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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
March 9, 2010



Alcohol is a drug: deal with it

Well, perhaps that's not the most tactful choice of phrase, but this is one of the questions on which I agree with New Temperance. That's one of approximately two. I'm not going soft here.

Alcohol is a drug, along with plenty of other psychoactive substances that aren't strictly classified as such in this society. I'm sitting on train at the moment and just about everyone around me is chugging back caffeine and sugar in various forms in a desperate effort to get themselves through the morning.

This is an effect of the one thing that distinguishes human beings from other animals: we continuously transform the world around us, and in doing so transform ourselves.

That happens on the large social scale, and it happens on the small individual scale (bearing in mind individuals are never really 'individual' since they invariably act in a dialectical relationship with their social context. But you know what I mean.).

Self-transformation is a continuous, conscious process for humans. In every society people variously paint and pierce their bodies, wear clothes and dress their hair. And they modify and manipulate their minds, too.

So there's no shame in using psychoactive substances. It's one of the things we do. But it sometimes goes wrong.

There are some interesting theories about this. I quite like Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander's concept of 'dislocation', which roots addiction in modern capitalism. Here's him talking about it.

Alexander contrasts his view with traditional views of addiction that blame the substance. It seems to me that if he's right the drinks industry has nothing to fear from admitting alcohol is a drug.

Of course, it also means that other drugs are released from blame and, logically, ought to be legal, too. Could it be that what the industry really fears is the competition?

I remember in the early 90s, the days of rave culture, talking to the marketing director of a major brewer who took very seriously the problem that young people were choosing other drugs in preference to alcohol. (His answer, incidentally, was what became known as alcopops.)

Even so, I'm inclined to think there's a case to be made that alcohol is a special kind of drug because, far more than any other drug, it's consumed in different forms, each of which can be appreciated in its own right, an appreciation that mediates and potentially relegates the mere psychoactive effect.

Perhaps the drinks industry should have more faith in organoleptics.

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