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Booze Busting: The New Prohibition

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Sixty-odd years after the repeal of Prohibition, a new anti-alcohol fervor is sweeping the nation. The anti-alcohol mentality is leading to absurd practices:

  • An elementary school in Brandon, Vermont, forced sixth-graders to undergo breath tests to see whether any of them had been consuming alcohol.
  • As lawyer Richard Berman recently noted, “Last Christmas in Georgia, 13-year-old honor student Cosmo Zinkow was suspended for two weeks after giving his teacher a gift-wrapped bottle of wine.”
  • Berman also reported: “Last spring, Adam McMakin, 13, of Portland, Oregon, was suspended for a week after he was seen swallowing a swig of Scope mouthwash at school. McMakin explained that he just didn’t have anywhere to spit. School administrators stood firm on their zero-tolerance policy against alcohol.”

Connecticut parent Dana Mack complained in the Wall Street Journal about that state’s Comprehensive Health Education Curriculum:

  • “In the war on drugs … parents – not pushers – are the enemy. Parents are purported to transmit ‘positive attitudes’ toward drug use and to ‘involve’ their children in it. How? According to the teacher’s guide, when they request children ‘to bring a beer from the refrigerator.’ One exercise in the second-grade lesson plan fairly extracts family confessions. It invites children to send ‘secret messages’ to their teacher about ‘problems at home.’”
  • The federal Office for Substance Abuse Prevention (OSAP), created in 1986, is seeking to foment a prohibitionist mentality opposed to any notion of moderate or responsible drinking. The agency’s official Policy Review Guidelines and Communications Review Guidelines warn: “Materials recommending a designated driver should be rated unacceptable. They encourage heavy alcohol use by implying that it is okay to drink to intoxication as long as you don’t drive.” OSAP publications have labeled alcohol a “poison.” OSAP policy guidelines specify that for kids under 21, there is no difference between alcohol or other drug use and abuse.
  • Federal grants are fueling a crisis mentality towards alcohol. The federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment gave $50,000 to the city of Milwaukee in 1994 to help alcoholics and other addicts suffering additional stress as a result of flooding in 1993. But Milwaukee did not have any floods in 1993. A county report did claim that areas of the central city were “impacted by rain, winds and flood connected to the storm.” As an AP story noted, “That put Milwaukee in line for the $50,000, which is supposed to be earmarked for residents who develop a drug or drinking problem linked to flooding hardships.” County Superintendent Lynne De-Bruin asked, “Is it federal philosophy that if your basement was flooded in the city, it may lead you to drinking and you could get federal money?”

Legislators’ addiction to symbolic gestures against alcohol – combined with government ownership of roads – leads to absurd law-enforcement practices. Ohio has joined many states in banning any open containers of alcohol from vehicles. The Ohio law was widely ridiculed a few years ago after police nailed four women riding in a limousine to a concert at the Blossom Musical Center outside of Cleveland. An undercover police spotter lurking in a row of trees near the music center zeroed in with his binoculars on the limo and claimed that he saw someone in the limo who he suspected was smoking marijuana. The police spy sounded the alert and police cars quickly zoomed in and pulled the limo over. The policemen soon realized that the woman was simply smoking a cigarette. (The “reefer look-alike” pretext basically gives Ohio police the right to stop and search any car with a cigarette smoker inside.) The police searched the limo and found an empty champagne bottle. The women were heavily fined for violating the ban on open alcohol containers – even though the bottle was empty and none of the women was driving. (Police give out up to a thousand tickets a year for open-container violations near the music center alone.) Some Ohio legislators were outraged that people who had effectively hired the ultimate “designated driver” would be hit with fines under a law meant to deter drivers from drinking. Even people on charter buses face fines from the law.

Open-container laws are a good example of a useless gesture towards alcohol abuse that merely gives the police the power to harass harmless drivers. There is no more reason to criminalize an open beer can in a car than to criminalize drivers chewing on Big Macs – and a Big Mac is much more likely to distract a driver who drops gunk on his shirt than is a beer.

When local politicians in Indiana passed a law last year banning open alcohol containers, Col. Clark Jeffires, assistant chief of the New Albany, Indiana, police, commented: “I think most officers think this law is somewhat ludicrous. It’s not helpful…. Law or no law, any responsible police officer will at least follow a drinking driver and test for drunkenness if there is a good reason to suspect it.”

Perhaps the most harmful example of the anti-alcohol bias in recent legislation occurred in 1984, when Congress and President Reagan jammed a new minimum drinking age of 21 down the throats of 26 states. In an election year, politicians wanted to appear to be taking action against drunk drivers – and seizing control over state drinking laws was one of the easiest ways to do that. Upon signing the bill, Reagan declared, “We know that drinking, plus driving, spell death and disaster. We know that people in the 18 to 20 age group are more likely to be in alcohol-related accidents than those in any other age group.” (This is likely always to be true of the youngest age group of legal drinkers.) Reagan concluded, “With the problem so clear-cut and the proven solution at hand, we have no misgiving about this judicious use of federal power.”

Congress voted to withhold 10 percent of federal highway construction funds from states that refused to “jump through the hoop” and raise their drinking age to 21. The U.S. solicitor general, arguing a suit against the law for the Reagan administration, told the Supreme Court that “the inability to have one’s cake and eat it too does not demonstrate coercion.” The brief forgot to mention that the cake had been paid for by the states. Even though the highway construction funds come from the user taxes paid by citizens in every state when they buy gasoline, Congress still feels entitled to slap any restriction that flatters its own power-mongering on the money’s use. South Dakota sued the U.S. government over the law, and the case was eventually decided by the Supreme Court. (Gov. George Mickelson denounced the law as “blackmail.”) South Dakota in the early 1980s launched its own anti-drunk-driving campaign and had already sharply reduced the number of young people involved in drunk driving fatalities, and saw no need to slash the drinking age.

Though the 21st Amendment explicitly states that the power to regulate alcohol is vested solely in the states, Chief Justice Rehnquist and colleagues upheld the law, declaring that it was merely a “relatively mild encouragement to the states to enact higher minimum drinking age than they would otherwise choose.”

Perhaps the clearest effect of the 1984 law was to create an “epidemic” of underage drinking. Congress created millions of new criminals with a simplistic public-relations gesture designed to grab a few votes. Congress knew at the time that it tried to wave its magic legislative wand that older teenagers and 20-year-olds, especially those in college, would not suddenly bow to politicians’ wishes and never touch another drop until their 21st birthday. In effect, Congress and President Reagan chose to turn millions of people into criminals – to turn them into scofflaws by enacting a law which deserved to be scoffed. A survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 74 percent of college freshmen had a drink in the previous month.

Even some alcohol-abuse experts opposed the age-21 drinking law. Morris Chafetz, the founding director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said: “The law sets off a psychology of forbidden fruit among young people that gives alcohol an attractiveness it doesn’t deserve.” Tom Goodale, vice president for student affairs at Virginia Tech, observed, “By making drinking illegal under the age of 21, we have glorified the ritual, put it on a pedestal. That’s why we get all the drinking games and the abusive behavior. And that’s why we don’t have the moral standing to teach responsible drinking to young adults. Our value structure is all wrong.”

Prohibitionist fervor lurks behind many of the restrictions on alcohol. As sociologist David Hanson notes in his 1996 book Preventing Alcohol Abuse, “The assumptions of American prohibitionism” are that “alcohol consumption is sinful and dangerous; it results in problem behavior; and drinking in any degree is equally undesirable because moderate social drinking is the forerunner of social inebriation.” The Clinton administration, in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in 1995, repeatedly characterized beer drinking as a “socially harmful” activity.

However, medical research is proving that moderate alcohol consumption can be a lifesaver. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has recognized the health benefits of moderate boozing; the institute declared in 1992 that there was “a growing body of scientific research and other data that seems to provide evidence that low levels of drinking decrease the risk of death from coronary artery disease.” The New England Journal of Medicine recommended moderate alcohol consumption as one of the nine “primary prevention” methods for avoiding heart disease and concluded that low-to-moderate drinkers have up to a 45 percent lower chance of being hit by a heart attack.

The lesson of all these public policy outrages is clear: Life is short – drink good beer!

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.