Alcohol: Federal Law and Public Perception

Alcohol: Federal Law and Public Perception

By Tehya Wachuta, Editor-in-Chief Originally published in Issue 10, Volume 33 of The University Register on March 26, 2021

Recently, I was talking to a friend about the fact that we both turned 21 during the pandemic. For us, it didn’t matter too much—neither of us were particularly interested in drinking, and we also had no desire to go to a bar. We agreed that the pandemic hadn’t negatively affected our experiences in turning 21, but the conversation got me thinking about the way our society treats alcohol almost as if it’s an essential part of youth. This, I believe, comes down to our laws about alcohol and how those laws affect public perception of the drug.

In the US, we have a scheduling system for drugs. This means that most drugs are categorized into groups based on a drug’s addiction potential and whether the federal government has condoned it for medicinal use. The five schedules are organized with number one holding the “most dangerous” drugs and each successive level holding “less dangerous” drugs than the one before it. I put those qualifiers in quotes because the categories are not as simple as they may seem. For example, marijuana is classified as a Schedule One drug (although it has accepted medical uses in some states, it does not on a federal level) and methamphetamine is classified as a Schedule Two drug. Even though meth has an extremely high addiction potential and is one of the only drugs that will actually kill neurons (it forces so much dopamine into the synapses that it essentially works neurons to death), it is classified as a Schedule Two drug because two structurally similar drugs have a federally accepted medicinal use—methylphenidate in Ritalin and amphetamine in Adderall, two drugs used to treat ADHD. On the surface, this makes marijuana seem more dangerous than methamphetamine because of its classification, but I would argue that is not true. This is one of the problematic aspects of the scheduling system. Another is the fact that not all drugs are scheduled—namely, alcohol and nicotine.

Because ethanol, the type of alcohol we drink, has a high potential for abuse and no federally recognized medicinal uses that I am aware of, I would expect to find it in Schedule One along with marijuana, heroin, LSD, and ecstacy. But because it is not scheduled, the only regulation around one’s ability to use alcohol is the age limit, which may be less strict depending on the state you’re in. For example, in my home state, Wisconsin, an individual under 21 is legally able to drink alcohol with a parent, guardian, or spouse aged 21 or older present. Even if a person is from a state without a similar legal loophole, many adolescents still find ways around the legal drinking age with fake IDs or by asking an of-age friend to buy alcohol for them. This leads to dangerous behavior, such as drinking and driving, and makes teens who drink more susceptible to binge drinking and/or alcohol dependence later in life. Furthermore, alcohol, unlike some other drugs, does not stop at affecting the brain—it can also damage one’s liver, heart and pancreas when abused.

Would putting alcohol on the scheduling system really solve all of these issues? Probably not. But the fact that it isn’t scheduled allows it to be more unregulated than other drugs, even though it is by no means inherently safe to use. It also, I think, contributes to the way we treat alcohol in our beliefs and media. We are all told in high school that drinking can be dangerous, and we are all given seminars about the ways in which underage drinking can ruin, or even end, our lives. But at the same time, we are given messages in movies and TV about college binge drinking parties, effortlessly cool characters who drink, using alcohol to improve our sex lives or social lives, and characters who use alcohol as a way to cope with hardships. We are told not to use drugs as a coping mechanism, but many of us are not taught what healthy coping mechanisms are. Our society simultaneously discourages young people from drinking and seemingly expects alcohol to be a part of youth. Once we address these mixed messages and start giving young audiences representations of how to use alcohol realistically and responsibly, then perhaps we can start to shape a generation of young adults who are better equipped to form realistic expectations about the alcohol they are almost certain to encounter at some point in their youth.

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