Bill Wilson and the Drug War
The Washington Post's David Von Drehle wrote a
Style Section profile of Susan Cheever, biographer of Alcoholics Anonymous
founder Bill Wilson. In Drehle's article, we learn that as Wilson was
dying of emphysema, the man who has inspired millions to kick the bottle,
asked his caretakers for three shots of whiskey. Over his last days, he
asked three more times for a drink. He was never given one.
Cheever says she was "shocked and horrified" that Wilson would
want whiskey on his deathbed, and that her "blood ran cold" when
she read of his request in the nurses' logs of the last days of his life.
Though she doesn't say so explicitly, the implication is that Cheever --
and I would imagine a good percentage of people who read Drehle's article
-- took relief in the fact that the man who founded Alcoholics Anonymous
remained clean and sober to the very end.
I don't know why Bill Wilson was denied those three shots of whiskey.
Perhaps alcohol would have reacted poorly with the medication he was on.
Perhaps it was against the policy of the hospital or medical center where
he was staying. Whatever the case, I'm not at all shocked or horrified
that Bill Wilson asked for whiskey as he was dying. But I am saddened that
a dying man was denied one of the few things that may have given him some
comfort. And I find it even sadder that anyone would be relieved to hear
he was denied that final drink.
There are a couple of ways of looking at drug addiction. One way calls for
rehabilitation when a person's craving for a substance begins to take a
toll on his health, his job, his mood, and/or on those around him. That
is, drug or alcohol use only becomes a problem when -- well -- when it
actually becomes a problem.
The other way looks at overcoming drug and alcohol addiction as an end
unto itself. There are no "functional" or
"recreational" users. Drug and alcohol use ought to be fought at
every turn. Overcoming the craving for a drink, or the urge for a hit, is
always a victory, even if rehabilitation wreaks greater costs on the user
and society than continued use.
It's this latter approach to drug and alcohol use that causes us to put a
higher priority on preserving the purity of Bill Wilson's legacy than to
granting a dying man the small comfort in a shot of whiskey.
It's also the kind of zero-tolerance, win-at-all-costs thinking that
motivates our 30-year war on drugs.
Last month, Jacob Sullum wrote an article for Reason magazine's Web site
about Richard Paey, a 45-year-old father of three in constant, chronic
pain from a car accident, back surgery, and multiple sclerosis. Unable to
find a doctor after moving to Florida, Paey covertly obtained the
painkillers he needed for relief. Because the painkillers contained
oxycodone (the drug war's latest fashionable target), and because Paey
obtained more than 28 grams of the drug (about 60 pills), he was arrested
last March for drug trafficking. Paey was tried and convicted. Though both
prosecutors and jury conceded that Paey wasn't a dealer, their hands were
tied by uncompromising drug war policy. He was sentenced to 25 years in
In September 2002, federal agents raided a Santa Cruz, California hospice
where many of the terminally ill patients smoke marijuana cigarettes to
alleviate their pain. Agents pointed their guns at the head of Suzanne
Pfeil, an elderly post-polio patient, and demanded that she get up from
her bed. She couldn't. She's crippled. They settled on handcuffing her to
the bed for over an hour, while they raided the hospice's medicine
cabinets and files for evidence of medicinal marijuana use. DEA
Administrator Asa Hutchinson insisted the agents were only doing their
job: enforcing federal controlled substance laws.
The same mindset that finds a symbolic victory over alcoholism more
important than a deathbed drink for a sick man can see fit to justify a
25-year prison term for an oxycodone-using MS sufferer and handcuffing an
elderly post-polio marijuana user to her bed at the point of a gun.
It's the mindset that says victory over drug addiction is an end unto
itself, regardless of method, costs, or consequences. It's a mindset that
fails to consider, for example, that no kid stops or starts smoking
marijuana because federal agents do or don't raid convalescent centers in
California; that no one's decision to lubricate life's monotonies with
Oxycontin is based on whether or not Florida prosecutors decide to pursue
distribution charges against an MS patient.
Likewise, the millions of people who have benefited from Bill Wilson's
Alcoholics Anonymous program aren't going to go back on the bottle upon
learning that Wilson asked for booze in his final days.
And it's tough to see how that would be any different if he'd actually
gotten his "last call."
by Radley Balko, a policy analyst with the Cato