23 September 2009

Lush Ethics

They say a true friend holds her girlfriend's hair back when she is drunk and vomiting.

While excessive drinking and drug use are closely correlated with illegal behavior (a stunningly large percentage of people who are arrested are under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time), in many communities there is entire subcultural set of norms are shared by people who are drunk or on drugs. Notably, people with good jobs and college educations very rarely end up in prison for their conduct while drunk or on drugs, even though neither a good job nor a college education is a a good predictor of abstinence. The people who get drunk or use drugs, and then do something illegal, and then get caught, and then are punished severely, are overwhelmingly ill educated and poor, in addition to having substance abuse problems.

There are norms about not snitching and about how impaired someone can be before it is inappropriate to make sexual advances towards them. There are norms regarding who pays, who shares and what obligations sharing carries. There are norms regarding etiquette lapses that should be ignored when the person making them is drunk, and regarding those which should not be ignored. There are norms about what one should do when some one's life appears to be in danger because they drank too much or overdosed on drugs. One of most powerful of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving advertising campaigns sought to change these subcultural norms in the area of drinking and driving ("friends don't let friends drive drunk"), rather than the law itself.

Perhaps some drugs do swiftly and almost inevitably lead users to ruin. Crack cocaine used to have a reputation for creating instant addiction, even though subsequent research cast serious doubt on that conclusion. A current round of public service announcements are trying to make the case to the public with regard to methamphetamines.

There are sustained P.R. efforts to develop an image of other drugs, most notably, marijuana, as mostly harmless. These efforts have had great success in cities like Denver, which recently voted to decriminalize the use of small quantities of marijuana, an effort that cannot, however, repeal applicable state and federal laws.

The rise and fall of tobacco smoking in the United States, which was more than 50% higher than it is now in the 1970s and 1980s, was not so much a direct response to health research or legal sanctions as it was an indirect consequence of changes in social norms driven by health research. Notably, reducing smoking is one of the few public health matters where Americans lead most other developed nations. While the U.S. has ideal places to grow tobacco, and made tobacco one of the foundations of its early economy, Americans now smoke less than most of their European and Asian peers.

Few people feel many qualms about sharing alcohol with a peer in college who is not yet twenty-one. Many people, even if drinking while underaged themselves, would feel qualms about sharing significant amounts of alcohol with a young child.

Like all social norms, they vary between subcultures and over time. Young adults imposed different rules upon themselves in the 1990s than they did in the 1960s. What is acceptable in Mississippi may not be acceptable in Maine, or visa versa. One of the perennial parts of the dating game is to try to ferret out a potential partner's attitudes about substance use in a delicate way.

What is so fascinating about all this?

It undermines the simple notion that excess consumption of mind altering substances involves an inability to follow any social norms, or a decision to ignore societal restraint entirely.

Right and wrong are context specific and hierarchical. Indeed, some norms, like not snitching on those who drink when underage or use drugs in a private setting, apply even to people who are not willing to drink underage or use illegal drugs themselves, but can give way when it is a matter of life or death, or one faces long terms of incarceration for not snitching.

Part of the American link between substance abuse and crime may be that we don't do enough to socialize people into a culture of substance use. The problem is not just that people are drunk or on drugs, but that they don't know how to behave when they are drunk or on drugs.

The notion that heavy drinking and illegal drug use has its own norms also suggests that the common conservative "in for a pint, in for a pound" attitude towards punishments for crimes, that is indifferent to harsh punishments for minor violations, is deeply out of line with our values in this area. The attitude is politically viable mostly because it is dealing with a social context that is unfamiliar to most conservative voters, making it hard for them to gauge culpability.

This isn't to say that people who are drunk or on drugs aren't impaired or that they don't underestimate their own impairment. A big part of the norms of substance use concern when and where it is more or less acceptable to become impaired. Getting drunk after the big game may be expected; getting drunk before hand when you are on the team may be frowned upon.

And, some people are more prone to substance abuse problems than others, sometimes because they are trying to self-medicate other underlying problems, and sometimes because they are simply prone to becoming alcoholics or having other substance abuse issues. Indeed, there are norms about substance use in the presence of people know to be trying to stay sober.

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