Denying alcohol to problem drinkers

24/7 Sobriety is a good program. But it’s not enough.

Keith makes a good point in the post below: 24/7 Sobriety programs (twice-daily breath alcohol tests with swift and certain sanctions for drinking) are a proven technology for reducing drunk-driving recidivism (and other alcohol-related offending). We have no such evidence for rules forbidding alcohol sales to convicted drunk drivers required to use ignition interlocks.

But 24/7 is no panacea; a typical program only lasts 90 days, and there’s a limit to how long you can require someone to come in 14 times a week. (“SCRAM” bracelets, which provide continuous monitoring of alcohol in perspiration, are an alternative, but even they are too burdensome for widespread long-term use, except on people you’d really be willing to incarcerate otherwise.) And the resulting reductions in drunken mischief, while substantial, are far from complete or permanent. (Remarkably, the effects of 24/7 seem to outlast the monitoring itself.)

We still need policies that make it harder for people who commit crimes under the influence to get their hands on alcohol. The New Mexico program, aimed only at those with interlocks, is a sorry half-measure. What I’d like to see is a universal carding requirement regardless of age, with people convicted of alcohol-related crimes given driver’s licenses marked as not eligible to drink. Is having to show a driver’s license such an intolerable intrusion on liberty?

The saddest part of the New Mexico story is the well-intentioned but utterly wrong-headed opposition by Representative Maestas:

House Democratic Whip Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque said the legislation attempts to outlaw alcoholism.

“The government cannot solve alcoholism through a deterrent or through the criminal justice system,” Maestas said. “The cops and judges, no matter how wise they are, cannot stop alcoholism. It’s going to take counselors and doctors and family members and communities.”

It would be hard to squeeze more misunderstanding into fewer words.

(1) Threatening people with prison for continuing to drive drunk is a deterrent program. It works poorly, largely because one result of being drunk is reduced sensitivity to consequences. By contrast, making it harder for them to get drunk is something else. Does Rep. Maestas think that banning sales to minors is an attempt to “solve alcoholism through a deterrent”? And isn’t it clear that sales to this group of adults is much more dangerous than sale to the average minor?

(2) The goal is not to “solve alcoholism.” It’s to prevent specific individuals, already convicted of endangering the lives of others while under the influence, from continuing to do so. Many, but not all, of them are alcohol-dependent.

(3) Nothing in the bill will prevent “counselors and doctors and family members and communities” from helping and pressuring problem drinkers to cut back or quit. Indeed, making it harder for them to keep drinking ought to assist that process.

People with alcohol abuse disorders who drive drunk or engage in drunken violence deserve compassion for their disorder. But they, and the rest of us, can benefit if some of that compassion takes the form of an effective nudge. Presumably Rep. Maestas wouldn’t himself offer an alcoholic friend a drink. Why should the liquor industry be allowed to do so, for money?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

28 thoughts on “Denying alcohol to problem drinkers”

  1. One does not have to be an alcoholic to be a repeat DUI. If you binge every New Years, but are sober the other 364, you’re not an alky.

    But don’t f’ing drive on new years!

  2. I like the idea of a universal carding requirement to drink, which can be revoked for problems related to drinking such as DUI. But one problem, how would you handle the reality that it still would be super easy for a drinker who has his drinking privilege revoked to have friends or family who still have their drinking privileges to supply the alcohol. One needs to look no further than the underage drinking problem to see evidence of how easy it is to get alcohol without buying it directly from the store or a bar. Just curious how you would respond to this potential problem.

    1. Giving a beer to a 20-year-old isn’t a terrible thing to do. Giving a beer to a convicted drunk driver is. I think people would be more reluctant to do it, and less reluctant to punish those who did, than applies to the drinking age.

      Of course there would be leakage, and that would reduce the value of the rule. But not to zero.

      1. In addition, in that case the problem drinker will be drinking at home, with no need to drive to get there, or at a friend’s place where the pressure to leave is less than in a public establishment and where there might be people around who might help discourage his driving. Add some sanctions for people who knowingly provide the alcohol and you might stiffen the spines of those friends and relatives.

  3. Mark: When you apply for a job in the US, you usually have to do an I-9 form, which means showing your driver’s license to your prospective employer. How many people are going to hire someone who has a big red mark on the license for an alcohol-related conviction? One could argue that it’s condign punishment but I think you and I would agree that it’s too destructive to the economic viability of the person’s family.

    1. A valid US passport works just as well, and it has the additional benefit that it is a single document that proves both identity and citizenship.

      1. Two-thirds of the U.S. general population don’t have passports and the proportion in the criminal justice population is almost certainly higher than that

    2. The more I think about how this works in practice the more complications I find.
      1. There is the instances where DUI is not involved and some other form of ID is required which is the same problem as voting ID. [“Is having to show a driver’s license such an intolerable intrusion on liberty?” started this line of thought].
      2. How much effort must the merchant invest in confirming the ID?
      3. What if the problem drinker has accomplices buy the alcohol? Back to 24/7 or something similar?

      On the question of I-9, don’t most companies run back ground checks anymore? Would that pick up most DUI or only felonies.

  4. Two good points.

    I’d make the ban temporary, but not short; three years for a first offense doesn’t sound unreasonable.

    How serious the employment problem would be is an empirical question. If, as I think is usually the case, the I-9 process takes place only after an offer has been made, how many employers who don’t bother to check criminal histories before hiring would then retract thosfe offers? I agree that if the answer is “many,” that’s a serious objection, and would argue for applying the ban only after a second conviction.

    1. I would be so sure the check takes place after an offer has been made. Anecdata say a fair number of large companies are demanding SSN on initial job applications, ostensibly so that they can do e-verify on them. And that would almost certainly turn up the DUI.

  5. “Is having to show a driver’s license such an intolerable intrusion on liberty?”

    I am not a fan of any additional legislated or mandated ID checks in general. However, I do believe that the use of a drivers license as universal ID is quite problematic. Since it is a license to drive, such ID can be seized for any number of infractions, some pretty minor. That leaves the citizen with no ID. If a state wants to legislate ID checks, it needs to issue a non-revocable ID in addition to the license; one which cannot be seized.

    1. Are there still states who don’t offer an ID card that is exactly like a driver’s license except it says on it that it isn’t good for driving?

      1. The issue in voting is that there is a charge for such such cards in many states plus often the issuing agency is distant, there is no no public transportation there and it is only open limited hours.

        That would apply here.

  6. And you can let people opt into the no-alcohol-purchase card, if they want to solidify (or just signal) their abstinence. The presence of the volunteers would also create signal jamming, whereby people (employers?) who see a license forbidding alcohol purchasing would not know whether it was voluntary or mandatory.

  7. Some notes about the New Mexico Legislature are in order here.

    Like many States, the Constitution of the State of New Mexico aspires to a citizen legislature. Unlike most States, New Mexico comes close to achieving. Our legislators receive no salary: only a per diem payment to cover travel expenses, and (lately) a small pension for those who last long enough in the Legislature.

    Additionally, the Legislature meets for a 60 day session in odd numbered years (immediately following an election) and a 30 day “budget” session in even numbered years. They can also be called into special session by the Governor or by the body itself. The Legislature has never called itself into session. Much of the planning work is done between sessions by various committees of the Legislature.

    The structure of our Legislature has some foreseeable effects: one of them is that it’s pretty much Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour in Santa Fe. Our legislators are people who have jobs that permit them to be absent for extended periods every year. That is, retirees and business owners whose business can run itself for a while. Representative Maestas, for example, is an attorney in private practice. His practice focuses on criminal defense. Whether this influences his stance on the issue is unclear.

    Our legislators are (mostly) hard-working people committed to making the State a better place. Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of breadth in the Legislature and too much partisan bickering. We haven’t reached Washington, D.C. levels (yet), but having a Republican Governor with a pretty Blue Legislature creates some messy problems.

    As to Mark’s idea for universal carding, I think the main effect this would have is to increase business in fake IDs and make drinking on a fake ID something for more than teens.

  8. I resent being asked to show my ID to buy alcohol when I am visibly double the legal drinking age. I think there should be a special card with a picture on it and “this person is old enough to buy alcohol” but no other information. I don’t like having to show my license #, home address, etc. just because “we card everyone.” I’m paying with cash; therefore privacy is important to me.

  9. We could save so much trouble and make the world so much more perfectly safe if we just revoked everybody’s right to use or possess alcohol altogether. Think of the benefits!

    1. we tried that, didn’t work.

      But the notion that perhaps we can curtail the rights of folks who repeatedly endanger the lives of others? Seems reasonable. Maybe we can accomplish that without consigning them to jail for the rest of their lives?

    2. An excellent example of my favorite fallacy in policy analysis: “Some more extreme form of what you propose is impracticable; therefore let’s ignore what you actually proposed.”

  10. Switzerland has a potentially interesting solution for court-ordered sobriety requirements. This solution is a compromise in that it sacrifices immediate enforcement for a lower burden on both the police and the drinker: basically, rather than having somebody tested twice daily, the person’s hair is tested for ethyl glucuronide (EtG) and fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEE) every few months. This test can show chronic or excessive alchohol consumption dating back up to three months for EtG and up to six months for FAEE.

    Obviously, while this is much less burdensome than checking in twice daily with the police, there are downsides:

    * It lacks the immediacy of a 24/7 program. Violations will be discovered only with a delay of up to six months. Even though being caught may be inevitable, this may not enter into the mind of a chronic drinker.
    * It does not show occasional, non-habitual drinking.

    I have no idea (but would really like to learn) how effective this is in practice compared to 24/7 programs. I also wonder how useful it would be in complementing 24/7 programs after they have run their course (i.e. with respect to what you said about “there’s a limit to how long you can require someone to come in 14 times a week”, Mark).

    1. Also, the evidence of the validity of those tests is much more wobbly than for breathalyzers.

      1. That’s another possible concern, yes.

        Obviously, this is way outside my area of expertise: I’m just curious as to whether this would be a viable, less intrusive alternative.

Comments are closed.