally ill, in nursing homes, or leading miserable lives. I am not naive enough to think that my little argument here is going to make that much of a difference and will elaborate on that in the paragraphs that follow.
One counter issue that I want to address as early as possible because it is often used to short circuit arguments against intoxicants is what I consider an American pro-intoxicants argument. It certainly can exist in other cultures, but I am restricting my comments to Americans because of the pervasive attitudes about intoxicants. The most obvious attitude is alcohol and drug use as a rite of passage to adulthood. This is a well documented phenomenon rationalized at several levels. Common examples include: "If one is old enough to vote or go to war they are old enough to drink." There is abundant current evidence that 18-21 year olds if anything are exposing brains that are neurodevelopmentally immature to the effects of alcohol and street drugs - often at toxic levels. Rational arguments against exposure are not likely to have much of an impact on a population segment in the throes of the invulnerability of youth. Even apart from the brain based argument, the driving and risk taking behavior of this group is well documented. Adding intoxicants to the mix is not likely to alter those decisions in a positive way.
An extension of the rite of passage argument is the rights argument as in "Alcohol and tobacco are legal substances and therefore I have a right to use them." There is no doubt that is true, but the right is limited. Only people of a certain age can use these compounds and in the case of intoxicants that can affect public safety - their use is even more limited. People who I have seen invoke the rights argument are generally not talking about limited rights. The modern version of the rights argument is that "no one should have the right to tell me what I can put in my body. On that basis all drugs should be legal and easily accessible". A complementary argument is: "Alcohol and tobacco kill more people every year than (fill in favorite intoxicant here) and therefore I should be able to use it." Another complementary argument that often gets more support is: "The War on Drugs is a complete failure. All drugs should be legal and that way we can tax it and make a profit from it. We can put the cartels out of business." The rights argument frames an idyllic drug consuming society immune to the medical problems of acute intoxication and addiction as well as all of the associated social and legal problems. Extreme arguments like this suggest to me that they are driven in part by desperation. Of course intoxicants need to be regulated - we already have ample evidence of what happens when they are not. The basic problem that they reinforce their own use at increasing levels cannot be ignored. Tax on intoxicants is generally an unreliable revenue source when the total cost to the taxpayers for that intoxicant and the fact that revenue is diverted away from covering those costs.
A second cultural phenomenon is the use of intoxicants for celebrations. Weddings, funerals, and various parties often result in the excessive consumption of alcohol. I attended a funeral where the clergyman addressed half of the audience and suggested that an AA meeting might be in order afterwards. The deceased was probably a victim of excessive alcohol use. Although alcohol remains predominant in many of these settings, since the 1970s second and third intoxicants are also common. The relevant consideration is whether these celebrations can occur without the intoxicants. Interestingly, that decision may come down to the cost of having an "open bar" versus less expensive alcohol on tap.
A third consideration is the subculture of extreme use. Many states are notorious for per capita alcohol consumption, binge drinking, and driving after drinking too much. I don't think that the problem has been well studied, but growing up in a heavy drinking or using culture exposes anyone to early use and reinforcement that are both precursors to problematic use.
There are several arguments in the popular media that seek to minimize the potential impact of drugs on your life. Think about the counterarguments:
1. If I don't have a diagnosis of alcoholism or drug addiction my pattern of using intoxicants is not a problem:
The most absurd presentation of this argument was the idea that a significant number of binge drinkers do not meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder. I can't count the number of people who I know that have had their lives ruined or ended by a single drinking binge. Many high schools in the US started a senior party strategy because so many students were killed around the time of graduation parties due to acute alcohol intoxication. The drivers in these cases were not alcoholics. They were high school seniors many of whom had limited exposure to alcohol before the fatal accident. Binge drinking and acute intoxication is associated with a long line of accidental deaths, alcohol poisoning deaths, suicides, homicides, intimate partner violence, rapes, and other crimes. All preventable by not binge drinking or more importantly getting intoxicated in the first place. The same pattern follows every other intoxicant. If you put yourself in a mentally compromised state in practically any setting - bad things will happen whether you have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder or not.
2. Alcohol is a heart healthy beverage:
The CDC and the American Heart Association both recommend moderate intakes of alcohol and they define that as one standard drink of alcohol per day for women and one or two standard drinks for men. This is based on data that shows that these amounts of alcohol may confer reduced risk for heart disease but that higher amounts increase risk.
3. Intoxicants can be good for your health - some are natural medicines:
The great natural argument leaves a lot to be desired. It's like listening to that guy in a bar tell you that his doctor told him he could drink as much wine as he wanted because it was a natural beverage and then realizing that he is standing in a puddle of his own urine. Peak alcohol consumption in the US occurred at time when it was considered a medication in the early part of the 19th century. The current best example is cannabis, a substance that has been around for at least 10 centuries and suddenly it is a miracle cure for everything. The obvious question is what that wasn't noticed in that last 1,000 years.
4. Alcohol and drug use disorders are not diseases - it is a question of choice and therefore I have nothing to worry about:
Despite what you may read on some online blog, in opinion polls most people consider alcoholism and addictions to be diseases. Almost everyone has had some contact with people who have these problems and they see that the usual negative consequences that cause most people to correct their behavior - have no effect on the addicted. There is no or at least limited capacity for self correction.
5. I am a libertarian and I believe that all intoxicants and drugs should be legal - I should be the only person deciding what goes into my body:
A familiar argument that ignores human history. The reason that there are controls on addictive drugs is because a significant part of the population will use them in an uncontrolled manner and that generally leads to a chaotic society with all of the costs of that chaos. The more free access there is - the more addiction and chaos.
This argument implies that everyone is the best judge of "what I put in my body" based on political beliefs. There is no evidence that is true.
6. I am an adult and if I want to have a drink - I will have a drink:
That is a minor variation of the libertarian argument for non-libertarians. It is basically a truism - yes of course unless you are prohibited by law (and some people are) you can have a drink. Doing something basically because you can strikes me as a shallow argument. Looking at what happened during Prohibition, I think it is safe to say that the right to drink was preserved by a relatively vocal minority of people who want to drink. They want to drink for the previously cited cultural reasons and in fact there were some famous exceptions to Prohibition that were based on purported religious ceremony and requirements for alcohol.
A similar argument is that if a person wants to feel high "there is nothing wrong with that." At a superficial level and strictly speaking that is true as long as the level of intoxication doesn't lead to medical, safety, or interpersonal problems. The larger question is whether there is something better to do. Let's define better as another recreation that leaves you better off than using intoxicants. In that case walking around the block is better than getting stoned.
7. It is part of my creative process:
There are reviews and books written about how creative people have used drugs and alcohol to enhance their creative process. These works are by their nature anecdotal. I am unaware of any controlled sober group and their creative process but it is likely that they exist in large numbers.
8. I am self -medicating and need it to treat insomnia, anxiety, depression, and/or pain:
Self medication implies that intoxicants are actual treatments for these problems. If you talk to any person who uses this strategy - the amount of relief lasts for a few hours. People tell me: "Look doc - if you can't get rid of this anxiety - I know how to get rid of it for a few hours." Using alcohol, street drugs, or diverted prescription medications is usually a recipe for worsening symptoms and tolerance. In that setting people often have the idea that more drugs will bring back the few hours of relief and there are always examples of associated catastrophes in the news.
9. The political argument that by allowing universal access to drugs - the cartels will be out out of business -
Very common to hear that all drugs should be legalized and hear this argument in the next breath. Most of the people making this argument seem naive to fact that black markets still exist with legal intoxicants. In the WHO Global status report on alcohol and health 2014, 24.8% of the alcohol consumed was outside of government control. In the US, it was 0.5 liters of a total of 9.2 liters per capita. For tobacco the black market is somewhere between 8.5 and 21% of sales. In Colorado there is currently mixed concern about the possibility that drug traffickers are in plain sight, continuing to grow cannabis in remote areas and transport to other states, but reliable information is not available. In the case of heroin, the current impetus for its use is that it is 25% the cost of diverted pharmaceutical opioids. In the worst case scenario of legalized opioids with no control is it realistic to consider governments regulating heroin at that low cost to consumers? If not it is a recipe for continued uncontrolled black markets.
10. The "You are an prohibitionist" counterargument:
Whenever I present any of my arguments for avoiding intoxicants in the list above, there is the inevitably that some very angry guy accuses me of being a prohibitionist. I don't know how much weight that ad hominem carries but I always find it amusing. If prohibition worked, I would not need to make these arguments. My blog is one of the few places where you can see a graphic of how things went during prohibition and it obviously wasn't good.
Believe me - you can go through life without ever taking a drink, smoking a joint, snorting cocaine, or injecting heroin and not miss it. The best case scenario is that it adds nothing to your quality of life. It is also tempting to think that you have plenty of time to quit later. With that plan many people either never quit or realize when they are 40 years old that they have been in a fog for 20 years. Addictions sneak up on you and steal what should be your most productive years.
In fact none of the people with addictions who I talk to ever started out believing that one day they would end up with an alcohol or drug use problem. Recognizing all of the defective arguments listed above is a good first step. The most important ability to prevent addictions is self correcting abstinence. If you wake up one day and realize you dodged a bullet when you were intoxicated, think long and hard about avoiding that situation again.
If you can't - you may have a serious problem.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Graphic at the top is from:
Lavallee RA, Yi H. Surveillance Report #92: Apparent per capita alcohol consumption: national, state, and regional trends, 1977-2009. US Department of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service. August 2011. Link.