Take note, recovering alcoholics, Malcolm Gladwell: an alcoholic shelter program in Seattle has shown that drinking alcohol has been effective in treating alcohol addiction and alcohol-related problems. That’s because the residents of the shelter, 1811 Eastlake, felt more support to stay inside the shelter and improve their lives and less pressure to tackle all of their problems at once, according to clinical psychologist Susan Collins, lead author of a new study published in The American Journal of Public Health. “Individuals’ internal motivation to change was more predictive of decreases in drinking and alcohol-related problems than was attendance at traditional abstinence-based treatment,” she told NPR.
The study isn’t claiming that providing alcohol to alcoholics is some sort of miracle cure like the 1950s method of forcing a kid to smoke a carton of cigarettes (don’t do that either). What it does state is that the typical cut-and-dry cold turkey method is less successful — and thus leading to more health and legal trouble for patients, and more expense for taxpayers — than a gradual approach that takes into account all of the negative factors of an alcoholic’s life, not just the booze. It suggests that, with addiction, the black-and-white solutions often preferred by policy makers will not be as successful as a more holistic approach.
In the two year study, those deemed chronically homeless by researchers were not required to attend alcohol-abuse meetings, though they agreed to spend 30 percent of any of their income on rent and social services. When all was said and drunk, the average amount of alcohol consumed on a typical drinking day by the 95 study participants had decreased by about 25 percent, and the rate of delirium tremens – potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms – also fell by more than half during the study.
The benefits of keeping alcoholic homeless in a shelter, even if they’re drinking, are monetary too. On the street, drunks are more likely to end up in emergency rooms or get picked up by police, which costs taxpayers money. An April 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that chronically alcoholic homeless people cost Seattle two-thirds less housed in Eastlake than they do out on the street, a windfall of $4 million.
While the researchers took “extra measures” to avoid bias, the study might need some more research backup: the shelter residents were self reporting their alcohol use, and the shelter helped fund the study. But the results may be less surprising than they may seem, and bear fruit for the never-ending argument about prohibition and criminalization of drugs. As Portugal’s and Greece’s decriminalization efforts point out, tackling the roots of the problem — homelessness and joblessness — are helpful for tackling addiction. And Gladwell’s 2010 New Yorker piece on drinking, which looked at drinking across different ethnic communities, argued that it’s not how much people drink but rather how they drink that matters most when it comes to dealing with alcoholic boneheadedness. Said Collins of the Seattle study: “The participants in our study are human beings who are capable of positive behavior change,” she says. “They’re able to do that when given a home.”