What About Paying People With Booze?
“I think I can speak for the group and say that if they didn’t give us beers then we wouldn’t come. … We need alcohol to function.”
So says, Frank, a Dutch alcoholic, who is part of a program in Amsterdam that pays alcoholics in beer, tobacco and a bit of cash to clean streets. The goal of the…unique…program isn’t so much to keep the streets clean but to occupy the drunks that end up getting saucy in the parks, making a mess and making too much noise.
I can say with some confidence that such a program probably wouldn’t be approved here in the U.S., even in San Francisco. Still, it raises an interesting question: What should a community do about its public addicts who roam the streets, occupy the parks and generally cause a bit of nuisance for those who either don’t have an addiction or are able to function quite nicely even with an addiction?
Amsterdam has clearly chosen a policy that seeks to turn dysfunctional alcoholics into functioning alcoholics. This option on dealing with the problem caused by public drunkards is chosen over rounding them up and throwing them in jail then releasing them to start over or paying to try to clean them up and get them on a long-term path to sobriety. The path Amsterdam has chosen is both easier on public funds than the other options as well as more immediately productive (parks and streets get clean).
But Amsterdam’s “Clean and Drink” program also embraces a philosophy that could never be considered in the states where alcohol is still viewed by many as something devilish, as sinful to consume and where its abuse must be overcome versus tolerated.
Yet, it can be said that, despite the unique American attitude toward alcohol, that the functioning alcoholic can indeed be a very productive member of society. I’ve known a few functioning alcoholics who spend their days quietly and privately feeding their addiction in a calm and mannered way without falling down, without getting glazy-eyed, without slurring and while being very productive and very creative. Judged only on their professional output, these functioning alcoholics would be deemed happy and useful contributors to the public, to the people for whom they work and for the community in general.
That this can possibly be is at the heart of Amsterdam’s “Clean and Drink” program for public drunks.
But here’s the thing, here in the U.S., this program would likely be deemed “immoral”. A lawmaker who broached the idea probably wouldn’t be re-elected. The bureaucrat would think twice before even suggesting it in private. And yet it strikes me as pretty darned good idea. However, it requires that I don’t view alcoholism or addiction as a crime or a moral failure.
William Faulkner wrote many of the novels that won him the Nobel Prize in Literature while drinking like a fish, quietly, unassumedly, every day. He gave bourbon a good name…
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