I have spent my life in and around alcoholism. A recovering alcoholic myself, I worked at Promises in Malibu before founding Loft 107, the first sober living facility in New York City. I'm the cofounder of TheFix.com, a web site about addiction and treatment. I'm also an interventionist, the guy who gets called in when a family is at their wit's end. While I deal with clients in recovery every day at Loft 107, my work takes me everywhere, from schools to court and even into prisons. It was in the last of these where I found myself last week.
The scene: visiting day at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, NY. As I sat with a client, I watched a family playing Uno. Everyone was there -- two boys, aged 8 and 10, their mother, and their grandparents. As visiting hours wound down, the boys had tears streaming down their faces at once again having to leave their father, who is in prison serving a marijuana distribution charge. Were marijuana legal, this man might have been called an entrepreneur instead of a criminal. But it's not, and he's not. Is it his fault that he is where he is? Of course it is. But all the devils are here, including the alcohol lobby. Money from big booze is protecting a monopoly, and society is paying the price. The solution: It's time to legalize weed. Why? Because not only could legalized marijuana provide a tax revenue stream for funding treatment and recovery programs, it could also eliminate the high cost of incarceration and the emotional toll it takes on families.
People often wonder why someone in my position would advocate for diversified legal intoxication. After all, I'm an advocate for total sobriety, not just the state of being booze-free. My reasons are many, but the most notable is what the alcohol monopoly is doing to our communities and our families. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous intoxicants in existence -- it is estimated that it costs $200 billion a year to repair the destruction it wreaks. But you won't hear about that if you asked the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a powerful lobby with the singular goal of keeping taxes on alcohol low. On their Facebook page, the council touts its many "achievements," among them the suggestion that they contribute more than $100 billion to the economy a year. While that may be true in the simplest sense, I asked them whether they'd thought of doing the math on the contribution minus the cost. "Don't you owe the taxpayer $100 billion?" I wrote. They unfriended me. (Credit where credit is due: The Council is very good at what they do. Many states haven't raised taxes on alcohol in generations.)
According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 2,500,000 worldwide annual deaths caused by alcohol. Given the challenge of accurate reporting about impairment, I would guess it's even higher than that. What's more, a simple death toll also takes no account of the life-altering disabilities caused by alcohol abuse or the many diseases that are fueled by its use. So let's compare. How many annual deaths are directly related to the use of marijuana? Zero. Yes, zero. A stoner may not always be so, but the data is clear: Marijuana is a far safer method of intoxication than alcohol.
Yes, alcohol is legal. No one is trying to change that. Which means that the alcohol industry, such as California Beer and Beverage distributors, can focus on quashing all attempts to expand the methods of legal intoxication. There's a huge benefit, after all, to being the only one of its kind: the business is recession-proof. And somehow culturally acceptable, despite all the evidence of its insidious effect. The war on drugs hasn't been a failure as far as they're concerned, but a total victory.
Don't get me wrong. I think drug abuse is a terrible thing too. At the moment, the country is rightfully focused on prescription painkillers and the high rates of overdose. I support that. But I'm also well aware that it is the mix of prescription pills with alcohol that is often the lethal cocktail. In other words, we're going after one suspect in crime committed by a team of two (or more). Keeping marijuana criminalized makes sense for nobody except the alcohol industry. Because of it, they keep their monopoly on legal intoxication.
Chatting with those grandparents during the check out process at Fishkill, I found out that they've been somewhat shocked to find themselves caring for two little boys instead of enjoying their retirement. But they're dedicated to keeping their son involved with his children and they therefore make the two-hour drive every week to bring those boys to visiting day. They're showing signs of their age, but they're steadfast in their determination to hold their family together.
It's easy to dismiss this fractured family and easy to blame their father for their plight. After all, he broke the law. But did anyone stay sober because of this family's plight? Did the community benefit? No. So who is this good for? No one but the Distilled Spirits Council. But don't ask them about it on Facebook. Because they'll probably unfriend you if you do.