Alcohol, Cannabis, and Tobacco

…Six Decades of Changing Acceptance and State Control
(c) 2016, Davd

This blog is a “backgrounder” for the news of this decade and the young 21st century—news about changes in the relative acceptance and condemnation of recreational drugs. The drugs on which i will focus are alcohol in the form of alcoholic drinks; cannabinol in the form of marijuana; caffeine in the form of coffee [and to a lesser extent, tea and cocoa]; and nicotine in the form of tobacco smoking. I plan to follow it with a shorter one about the growing acceptance of medical marijuana, the [relatively] heavy condemnation of alcohol and tobacco, and the ho-hum acceptance of caffeine (and its related xanthines theophylline and theobromine1.)

Looking back to the 1950s, a decade we identify with post-World-War prosperity and the Baby Boom, we can see a time when cigarettes were socially approved, alcohol tolerated as an accepted and sometimes beneficial vice (as caffeine typically is tolerated and accepted today), and marijuana condemned strongly. Since 1916 and since 1950, alcohol “has seen both good and bad press” with some decrease in toleration, cannabis has gradually received better acceptance, and tobacco (especially commercial cigarettes) has been increasingly condemned.

“The 1950s” were the first decade in which i read magazine and newspaper articles on such subjects; and i can report back that far from personal experience. As a schoolboy in the 1950s, i rode frequently in a cigarette smoke filled car—my parents were both regular cigarette smokers—and read advertising for cigarettes that praised their effect in resisting overweight. Second-hand smoke was not a public concern, nor was the connection between smoking and cancer. Cigars were associated with the wealthy (but seldom with wealthy women) and also with “tough guys”; while pipes were associated with scholars and seafarers: Popeye the Sailor and many stereotypes of the professor, smoked pipes rather than cigarettes or cigars.

Alcoholic drink was accepted as a social vice, with “cocktails” and mixed drinks of distilled liquor with fruit juice and “soda pop” being more usual than wine. Beer was widely accepted by and for Northern European and working class men, wine was something stereotyped for gourmets, “ethnics” from southern Europe, drunkards, and some artistic and intellectual types. Home beer and wine making were lawful but rare. Driving a car with less than .15% blood alcohol content was entirely legal in most states and provinces, and “driving under the influence” was a traffic offence, not a crime. The main medical concern associated with alcoholic drink, was cirrhosis of the liver; and that was something for drunkards, but not normal people, to worry about. (It was also recognized that men, and even some women, might become much more likely to fight and behave offensively “when drinking.”)

During the late 20th Century, evidence began to accumulate that red wine in particular, and perhaps all fermented alcoholic beverages to some extent, helped combat atherosclerosis and prevent heart attacks and strokes. Some stories seemed to indicate that alcohol itself scoured deposits from the walls of blood vessels; but the strongest attention went to resveritrol, a compound found especially in red wine. Over more or less the same span of time, evidence began to accumulate that alcohol itself was a risk factor for cancer. Even more recently, the harmful effects of alcohol on the unborn became widely known and pregnant women were warned not to “drink,” or to strictly limit their consumption.

Alcoholic drink is less accepted now than it was 60 years ago, overall; but not as condemned as cigarette smoking—except for drivers. Driving motor vehicles2 is legal only with less than .05% blood alcohol (one third the previous toleration criterion) and driving with more than .08% is a criminal offense in Canada. If there were to be a behavioural study of driving safety, it would doubtless show that in some circumstances, many drivers can be safe with levels of blood alcohol content which are criminal under the law… but the law is written in absolute terms, as are most laws3.

Apart from the resurgence of Islam, which religion forbids alcoholic drink, i cannot point to any good reason why alcoholic beverages and those who drink them, are so widely shamed. It is true that there are millions of people worldwide who should abstain totally from alcohol; but there are also millions who should abstain totally from fava beans, grapefruit, peanuts, and several other foods that are safe and healthy for the majority of the population. My assessment is that we need to recognize that while some people must abstain to be safe, more people can often make good and even beneficial use of alcoholic drinks, and to varying degrees depending on their individual physiological make-ups.

Cannabis was nearly always referred to as marijuana in the 1950s, and was criminalized. It was known to be used especially by jazz musicians; and “artistic types” more generally were known to include a significant minority of “reefer smokers.” Its effects were exaggerated in many published stories; and it was often said to lead to cocaine, morphine, and heroin addiction. (There was a statistical association between marijuana use and the later use of such “hard drugs”; but today, that association would be attributed to a willingness to break the law for fun—teenagers and young adults willing to smoke marijuana even though it was illegal, were also more willing than average to try drugs that were even more condemned.)

Despite criminalization, marijuana was widely used in the “hippie years” of the 1970s and late 1960s, and the attitude of most Canadians and “Americans” born after 1960, probably after 1955, was that “pot” or “weed”, as they usually called it, was about as safe as alcohol and tobacco, and for many, more fun. As the oldest, most condemning members of the populations died, and the younger, more accepting became adults and then parents and teachers and professionals more generally, the punishment of cannabis became restricted almost entirely to those who dealt in it for profit. Gradually, self-medication and then some formal medical research showed that cannabis did have therapeutic value for some illnesses and handicaps.

Cannabis today, is far more positively viewed than it was 60 years ago. “Medical marijuana” is now an accepted phrase, and its benefits for people suffering chronic pain and PTSD, especially, are widely recognized. Indeed, while there are some recent general media articles saying that alcoholic drink has no health benefits to offer, one in March, there are others affirming that for some people, marijuana does offer health benefits. One could fairly say that the two are more or less equally harmful, and while some are better off enjoying [or self-medicating with] alcohol, others are better off using cannabis… and one should do so apophatically, because our knowledge of their effects on the different physiologies of different people, is still far from complete.

Coffee and tea have meanwhile been accepted more or less the same degree, in more or less the same way, for the 65 years or so that i have been reading the news. Caffeine is by far the best known of the xanthines; and its concentration in coffee, combined with the way we make that beverage compared with how tea and cocoa are made, make coffee a much stronger beverage in terms of drug impact, than the others. These xanthine beverages can have negative effects—coffee especially, because it packs a stronger dose per volume—and they can have positive effects, for the health of people who drink them. Caffeine seems to help delay dementia, for instance (CBC News, 2007). More important, perhaps, it helps people stay awake and alert at work and when driving—it does others than the user, more net good than harm, from what we know now and have recently known.

While it would be foolish to say that coffee—or tea, or cocoa, or yerba maté—is always good for all or even most people, it seems far more likely than not, that these drinks will continue to enjoy a generally positive acceptance even by those whose philosophy or religion4 forbids them to use xanthines.

Since the 1950s, most of the news about cigarette smoking “has been bad”. First came research showing cigarettes to be a major cause of lung cancer, and to a lesser extent of other cancers. More recently, the dangers of exposure to “second hand smoke” have been documented. Pipe and cigar smoking have been found to be risk factors for mouth cancers but not significantly for lung cancer, because the smoke from these forms of tobacco is seldom inhaled deeply.

I myself have smoked, but seldom: If there are people who only use alcoholic drink on ceremonial occasions, i similarly use pipes and cigars: The passing of a pipe is a fellowship ritual among many North American aboriginal groups, including Métis; and having a cigar together is a less sacred fellowship ritual among some men of many ethnicities. (The last time i recall smoking two cigars in the same day, was over 25 years ago, as i was leaving Thunder Bay for the West. I had lunch with a Scots friend and dinner with a Bengali friend, and each meal ended with cigars.)

There are many people, most of them non-smokers, who find the odor of cigarette smoke offensive; and fairly many who also dislike cigar smoke and the smoke from some kinds of pipe tobacco. While smoking was relatively fashionable, these people tended to accept that their dislikes were “a matter of personal taste”; more recently, many have shamed smoking as anti-alcohol elements have shamed alcoholic drink.

In the case of alcoholic drink, the greatest danger to others comes from driving motor vehicles; in the case of tobacco smoke, the greatest danger comes from being in the “second hand” smoke. So while those who indulge in alcoholic drink are forbidden to “drive”, those who indulge in tobacco smoke are forced to go away from the general company of non-smokers.

In 2016, tobacco smoking is generally condemned as dangerous to oneself and [to a lesser extent] to those around one; and as a smelly, disgusting habit. Smoking in a motor vehicle where children are present, or in a public venue, is illegal, though some bars and pubs are allowed to have smoking sections. Cigar and pipe smoking are less condemned as disgusting, perhaps because of the peculiar places where they are common; but they are equally illegal in most public places and in vehicles containing children. “Smoking” is seen as a vice with no virtuous side effects, by most Americans and Canadians.

Alcoholic drink is condemned by Islam, by some smaller religions and some sects of Christianity, and its use by drivers is so severely limited that many prudent users refuse to drive if they have had even one bottle of beer [or equivalent]. At the same time, it is known to have some beneficial effects (e.g. Madrigal, 2008) at least for some people, and is honoured as an aesthetic enhancement to fine food. Its status is ambiguous and contentious.

Cannabis is becoming accepted to a comparable extent with alcoholic drinks. Some condemn it, but they are a shrinking minority; it is now widely acknowledged to have beneficial effects on some people; and few now believe it is addictive or leads to “hard drug addiction” Given that it is intoxicating, it would be logical to develop restrictions on its use analogous to those applied to alcoholic drink, but i have not yet seen such restrictions added to the law; and given that it is often deeply inhaled, it would be logical to anticipate dangers analogous to those which have been found for cigarette smoking.

Finally, coffee continues to be accepted as a relatively safe vice which can be claimed for a virtue when one will be driving or doing work requiring alertness. (Tea and cocoa can be treated as weaker forms of coffee for most assessment purposes, so far as we now know.) Its effects are “pro-social” in the sense that they are generally agreed to “do more good than harm” to others than the user. Its value to the present and following discussions, is as a pleasant, mind-affecting vice that has not been shamed—as the other three all have, for at least some of the past 65 years.


CBC News, 2007, “3 coffees a day keep memory loss at bay for older women: study.” August 7

Madrigal, Alexis, 2008. “Red Wine Drug Shows Proof That It Combats Aging” Wired, August 08

Nathanson, Paul, and Katherine K. Young, 2001. Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press

Nathanson, Paul, and Katherine K. Young, 2006. Legalizing Misandry: From Public Shame to Systemic Discrimination against Men Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.


1. Theophylline is the caffeine analogue that is in tea; theobromine, in cocoa and some processed chocolate. For the sake of simplicity and familiarity, i will usually refer simply to caffeine.

2. Few people travel by horse drawn carriage any longer; indeed, few did in the 1950s. One wonders if driving a horse drawn vehicle would—or should—be condemned. Rural folklore includes the saying “horses know their way home”; and a drunken person or group could probably get in a carriage, tell the horse to head home, and let the horse do the driving… safely.

Bicycling while intoxicated is illegal in some places but not uniformly; and my best guess as to why, is that a bicyclist can do far less damage to others than someone driving a car or larger motor vehicle.

3. Individuals vary in the extent to which alcohol impairs their thinking and perception; and driving circumstances vary in the amount of perceptual skill and quick thinking they require. I do not know how the legal criteria for temporary loss of permission to drive [.05%] and criminal impairment [.08] were chosen; but two influences were doubtless involved: [1] The lobbying of anti-alcohol organizations, and aggrieved friends of persons injured and killed by impaired drivers; and [2] the assessment, whether impressionistic or scientific, of police, prosecutors, and judges, as to what alcohol content nearly everyone who can drive at all, can “carry” safely.

The law, by criminalizing a physiological state rather than a level of incompetence, punishes some competent drivers; it partakes of the mentality: “Don’t think—do what you are told!” This is often the case with laws which are applied to large numbers of people who are strangers to the enforcement officers.

4. Mormonism is the example best known in Western Canada and the Western USA.


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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