Are the Dutch Right to Pay Alcoholics in Beer?

I didn’t stop drinking because I was a drunk – I quit because I no longer wanted to be one. But what about those people who say they don’t want to escape addiction. Do they still deserve help if they are not willing to change? Is it ever right to enable their behavior?

Homeless Rough Sleeper

The Drunken Refuge Collectors of Amsterdam (great name for a band)

There is an article on BBC News website today about how alcoholics in Amsterdam are being offered beer in exchange for collecting litter. This project is organized by the Rainbow Group, and it is funded by the Dutch government.

This booze-for-litter scheme (not an official name – I just made it up) is targeted at homeless chronic-alcoholics in Amsterdam. These guys work for a few hours collecting litter in the local parks and in exchange they are given beer, food, and cigarettes. The goal of this project is not to get these people to stop drinking, but to help them enjoy a better quality of life.

Giving beer to alcoholics in exchange for work does seem to be having a positive impact. It means that these people feel like they are making a positive contribution to their community. The scheme also seems to have led to a reduction in crime in the local area.

The Ethics of Harm Reduction

Harm reduction is based on the idea that some improvement is better than no improvement. If people are going to abuse alcohol anyway, shouldn’t they be encouraged to do so in the safest way possible? If chronic-alcoholics are given the right type of help, it gives them a better quality of life and the chance to live a bit longer.

Critics of harm reduction see it as a form of enabling. This is because by improving the quality of life for alcoholics, it prevents them from hitting rock bottom. Proponents of this view might say that it is justifiable to watch alcoholics suffer because it is a type of medicine.

The problem is the rock bottom for many of these people is a miserable death. I don’t believe in ‘hopeless cases’, but I’ve met plenty of alcoholics who have no interest in giving up drinking. These were individuals who understood the consequences of their behavior but still wanted to carry on regardless.

Should Alcoholics Have a Better Quality of Life

I managed to escape alcoholism because I didn’t want to be a drunk any longer. It wasn’t the mental and physical pain that made me want to quit, and it wasn’t guilt about how my behavior impacted other people – that just made me want to drink even more. I developed the motivation to quit because I briefly experienced a better quality of life, and I wanted more of it.

This project in Amsterdam isn’t designed to promote abstinence, but it does sound like it is increasing the participant’s self-esteem. By improving the quality of life of these people, it could encourage them to want even more.

When I read the headline on the BBC website, my initial response was to feel cynical about this project. I want these people to be helped to give up alcohol and not encouraged to continue as they are. The problem is this way of looking at things is naive. There are people out there who are never going to quit alcohol, and these harm reduction projects can improve their quality of life.

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2 thoughts on “Are the Dutch Right to Pay Alcoholics in Beer?

  1. I think it’s not a matter of wrong or right. It’s rather a moral issue within a certain society whether adult citizens are thought to be able to held accountable for their own actions or not. And if not, to what degree should authorities take measures to help people in less fortunate conditions and outsiders who are disturbed by their nuisance?
    As you state, some addicts do not feel able to stop although they tried numerous times with or without help. In the Netherlands hard-core class A drug like heroin addicts who do not have a fixed home and are over 50 will be more or less regarded as incurable by the supporting authorities. Part of these addicts are voluntarily interned and will be given methadone on a weekly basis. They leave the building, but have to be in by midnight and are not allowed be of nuisance to others. Indoor use of alcohol or indoor/outdoor use other addictive substances such as class A/B drugs is forbidden and regularly being checked from their urine samples. They are encouraged to lead a regular life, for example by growing their own vegetables. Although many lead a steady life, in general they are not considered to be fit enough to ever return to society.
    In this context giving alcohol to homeless alcoholics as a compensation to take care of their environment makes sense for a society like in the Netherlands, although many Dutch will object to such fatherly care.

    In Thailand every adult who is not handicapped is more or less considered to be accountable for their own life. So I doubt this is a good idea to try here, since treating the more problematic part of the adult population as victims who need to be taken care of is seen more as a task for the immediate family and goodwill rather than the authorities.

    Personally, I see it as a choice whether one wants to life in an almost fully regulated society or not, provided you have the means to move and survive.
    Well, at least that’s my main motive to move to the East, never to return.

    Following the Western media from here, to me it looks as though in the West every time a new issue is exposed, there tends to be mostly a consensus about preventing individual accidents/mistakes from happening in the future by forbidding it general. For example “A girl has fallen on the subway tracks while texting; should we forbid texting while walking?”
    What is often forgotten is that with each new rule a part of freedom is lost at the same time. Are people clicking a dowload button after a simple search on Google criminals? And so on.
    We have seen what happened to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920’s in the USA. Now a new issue is banning prostitution in Europe in an attempt to prevent human trafficking, prohibit all fireworks to prevent accidents and animals from getting scared in the Netherlands.
    I’m not saying these are bad things, but as Thomas Jefferson said: I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.
    It looks like Western society is constantly trying to polish their perfect societies, in a way that my neighbour is polishing his car not seeing that it is rotting from under. I am afraid that they will end up with a kind of self-imposed rigid fascism under the flag of democracy not being able to compete with the flexibility maintained by many Eastern countries.

    1. You make some great points Symen – it’s not a black and white issue. I agree that this type of program would probably not be appropriate in a country like Thailand where communities are more willing to look after their own.

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