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DPA Reform Conference Day 2: Why Aren’t We Reforming Alcohol?

Russ Belville

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The most valuable thing you acquire from attending the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) biennial International Reform Conference is knowledge from outside your comfort zone. Especially in this age of Facebook News Feeds tailored to spoon-feed us those opinions with which we already agree, it’s more important than ever to hear from people who do not share your background, religion, sexuality, carceral status, politics or drug of choice. On Day Two of the event, a hard question was asked: Why aren’t we reforming alcohol? 

Day 2 of the DPA Reform Conference

DPA Reform Conference Day 2: Why Aren't We Reforming Alcohol?

One such moment came to me as I listened to Dan Riffle, a former staffer with Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), speaking on a panel alongside Steve Fox, who also worked for MPP, about the possible ways we can legalize marijuana.

Riffle’s no prohibitionist, but he does share some concerns about the commercialization of cannabis for profit that faintly echo Kevin Sabet’s “Big Marijuana” talking points.

Unlike Sabet, Riffle is intellectually honest, very well-researched and informed on the true nature of cannabis and supports nothing like the rehab-users-and-jail-growers approach of Project SAM.

As Riffle made his point, he talked about a metaphorical public policy threshold we’ve established through our “Marijuana is Safer than Alcohol” messaging pioneered by Fox (along with NORML’s Paul Armentano and Amendment 64’s Mason Tvert).

“We have a tremendous alcohol problem in our country, and one of the reasons… is that our alcohol laws are way, way, way too lax,” Riffle contended. “It’s also right that marijuana is much safer than alcohol. When Steve says that rules around marijuana should be no more restrictive than they are for alcohol, in a vacuum, I agree with him.

“But we don’t live in a vacuum,” Riffle continued. “The fact of the matter is we set the bar way, way too low for alcohol. So, when we think about how do we set the rules for marijuana, we should think about how do we set the rules for marijuana. We shouldn’t say, how do we set the rules for marijuana vis-à-vis alcohol because then we’re in a race to the bottom, where we’ve got this bar that’s way too low for alcohol, and we’re going even further under that for marijuana.”

It’s a compelling point that Riffle underscored later by pointing out how we had recognized the bar was too low for tobacco, then changed public policy to raise the bar.

When I was young, there was Joe Camel, candy cigarettes, Winston Cup racing and smoking sections in child-friendly restaurants. Now, cigarette advertising is nearly banned, smokes are kept behind locked counters in stores and an increasing number of states are raising their smoking age to 21.

The Drug Policy Reform Movement’s Big Challenge

DPA Reform Conference Day 2: Why Aren't We Reforming Alcohol?

Riffle challenged the audience by noting our movement’s gripe with media that don’t consider alcohol a drug, like discussing those with “drug problems” and not including alcoholics, or saying “drugs and alcohol” which suggests they’re different things.

“We in the drug policy reform movement don’t include alcohol ourselves, in our own work, in our own reform efforts,” he said. “[But] it is a deadly drug. It is arguably the most harmful drug in our society. Heroin is more harmful in an acute sense, but to the extent that alcohol’s more widely used, in large part because our laws are so lax, it is arguably the most harmful and deadly drug in our society.”

I think Riffle’s on to something.

Think about how shocked and appalled we’ve been lately about the opioid overdose crisis that’s killed 60,000 people in the United States in 2016.

Alcohol killed 88,000 every year from 2006-2010, according to the CDC.

Think about the scandal and horror of learning about Congress’ and Big Pharma’s complicity in unleashing the opioid overdose crisis, as revealed in this weekend’s 60 Minutes.

The alcohol industry spent almost $24 million lobbying Congress in 2016.

Why Aren’t We Reforming Alcohol?

DPA Reform Conference Day 2: Why Aren't We Reforming Alcohol?

I attended many of the breakout sessions at #Reform17 and spoke to many drug reformers over three days.

While we drank a lot of (complimentary!) beer, wine and cocktails, there wasn’t a single panel, session or community event that addressed reforming alcohol policy. (To be fair, there was discussion of alcohol harm reduction and alcohol dependence recovery, but nothing along the lines of “here’s what we ought to do about alcohol advertising, drunk driving, ease of alcohol access, etc.”)

Could it be we like alcohol policy just the way it is, 88,000 deaths be damned?

Harm reduction was an ever-recurring theme at the conference, from the discussions around safe injection facilities and overdose-curing Naloxone access to the presentations on club-drug testing and drug interaction warning.

Speakers often alluded to the need to end the criminalization of all people who are buying, selling or producing any drugs.

Well, that’s what we have for alcohol, and 88,000 people die from it every year. That’s not even considering all the societal problems, like domestic violence and crime, that are fueled by alcohol.

Legalizing marijuana provides us the luxury of setting policy for something that’s obviously safer than that, so our agnosticism toward alcohol policy doesn’t hurt our position much. But as we begin moving on to ending the criminalization of other drugs that do have lethal consequences and can be more societally disruptive, we’ll have to address the drunken elephant in the room.

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