Is Alcohol a Drug?

To a pharmacologist, that question is a little bit like “Is water a liquid?” Alcohol is not just a drug, but the archetypal drug: the drug most widely used and the drug that causes the most addiction, disease, and violence.

But in ordinary usage, the word “drug” does not include alcohol. If I told you that someone was a drug dealer, you’d be surprised if I meant only that he was a bar owner. If I said that an incident of unplanned sex was due to the use of a date-rape drug, you’d be surprised if what I meant was that the victim was drunk. The National Institute on Drug Abuse does not study the abuse of alcohol, which has an institute all its own.

That linguistic distinction is both an effect and a cause of the fact that “drug” (meaning intoxicant) has been given a strongly negative connotation. A drinker told that he is a “drug user” will be offended as well as puzzled.

Calling alcohol a drug has two great practical advantages, in addition to its accuracy. It would remind drinkers that, when they take a drink, they’re interacting with something that could be dangerous. And by reminding drinkers and non-drinkers alike that “drugs” and “drug use” are familiar rather than exotic, and potentially dangerous rather than inherently evil, it would somewhat soften the negative emotional valence now attached to “drug use.” There’s nothing wrong with smoking pot, any more than there’s anything wrong with drinking beer. The question is always one of time, place, person, quantity, circumstance, intention, and behavior.

All of that connects to a debate about both ideas and tactics going on among proponents of cannabis legalization. The debate concerns what to say about alcohol.

One faction wants to ally with the alcohol industry under the banner of “We’re all anti-prohibitionists together.” That ducks a possible fight with a powerful financial and political force and allows pot advocates to piggy-back on the only partly true but politically potent idea that “Prohibition was a failure.” Apparently at least some of the booze folks are willing to go along, at least passively.

The other faction wants to make alcohol the target. “How can you possibly support banning pot when the alcohol you use is so much more dangerous?” That argument puts legalization advocates on the right side of the “drug abuse” issue, and has great surface plausibility, though neither of the missing premises – that current alcohol policy is appropriate for alcohol or that legal cannabis will reduce problem drinking – is supported by evidence, and the first of them is absurdly wrong. But making that argument runs into the problem that most voters drink, and many of them would be put off by criticism of their favorite drug.

As an anti-culture-warrior, I rather dislike the “Your drug is nastier than mine” argument, even though on almost every dimension save familiarity alcohol is indeed much nastier than cannabis. On the other hand, anything that brings our emerging policy toward legal cannabis closer to our current unsatisfactory policy toward alcohol strikes me as a thoroughly bad idea, and I’d rather see the power of the emerging pot industry fighting the power of the established alcohol industry rather than allied with in opposition to rules to protect public health and safety.

Asking the question “What claim, if accepted by the voters, would lead to the best policy toward alcohol and cannabis?” rather than the question “What claim, if persistently made, would most advance the cause of cannabis legalization?” I would answer:

Alcohol and cannabis are both intoxicating and sometimes addictive drugs. Alcohol intoxication has greater behavioral risks, especially of violent crime and reckless sexual behavior; alcohol is more physically toxic; and alcohol addiction is both more common among drinkers than cannabis addiction is among cannabis-smokers and, on average, harder to recover from. Users of either drug – and, even more, users of both drugs in combination – ought to be aware of those risks, which the sellers of those drugs will do their best to minimize. Public policies ought to make both drugs available for responsible adult use while strongly discouraging problem use with high taxes, marketing restrictions, and (at least for alcohol) temporary bans on sales to, and use by, people convicted of drunken driving or drunken assault.

Of course, trying to take the Manichaean tendency out of American politics is like trying to take the white out of snow. The desire to divide everything into categories of “good” and “evil,” with no room for “possibly beneficial but risky,” is among our national vices, and it’s a vice far more addictive and destructive even than cigarette smoking. It leads, for example, to the idea that any drug – or, for that matter, any commodity or activity – not dangerous enough to prohibit must therefore be safe enough to sell without limit and promote without restriction. In reality, nothing is absolutely and ineradicably evil save boiling vegetables and voting Republican.

Whether fighting Manichaen thinking is good political tactics I can’t tell you. But I can tell you it’s pious work.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.