Alcohol Use In America
Cannabis Use In America
Prevalence and Social Attitudes
What Determines an Activity’s Prevalence?
Social Attitudes and Laws
Social Acceptance: Alcohol vs. Cannabis
Social Narratives vs. Reality
The Role of Common Knowledge
Both alcohol and cannabis have been around for thousands of years, and both have been used for recreational, spiritual, and medical purposes. Both have been a part of life in America since our country’s founding. And to a greater or lesser extent, both have been socially accepted at times, while being prohibited at other times. For the past century, however, there has been a distinct difference in social attitudes between the two: while people tend to accept or reject alcohol, they don’t react to it with fear, a sense of taboo, or disgust, like they do with cannabis. Why is that? This analysis attempts to understand why people tend to accept alcohol but denounce cannabis.
To better understand Americans’ attitudes toward alcohol and cannabis, I first examine the role each has played in America’s history, I then examine the nature of social acceptance of alcohol vs. cannabis, and then I propose some explanations as to why alcohol has been accepted, perhaps grudgingly at times, while cannabis has been so adamantly rejected.
I conclude that alcohol has always been used overtly, so everyone can see its effects. Users have validated its use and effects for other users and non-users. However, cannabis has always been used covertly, so people can’t see that it’s safe, enjoyable, and effective for treating medical conditions; that is, users have not been able to validate cannabis use for other users and non-users. The overt vs. covert behavior has created feedback loops encouraging acceptance of alcohol, while stigmatizing acceptance of cannabis.
Alcohol Use in America
A Brief History of Alcohol Use in America
Since America’s founding, alcohol has been a part of everyday life.
The colonists brought with them from Europe a high regard for alcoholic beverages. Distilled and fermented liquors were considered important and invigorating foods, whose restorative powers were a natural blessing. People in all regions and of all classes drank heavily.
Drunkenness was considered a “personal indiscretion”:
Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was personal indiscretion.
Drunkenness was controlled using a combination of physical sanctions (fines or whippings) and conventional mechanisms for control, including limits on tavern hours, requirements for taverns to provide food and lodging, and limits on who taverns could serve, as well as the activities in which patrons could engage.
During the late 1700s through the mid 1800s, however, society experienced rapidly growing immigration, industrialization, urbanization and social change (see Figure 1). Immigrants flooded cities from rural parts of the US and from foreign countries. Massive dislocations, together with loss of support systems, left many unable to cope. They found solace in taverns.
At the same time, the nature of taverns changed, from one overseen by respectable members of society who maintained social control, to one run by “common folk” seeking to commercially exploit liquor.
These radical social changes created a breakdown in the social norms that had previously discouraged alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking became much more common and caused numerous problems: people were late to work and unable to fulfill their job functions, and drunken men were abusing their wives and children or leaving them without means of support.