The light has already changed when a man in a beat-up Raiders cap lurches off the curb into Logan Circle. DON’T WALK, the crossing signal warns, and he isn’t. Staggering and weaving, two steps sideways for every step forward, he makes his way into the path of the oncoming cars, singing a tune known only to himself as the stream of traffic divides around him.
By the time he reaches the curb, the circle has regained its midday quiet, the deep heat of late July stifling all motion or sound. But the man keeps singing, his voice growing loud and impassioned until he bellies up to an imaginary bar—a blue plastic trash can—and bangs down his large bottle of malt liquor. A small geyser of foam spurts out the top. But no bartender appears. Impatiently, he slams down the bottle again, then reels back and winds up sprawled against a quaint wrought-iron fence.
Finally he passes out at a bus stop, where he knows the police won’t nab him for loitering—or, God forbid, haul his ass to detox. A couple with a young child walks by, stepping over the man’s splayed legs. He lolls his head around, mumbling. In the circle, men and women sit on benches around the statue of Gen. Logan, drinking from bottles and cans in brown paper bags.
Within minutes, an ambulance arrives. A medical technician emerges and walks around to the back of the vehicle, where he fishes around in a box of gear. But he hasn’t come to help the drunk. Instead, he disappears into a nearby basement apartment where, it turns out, he lives. Next, a police car glides up to the stoplight. The cop glances at the prostrate form, then floors the accelerator, pulling into the circle. The eastbound G2 bus blows by without slowing down.
Had the drunk collapsed on the street with a crack pipe in his hand or a syringe dangling from one arm, he would have raised a minor alarum. One typically doesn’t spot crackheads until 11th Street, two blocks east. Very likely, someone in this neighborhood of $300,000 brownstones would have called the police, for the crackhead personifies the American urban nightmare. He is the subject of Draconian legislation and political speechifying and public service announcements in the Yellow Pages. But this drunk—and all the drunks stumbling around Washington streets, or zonked out on public benches from Adams Morgan to Oxon Hill, or tippling in K Street offices on this lazy weekday afternoon—is invisible.
He might as well have melted into the sidewalk.
There are six liquor stores within two blocks of the circle, and an equal number of beer-and-wine joints. A block to the west, over at 14th and P, Sav-On-Liquors stocks the street drunk’s favorite treats: chilled MD 20/20 in three vivid flavors and Richards Wild Irish Rose at less than a dollar the half-pint. Another big seller is Georgia Moon brand corn whiskey—high-test panther piss, packaged in authentic Mason jars. At 14th and Rhode Island Avenue, Barrel House maintains a cooler full of 20-ounce and 32-ounce bottles of beer, from Old Milwaukee up to Pilsner Urquell. Down at 13th and O, Bargain House Liquors does a thriving trade in $2 pints of whiskey and vodka.
None of the local boozeries recall selling anything to the man in the Raiders hat. Besides, one proprietor opines, it’s not his job to keep people from drinking.
Selling liquor, that’s his job. By all indications, it’s something he and the 314 other licensed liquor-store owners in the District of Columbia do extraordinarily well. Thanks to their efforts, and an alcohol-dependent economic development policy, the District ranks among America’s most inebriated metropolises—right up there with Las Vegas.
Year after year, decade after decade, the District outdrinks all but a handful of states, according to figures compiled by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). In 1990, the average D.C. resident’s liver swam in 4.17 gallons of pure ethanol—third in the nation behind New Hampshire and Nevada. While non-resident imbibers may inflate this figure a bit, other indicators reveal that District residents nourish a raging thirst. Consider, for example, the city’s death rate from cirrhosis of the liver, rivaled only by Nevada’s.
But year after year, official reports by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other public-health agencies attribute the District’s apparently high alcohol consumption to commuters and tourists.
The Rev. Alpha Estes Brown begs to differ.
“When policymakers go to make laws, they’re under that assumption,” says Brown. “It’s a denial.” Minister of the Brightwood Park United Methodist Church, Brown is completing a Ph.D. dissertation at George Washington University on drinking in Washington.
The Rev. Brown is among a growing number of activists who are pressing the city government to recognize Washington’s most troublesome drug problem. “The predominant drug in this city is not crack cocaine,” says Stewart Harris, a Capitol Hill resident who has waged a two-year fight against a neighborhood liquor store that caters to street drunks. “It’s alcohol.”
If you doubt this, take a stroll down Mount Pleasant Street on a Saturday afternoon. Keep a count of bleary, red-rimmed eyes and the distended-liver bellies you meet; the tall red-and-black malt liquor cans in the trash or scattered in the bushes at the park at 16th and Columbia; the passed-out drunks using the sidewalk for a mattress and the granite curb for a pillow. Marvel at how they can sleep with their bodies so contorted. Sniff the hot, urine-laden breeze that gusts from every alleyway.
Notice something else about Mount Pleasant Street: There’s a store selling wine, beer, or liquor literally every few yards. Even if you were too drunk to walk, you wouldn’t have to abstain—you could still crawl to your next drink. Convenience stores, liquor stores, and bars—some 21 liquor-license holders in just four blocks—outnumber all other establishments in Mount Pleasant’s business district.
“You only need to look at a neighborhood like Mount Pleasant to see what alcohol has done,” says Mount Pleasant resident Alice Kelly, founder of the D.C. Alcohol Control Coalition, a consortium of neighborhood associations and activists working to tighten liquor laws. “It’s mind-boggling,” she adds, “when you look at all the money going into the drug problem, and alcohol affects a much larger segment of the population.”
But think of alcohol ®MDUL¯as®MDNM¯ the drug problem, and Mount Pleasant Street becomes an even more alarming place. The drinkers standing or sleeping on the sidewalk are the junkies; the liquor stores and minimarts are their dealers. The street is hophead heaven. From 8 a.m., when the delis start selling beer, until midnight, when they stop, the sauce flows freely. You get what you pay for, with no worries about contaminated coke, or ®MDUL¯herbes de Provence®MDNM¯ masquerading in dime bags.
And it’s cheap, too, a mere $1.85 for a pint of Velicoff—the cheapest of the cheap vodkas, fresh off the truck from Bardstown, Ky. Velicoff is like liquid crack: pure, potent, and portable. For a couple bucks, it’ll get you higher for longer than a fistful of $10 rocks.
Now, the good folks at Velicoff would certainly deny that they’re in the drug business. So let’s cut them some slack: They’re in the legal drug business. Alcohol is a narcotic perfectly suited for our time, producing, as do so many aspects of modern life, temporary euphoria followed by a crushing headache and a coated tongue.
But if Velicoff were invented tomorrow, it wouldn’t get past the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is dedicated to keeping such dangerous substances off the market. And if street-corner dealers began peddling Velicoff, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would rate it a Schedule II narcotic, on a par with barbiturates. Alcohol meets the three criteria for a Schedule II controlled substance: It has a high potential for abuse and limited medical uses, and long-term abuse can lead to severe psychological or physiological dependence. If the law treated alcohol like the potent narcotic that it is, a person who was convicted of an alcohol-related crime “during which a firearm was possessed” would serve 22 years behind bars, minimum, under federal sentencing guidelines.
Lucky for Velicoff, not to mention its devoted consumers, the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 exempts from classification any substance that “may be lawfully sold over the counter without a prescription”—in other words, tobacco and alcohol.
Alcohol is a peculiar drug, a drug of dual natures. Initially it acts as an upper, a mild stimulant that lubricates romance or takes the edge off the end of a workday. When we drink a little, we become warmer, wittier people—I know I do. Drink a little more, and alcohol becomes a downer, depressing brain activity and, ultimately, breathing. Over a lifetime of heavy use, this drug alcohol becomes a fatal curse, a devastating substance that shatters the lives of its addicts and their families.
Alcohol’s health risks are far worse than those of any illegal narcotic. It is highly addictive, and withdrawal symptoms, such as delirium tremens, can be fatal. On the other hand, continued long-term abuse of the drug is fatal, too. Lifelong drinkers can look forward to hypertension, stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, organic brain damage, and cancer of the esophagus (why do you think it’s called “rotgut”?).
In neighborhoods such as Mount Pleasant or Capitol Hill or East Dupont Circle or Congress Heights, its devotees may be seen brawling on sidewalks or unconscious in doorways every day of the week. When they can stand up, they are prone to violence and accidents. Yet alcohol is widely available, inexpensive, and quite potent in some forms (Velicoff, for one). In some poor neighborhoods, alcohol’s sale is a primary form of commercial activity, rivaled only by the trade in illicit drugs. And it has become a sort of all-purpose excuse for reprehensible behavior, from Marion Barry’s dereliction of duty to Bob Packwood’s serial groping.
Heroin, by comparison, seems almost benign. Although it is addictive, heroin causes minimal organic damage. Given a choice between a few unattractive needle marks or the extensive brain and liver damage—not to mention the everlasting flab—that accompany alcohol abuse, any rational person would choose heroin.
People may be rational, but the drug laws certainly are not. Although it outlaws marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, the federal government has seen fit to permit alcohol and tobacco—two of the most dangerous drugs known to man, as advocates of drug legalization love to point out. “Alcohol is a shittier drug” than most illegal drugs, says drug-law critic Ethan Nadelmann, a professor atPrinceton’s Woodrow Wilson School.
Nadelmann and other advocates of legalization say prohibition itself causes the drug problem. The gangsterism, the overdoses, the petty crime associated with illegal drugs stem not from the drugs themselves, but from the fact that they are illegal. But the legalizers should also heed alcohol’s example—after all, it was the first legalized drug. Much of alcohol’s social cost stems from the fact that it ®MDUL¯is®MDNM¯ legal.
When a drug like alcohol is sanctioned by law, government’s priority shifts from treatment and enforcement to the collection of taxes. The moonshiner’s worst enemy, remember, was not the public health service but the “revenooers.” In 1991, alcohol excise taxes, license fees, and sales taxes diverted a handsome chunk of change into the D.C. Treasury: $49.5 million, up from $39 million in 1988. Last year, the federal government collected $8 billion in alcohol excise taxes.
While the evils of illicit drugs are relentlessly hyped by governments and do-good outfits like the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, alcohol’s nasty consequences are deliberately masked. If you are arrested in the District, the city’s Pretrial Services Agency will test your fluids for heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and PCP—but not alcohol. “Technically, it’s not considered to be a drug,” says Claire Johnson of the Criminal Justice Institute, a District government agency. Perhaps it should be: A 1991 survey of state prison inmates found that more than two-fifths of those convicted of assault or murder had committed their crimes while under the influence of alcohol.
With its power to obliterate common sense and unleash mayhem, alcohol undoubtedly sends plenty of people to the hospital, but there’s no way to know how many. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) tallies emergency-room “mentions” of every illegal drug, but not alcohol (unless it is used with other drugs). In 1992, more than 3,400 D.C. emergency-room patients were under the influence of alcohol in combination with other drugs. Only cocaine sent more people to the hospital. Likewise, you’d expect drunkenness to be a significant cause of fires. But the D.C. Fire Department doesn’t bother to keep score, according to spokesman Ted Holmes.
Even allowing for plenty of wiggle room, the cost side of alcohol’s balance sheet—the early deaths, the health care costs, the lost productivity, the sheer misery—overwhelms its benefits. In 1989, the District’s state health planning agency estimated that the wanton abuse of alcohol cost the city some $1.8 billion. Which seems an awfully high price to pay for a measly $50 million in taxes.
“It clearly costs the city more than it brings in,” says Alice Kelly. “Look at what it’s done to my neighborhood: Both of those disturbances were triggered by alcohol.”
The Mount Pleasant riots of 1991 erupted after a policewoman shot a man while attempting to arrest him for drinking in public; the next year, a barroom brawl spilled out onto Mount Pleasant Street and led to smaller-scale rioting. Ever since, residents say, police have seemed leery of arresting public drinkers.
Mount Pleasant isn’t the only alcohol-infested quarter of the city. Down in Shaw, a liquor store or a beer-and-wine deli stands on almost every corner. On Rhode Island Avenue between Logan Circle and the District line, alcohol outlets far outnumber any other kind of business.
And boy, does Washington have liquor stores. They come in all shapes, sizes, and socioeconomic levels, from hole-in-the-wall pint joints like the Elwood Mart on upper Georgia Avenue to gleaming booze supermarkets like Calvert Woodley Liquors. There are liquor stores named after Jefferson, Hamilton, and Washington, not to mention Kennedy. Space buffs can refuel at Rocket Liquor, while R&B fans can dig Soul Liquors. Rebs can patronize Dixie Wine & Spirits, but should probably avoid Union Wine & Liquors. Spring Valley professionals can travel the Wide World of Wine, while Northeast residents can put their faith in Good Ole Reliable Liquor on upper Rhode Island Avenue. Bigness is in: There’s Big D, Big K, and Big Ben, as well as Jumbo.
With 315 liquor stores bearing Class A licenses that enable them to sell anything from beer to Wild Turkey, Washington makes neighboring jurisdictions seem like dry counties. Teetotaling Montgomery County has only 24 liquor stores, all owned and operated by the county Liquor Control Board.
Before home rule, D.C. liquor stores flourished under the protective arm (and steady patronage) of Congress. Many of the Class A licenses date back to Prohibition. But theliquor industry also owes a debt to one Marion S. Barry Jr.
Not only was the former mayor a diligent consumer of hooch, but he used the liquor license as an economic development and affirmative action tool, according to the Rev. Brown. Under segregation, blacks had been shut of legitimate opportunities in the booze business. During the ’50s, many more blacks than whites were arrested for bootlegging and other liquor-law violations.
In 1980, Barry pushed through a sweeping set of changes to the city’s 1934 Alcohol Beverage Control Act, the thrust of which was to make alcohol licenses easier to obtain and alcohol easier to purchase. At the time, Barry aides described the night-owl mayor to the ®MDUL¯Washington Post®MDNM¯ as “a light social drinker.”
His most important innovation was the Class B license, which allows delis, convenience stores, and supermarkets to deal beer and wine. There are now more than 450 Class B’s sprinkled throughout the District, triple the number in 1983. Alcohol licensing became an engine driving small-business development. Such urban renewal projects as the Hechinger mall at 17th and Benning Road NE invariably contained a liquor store. Ironically, blacks were not the lasting beneficiaries of Barry’s liquor-licensing regime. Today, 65 percent of Class B’s are held by Koreans, as are more than half of the class A liquor licenses, according to Mary Eva Candon, chair of the District’s Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) Board.
Barry also helped liquor stores draw suburban customers by keeping excise taxes lower than in Maryland and Virginia. In 1975, while Barry was still a councilmember, the District lowered its drinking age to 18. A report published by the local liquor industry in 1974, ominously titled “Alcohol Beverages in Washington, D.C.: A Declining Industry,” predicted that 18- to 21-year-olds would boost overall liquor sales by 50 percent. Teenagers flocked to the District from Maryland and Virginia until the drinking age was raised again, under federal pressure, in 1985. Old migration patterns die hard, however: For the suburban 16-year-old with a 10-spot and a thirst for Bud, D.C. remains the land of suds and honey.
While no one can deny the convenience of being able to snare a fifth of Tanqueray on the way to the Farragut North Metro, the pervasiveness of alcohol in the District is not entirely a blessing. The mere availability of the stuff is known to exacerbate alcoholism and drunk-driving problems—the costs of which easily exceed the $35 million budget of the Alcohol, Drug, and Substance Abuse Administration (ADASA) of the Department of Human Services (DHS).
The intangible costs of the District’s liberal alcohol policies—the taxpayers fleeing to the suburbs, the added strain on police and fire departments—aren’t added into the equation. The Rev. Brown links the 50 percent rise in Class B licenses between 1987 and 1992 to the concurrent jump in the murder rate. Beer-selling delis in poor neighborhoods, which often have few restaurants or bars, serve as hangouts, places where local people congregate to socialize and drink—and where murderers seek their targets.
And there’s some evidence that alcohol outlets encourage traffic in other drugs. A group of quaffers clustered outside a store provides perfect cover for drug dealers, says Capt. Ken Bragg of the Third District. For more than a year, he says, marijuana dealers have operated openly from the sidewalk in front of Sarge’s Liquor Post, a dilapidated, red-brick store surrounded by vacant lots at 14th and Girard Streets NW (better known as “herb curb”). The dealers mingle with the crowd of street drinkers that Sarge’s draws. Over the past 12 months, Bragg says, police have made more than 300 drug arrests in that block alone, but the drug traffic continues unabated.
“We can’t handle it,” he says. “As quickly as we lock them up, they’re back out there again.”
There’s no evidence that Sarge’s encourages the drug traffic or aids the dealers directly. But the store doesn’t ®MDUL¯discourage®MDNM¯ it, either. “They give the impression they do not want the police in there,” says Bragg of the store’s employees. “I tell my guys to hang around.” For a long time, the dealers used two pay phones right outside the store. Sarge’s only removed the phones after it was ordered to do so by the Department of Housing and Community Development, which owns the property.
“Sarge’s creates a favorable condition” for drug dealing, Bragg says. “Drugs and alcohol kind of go together.”
Not only do alcohol outlets sometimes attract drug traffic, but alcohol itself is a kind of handmaiden to illegal drug use. Cocaine users drink to calm themselves; heroin users sometimes get a buzz to carry them until their next fix. And then there’s Henry, a lifelong substance abuser who drank whatever, whenever, and wherever he could.
A tall, gaunt figure in shiny turquoise sweats, Henry looks to be about 45 years old, though he’s actually closer to 35. He gives no last name, in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, which he joined a little more than a year ago. Seated on a plastic chair in the Columbia Recovery Center, a private counseling service at 14th and V Streets NW, he outlines in a quiet voice the downward spiral of his life as an addict: In the beginning, he had an apartment and a job, first with Marriott and later with the Department of Public Works. A little too much drinking led to a little too much drug use, and soon he found himself jobless; not long after that, he traded the apartment for a cheap room, which he in turn gave up to live on the streets—upper 14th Street, in fact, the neighborhood of Sarge’s.
He wasn’t particular about which drug he used—he sniffed, smoked, shot, or drank whatever he could afford: coke, pot, heroin, or booze. But he kept coming back to one particular drug. “Generally I drank,” he says, “for the simple reason that it cost the cheapest. Whenever I got paid, or had money, it all went into liquor or drugs.” Later, when he was broke and homeless, “somebody who would not give me any dope would give me a drink.”
Like the laboratory monkeys that will press a lever to administer themselves a fatal dose of cocaine, Henry drugged and drank himself to the brink of death. At his lowest point, his wardrobe consisted of a single sweatsuit. Home was an alley. He hadn’t bathed in 15 months. “I was not looking my best,” he says. As he later learned, he had also contracted HIV. When he finally got himself to the District’s public detox clinic early one morning last year—strung out, hung over, destitute—he couldn’t even remember his social security number.
Decades ago, Henry wouldn’t have had to worry about being homeless for long. D.C. police would have seen to that. From pre-Prohibition times up through the mid-’60s, alcoholism “treatment” consisted of jailing drunks until they sobered up. The sots were hauled into a special courtroom at D.C. Superior Court—“drunk court”—and dispatched either to D.C. Jail or to the Occoquan work farm down near Lorton for a typical 28-day sentence. One of the harshest judges in drunk court was none other than Milton S. Kronheim, the dean of local booze wholesalers (look for his burgundy-and-gold trucks outside your neighborhood outlet).
That this system wasn’t working too well soon became obvious to everyone except perhaps Kronheim, who staunchly defended the drunkenness laws. In 1941, District police made 21,600 arrests for drunkenness, according to the ®MDUL¯Washington Post®MDNM¯. By 1946, that number had jumped to more than 30,000. Many drunks simply did laps around the system, bouncing from drunk court to jail to the bottle and back to drunk court again. A congressional committee studying the problem in 1947 interviewed one man who had been arrested 197 times. In 1950, in a gesture of compassion, the District opened its first treatment center for repeater drunks, funded by a special tax onliquor outlets. The clinic had space for one out of every 100 arrestees.
Most other cities abandoned the practice after World War II, but the District kept locking up drunks until it lost a historic 1966 court case brought by the ACLU on behalf of one DeWitt Easter, who had made close to 200 trips through drunk court’s revolving door.
Today, the alcoholic’s road ends in Building 12, a one-story brick structure on the edge of the grounds of D.C. General Hospital: the detox clinic run by ADASA. Henry was just one of some 2,880 drunkards who passed through the clinic’s doors during fiscal 1992—some of them horizontally—and into the care of Dr. John W. Bedeau.
Building 12 caters to drug addicts as well as alcoholics; its typical client is a combination case, like Henry. Bedeau has worked there since his residency at D.C. General 10 years ago, and he says the alcoholics are always worse off than the drug users.
“They are often homeless, brought by the police, unkempt, lice-infested,” says the dapper Trinidadian. “Very infrequently do you see a cocaine abuser or a heroin abuser who might be lice-infested.”
New arrivals are showered, deloused, and issued a set of hospital pajamas. Then they go to the clinic’s “intensive care unit,” which consists of a cavernous room occupied by about 30 cots and a nurse at a desk. They are given sedatives to ward off DTs and left to sleep it off. Not much else can be done.
At 10 a.m. on a weekday, only one of the beds in intensive care is occupied—by a man curled into the fetal position. A pair of cheap black wingtips rests on the linoleum floor underneath the bed. By the end of the day, intensive care will fill up, Bedeau says. Pajama-clad patients drift about the halls. Spying Bedeau, they approach, entreating him to solve their problems. Others sit and stare out the windows, which don’t open, at the parking lot and RFK Stadium beyond.
“No patients beyond this point,” says a sign on the swinging door to the outside world.
After sleeping it off for a day or two, detox patients stay for five days of counseling and alcohol and drug education. Heroin addicts are put on methadone; there is no methadone equivalent for alcoholics. If there’s space, patients are sent to one of the city’s 28-day inpatient treatment programs (these are free, but private 28-day programs can cost $15,000 or more). Otherwise, they’re released and told to report to an outpatient center. Some do, and some don’t. This morning, Bedeau says, 17 patients were discharged; he expects at least that many to arrive by nightfall. “We’ve had a pretty full census the last few days,” he says. “We were unable to admit on a couple of shifts.” It’s the first week of the month, and welfare checks have just arrived.
The rhetoric of treatment has changed since the ’30s, but the basic idea is the same: The best thing for a drunk is four weeks of confinement. More than half of Bedeau’s patients, in fact, arrive courtesy of the court system, which increasingly favors treatment over jail.
“The city’s programs are driven by the demands of the criminal justice system and the politics of fear,” says Johnny Allem, who founded the Columbia Recovery Center last year as a low-cost alternative to inpatient treatment programs. Allem says the city lacks a real commitment to alcohol treatment. “They’re in the business of closing fucking files.”
The result: “You dilute the system with people who don’t want to get clean,” Allem says. “Politicians really don’t believe you can solve the problem with treatment. What they want is incarceration—”treatment’ that puts your ass in a building overnight.”
And the problem of the repeater drunk has not gone away. During our half-hour interview, a nurse opens Bedeau’s door and tells him that one of last week’s female patients has returned. At the moment, she is face down in the courtyard with a blood alcohol content of .25 percent. Bring her into intensive care, he instructs.
“You really can give up,” he says. “It is a chronic illness. I do not want to say we expect this to happen, but it does.”
The last stop on Bedeau’s tour illustrates his point without words. It is the file room, where four floor-to-ceiling cases groan under the weight of some 168,000 individual case files, one for every patient who has passed through Building 12’s swinging doors since they opened in 1970. Somewhere among them—in the middle 160s—is Henry’s.
A s great leaps forward go, the harnessing of fire and the invention of the wheel are surpassed by one great advance: the discovery of fermentation.
Alcoholic beverages came on the scene not long after man figured out how to store liquids in containers—say, a half-coconut, a hollowed-out gourd, or the skull of a former enemy that just happened to be lying around. Our prehistoric forebears soon learned that liquids stored a little too long became much more interesting. Their mind-altering qualities made alcoholic drinks indispensable to religious ceremonies of the Aztecs, some African tribes, and the Jews.
Americans turned these sacred beverages into a major industry.
The Puritans condemned most forms of sensory pleasure, but not drinking. Almost as soon as the Mayflower landed, its passengers began preparing for the day when their liquor supply would run out. Since Old World ingredients—grapes and grain—were scarce or unavailable, they turned to whatever was at hand. Anything that could be fermented, from corn to apples to peaches to pumpkins, was. (For further evidence that Americans will still drink any alcoholic concoction, no matter how vile, sample Thunderbird, the “wine” that enriched Ernest and Julio Gallo.)
Whatever their aesthetic shortcomings, these ad-hoc beverages made sense from an economic point of view. Fresh fruit or raw grain was bulky and prone to spoil before it reached far-off markets. Distilled into whiskey or pressed into cider, it became compact and fungible. Not to mention tasty. No wonder distillation became the colony’s first industry.
Booze taxes, too, are as American as the stars and stripes. The new republic taxed booze almost from the get-go, which provoked its first domestic crisis (and first tax revolt), the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Up through the Civil War, the government received all its funds from booze taxes and the sale of public land. Yet despite this heavy taxation, the distilleries thrived (take that, supply-siders!), thanks to a uniquely American trait: a seemingly insatiable thirst for the hard stuff.
“Americans drank on all occasions,” writes W.J. Rorabaugh in ®MDUL¯The Alcoholic Republic®MDNM¯, his survey of early American drinking. “Western newlyweds were customarily presented with a bottle of whiskey before bedding down for the night….When a bargain was negotiated or a contract signed, it was sealed with a drink; auctioneers passed a whiskey bottle to those who made bids. Whiskey accompanied traditional communal activities such as house-raisings, huskings, land clearings, and reaping. It was even served when women gathered to sew, quilt, or pick the seeds out of cotton.”
Alone or in social settings, Americans tipped the bottle morning, noon, and night—without benefit of ice. And why not?Liquor was regarded as a healthful, nutritious beverage; water, however, was suspect. According to William Grimes’ ®MDUL¯Straight Up or On the Rocks®MDNM¯, one 19th-century insurance company actually imposed a surcharge on nondrinkers, who were obviously weak and sickly.
Even in courts of law, Rorabaugh writes, “the bottle was passed among spectators, attorneys, clients—and to the judge. If the foreman of a jury became mellow in his cups, the defendant stood an excellent chance of acquittal.” In most towns, the courthouse was usually next to the tavern. And it was in the taverns that colonists’ dissonant grumbling collected into a critical mass; drinking-houses, Rorabaugh writes, became hotbeds of revolutionary sentiment. Drinking, as we all know, breeds rebellion, and drunkenness seemed to symbolize freedom—the inalienable right to get plastered.
Yet even as the Revolution promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of besotted bliss, another, contradictory trait was already manifesting itself: the uniquely American need to tell others how to behave. Among the first to busy himself with his countrymen’s imbibing was Dr. Benjamin Rush, father of the temperance movement. The leaflet he authored in 1784, ®MDUL¯An Inquiry Into the Effects of Spiritous Liquors®MDNM¯, circulated widely into the 19th century. (Rush was hardly a reliable source, since his favored medical treatment was bleeding.)
By 1830, certain now-familiar patterns were emerging. The upper classes realized that all-day drinking interfered with their ability to make a buck. The lower orders—the farmhands, the laborers, the slaves, and especially the immigrants—continued to gulp the sauce with abandon. Newly arrived Irish drank for the same reasons many Latino immigrants do today: to numb the pain of social rootlessness and cultural alienation.
“To those who presumed they had a right to mold society’s institutions,” Rorabaugh writes, “the unregulated tavern’s independence, like the growing independence of the lower classes, was a sign of chaos and disorder.”
Booze, in other words, was ®MDUL¯the®MDNM¯ drug problem of the 19th century. The corner saloon played the role now assumed by the ghetto crackhouse, as an object of middle-class terror and a refuge from lower-class pain (not to mention an absorber of lower-class funds). Turn-of-the-century temperance literature played to fears of hooch-crazed blacks and drunken immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. The saloon was the crackhouse of the day, the evil roost where the lower orders spent their substance and women rented their virtue for a cupful of gin.
“We can’t imagine how this country ever prohibited alcohol,” says Prohibition scholar Nadelmann, “but if you substitute the word cocaine for alcohol [in early temperance propaganda], you have verbatim the propaganda against cocaine now.”
Indeed, it is useful to consider drug and alcohol prohibitions as outgrowths of the same movement. “The origin of alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition are linked,” Nadelmann says.
The forces of prohibition first claimed victory against cocaine and opiates, which had been legally available over the counter since the 1880s, with the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, forefather of today’s drug laws. That law forced the Bayer company out of a key line of business: the manufacture and sale of heroin. At the same time, anti-alcohol propaganda was beginning to take effect. Drinking declined drastically, particularly after the outbreak of World War I, which fanned hostility toward anything German, especially beer. By the time the 18th Amendment went into effect on Jan. 16, 1920, most states had already outlawed booze. Even the lush-living District had been dry for three years.
Fourteen years later, Congress reconsidered. Although it was America’s shortest-lived constitutional amendment, the 18th inflicted huge damage upon the temperance cause, the extent of which became clear only after Repeal. Before drug prohibition is relaxed—it’ll be a while—we ought to look closely at the dismal example of alcohol.
Prohibition was a failure in many of the same ways that drug prohibition is a failure. Overdoses were common, and many people became sick from poisonous bathtub gin. Not only did the Volstead Act prove unenforceable as drafted by anti-saloon zealots, but it fostered a gangster culture and widespread disrespect for the law. It made criminals out of ordinary citizens—including a relative of mine who worked in a university medical lab and earned pocket money selling grain alcohol to students. Prohibition was a national joke, and it made eternal fools of temperance advocates.
As a public health initiative, though, Prohibition at least partially succeeded. Overall alcohol consumption declined drastically, as did the incidence of cirrhosis and other rotgut-related maladies.
Advocates of Repeal envisioned a new era of moderation and promised to prevent the return of the saloon. Government control of liquor markets and even alcohol consumption was a central feature of most states’ Repeal acts. But once it became legal, alcohol followed its own imperatives, expanding its markets and resisting any but the weakest regulation. And it inflicts the most damage upon the lower- and lower-middle-class neighborhoods—and people—that currently suffer the brunt of the illegal drug epidemic.
Unfortunately, Prohibition taught Americans a number of bad drinking habits—just as drug prohibition does nothing to promote responsible drug use. Prohibition turned a nation of beer drinkers into hard-core imbibers who drank to get drunk. Prohibition helped to create the cocktail culture that flourished after Repeal. The moment the 21st Amendment took effect, hard-liquor consumption shot upward and stayed high until the ’80s. And drinking once again came to be considered a natural right. Even now, when alcohol consumption has begun to decline, out-of-control drinking is considered an adolescent rite of passage.
It’s not too hard to imagine a post-drug-legalization America in which hard drugs become as widespread as hard liquor, and for the very same reasons. Prohibition nearly eliminated beer, but hard liquor was readily available. Compact and concentrated, it was more profitable to smuggle. In the same way, the war on drugs scarcified pot in the early 1980s, but at the expense of creating crack, a cheap, potent, and compact Prohibition drug.
Bass’ Liquors, a tiny shop on Rhode Island Avenue just outside the District line, is the kind of place that ought to give legalizers pause. Bass’ specializes in post-Prohibition beverages: high-octane concoctions sold in small containers, from the brightly plumaged bottles of MD chilling in the fridge to the hundreds of little clear, brown, and green bottles crowding shelves behind the counter. Its biggest sellers are a dozen off-brand varieties of vodka—none of which are fit to pass the lips of a Russian cabdriver, much less a tsarina. Bigger bottles and imported wines gather dust on the higher shelves. Bass’ even sells grain alcohol, which is a bit pricey at $4 the half-pint, manager Todd Claggett says, but popular among college students.
At 11:58 on a Sunday night, customers are lined up three deep at Bass’ counter. Only about half seem to be buying anything; the rest are simply waiting. Another line has formed at the check-cashing window. Outside, an off-duty patrolman keeps watch over the mostly full parking lot, pistol bulging at his hip. At the stroke of midnight, Claggett signals that the Sabbath is over, and people surge forward, calling orders to Bass’ three harried clerks—“No, the ®MDUL¯clear®MDNM¯ one,” one man barks—who retrieve bottles as fast as they can.
Bass’bustles seven days a week, 20 hours out of 24, but the Sunday midnight rush is a mainstay of its business. Prince George’s County forbids booze sales on Sunday proper, as do the District, Montgomery County, and Virginia. But at Bass’, Sunday is only 22 hours long, because the store stays open until 2 a.m. on Saturday night—actually Sunday morning. Across Rhode Island Avenue, cars are double- and triple-parked outside Party Time Liquors, which opens at midnight every Sunday for just two lucrative hours.
Once drugs are legalized, markets like Bass’ will flourish, catering to round-the-clock users. There’s no really good reason to buy a pint of whisky at 2 a.m.—but in PG County, it’s not illegal, either. Every time Bass’ license comes up for renewal, the store’s Mount Rainier neighbors protest, but to no avail.
After all, it’s not breaking any laws.
In other words, a drug defines its own marketplace; the law doesn’t. Even the District’s relatively modest restrictions on alcohol are evaded, easily and often. City law and ABC regulations prescribe who can hold a license, who can buy alcohol and when, and how it can (and can’t) be advertised.Liquor ads may not imply any curative powers, for instance. The regulations also forbid “any statement, picture, or illustration referring to Easter, Holy Week, Mother’s Day, or “Santa Claus.’ ”
However Byzantine the District’s alcohol regulations appear on paper, in practice they are weak. Under Barry, the board couldn’t keep up with the paperwork of renewing licenses or collecting fees. When Mary Eva Candon was appointed chair in 1991, the ABC Board had a tremendous backlog of expired licenses and was owed more than $5 million in fees. Last year, the Board suspended 88 licensees for selling to minors. But now Candon is under fire from citizens’ groups and from interim D.C. Council Chair John Ray, who say she and the board distort the law to the liquor industry’s advantage.
The crux of their disagreement is a sectionof ABC law called the “appropriateness standard,” which requires the board to consider whether an establishment is appropriate for its neighborhood. The law as written gives citizens tremendous input and leverage into the license-renewal process. But Ray—who wrote the law in 1986—says Candon and the board discount or ignore citizen protests.
“The board, for all I can see, [believes] that an ABC license is almost a right,” he says. “They shift the burden of proof onto the community, and that’s not correct. The burden of proof is on the license holder. That’s my problem with her. She does not understand the law.”
“D.C. has the most abysmal record in the U.S. with regard to liquor-license enforcement,” says Robert Teir of the American Alliance of Rights and Responsibilities, which helps neighborhood groups combat drug and crime problems. “There’s no consequence to an establishment for violating the rules by serving to minors, allowing noise, or serving as a drug hub.”
The ABC laws give citizens—especially the local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions—great power to determine whether a liquor store or restaurant is “appropriate” for a neighborhood. The new law also encourages residents and store owners to enter voluntary agreements in which the storekeeper ceases certain practices—selling half-pints, for example—and the neighbors drop their protest in return. The provisions spelled out in the agreements are supposed to carry the force of law.
That’s the theory, anyway.
Trants Liquor’s was just the kind of place Ray had in mind. Three years ago, a group of neighbors protested the license of the small store, which had operated since the ’50s in the 1300 block of Constitution Avenue NE. The store sold single cans of beer and malt liquor and pints of harder stuff; neighbors complained that it catered to alcoholics and rowdy drinkers who disrupted the quiet neighborhood—the usual litany of liquor-store blight.
Trants’ owner signed a voluntary agreement in March 1990, promising not to sell half-pints or serve drunk people. “The licensee shall take steps to ensure that the premises are odor-free as well as litter-free,” the agreement reads, “particularly to control the smell of urine about the premises.”
The neighbors dropped their complaint, and his license was renewed. At the urging of the neighborhood, the owner also began to stock grocery items like Pampers and cookies. But as soon as the agreement took effect, the owner realized that much of his income derived from the sale of small bottles. He had signed away his client base. So he promptly began to sell half-pints again, in defiance of the agreement.
The reaction was furious. The neighborhood association protested Trants’ license when it came up for renewal last year; this time, they didn’t bother negotiating with Trants’ owner. They were joined by the local ANC, the Capitol Hill Group Ministry, and R. David Hall, president of the D.C. School Board, who was concerned because Trants is a few doors down from an elementary school.
“This guy was trying to have his cake and his half-pints too,” says Stewart Harris of the North Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association. “We decided as a neighborhood that this man couldn’t be trusted. He certainly shouldn’t be allowed to hold a liquor license.”
The ABC Board disagreed, in a decision that undercuts the dozens of voluntary agreements that have been signed since Trants’. At the insistence of John Ray, the board suspended Trants’ license for five days last August. But despite clear evidence that Trants had broken its agreement—not only by selling half-pints, but by selling to inebriates—and the school board, church, and ANC protests, the board renewed its license in February.
The board’s decision on the license renewal seemed to contradict the findings of its own investigator—one of six inspectors who are charged with keeping tabs on more than 1,500 licensed establishments. The board acknowledged that Trants had flagrantly violated its agreement, as the investigator confirmed, but it considered the agreement a separate issue from the license proceeding.
In other instances, the board’s opinion contradicts its investigator’s report. The investigator observed customers drinking in Trants’ parking lot, but the board wrote that he “observed no drinking in the parking lot.” The investigator watched clearly intoxicated individuals buy booze from Trants. Selling alcohol to inebriates is a violation of city law. “No criminal activity was observed,” wrote the board.
The board opined that Trants has the support of “longtime residents,” implying that only yuppie gentrifiers want to change it. But among the protesters were many older residents—including one who testified that the neighborhood’s quietest years were 1968 and 1969, when Trants’ was closed after having been burned in the riots.
“The violations did not rise to the level of revocation,” insists Candon. Also, she adds, the store’s owner “was run over by a car during this time. He was going through huge difficulties.” The neighborhood association has appealed the license renewal to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
“We have no clout,” says Alice Kelly, who pioneered the use of voluntary agreements in Mount Pleasant. “Sooner or later, the merchants are going to find that out.”
Candon says the ABC Board is blamed for problems over which it has no control. “We regulate the legal sale of alcohol,” she says. “That’s all.”
She adds, “Maybe the problem is our name: Maybe it ought to be Alcoholic Beverage ®MDUL¯Regulation®MDNM¯.”
Alcohol isn’t unique: All drugs resist official control. Advocates of drug legalization use the sorry example of alcohol prohibition to argue that drug prohibition is counterproductive, and in many ways, they’re right.
The very notion of drug legalization no longer seems as novel as it did in 1988, when Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke suggested mild decriminalization. Schmoke and the handful of other prominent legalizers provoked a vituperative response from the likes of former drug czar William Bennett, but their argument has persisted, steadily drawing converts.
Since the beginning of this year, three New York federal judges have stopped hearing narcotics cases, fed up with rigid sentencing guidelines and petty federal drug prosecutions. We have a president who admits to having lit up. Just last month, the ®MDUL¯Economist®MDNM¯ urged America to “bring drugs within the law”—on its cover, no less. The issue has become a flourishing academic cottage industry, with supporters on both the left and the right. When ®MDUL¯National Review®MDNM¯, the ®MDUL¯Atlantic®MDNM¯, and the ®MDUL¯Los Angeles Times®MDNM¯ agree that drug prohibition has failed, surely the earth must move.
Schmoke and others favor a national commission to examine existing drug policies, along the lines of the Wickersham Commission appointed by the Hoover administration to study Prohibition. Its 1931 report recommended against Repeal, but the commissioners’ analysis quietly undermined the entire basis for Prohibition policy. Legalizers feel, probably rightly, that drug prohibition laws couldn’t withstand similar scrutiny. They share a belief that the gangsterism and social anomie associated with illegal drugs are consequences of prohibition.
In an article in the November 1990 ®MDUL¯Atlantic®MDNM¯, Richard J. Dennis articulates the economic case for legalizing drugs. Dennis is one of the most influential legalization proponents, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Drug Policy Foundation, the leading pro-legalization think tank. He was also a major contributor to President Clinton’s campaign. And as a commodities trader, Dennis clearly understands markets in a way that academics do not. His solution to the drug crisis: “Legalize the stuff. Tax it and regulate its distribution, as liquor is now taxed and regulated. Educate those who will listen. Help those who need help.” The resultant savings in law enforcement would more than compensate for any increased social costs attributed to drugs, he argues.
Loosening drug prohibition would cancel some of the damage done by now-illegal drugs. If the government could control drug purity the way it monitors the proof of booze, overdose deaths would all but cease. Drug merchants would be required to obtain licenses akin to liquor licenses, spelling out what sort of drugs may be sold, when, and to whom (sales to children, for example, would remain illegal). Lawbreakers, in theory, could be kept from the marketplace. Drug-commerce disputes could be settled in court, not with automatic weapons. Drug excise taxes would feed needed revenue into federal and state coffers, while law-enforcement expenditures would shrink.
But even as it diminished these “drug problems,” legalization would usher in a whole new set of woes—rampant abuse, legions of new addicts, and dire health problems. In an article published in ®MDUL¯Science®MDNM¯ magazine in 1990, pharmacology professors Avram Goldstein and Harold Kalant weighed the pros and cons of drug legalization. “There is no reason to doubt,” they concluded, “that the increased costs to society would rival those now attributable to alcohol.”
If Prohibition was government’s war on booze, its Repeal led federal and state authorities to contract a form of fiscal alcoholism: They became hooked on booze-tax revenues. Some jurisdictions—Virginia and Montgomery County, to name two—actually sell it themselves. Government has replaced the bootlegger, and it could well replace the dope dealer.
Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? Thirty years ago, the idea of a government-sponsored numbers game would have seemed pretty outlandish, too. Seventy years ago, people believed Prohibition was here to stay. Casinos in the nation’s capital? Forget it. But governments have found vice to be quite profitable—and perfectly acceptable, morally, when government is in charge.