America’s history with alcohol and drugs has been a complicated one. We are one of only a handful of Western countries that has at one pointed banned liquor and when compared with other parts of the world our drug laws seem arcane. Yet we also have a culture that is all but centered on the notion of getting drunk and high.
Our sporting events are one large alcohol advertisement and our movies, whether consciously or subconsciously, push forth an agenda that using drugs is cool. It is difficult to reconcile the two adverse approaches that we have in this country towards alcohol and drugs because we simultaneously send the message drink and use drugs, while also making people feel guilty about either of these choices. We punish drug offenders harshly to the point where even just possession of drug paraphernalia is enough to warrant criminal charges, and yet at times our government has been implicit in the selling of narcotics.
So what exactly is the message we are sending to people through our culture, is it don’t drink or use drugs, or is it encouraging theses actions? I for one believe that it is both and like our puritanical thoughts on sex, this contrast of message actually exacerbates the drug and alcohol problem in this country.
Psychologically speaking, when someone believes that something is taboo, there is more of a drive to do that thing. There is a secret enticement to it and the pleasure derived is due to the feeling that what you are doing is wrong. There is nothing more satisfying, and yes I am making a blanket statement here, to a teenager then the act of rebellion, and taking drugs and drinking is such an act. Many times they derive joy out of the fact that what they are doing is deemed “wrong” by their parents and society, and the mere fact that is deemed “wrong” is all the more reason to do it.
This idea is backed up by a recent study comparing the drinking culture in America compared to a number of European countries where the drinking age is 18 or younger, and not often enforced. The study found that in these countries adolescents drank more often than their American counterparts, but that they did not drink to the excess that American adolescents did.
The findings of this study are interesting because they not only speaks to the fact that suppressing something and deeming it bad, usually has the adverse effect, because no real dialogue can occur once something is deemed culturally negative, but they also speaks to the binge drinking culture in America.
This is not to say that Europe does not have its fair share of binge drinking going on, but all you would have to do is put on a teen comedy film from America, in order to see how prevalent this notion is in our culture. Take the recent film Neighbors or its sequel Neighbors 2. Both of these films showed the gratuitous amount of underage and binge drinking that occurs on college campuses. From viewing this films you’d believe that it is almost a rite of passage to drink to excess and pass out someplace strange, and according to American culture you’d be correct in your belief.
However, there does seem to be a cultural shift going on amongst the millennials. Yes, they still like to drink and use drugs, as evident by the fact that opioid usage is at an all-time high, but there is also a growing movement of young people who are abstaining from the use of drugs or alcohol.
Back in the 1980s, there was a punk movement called straight edge, where bands didn’t drink or use drugs. Bands like Minor Threat pioneered this movement and as frontman, Ian MacKaye said in an interview, “I see substance abuse as a very mainstream activity.” His words correspond with my original postulation that drug and alcohol abuse are propagated by American culture, but they also offered an alternative to the cultural saturation of binge drinking and abusing drugs.
Bands around the turn of the century picked up where Minor Threat left off and started to announce their sober lifestyles with pride. This lead to an entirely new generation abstaining from drinking and using drugs and choosing to forgo the very American rite of passage of getting blackout drunk and causing havoc.
There is also a growing movement of people who are going public with their sobriety, which is not something that occurred much in the past. The culture of anonymity surrounding recovery, which was put in place in the 30s in order to help protect people from the stigma of addiction, is starting to break down and is offering the public a glimpse into what it means to be in recovery.
Many people still have no idea what it means to be in recovery and they believe that it is a sad existence, void of fun or joy. This makes sense considering how ingrained in our culture drinking and using drugs is, but having people go public with their recovery is helping to offset this misunderstanding.
To circle around to the initial question, does American culture encourage the use of drugs and alcohol, I believe the answer to be yes. Our confused and often schizophrenic relationship with drugs and alcohol has truly lead to a cultural split and suppression that has done nothing but encourage the extensive use of drugs and alcohol within our country. I don’t necessarily think that legalizing drugs or lowering the drinking age would help to change this, but being able to have intelligent and adult conversation about drinking and drug usage in this country would probably go a long way.
Rose Lockinger is a passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.