We've all been there. You have a few drinks, and they next thing you know, you're smoking crack.
What? That doesn't ring true for you? You've consumed alcohol on many occasions, but you've never smoked crack?
As it turns out, you're not alone. Survey data indicate that 82 percent of Americans have consumed alcohol, but only 3 percent have tried crack; another 11 percent have consumed cocaine in powder form.
So why did Toronto Mayor Rob Ford think he was helping his case when he confessed last month that he "probably" smoked crack "in one of my drunken stupors"? Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) seemed to have a similar idea after he was busted for cocaine possession a couple of weeks ago. "I struggle with the disease of alcoholism," he said, "and this led to an extremely irresponsible choice."
These excuses say a lot about the mysterious powers people ascribe to alcohol, which they blame for all manner of bad behavior but nevertheless perceive as morally superior to politically disfavored intoxicants such as cocaine. The double standard is especially glaring in the cases of Ford and Radel, both of whom correctly anticipated that occasional cocaine consumption would be perceived as more scandalous than habitual drunkenness. But whether the subject is legal or illegal drugs, the failure to understand the importance of the context in which they are consumed makes it hard to have an intelligent discussion.
In their insightful 1969 book Drunken Comportment, the psychologist Craig MacAndrew and the anthropologist Robert Edgerton refuted the idea that alcohol has a predictable, mechanistic impact on behavior. "With alcohol inside us," they observed, "our comportment may change in any of a wondrously profuse variety of ways." There are happy drunks and sad drunks, outgoing drunks and shy drunks, loud drunks and quiet drunks, mean drunks and maudlin drunks, violent drunks and affectionate drunks, amorous drunks and impotent drunks. Even more puzzling, these opposites may be the same people on different occasions.
MacAndrew and Edgerton described societies where people would get falling-down drunk without any dramatic changes in demeanor and others where people routinely got into bloody fights after drinking. Within the same society, people drinking in a ceremonial context would be peaceful and friendly, while people drinking in a less structured situation would be raucous and violent, even though the amounts consumed were comparable.
MacAndrew and Edgerton concluded that "drunken comportment is essentially a learned affair….The way people comport themselves when drunk is determined not by alcohol's toxic assault upon the seat of moral judgment, conscience, or the like, but by what their society makes of and imparts to them concerning the state of drunkenness."
If we expect people to be rude, aggressive, and noisy when they drink—as Rob Ford tends to be—they are more likely to act that way. If we believe drinkers cannot reasonably be expected to control themselves, people will tend to cite alcohol as an excuse for embarrassing or antisocial behavior. And if we call habitual drunkenness a "disease," as Trey Radel does, we discourage people from exercising self-control, because a disease is something that happens to you against your will, not something that you do.
Rising to Ford's defense in Time, David Sheff, author of Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America's Greatest Tragedy, explains that the mayor could not help himself. "Addicts' brains become hijacked by drugs," Sheff writes. "Brain regions associated with judgment, cognition, restraint and moderation are as good as dismantled, causing impulsivity, an unrestrained desire for pleasure, and cloudy thinking to dominate." This kind of prophecy tends to be self-fulfilling.
The conventional view of alcoholism, and of addiction more generally, is incoherent. Although it is supposedly a disease, the predominant form of treatment in the United States is a kind of faith healing that requires the addict to acknowledge his powerlessness and surrender himself to God (a.k.a. "a higher power"). At the same time, the 12-step process requires addicts to take responsibility for their behavior and try to make amends for it. How can they be responsible for their behavior if it is caused by a disease over which they have no control?
In any event, as the psychiatrist Norman Zinberg pointed out in his classic 1986 book Drug, Set, and Setting, what is true of alcohol is true of other psychoactive substances: The way people respond to them is determined by a complex interaction of chemistry and context, a process in which values and beliefs play a crucial role. If we expect bad behavior, we will get more of it.