A reality check on drug use

George Will recently wrote a column on drug policy:

The Economist magazine says this means that more than 200 million people — almost 5 percent of the world’s adult population — take illegal drugs, the same proportion as a decade ago. The annual U.S. bill for attempting to diminish the supply of drugs is $40 billion. Of the 1.5 million Americans arrested each year on drug offenses, half a million are incarcerated. “[T]ougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars,” the Economist said in March.

“There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer.” Do cultural differences explain this? Evidently not: “Even in fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely the same addiction rates.”

The good news is the progress America has made against tobacco, which is more addictive than most illegal drugs. And then there is alcohol.

In “Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson,” historian David S. Reynolds writes that in 1820, Americans spent on liquor a sum larger than the federal government’s budget. By the mid-1820s, annual per capita consumption of absolute alcohol reached seven gallons, more than three times today’s rate. “Most employers,” Reynolds reports, “assumed that their workers needed strong drink for stimulation: a typical workday included two bells, one rung at 11 a.m. and the other at 4 p.m., that summoned employees for alcoholic drinks.”

The elderly Walt Whitman said, “It is very hard for the present generation anyhow to understand the drinkingness of those years. . . . it is quite incommunicable.” In 1842, a Springfield, Ill., teetotaler named Lincoln said that liquor was “like the Egyptian angel of death, commissioned to slay, if not the first, the fairest born in every family.” Which helps explain why the nation sobered up (somewhat — these things are relative). One reason crack cocaine use has declined is that a generation of inner-city young people saw what it did to their parents and older siblings.

Undoubtedly culture changes are critical to changing these behaviors, though it’s my understanding that one reason for those high rates of alcohol consumption was that alcoholic beverages were often safer to drink than the available water.

I’d like to better understand how that culture change happened. Can it occur without heavy moralizing and the formation of temperance societies? It would seem that this culture change eventually culminated in prohibition. Clearly not what George Will has in mind.