Saturday, 17 March 2018

Can alcohol policy accept moderate intoxication?


Having recently finished a draft of what will hopefully become a book chapter on the Psychoactive Substances Act, I’ve tried to clear my desk out this weekend, and came across all sorts of incoherent pencil notes on scraps of paper that were intended to be transformed into blog posts.  One of them, however, stood out.  It’s not fully formed, and it would need a lot more work to become coherent and worthy of proper publication, but it’s exactly that kind of half-baked, incoherent rambling that’s the hallmark of this blog: thoughts that aren’t neat (or long) enough to become academic articles (or perhaps even conference papers).

So here goes.  This should probably be read in tandem with my previous ramblings on the Psychoactive Substances Act, given that I think this was an earlier version of the chapter I’ve ended up putting together – or perhaps a response to it.  (I've updated mentions of the Psychoactive Substances Bill to 'Act', as it passed some time ago now.)

I think it also works quite well with a book I'm reading at the moment by Ingrid Walker.  Go buy that!

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Before I start, I should state a key assumption: we’re never going to be able to pin down what the government is concerned about in relation to drinking (alcohol) into a single idea, like ‘pleasure’, ‘disorder’ or ‘intoxication’.  My previous attempt (with the ‘carnivalesque’) is a bit of a cheat to put together a whole ragbag of things (excess, disgust, class, gender, etc) and doesn’t tell the whole story even then.

As James Nicholls and others have argued, alcohol tends to become a lightning rod for broader social and political questions to be played out: freedom, agency, morality.  I saw a good example of this at the Alcohol and Drug History Society conference in 2013, where in the same session different presenters described British and French attitudes to women’s drinking in the nineteenth century.  Lauren Saxton described how the French, who were worried about underpopulation, seeing themselves as slipping behind other European powers in a kind of population arms race, expressed concern that drinking led women to be infertile, or at least to have fewer children.  Presentations from Thora Hands and Stella Moss, (on Twitter here and here) showed that the British, meanwhile, were concerned by overcrowding in cities and people’s inability to feed their families, and saw alcohol as leading people to have more children then they would otherwise – with less money to spend bringing them up because they were spending it on booze.

Previously, I've been somewhat dismissive of the idea that government has been 'criminalising' pleasure and/or intoxication, arguing that this doesn't quite capture the specific concerns it expresses in relation to 'binge' drinking.  But, as that example shows, this is because my focus has generally been on alcohol policy, where I think the situation is more complicated because of the legal status of alcohol in Britain today.  The situation is different when we look at other substances that might be grouped as 'intoxicants'.  And I think, grouped in this way, we can start to see a common thread between all of them, despite initial appearances.

The new Psychoactive Substances Act [not so new, now I'm typing this up] is precisely targeted at intoxication, and tries (pretty clumsily) to pin down a scientific description of 'psychoactivity' to do this.

In the same way, successive alcohol strategies have been targeted at those who 'drink to get drunk', also known as 'binge' drinkers.
Now this needn't imply opposition to intoxication per se, and there are certainly other societies past and present where certain limits to intoxication have been applied (rather than absolute opposition to intoxication).

We can see this in Jennifer Richards' rejection of the approach based on Norbert Elias' concept of a 'civilising process' that sees early modern writers as giving drinking advice based on opposing ideas of 'excess' and 'restraint'.  According to Richards, 'the preoccupation with restraint and excess has left the conviviality of moderate intoxication, light-headedness, and its rhetorical practice - the witty adaptation of sayings - overlooked and undervalued' (p.172).

This view would be very familiar to the drinkers of many research studies, whether the young women described by Farringdon as trying to tread a 'fine  line' of feminine drinking, or the older drinkers in Carol Emslie's work.

But today's UK government cannot see alcohol consumption or use of any other 'drugs' in these terms.  Alcohol strategies don't talk about 'fuddled joy', for example, and the alcohol industry is not allowed to suggest that drinking enhances sociability - something that many of us would struggle to argue with.

Alcohol as possible health-enhancer, alcohol as tasting good, alcohol as a valuable part of the UK economy, yes.  'Moderate intoxication'?  This, in alcohol policy debates, seems to be considered an oxymoron.  The phrase is surely unimaginable in a policy document.

The government, if no-one else, is still very much signed up to the Norbert Elias model of good and bad drinking as being about restraint versus excess, where any intoxication - or at least 'drunkenness' - is by definition excessive.  The 2012 Strategy noted that 'in moderation, alcohol consumption can have a positive impact on adults' wellbeing, especially where this encourages sociability' - but the example of how this happens has nothing to do with the 'intoxicating' or 'psychoactive' properties of the substance: 'Well-run community pubs and other businesses form a key part of the fabric of neighbourhoods, providing employment and social venues in our local communities' (p.3).

(Of course, in acknowledging the setting of drinking this government, like its Labour predecessor, was showing it is familiar with the important work of Norman Zinberg.)

This approach, whereby 'moderate' and 'safe, sensible, social' drinking cannot mention intoxication does suggest that government is concerned with mind alteration specifically.  But actually the awareness of the importance of setting and so forth reminds us that the concerns are indeed broader.  Psychoactivity gives a neat rationale and pseudoscientific position, but in reality the concerns are about things like crime and antisocial behaviour - or more widely the disruption of everyday norms (see my work on the carnivalesque where the concerns are more about 'norms' being disrupted then chemical intoxication).  The Psychoactive Substances Act effectively brings this position out into the open, by separately, as explicit exceptions, those substances that are viewed to have forms of consumption consistent with those 'everyday' norms: alcohol, nicotine and caffeine.  But even then: 'moderate consumption', yes (though not even that in terms of nicotine), but never 'moderate intoxication'.  Here's hoping for a shift in the narrative.

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