Dispatch New Mexico: Americans and their vices

By Tom McDonald

Today’s topic is sin. I’ll try not to get preachy about it.

There’s a long list of habit-forming vices that Americans have enjoyed, condemned, regulated and even outlawed over time, but today we’ll consider four in particular — tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and gambling. Our U.S. government has spent a lot of time and effort trying to control each, with some of the biggest changes having occurred over the last half-century.

Used to be, a lot of communities relegated drinking, pot smoking and betting to the shadows, while cigarette smoking was mainstream. Now, it’s the other way around. Fifty years ago, where I was growing up, you had to cross the county line (or find a local moonshiner or bootlegger) to get your booze. Plus, there were the “blue laws,” which outlawed the sale of alcohol on Sundays, to protect the Sabbath and keep it holy. Nowadays, even the counties that remain “dry” are at least damp, allowing booze to be served with special licenses, while the blue laws tend to go only until noon on Sunday, instead of all day.

Also in the old days, pot was a Schedule 1 narcotic that could get you prison time just for having some in your person. It’s still Schedule 1, but states are now starting to buck such antiquated federal laws and create their own. There are now 23 states that have legalized medical cannabis, while four of them have legalized the pot for recreational use as well.

It wasn’t so long ago that gambling was a back-alley form of entertainment—a back room poker game, sports betting in the shadows, a numbers racket working out of otherwise-legitimate establishments. The feds and other authorities clamped down on gambling after World War II, but Nevada bucked the trend and gave rise to Las Vegas, which became just about the only place around where one could gamble openly in the U.S. Then, in 1977, New Jersey decided to legalize casino gambling Atlantic City, and a couple years later the Seminole Tribe opened the first reservation-based casino, and the floodgates opened.

Now, legalized gambling is just about everywhere, and is even touted as a great way to support schools (see the New Mexico Lottery, among many state lotteries that funnel money into their educational programs).

Alcohol, marijuana and gambling have certainly moved more into the mainstream, but smoking has gone the other way. Used to be, everybody smoked cigarettes wherever they wanted. I remember our family doctor making house calls in the 1960s, puffing his cigarette while checking us kids out, one at a time in our front room.

Now, smoking has been regulated to the outdoors—and even there it’s restricted—due to the realization that second-hand smoke is also a health hazard. Technology has also become part of this issue, by giving people an alternative to the carcinogens being released through cigarette smoke for the vaporizing effect of e-cigarettes.

America’s history is replete with efforts to curb bad habits and addictions, and mostly those efforts ended in failure. Prohibition of alcohol, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, is the most glaring example of how simply outlawing a vice doesn’t work. It didn’t stop alcohol consumption, it sent it underground, and that led to a dramatic rise in organized crime. Ditto for the war on drugs; it didn’t stem use, it only gave rise to the cartels.

Legislating morality, as it turns out, doesn’t work.

What does work, at least to some extent, is regulation. Regulating smoking was necessary as a public-health issue, since unrestricted smoking was violating non-smokers’ rights. And gambling is better off taking place out in the open, where it can be kept above-board. We even figured out that pot must be addressed not with hyperbolic rantings against it but with sound medical science and pragmatic social and economic controls.

Even with alcohol, we’ve come to more reasonable terms, as blue laws have given way to secular judgments and drinking-and-driving laws have been tightened to control collateral damage. Drinking is a personal choice, but driving drunk crosses the line and places others in danger. More and more, our laws are coming to reflect that standard.

Maybe America is moving toward a more balanced approach to its vices. Regardless of our disapproval, self-destructive behavior is an individual liberty; but when such behavior threatens or hurts someone else, that’s where the line must be drawn.

Tom McDonald writes this column for newspapers around the state as founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and is also the Roswell Daily Record’s general manager. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com or tmcdonald@rdrnews.com.