Cancel the War and Fix the Wounded

Most people don't overindulge. Some do. Let's help the ones who need it, and leave the rest alone.


Never let anybody tell you Americans like to get drunk. That is not accurate. The truth is that Americans like to get not just a little giddy, not just mildly intoxicated, but draaauuuwwwwwnk. Loud, slobbery, try-to-sit-down-and-miss-the-couch drunk.

So reports the Centers for Disease Control, which says one in six Americans go on a binge at least once a month. This is 2 percentage points higher than the CDC found the last time. Even so, the new figure is probably a "substantial underestimate," says the head of the CDC's alcohol program, Robert Brewer (!), because people tend to under-report their own misbehavior. (No word on whether the study is weighted to account for those poor sots so hung over they couldn't even pick up the phone.)

Most binge drinkers don't go on a tear just once a month, though—they do it more than four times a month, which probably means every weekend. And most binge drinkers have eight or more drinks per session. Not surprisingly, such intemperance inflicts tremendous social costs: More than $224 billion – $746 per person—per year. That, friends, is even more than the annual cost of smoking.

This is interesting in its own right—but it gets more interesting when you note three other things.

First, the CDC attributes 72 percent of the social cost of heavy drinking to lost workplace productivity. Only 11 percent of the cost comes from alcohol-incurred medical expenses. (Law enforcement and vehicular-crash expenses make up the bulk of the rest.)

Second, many of the arguments for government intervention in Americans' personal lives today rest on similar considerations. The campaign against obesity, for instance, is driven in no small measure by estimates of its aggregate economic toll: Roughly $150 billion a year, according to the CDC. As with boozing, many of the costs are imputed: The CDC counts not only medical expenses directly related to obesity, but also "the value of income lost from decreased productivity, restricted activity, absenteeism, and bed days," as well as "the value of future income lost by premature death."

Similarly, the war on illegal drugs is heavily driven by imputed social costs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy says illegal drug use costs society $181 billion annually. But: "Over two-thirds (71.3 percent) of the costs of drug abuse are attributed to lost productivity." It also notes that $39 billion of that lost productivity results from incarceration, so this "is not a cost of drug abuse but, rather, the costs of current [drug-control] policies."

Actual health costs from drug abuse? Less than 9 percent of the total. The reason you can't buy narcotics over the counter, then, seems to have just as much to do with other people's desire that you maximize your economic output as with their concern for your continued well-being by itself. Put another way, a big chunk of the concern about drug abuse arises not from altruistic paternalism (it's for your own good) but from selfish paternalism (it's for everyone else's).

The third interesting thing is that even though the rationale for both forms of prohibition is essentially the same, and even though the costs of alcohol abuse are higher than those of drug abuse (true, the gap might shrink if drugs were decriminalized), America no longer forbids drinking. We tried that, for 13 years, and it didn't work. It was, in fact, a disaster.

So the country switched from paternalism to altruism, in the genuine sense. We allow people to pursue their own good as they define it—not as someone else defines it for them. Society lets people drink as much as they want, so long as they don't endanger others. Even if that means some of them don't always come out of the chute at 110 miles an hour on Monday morning.

And it works. Most people don't overindulge. Some do. Some of those develop a drinking problem. And when someone with a drinking problem needs help, we provide it.

So why not try the same approach with other drugs—starting with marijuana? After all: If prohibition reduced drug consumption, then the U.S. could have declared victory long ago. From 2002 to 2009, national drug-control funding rose 39 percent. Drug arrests exceeded 1 million a year—roughly half of those for pot, of which 9 in 10 busts were for simple possession. Yet the rate of illicit drug use rose—from 8.3 percent to 8.7 percent. Some victory.

Maybe it's time to stop fighting the war, and start fixing the wounded.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.