25 September 2003 Edition
Alcohol use in Ireland, and anywhere
I visited Ireland for my first time this past May. I love the place and the people, and I will be back as soon as I can. But I was really overwhelmed by the number and degree of drunkenness of the young people pouring out of the bars at closing time. It was not just on Friday or Saturday night either
I feel a very strong need to respond to Paul O'Connor's article on alcohol use in Ireland. While it is one thing to defend one's right to drink, it quite another to defend drunkenness as a matter of social right, using the spectre of ethnic prejudice as a defence of drunks, as Paul has done. There are some physical and social consequences of alcohol use that need to be discussed to give judgements about alcohol use a more inclusive perspective.
First off, if alcohol were introduced as a new drug today in the US with the criteria currently used to assess a drug's physiological impacts as a mind altering, dependency inducing substance, alcohol would be a Class III narcotic, along with cocaine and methamphetamine. Alcohol is a very powerful drug, and it is one of the few drugs that western societies accept socially. It has cumulative dependency, meaning the more you drink in frequency, the more you will have to drink in quantity to reach the same level of intoxication.
Paul is quite right about the tolerance level varying greatly between individuals. The quiet person at the bar with a load of pints on board, compared to the young person with little drinking experience creating a scene on a pint or two, is related to a body's experience with alcohol and how the body's metabolism of alcohol changes with time and consumption. It is common to see a chronic alcoholic functioning with a blood alcohol of .03%, a level that would literally be fatal to a young inexperienced drinker.
The legal limit for safe operation of a motor vehicle in most countries is .008% blood alcohol. A fixed standard for the operation of a motor vehicle at the lowest level of tolerance is necessary for public safety. The level for public intoxication is necessarily much more subjective, and dependent on a police officer's experience in interpreting the effects of intoxication on the individual.
Criteria for an alcohol-related arrest are based on an individual's ability to be responsible for his/her personal safety and actions. The idea that the use of alcohol can be defended in the name of an individual's civil liberties, by arguing that a person who is drinking is only a threat to himself, is faulty at best. Many of us seek risky behaviour as part of our life pursuits, but such choices need to be made when mentally unimpaired. Believing that the impacts of bad choices made while impaired only impacts on the one making the choices is extremely naïve. Experiencing, even once, having to inform a loved one that their spouse/child/father/mother/sister/brother is fighting for their life in hospital or will never be coming home again, because of being drunk, or encountering a drunk, should be enough to end that argument.
Police officers may have do this injury/death notification many times over during their careers. Combined with the suffering and property destruction associated with excess alcohol use, empathy for drunks is not easy to find amongst those who have to deal with them. The only person who thinks a drunk funny or witty is another drunk. Alcohol is the mother of all gateway drugs; almost always the first drug used, and very often is being used when other drugs are tried for the first time.
The real cost of alcohol abuse to a society in monetary and emotional loss is very high and needs acknowledgement by An Phoblacht. I have come to expect defence of justice, civil liberties, and social responsibility from An Phoblacht - linking alcohol use with these subjects is out of character.
It is probably obvious from the nature of my comments that I fall into more than one of the categories Paul laments as middle aged and out of touch, and I am an ex-cop to boot. To make it even worse, I am a health food and fitness advocate. But I won't be dismissed as a middle-aged commentator "who probably hasn't had a night out on the town since the Pope came to Ireland". My perspective needs representation because it is shared by many, not all middle aged, and isn't as dismissive of Paul and his generation as he might be of us.