Why Fight Drugs, But Vote for Bars?


CARTOONISTS call it ``the double take.'' They draw it as a sudden snap of the head, with the expression changing from serene normalcy to a gaping, wide-eyed, you've-gotta-be-kidding stare. Several weeks ago, the double take showed up in this otherwise quiet coastal village.

It all started when the townspeople, concerned about drugs, agreed to a week of wearing red ribbons. The ribbon signified that the wearer was drug-free. But it had deeper messages as well - about the desire to maintain a wholesome community, the need to band together against destructive forces, the commitment to stand up to substance abuse, the need to say, especially to the younger generation, ``I care.''

By an irony of scheduling, however, that was the week the town's selectmen were to vote on a request - by a notably noisy and allegedly disreputable bar from nearby Rockland - to set up a branch in the heart of the village.

That's when you would have been tempted to do the double take. There they sat, the town officials, some of them wearing their ribbons, and voting to bring in the bar.

I know, I know: They were only doing their jobs. The law allows the bar. They had no grounds for refusing. All that is true. What's more, these really are very good people, doing their best.

But the thoughtful observer, recovering from incredulity, might be forgiven for pointing out that there's a bigger picture here. Someone might at least have called attention to the values behind the red ribbons. Someone might have pointed out that wholesome communities and noisy bars don't normally mix, that destructive forces flourish unless society makes common cause against them, that abuse is abuse no matter what the substance, and that caring is exhibited by actions more than ribbons. At the very least, the selectmen might have volunteered to remove their red ribbons during the discussion.

But they didn't. And that very fact gives this otherwise local bit of Americana a national significance. Not only in Maine, after all, do people stubbornly refuse to make the connection between powdered, illicit drugs and their liquid, legal first cousins. And not only in Maine do they reap the consequences of that refusal. A recent national study reported by Joseph P. Newhouse of the Center for Health and Human Resources Policy at Harvard University, for instance, points out that drinkers pay less than half the cost of the damage imposed on others by their habit. Taxes per drink currently amount to about 11 cents. To offset the full social costs of drinking - prosecuting drunk drivers, paying excess medical costs, covering sick leave, and so forth - that tax should be at least 24 cents.

Who pays the bill the drinkers don't? Very simple: everyone else. ``In effect,'' writes Professor Newhouse, ``the public subsidizes every other swallow.'' And that leaves out the damage no money can repair - the families wrecked, the careers destroyed, the lives snuffed out.

All this raises serious questions. Why are we unwilling to raise alcohol taxes? Is it for the same reason we generally refuse to make the connection between alcohol and drugs? Do we think there is an inherent ``right'' to consume alcohol that is not shared by drugs?

Uncomfortable questions, these. We'd rather pretend everything was OK with alcohol policy. Well, it's not OK, any more than our drug policy is OK. And unless we face up to these tough questions, there will be a gaping hole in our - and a kind of intellectual dishonesty in our national discourse about how to handle the drug epidemic.

There may be good reasons to distinguish drugs from alcohol. Until we raise the question, however, we'll never know. We'll simply drift along in naive hypocrisy - wearing red ribbons while voting for more bars.

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