Drunk on virtue

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There are many intoxicants available to the discerning American: single malt scotch for the manly, white zinfandel for the wedding shower crowd, a Rob Roy for anyone returned from the 1940s.

But Texas, the state that gave us such lethal delicacies as chicken fried steak and Jessica Simpson, has perhaps hit upon the most delicious form of inebriation since someone thought of stuffing a wedge of lime into a longneck bottle:


Imagine the thrill of walking into a bar and demanding that the people therein prove they are sober. This is akin to strolling into a university and instructing the faculty to prove they are not educated. The possibilities for sanctimonious fun are endless.

Last week, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission dispatched undercover officers to bars in search of the exceedingly drunk. So far, 2,200 arrests or citations have been issued and people unable to establish their sobriety were taken into custody.

Texas law permits the arrest of those considered drunk, and doubtless some of those detained were not only drunk but also in possession of car keys. The question raised, aside from the long-standing one about whether the problem is too many drunks or too many drivers, is one of perspective. To what extent do we expect agents of the state to act as the National Dad?

Every mishap, disaster and outrage out there elicits demands that someone do something about it, and the official response almost always seems to be some bureaucrat's attempt to create a Nerf world, with neither hard floors nor sharp edges.

Hence, even a bar drunk with a designated driver sipping tea nearby is not immune from the protective hand of the state. Carolyn Beck, spokeswoman for the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, told The Associated Press of one case in which a drunk ambled into traffic in El Paso and was killed and a student on spring break attempted a header into a hotel pool from a second-story window, missed and died.

These, of course, are all misfortunes we might wish to avoid. I personally maintain a policy of never wandering drunk onto a four-lane, even sober, and when drinking at pool side rarely mistake my hotel balcony for the cliffs of Acapulco. Possibly what we are seeing is less the potency of John Barleycorn than the plausibility of Charles Darwin.

The problems with the Texas plan are twofold. The first is one of practicality: Will chasing drunks into their lairs really reduce the problem of alcohol addiction and its attendant mayhem?

Two phone calls produced two differing experts.

Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist and longtime expert in alcohol and chemical dependency, has doubts.

"Just arresting somebody and putting them in jail for a couple of days has never done anything for anyone," said Dr. Twerski, founder of Gateway Rehabilitation Center. "If you would tell me they somehow have a way of coercing someone into going into treatment, it's not the best way of doing it, but court-ordered treatment can have some good effect."

Tom Greenfield, a researcher with the National Alcohol Research Group, a project funded by the National Institutes of Health, thinks he sees some hope in conducting a sting on the rocks.

"They are focusing on heavy drinking," Dr. Greenfield said. "It calls people's attention to the issue. Somebody might just think twice about drinking quite as much the next time."

What Dr. Greenfield is getting at is a study he and colleagues conducted from 1984 to 1995. They measured the drinking habits of people, and divided them into two groups: folks who drink steadily, but in the same amount, and those who go dry for a few days, then hammer themselves with alcohol when they do drink. Mortality patterns showed that the latter group had a higher death rate, suggesting that when it comes to liquor, slow and steady is safer.

So, yes, there is something to be said for not getting wide in a public place. The question is whether Texas is going to change people's drinking habits or their drinking locales.

This raises the second question, and it is one of whether we are drawing a new line of class division. Public drinking in Texas is done in bars. Does the Alcoholic Beverage Commission plan to send agents into private clubs or, perhaps, weddings?

I confess a personal interest in this matter: My niece is getting married in Dallas in July and I plan to put a few gourds of mead in my tummy. I'm happy to hand the car keys to my wife. I am less pleased to look around the banquet hall for agents of the state.

In all likelihood, if the traditions of power hold true, the same state that allowed Lyndon Johnson to wheel his Cadillac across the plains, a can of beer in his hand, will not intrude on my visit. The question is just how far we want to go protecting ourselves from each other and what we give up in the process. Being good and being afraid are very different things.


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