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Parties for one drug, jail for others

Singaporeans have no problem accepting that alcohol consumption is legal. We even practice harm reduction all the time when it comes to booze. So why do we have such a different reaction to other drugs?

I recently re-watched the Korean drama Love in Contract. The male lead is the straight-laced, sensitive yet repressed Jung Ji-ho (played by Gu Kyung-pyo), a family court judge who finds it hard to fit in with his co-workers. In one scene, Ji-ho buys alcohol and visits his neighbour, a highly popular actor. He’s decided that he needs to learn how hold his liquor, because it’s a way to show consideration for his partner (so she won’t be left drinking alone) and also a necessary social skill for obligations like team dinners with his colleagues. He wants his neighbour—and, in a twist you don’t need to know about for the purposes of this newsletter, his ex-wife—to teach him how to drink.

This is a played for light comedy and sweetness: a soft moment in which a man often misunderstood as aloof and inflexible demonstrates just how much he craves love and acceptance. But it’s also an example of how normalised alcohol consumption is in our world. It is Ji-ho who is the oddball for being a thirty-something teetotaller, Ji-ho who needs to learn to glug beer, down soju or quaff whisky so he can become more ‘normal’ and fit in. The drama is set in the South Korean context, but this aspect resonates in many other parts of the world too.

When I moved to the UK for my Masters, the thing I found hardest to adjust to was the drinking culture. Heading to the pub for a pint (which would invariably turn into multiple pints) was the expected social practice. Wales, where I went to Cardiff University, has been identified as the binge-drinking capital of the UK and the Cardiff nightlife was bananas—I eventually got used to seeing people keeled over on pavements at night outside pubs and clubs, totally inebriated. When the student union hosted a “Drink the Bar Dry” party, some complained about false advertising because the event had wrapped up before the bar ran out of alcohol.

Alcohol consumption is so normalised that it’s even entrenched in the way we speak. How many times have we heard someone who had a bad day say that they need a drink? Even I say that sometimes and I barely drink, nor do I actually think of alcohol as a comforting substance. But it’s just become a figure of speech, so embedded is the association between alcohol and stress relief. There are also alcohol-related phrases to express enthusiastic approval (“I’ll drink to that!”) or heartbreak (“drink the pain away”) or congratulations and encouragement (all your yam sengs and ganbeis and bottoms ups). Growing up, I often heard people jokingly say “give that man a Tiger!”—a sign of how successfully widespread an ad slogan for Tiger Beer had become in Singapore.

Now consider: alcohol is a drug. It’s a psychoactive substance. Depending on how much is consumed, a user can feel relaxed and euphoric, or have impaired cognition or motor function. We are so aware of alcohol’s detrimental impact on a person’s decision-making capacity that a drunk person is legally considered incapable of giving consent if he is “unable to understand the nature and consequence of that to which he gives his consent”—a provision which also applies to someone under the influence of “any drug or other substance”.

Alcohol addiction is just as capable of harm as other substance addictions. (If there’s no harm, it’s not an addiction.) We hear stories of people who cannot hold on to steady employment because of alcoholism, or of domestic violence and abuse from family members who act out under the influence (it must be said, alcohol in and of itself does not cause or trigger violence, although it can remove inhibitions that might make someone think twice about behaving in this way). Long-term alcohol use—especially if one is a binge drinker—can cause serious health problems. In fact, this is how the World Health Organisation describes alcohol: “Alcohol is a toxic, psychoactive, and dependence-producing substance and has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer decades ago—this is the highest risk group, which also includes asbestos, radiation and tobacco.”

There have been attempts in history to clamp down on alcohol consumption. One of the most famous examples is Prohibition in the US, from 1920 to 1933. Largely coming out of advocacy by religious coalitions that blamed all sorts of social problems on alcohol, the Eighteenth Amendment in the US Constitution criminalised the manufacture, sale, transportation and import/export of “intoxicating liquors” in the US and all territories subject to its jurisdiction. But, surprise surprise, it didn’t work. Instead, people turned to bootleggers and speakeasies, consuming illegal (and therefore also unregulated and often dangerous) booze and giving organised crime networks the opportunity to make it big. As the encyclopaedia Britannica’s website puts it: “As a result, the Prohibition era also is remembered as a period of gangsterism, characterized by competition and violent turf battles between criminal gangs.” Basically, it was a huge mess and caused a whole bunch of problems that persisted even after Prohibition ended.

There are still parts of the world that have alcohol prohibition in some form, but for the most part we aren’t criminalising alcohol. Unlike what Singapore does with people who transport or sell other drugs, we aren’t throwing wine importers in prison or sending bartenders to death row for doling out an addictive substance to customers. We aren’t forcing people into detention simply because we caught them downing Jägerbombs or chugging Heineken. If someone gets rowdy while drunk and gets into a fist fight, they might be arrested for violent or disorderly behaviour, but drinking or getting drunk in and of itself doesn’t put someone at risk of prosecution or imprisonment.

Instead, it is fairly uncontroversial for us to take common sense approaches. Governments regulate the manufacture, import and sale of alcohol, from food safety regulations and advertising guidelines to the imposition of tax (in Singapore’s case, a lot of tax). Age limits are imposed on who liquor can be sold to, while not criminalising underage consumption. Because businesses need official permission to sell alcohol, the government is able to exercise a lot of control by setting conditions, including over trading hours, on the licences. Regulators can also have a lot of say over how a substance is portrayed and marketed, without going as far as demonisation and criminalisation. Singapore’s advertising practice code states that ads for boozy beverages should not be directed at young people; children can’t even be portrayed in liquor ads unless it’s in “a scene where it would be natural for them to be present… provided it is made clear that they are not drinking alcoholic beverages”. Ads are also not supposed to suggest that “drinking is necessary for social success or acceptance”, nor should they “depict activities or locations where drinking alcohol would be unsafe or unwise”. When I was a baby media and communications undergrad in New Zealand back in the mid-2000s we learnt about how NZ legislation touches on the time that alcohol ads can be broadcast—“Alcohol Advertising and Promotion during real-time scheduled television content must not be broadcast between 6:00 am and 8:30 pm”—and prohibits the use of celebrities popular with minors in alcohol promotion unless due diligence has been done to ensure that the ad is not easily seen by kids.

We also cultivate norms in society to keep people as safe as possible from alcohol’s potentially negative effects. While alcohol consumption is legal, drink driving isn’t, and is widely recognised as a shitty and dangerous thing to do; it is expected during a night out that there’s a designated driver, or that everyone takes a taxi home if they’re drinking. Some parents allow teenagers to drink alcohol at home, because they reason—quite rightly—that it is better for their children to experiment in a safe place with adult supervision than sneak out to imbibe god-knows-what god-knows-where. The first time I went to a club with my friends, my dad drove me there and picked me up after because my parents knew I'd definitely be drinking and figured that making sure I got home safely at the end of the night was better than trying to ban me from doing something I'd still end up doing at some point anyway.

These are things we do around alcohol that we might not even give that much thought to because they’re so incredibly reasonable. Of course we shouldn’t allow our friends to get behind the wheel drunk. Of course it’s better to buy alcohol from licensed outlets where we know what we’re getting than to procure dodgy moonshine that might really only be good for disinfecting toilets. Of course, if our mates got blink drunk at a party, we should make sure they get home safely or, if we suspect something serious like alcohol poisoning, call for an ambulance. It’s just common sense. It’s also harm reduction—the very thing that drug policy reform advocates are asking to be applied to other drugs.

I’m not saying that the risks of alcohol are exactly the same as that of, say, heroin. But the difference in our approach to alcohol versus that of currently criminalised substances doesn’t seem to be based on any scientifically proven hierarchy of harm—if it’s even possible to come up with a definitive ranking of drugs and their potential risks in the first place. The addictive quality or effects of substances vary; in fact, many drug experts argue that alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis, a drug currently still criminalised in Singapore and elsewhere. The distinction that we make between alcohol and other psychoactive substances isn’t an evidence-based one.

Meanwhile, the War on Drugs we’re waging isn’t faring any better than Prohibition in the US did. Like during Prohibition, we’re seeing that people who want to consume drugs are not only not deterred, but driven to more dangerous sources. We’re seeing black market demand drive organised crime networks, creating a staggeringly huge global illicit drug trade. Overdose deaths across the world are tragedies that cannot be prevented by widespread criminalisation and punishment—but they can be reduced if we adopted some of the common-sense harm reduction principles we have no problem accepting in the context of alcohol consumption.

And now that I’ve finally written this newsletter, which I’ve been planning for some time, I can go back to enjoying my iced americano—oh no, another psychoactive substance…