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Etc.: Altered states
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Any edition of your favorite weekly newspaper includes stories about the effects of misuse of various controlled substances, most often alcohol.

Drunk driving arrests and convictions are in this newspaper every week. So are, most weeks, underage drinking citations. But so are disorderly conduct charges, and sometimes more serious charges, that are the direct results of an excess of liquid courage.

The first of that list is the focus of proposals by two state legislators to increase drunk driving penalties — to make the first offense be a misdemeanor instead of a traffic citation, increase penalties for the second conviction, and make a third offense be a felony instead of a misdemeanor. (The fifth drunk driving offense is now a felony.)

One issue is cost — the state Department of Corrections estimates that making third-offense drunk driving a felony would cost between $169 million and $204 million per year. Another, though, requires asking whether our society’s approach to alcohol works to promote responsible alcohol use and dissuade irresponsible alcohol use.

Drinking, in responsible levels or beyond, is ingrained in our culture. Not merely American culture, but human culture. The New Testament tells of Jesus Christ’s first miracle, changing water into wine.

Steven Johnson’s book The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, suggests that you are here to read this because your ancestors (and mine) could handle alcohol. Beer and wine served as substitutes for drinking water in the days before modern sanitation methods were invented. Those who could not handle alcohol died, either from the bad effects of alcohol on their bodies or from waterborne diseases. Those who could handle alcohol passed on those genes.

The issue here isn’t those who are able to handle their alcohol; it’s those who can’t. The Ohio man arrested in Dickeyville on his 10th drunk driving charge happened shortly after a man out on bond on 10th-offense drunk driving was arrested for, you guessed it, drunk driving. The only penalty that seems to work for multiple-offense drunk drivers is to physically separate them from not just their vehicles, but any vehicle at all. But then you get a nine-digit price tag for increasing drunk driving penalties. So AODA treatment is suggested, which isn’t inexpensive either, in addition to having a high failure rate.

Increasing the drinking age from 18 to 21 was supposed to get alcohol out of schools and delay alcohol consumption until legal drinkers were older and more mature. Instead, the 21-year-old drinking age — enacted because of a federal threat to withhold highway funds — has criminalized the formerly legal behavior of 18- to 20-year-olds, and encouraged activities like the Dec. 28 Town of Smelser underage-drinking party, binge drinking and surreptitious drinking, and more general disrespect for the law. (Unenforceable laws should not become laws.)

Alcohol isn’t the only problem. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day there was a sudden flood, to use a mixed metaphor, of intoxicated driving tickets where the intoxicant wasn’t alcohol, but marijuana. One of 2012’s bigger stories was the drug raid in which 21 people, all but three UW–Platteville students, were charged with marijuana-related charges.

There is a marijuana legalization movement in this state, one of whose advocates ran for state Assembly in 2012. That prompted a friend of mine who is a newspaper publisher to opine, “This is no time to get high or get drunk. It’s time to get serious. … Is it too unreasonable to suggest that we owe it to ourselves, if not our children, to act in ways that are more, not less, mature, responsible and sober?”

Two thoughts came to mind then and still apply today. A lot of non-productive recreational activities could, to some, substitute for “drinking” or “smoking,” such as drinking soda, eating fattening foods, watching TV, going to movies, surfing the Internet in search of nothing in particular, or playing games. Those and other activities are diversions, momentary escapes from our present, mature, responsible, sober lives. Those escapes, legal or otherwise, illicit or otherwise, have existed as long as human beings have existed. The lifestyle police already have too much influence on our lives as it is.

The more interesting question to ask is whether and to what extent Americans have lost our coping skills over the years, and whether that has increased use of various drugs, particularly the most readily available drug, alcohol. Doctors will tell you that puberty is arriving earlier in girls, but, at least in some places, the onset of adulthood, as defined by such activities as full-time employment and marriage, is occurring later. Watching the nightly TV news, or reading it online, might convince you that the world is going to hell. (However, having written columns that reported news from up to 100 years earlier, I can attest that, based on reporting of the day, the world has always been going to hell.)

The teeter–totter we have is preventing those who can’t handle alcohol or other controlled substances from harming others on the one side, and not infringing upon the rights of those who can handle those substances without harming others on the other side. I’m not sure we’re doing that today, since alcohol continues to fuel what could collectively be called Stupid Student Tricks, and much more seriously drunk driving that causes injury and death. More effective treatments and/or penalties would be a much more useful debate than simply increasing fines or jail terms without asking whether those will actually work to curb the abuses of alcohol.

Here we go again: With another election coming up, we must note that the deadline for letters to The Journal for the Feb. 19 primary election is Friday, Feb. 1.