Free alcohol for the homeless

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It's well known that a lot of the homeless are substance abusers, and it's common practice to try to get them un-addicted. A Canadian harm reduction program tried a different approach:
TORONTO (Reuters) - Giving homeless alcoholics a regular supply of booze may improve their health and their behavior, the Canadian Medical Association Journal said in a study published on Tuesday.

Seventeen homeless adults, all with long and chronic histories of alcohol abuse, were allowed up to 15 glasses of wine or sherry a day -- a glass an hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. -- in the Ottawa-based program, which started in 2002 and is continuing.

After an average of 16 months, the number of times participants got in trouble with the law had fallen 51 percent from the three years before they joined the program, and hospital emergency room visits were down 36 percent.

"Once we give a 'small amount' of alcohol and stabilize the addiction, we are able to provide health services that lead to a reduction in the unnecessary health services they were getting before," said Dr. Jeff Turnbull, one of the authors of the report.

"The alcohol gets them in, builds the trust and then we have the opportunity to treat other medical diseases... It's about improving the quality of life."

Assuming these results hold up, this is probably worthwhile doing, but I wonder how palatable a program of providing free alcohol is going to be to the public and their elected representatives.

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4 Comments

Boy, 16 glasses a day doesn't exactly seem like a "small" amount. Still a very interesting result...

If I'm not mistaken, this same "harm reduction" strategy was very popular during the 1960's, with respect to those whose addiction to food, clothing and shelter pushed them into destructive (and self-destructive) behaviors. Many believed that simply providing people with their "fix" of these things would at least allow them to take care of themselves and remove their incentive to hurt others. And I would bet that numerous studies involving a few carefully shepherded subjects substantiated that belief.

As it turned out, the problem of antisocial behavior among money addicts was a little more complicated--giving them money not only did not significantly reduce their antisocial behavior, but it also attracted so many more people to the mitigated-addiction lifestyle, with its attendant pathologies, that the very behaviors it was intended to reduce ended up increasing enormously.

Of course, money addiction is different from alcohol addiction in many ways. I'm just not sure its imperviousness to this particular treatment is one of them.

On the other hand, I can see a big future for any politician willing to campaign on a platform of free beer for everyone. Bread and circuses, that's nothing, but free beer? How can some policy wonk talking about marginal tax rates compete with *that*?

Given it's great name, I like the NAOMI project

http://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/fourpillars/newsletter/Mar04/NAOMI.htm

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