Neither an illness nor a moral failing

A recent court case in Virginia caught our eye not so much for the legal drama but for our continued dismay at the way alcohol addiction is perceived in American society, and the possible consequences of this error in judgment.

The case (read more here) concerned the modern-day enforcement of an 1870s law (side note: how do we not regularly review old laws and update them if need be based on the latest scientific research?) that prohibited habitual drunks from drinking, sentencing them to jail time if they did. It’s mainly been enforced, naturally, on homeless people.

One side struck down the law on the basis that it was criminalizing an illness, calling the homeless alcohol addicted person incapable of controlling their actions because of who they are, such that they can’t be held accountable for their actions. The dissenters objected that there are good reasons to criminalize some alcohol-related behavior because of the potential harm to society (which seems completely fair, although criminalization also seems a pretty ineffective tool!).

While we’re not lawyers, and therefore unable to comment on the legal merits of the case, we can comment on the two takes on drinkers and their problems underlying the case, which to us seem to be:

  1. Either the drinker is totally incapable of self-control because he/she is an alcoholic, and was born with that disease

  2. Or the drinker is a degenerate person who has failed to stop drinking or cut back due to a lack of moral fiber, or some such nonsense

The first perspective fails to consider the possibility of treatment and condemns someone who was once addicted to always being that way. It continues the false separation between heavy drinkers and “true alcoholics” that makes so many people fail to get help until they really badly need it.

The second fails to consider the addictiveness of the drug itself, and responds with jail time to punish moral failings instead of with medical treatment for addiction. We’d rather blame the person than the substance in the case of alcohol. Would you jail an opioid addict for using? Or would you try to treat them?

We have to stop treating alcohol addiction differently from other drug addictions. But we won’t do that easily, because that means admitting that as a society, we have embraced, championed and encouraged the use of an addictive drug.

If you’ve decided to cut back or quit drinking, we salute you! And we hope you give our little app a try. It has exercises, a support group, and a drink tracker to give you ideas for how to change your drinking.

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