From Sooke to London to Victoria, our confused and destructive attitudes toward drugs and alcohol have been on display of late.
In Sooke, Coun. Herb Haldane urged the RCMP detachment to be more relaxed about enforcing laws against drinking in public. He was concerned that officers had seized beer from hockey players after a game.
The acting commander, Cpl. Scott Hilderley, saw it differently. Sooke has about 50 per cent more alcohol-related files than Ladysmith, which is a comparable size, he noted. The numerous roadside shrines for people killed in alcohol-related crashes show why enforcement is needed.
Haldane was reflecting our attitudes toward alcohol. It's part of our culture and a remarkably popular drug.
But, perhaps because of the way we have chosen to treat other substances, we're reluctant to acknowledge that it is addictive and frequently destructive.
Even raising the issue is risky. In London, British Health Minister Alan Johnson has just fired David Nutt, the government's senior drug adviser. Nutt is a professor and international expert on drug use. His offence was to deliver a lecture, based on recent research, in which he said the evidence showed alcohol and tobacco were more dangerous drugs than ecstasy, LSD or marijuana.
Johnson didn't say he disagreed with those facts. Nutt shouldn't have expressed an opinion on the issue, he said.
Nutt was obviously correct. By any measure -- damage to the body, risk of addiction, social and medical costs, crime -- alcohol and tobacco are more destructive than the three recreational drugs.
Johnson too was just reflecting our collective hypocrisy. Britain has a huge alcohol problem. Binge drinking starts early and persists late into life. Public drunkenness and violence have become embedded in the culture.
Which leads to Victoria and Halloween. It was striking that, despite the disruption of the torch relay, that event and the accompanying protest went off with no arrests, injuries or property damage.
The next night, Halloween, was much different. Police across the region were kept busy with out-of-control parties. Victoria police dealt with even more downtown drunkenness, fights and stupidity than on a typical Saturday night. Two officers were injured keeping the peace.
The common factor in all that was alcohol abuse.
People aren't going to stop drinking. It is, for most, a useful social drug. Used in moderation, it helps people relax and makes them more sociable.
But alcohol is also our second-deadliest recreational drug, trailing well behind tobacco. The medical expenses are tremendous. The social costs are even greater, from family breakdown to lost jobs to the flood of offenders in our courts because of drunken stupidity.
The starting point is to recognize that and craft public policy to limit the damage done. That means enforcement when laws are broken, and taking a second look at the way we promote and encourage alcohol consumption.
Government policy has in recent years treated alcohol much like any other commodity. The number of places where people can buy it has increased from 785 to more than 1,300. At almost any hour of the day or night, a local liquor store is open for business.
Unlike tobacco manufacturers, liquor corporations aren't required to include warnings about the risks.
Almost 60 per cent of B.C. high school students have had a drink even though they are under age. Of that group, 45 per cent reported binge drinking -- consuming five or more drinks within a couple of hours -- within the previous 30 days.
Alcohol remains the drug of choice for our young people, in part because of its falsely benign image. Yet there is plenty of evidence of the damage that alcohol can do.
We need to educate everyone, from children to hockey players to politicians, that it is still possible to have fun while drinking responsibly.
In many countries -- even in other provinces -- liquor is sold in corner stores and at all hours, but does not result in mayhem. A better understanding of alcohol's effects might help us to catch up with other jurisdictions.
Our attitudes and actions toward alcohol are doing us great harm. We must move out of denial and face reality.
November 14, 2009