America is rushing headlong toward legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. A growing majority—54 percent as of a Pew survey released just last month—favor legalization, and an even larger majority of millennials (69 percent) feels the same way. Colorado and Washington are the first states to move decisively in this direction, but they won’t be the last. I basically think this is an OK development. Like Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at UCLA who is my guru on the regulation of controlled substances, I see full commercial legalization as a truly terrible idea, while I think noncommercial legalization, ideally via monopolies owned and operated by state governments, would be an improvement over the status quo. Regardless, marijuana legalization is coming, one way or another.
One thing that is really striking about the new Pew data is that 69 percent of Americans believe, correctly, that alcohol is more harmful to society than marijuana. When asked if alcohol would still be more harmful to society than marijuana if marijuana were just as easy to get a hold of as alcohol is now, 63 percent said that yes, it would be. Most people see marijuana’s relative harmlessness as a reason for us to regulate marijuana as lightly as we regulate alcohol. I see things differently. The fact that alcohol is more harmful to society than marijuana is a reason to regulate alcohol more stringently than we regulate marijuana. In other words, let’s ease up on marijuana Prohibition and ramp up good old-fashioned alcohol Prohibition. More precisely I favor something like what the libertarian journalist Greg Beato calls, and not in a nice way, “Prohibition Lite.”
Though it is true that I was raised in a Muslim household, it is not my intention to impose sharia law on you and yours. As someone who came to drinking late in life, I still marvel at its disinhibiting effects and I genuinely appreciate the good it can do by, essentially, helping awkward people have fun. I also think there is much to be said for psychoactive substances like MDMA, or Molly, which have enormous therapeutic potential.
But alcohol is crazily dangerous, and it needs to be more tightly controlled. Everyone knows that Prohibition was a disaster. What most of us forget is that the movement for Prohibition arose because alcohol abuse actually was destroying American society in the first decades of the 20th century, and the strictly-regulated post-Prohibition alcohol market was shaped by still-fresh memories of the pre-Prohibition era.
For a nightmare vision of where heavy drinking can lead a society, consider Russia, where the pervasiveness of binge drinking contributes to an epidemic of cardiovascular disease and a death rate from fatal injuries that you’d normally see in wartime. Political economist Nicholas Eberstadt has gone so far as to suggest that drunkenness is a key reason why Russia, a country with universal literacy and a level of educational attainment that is (technically) in the same ballpark as countries like Australia and Sweden, has roughly the same living standards as Ecuador.
Closer to home, Great Britain has seen a staggering increase in alcohol consumption since the 1990s, much of it among teenagers. Tim Heffernan, writing in the Washington Monthly, has attributed Britain’s binge-drinking crisis to its laissez-faire alcohol market, which has allowed for the vertical integration of the liquor business. America has been shielded from U.K.–style liquor conglomerates by those post-Prohibition regulations that inflate the cost of making, moving, and selling booze, but that’s now changing thanks to big multinationals like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, which are working hand in glove with national retail chains like Costco to make alcohol as cheap and accessible as they can.
Why would I, a great lover of the free enterprise system, want the alcohol market to be more heavily regulated? Precisely because I’m a believer in the power of the profit motive, I understand how deadly it can be when the product being sold is intoxication. For-profit businesses exist to increase sales. The most straightforward way to do that is not to encourage everyone to drink moderately, but to focus on the small minority of people who drink the most. That is exactly what liquor companies do, and they’ll do more of it if we let Big Liquor have its way. In Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, the authors estimate that at current beer prices, it costs about $5 to $10 to get drunk, or a dollar or two per drunken hour. To get a sense of what the world would look like if that price fell significantly, go to a typical town square in England on a weekend night, where alcohol-fueled violence is rampant, or to Russia, where the ruling class has used cheap vodka as a tool to keep the population drunk, passive, and stupid for generations.
We shouldn’t be satisfied with keeping the per dollar cost of getting drunk where it is today. We should make it higher. Much higher. Kleiman and his colleagues Jonathan P. Caulkins and Angela Hawken have suggested tripling the federal alcohol tax from 10 cents a drink to 30 cents a drink, an increase that they estimate would prevent 6 percent of homicides and 6 percent of motor vehicle deaths, thus sparing 3,000 lives (1,000 from the drop in homicides, 2,000 from safer highways) every year. Charging two-drink-per-day drinkers an extra $12 per month seems like a laughably small price to pay to deter binge drinking. Then, of course, there is the fact that a higher alcohol tax would also raise revenue. If you’re going to tax tanning beds and sugary soft drinks, why on earth wouldn’t you raise alcohol taxes too? If anything, 30 cents a drink isn’t high enough. Let’s raise the alcohol tax to a point just shy of where large numbers of people will start making illegal moonshine in their bathtubs.
Kleiman et al. have also suggested creating separate “drinking licenses.” Bars wouldn’t just check the IDs of the young-looking. They’d check everyone’s drinking licenses, and those who’ve had them revoked for some reason (drunk driving, let’s say) would be bounced. A related reform would actually lower the drinking age, to get underage drinking out of the shadows and to socialize older teenagers into drinking responsibly.
I would go further. Libertarians like Beato can’t stand former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his constant efforts to reduce the smoking rate, which have succeeded in reducing smoking while dramatically raising the costs borne by poor smokers. For example, Beato reports that smokers earning less than $30,000 a year now spend almost a quarter of their income on cigarettes, or twice as much as they did a decade ago. Yet even Bloomberg’s harshest critics acknowledge that smoking rates have declined. Rather remarkably, New York City’s adult smoking rate is 14 percent, well below the nationwide rate of 19.3 percent. This is despite the fact that the five boroughs are chock full of immigrants from countries where smoking is all the rage. And it’s not just because of higher cigarette taxes. Apart from banning smoking in restaurants, bars, and public parks, Bloomberg used a series of social marketing campaigns to sell people, and particularly young people, on the dangers of smoking.
Recently, Derek Thompson of the Atlantic riffed on new research from the marketing professors Caleb Warren and Margaret C. Thompson, who argue that “coolness” is “a measured violation of malign expectations.” Instead of simply warning young people of the dangers of drunkenness, we need to make binge drinking seem mainstream and thus lame. This will be extremely difficult because, as I’ve learned to my detriment, being drunk can be quite fun—until you wet the bed or start murdering people.