Nelson: Banning what we crave never actually works

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Yes, it might be time to close down the bars and shutter those liquor stores across Alberta.

After all, Opposition Leader Jason Kenney says he doesn’t want addicts being aided in injecting poison into their bodies, as that’s not a long-term solution to addiction.

Now Kenney was addressing the issue of safe consumption sites for another type of drug, but unless you are a hypocrite, what’s good – or bad – for opioid addicts should be the same for boozers.

Of course, one is so deeply ingrained into society that banning it would spell electoral defeat for any politician or party suggesting such a scheme. But booze is nevertheless a potent poison and a serious killer. In fact, there are more hospital bed admissions in Canada for alcohol-related conditions than for heart attacks.

According to a recent report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, alcohol poisoning, alcohol withdrawal, liver disease, chronic alcohol abuse and other conditions that are “100 per cent caused by the harmful consumption of alcohol” account for 77,000 admissions to hospital in this country in a year.

And that doesn’t include the huge number of people treated in emergencies following drunken brawls, booze-induced domestic violence, serious falls and car crashes involving over-the-limit driving.

In 2015 alone, there were 5,082 alcohol-attributable deaths in Canada and the cost to society was estimated at $14 billion. Those are big numbers, even dwarfing the harm done by the current opioid epidemic. Yet, we have thousands of safe injection sites across the land. Kenney’s probably visited a few.

But banning booze would be stupid, because we know it would not work. Yet somehow, we don’t use the same logic for other drugs, and suggest that tougher enforcement will put an end to such addiction. It never has and never will.

The expression “blind drunk” arose during Prohibition, after people resorted to downing dreadful hooch containing enough methanol to turn them blind. The U.S. government actually helped matters along in 1927 by increasing the amount of methanol in industrial alcohol, hoping that would stop people from drinking it. It didn’t work – over three days in Manhattan alone, 33 folk died of poisoning.

These days, people risk death swallowing painkillers for a high despite knowing such pills could contain a deadly amount of opium derivative. Sadly, we cling to our vices.

So what did banning booze achieve? Certainly, it didn’t stop consumption, which increased in the latter years before Prohibition’s U.S. repeal in 1933. It did result in an orgy of gangland violence, because the trafficking and sale of contraband liquor offered huge payback. Again, it’s no different with today’s drug-dealing gangs.

Is there an answer? Yes, make it all legal with standard, non-lethal dosages and then start the long, slow grind of changing people’s behaviour. Really, why do we need to smoke dope, slug whisky, gamble away our life savings, or swallow a tub of ice cream at midnight? It is our mental health we need help with, but that takes resources, understanding and, most of all, time.

Does it work? Well, take another vicious killer – cigarette smoking. How many folk has it claimed down the years? Banning it wouldn’t have worked – heaven knows what noxious stuff we’d have smoked instead. But education, increased taxation, advertising bans and social pressure have turned a once glamorous activity into a social stigma. Soon, we can apply similar tactics to marijuana.

Buried in the latest Alberta Finance update is an interesting snippet. One area where the province is bringing in less-than-forecast revenue is cigarette taxes. That downward trend continues and is saving countless lives and billions in health costs.

It hasn’t been easy, but it has been relentless. And it works. Simply denigrating people as weak, because their addiction is not as socially accepted as that of your peers, and then suggesting tougher enforcement is the answer, is simplistic at best. Furthermore, it’s doomed to abject failure.

Chris Nelson is a Calgary writer.

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