There is nothing at all objectionable about the Dry (or semi-dry) January idea. The National Institute on Alcoholism reports that there were some 13,000 drunk-driving-related deaths in 2021—and that, overall, some 140,000 annual deaths can be linked to excessive drinking. For those who drink too much, drinking less is an obvious benefit. What makes the movement notable, moreover, is the fact that it’s not been led in the US by government. Like the MeToo movement, it’s a product of civil society—that constellation of influencers from YouTube to schools of public health, in this case—that combine to set social norms. Impressively, some 15 percent of US adults are said to have taken the pledge.
Still, one cannot help but wonder why that same set of influencers or others are not waging a campaign against a public health scourge at least as pernicious, if not more so: the epidemic of hard drug use and overdoses that claimed more the lives of more than 100,000 Americans last year. One looks in vain for those endorsing a drug-free January—or a drug-free New Year. In this case, tragically, government is not only not waging such a crusade, it’s actively promoting the opposite message—that the use of drugs, even hard drugs, should be tolerated or even enabled. If social norms are the best way to promote healthy choices—as per Dry January—this movement leads us in the opposite direction.
The most dramatic case in point is that of the Harm Reduction Movement—which aims to permit “supervised injection” sites, where heroin and fentanyl users shoot up under medical supervision. The Biden Administration has signaled its support for the harm reduction goal. Although technically illegal under federal law, two such sites have been in operation for more than a year in New York City—as federal authorities have turned a blind eye. There is dispute about their immediate effects; no doubt some overdoses have been prevented and impure drugs detected. But research has also shown an increase in “aggressive assaults” in their vicinities—as one would expect. Addicts need to get money for drugs somehow.
But the real problem involves that of social norms. Permitting supervised injection sends a signal: Hard drug use should be tolerated, not stigmatized. Such a message extends beyond those using the site’s services to neighborhood residents and kids.
So it is with the much more far-reaching change in drug policy: the legalization of cannabis, which now extends to 27 states, including California and New York. It’s hard to overlook the fact that today’s marijuana is far more potent than that of decades earlier—or that increasing evidence links its use to schizophrenic breaks among young adults, or that the CDC warns it can lead to what amounts to addiction, aka “marijuana use disorder.” In contrast to their warnings about cigarettes, for instance, states are cheerleading the use of marijuana. In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul has projected receipt of some $1.5 billion in cannabis tax revenue—predicated, of course, on more and more residents smoking dope and consuming cannabis-infused chewables.
What’s more, the state’s law has promoted the idea that cannabis is a vehicle for “social justice”—by giving preference to convicted former drug dealers in obtaining retail sales licenses.
The stated goal is to create “occupational opportunities for current or formerly incarcerated individuals, including justice involved individuals.” In other words, the state thinks it a social good—a positive norm—for cannabis retail outlets both to operate and to purvey their goods in the neighborhoods where “justice-involved individuals” are likely to do business, poor and minority neighborhoods where they once dealt on street corners. Again, the message is clear: tobacco use may be demonized, alcohol use limited—but full speed ahead on drugs, whether at safe injection sites or through pot shops.
It may be that it is too late to roll back the tide of drug legalization and tolerance. The news that the Department of Health and Human Services will recommend easing federal restrictions on marijuana sales—on the dubious grounds that at least cannabis is not as dangerous as heroin—will only abet the trend. It is not too late, however, for those who favor a movement like Dry January to tackle what is arguable a far worse scourge. To be sure, alcoholism contributes to premature deaths—but slowly and over time. The wave of drug overdoses has hit hard—and in the moment, as we rightly wring out hands about “deaths of despair.” One looks in vain for campaigns—whether through social media or government public service—to achieve something at least akin to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” effort to combat drug use.
Ultimately, drug use will be only decline through a changed social norm. Dry January provides a useful model.