Two years ago the voters of Oregon approved a measure that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of even the most dangerous drugs, while also mandating that tax revenue from the sale of marijuana (which Oregon legalized in 2014) be used for addiction recovery programs.
Oregon voters recognized that the 50 year War on Drugs has been a total failure that has done nothing to reduce drug abuse and arguably has made the problem even worse, both in their state and nationwide.
However, the shortcoming of the Oregon law is that it ignored the most-abused and harmful drug of them all — alcohol. And even more ironically, the state legislature in 2021 legalized to-go drinks for restaurant take-out and increased the amount of wine that can be shipped directly to consumers — and this is a state that is second only to California for its number of wineries and has as many distilleries as Kentucky.
So it should not be surprising that Oregon ranks among the states with the highest prevalence of problem drinking in the country. Last year, 2153 residents died of causes attributed to alcohol, according to the Oregon Health Authority — more than twice the number of people who died from methamphetamines, heroin, and fentanyl combined. In addition, an Oregon business group estimates that the annual cost in lost productivity because of excessive drinking by state residents is $5 billion per year.
However, alcohol abuse is a nationwide problem. There were more deaths attributed to alcohol (about 108,000) than to drugs (about 106,000) in 2021 in the United States. Here in Massachusetts, we have one of the highest rates of deaths from alcohol poisoning.
Indeed, alcohol abuse is a world-wide problem. Just this past week, a report published by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) that followed two years of research and a review of more than 5000 peer-reviewed studies concluded that alcohol in even small quantities can be harmful to our health. The CCSA report recommends that a safe amount of alcohol consumption for adults is no more than two drinks per week. (That’s not a typo — two drinks per week.) The CCSA report is confirmation of the World Health Organization’s designation of alcohol as a Class A carcinogen a few years ago.
It has been well-known for many years that those who start drinking as teenagers are five times more likely to become victims of alcohol abuse disorder (what formerly was referred to as alcoholism) than those who don’t start drinking until they are 21. In addition, it goes without saying that alcohol far exceeds any drug for the damage and tragedy it wreaks upon families, regardless of socioeconomic status.
The time has come for our public officials and our citizenry to recognize alcohol abuse as an immediate public health emergency and to take action to address this growing — and largely-ignored — problem.