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September 8, 2008

Rethinking Responsibility and Prohibition


Here is something about the maddening way we treat responsibility.


It is possible, in this country, for an 18-year-old to enlist in the military and get the highest possible security clearance in order to work with highly sensitive multi-million dollar communications equipment. It is not permissible, however, for that same 18-year-old to stop on his way home from doing that and buy a six pack of beer.


That kind of paradox is only possible if you don’t think about it too much.


Then again, the way we treat intoxicating substances has never been based on anything resembling sensible thought. Mostly what we do is simply make them off limits, or restrict access to them. So far, this approach has never achieved the desired goal of stopping people from using the stuff. The same is true if you’re talking alcohol or marijuana.


It’s encouraging to see a number of college presidents across the country open up debate on the issue by suggesting that we address dangerous binge drinking by lowering the drinking age.


There is merit to the counter argument, which is that lowering the drinking age means increasing the number of drunks on the road. This is what Mothers Against Drunk Driving responded with.


The two are different issues. That’s to say that we should wish to lower both binge drinking and drunken driving, none of which are simply going to go away by keeping the drinking age at 21.


A more helpful approach would be if MADD advocated for more money for more, better and cheap public transportation, and providing places where people who’ve had too much to drink can park overnight without fear of being towed or ticketed. Make the penalties stiff enough, and people will have plenty of motivation to do the right thing.


We might be a few years away from something like that, which unfortunately means that we’re probably even farther away from a sensible approach to narcotics.


The war on drugs has never affected the availability of drugs. In fact, a study a few years ago uncovered the fact that high school kids have easier and more ready access to illegal drugs than they do legal substances like tobacco and beer, but which are tightly regulated.


For this, we sink millions and millions of dollars every year into police agencies, and fill up prisons with people who haven’t committed violent crimes. Tough laws, which always sound good for politicians on the stump (bullies naturally target those who won’t or can’t fight back), haven’t done a thing.


Prohibition of drugs has been just as effective and successful as prohibition of alcohol was early last century. That’s to say that we’re still making the same basic mistake in assuming that people can be legislated into making good choices or that morality and the law are the same thing.


They’ve never been, which accounts for why no attempt to outlaw intoxicants has ever turned into anything but a dismal failure.


A sensible approach requires that we first figure out what’s worked and what hasn’t. Since everything we’ve done has failed, that’ll be a simple and short process. But that requires being honest with ourselves about it and what we’re trying to do.


With drugs, that means rethinking the entire idea of prohibition. Considering the failures of prohibition is also wise when addressing the drinking age, but even more important is being broad-minded enough to try to achieve two good things at once, rather than assume that they have to be at odds.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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