Friday, 15 November 2013

Alcohol or soma

This week, David Nutt has garnered considerable attention for his idea of ‘hangover-free’ alcoholPhil Mellows has, as ever, written brilliantly about this on his blog.  I’ve been thinking about some of these ideas for a few days now, and I haven’t got anything neat to say on the subject, but there are a few thoughts bubbling round my head that I wanted to get down.  I just hope some of them are interesting…

Phil talks about how Nutt misses the point a little by thinking of alcohol solely as a psychoactive substance – not all drinking is to get drunk.  And more than that, even the drunkenness people might be aiming for isn’t a simply chemical reaction; it’s socially constructed, to use an awful phrase.  Being ‘drunk’ doesn’t mean the same thing to every person.

Phil’s point is partly that there’s all sorts of elements of elements of drinking that aren’t just about alcohol as a chemical, so Nutt’s safe intoxicant couldn’t really directly replace alcohol.  He argues that alcohol is linked with broader taste, and is central to the ‘connoisseurship’ surrounding drink.

There’s something to this that I hadn’t quite appreciated before (partly because my research has tended to focus more on drinking to get drunk than connoisseurship).  You can think of the act of drinking as more ‘natural’ than various other ways of taking drugs (smoking or injecting, for example), but it isn’t just that – you could still drink a David Nutt ‘cocktail’.  Rather, the alcohol we drink only exists through the drink.  This sounds like sophistry, but there’s a serious point.  We (mostly) don’t make alcohol in a lab and then add it to cocktails.  Instead, the alcohol is generated through wine-making or brewing and so forth.  The alcohol in wine doesn’t exist separately from the wine.

This is different from saying that nicotine is part of tobacco.  In other examples the drug exists in the product prior to any processing (nicotine in tobacco) or is deliberately created in itself (in chemically derived products like the new ‘legal highs’).  Grapes aren’t alcohol until they’re fermented, and in fact when they’re fermented they’re not alcohol, they’re wine as a whole.

It’s this relationship that allows for the connoisseurship apparently completely unrelated to intoxication.  And it’s for this reason that the connoisseur requires the alcohol, because without the alcohol there is no wine or beer.

On the other hand, although one can prefer one type of e-cigarette to another, it’s hard to elevate the debate above the most pleasurable mode for delivering a drug.  You can almost – but not quite – say the same thing for tobacco.

And here’s where we run into trouble.  Phil’s point holds when he’s talking about beer and wine in particular, but as he notes it’s not so applicable to cocktails.

On the other hand, given that sensations of taste will be affected by other substances in the mix, and taste, preference and intoxication are all affected by wider surroundings and beliefs, it’s still hard to draw that line between natural and unnatural intoxication.

What the whole debate does do is highlight some people’s discomfort with the very idea of intoxication, regardless of whether it can be seen as natural.  I was most taken by Graeme Archer writing that the ‘whole point’ of alcohol is the hangover.  Now there’s obviously some (not very) poetic licence going on here, but the logical hole is astonishing.

He argues that hangovers are necessary for people to grow up and become proper adults who moderate their drinking.  His primary problem with drinking seems to be ‘crowds of rowdy drunks’.  To begin with, although it’s not uncommon, I never cease to be frustrated by such failures to pick on things that are actually problematic to society, rather than simply being personal irritations.

And this is where the issue lies.  Archer worries that ‘guilt-free, hangover-free inebriation would deliver squadrons of such anti-beauty’.  But it’s not clear why hangover-free should equate to guilt-free – unless, of course, that person has done nothing wrong…

One should feel guilt if one has done something with negative consequences.  Bizarrely, Archer thinks that without the hangover, there will be no such negative consequences, and therefore drinking will be problematic:

Such lessons (of self-control) cannot be learnt if choices become consequence-free: to drink must be to volunteer oneself for risk.

If drinking is consequence-free, then I don’t really see any need to be worried about it.

It could be argued that there are negative consequences that aren’t immediately apparent from alcohol – particularly long-term health damage – and the hangover acts as a warning for these.  However, this doesn’t seem to be Archer’s problem.  He’s more concerned that we make an appointment with reality, which we won’t do if we become intoxicated, which implies becoming ‘infantilised’.

That is, it’s not about negative consequences at all; it’s about the intoxication.  This is bad in itself.

Once the drug is stripped of its ‘connoisseurship’, and laid bare for all to see as an intoxicant, it’s seen as problematic.  Far nobler to live in a reality that isn’t ‘cushioned’.

And here’s the point.  This article, with its (self-confessed) inconsistencies and gaping logical holes, highlights the background noise to alcohol policy discussions.  Although the talk is about, in Archer’s words, the idea that ‘drinking is bad for the individual and for society’, possibly with reference to health and crime, this is often a debate about whether it’s acceptable to get drunk.

Hangovers aren’t a reminder that you’ve done something terrible the night before, or even much of a warning of future health problems; they’re simply a sign that you drank some alcohol, and probably got intoxicated.  And what’s so wrong with that?

And actually, I find that the hangover’s over by Monday – but guilt (where my actions have actually had negative consequences) doesn’t disappear so quickly.  I just can’t see how waking up without a hangover would stop us ‘being forced to live with the consequences of our actions’.

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