It could be my imagination, but it seems like I’ve noticed a severe uptick lately in homeless alcoholics around town drinking mouthwash.. While the increase is merely anecdotal, it does make me wonder if more stores downtown are bowing to pressure and refusing individual beer sales on their own. Mouthwash, of course, is an unsavory but effective source of alcohol for alcoholics with no other recourse. I know that there’s been a lot of pressure from neighborhood groups in downtown and east Nashville to ban individual sales of alcoholic beverages. Ideally this effort would be founded in a desire to help homeless people struggling with a terrible addiction. In practice, I think it has more to do with the residents of downtown being annoyed at the individual cans and 40oz bottles found around town. Whatever the intent, the effort is misguided at best.

Here’s the thing about alcoholism: it’s an addiction. When someone battling this sort of addiction is unable to get a beer, they don’t shrug, think “oh well” and go home for a good night’s sleep, off on their merry way to being a more productive member of society. No, they move on to the next best thing. Mouthwash, rubbing alcohol, Sterno (so-called “canned heat”), Brut. You name it. We use alcohol for a lot of things, and these various forms of denatured alcohol appear in a multitude of readily available products. They are unsavory, unhealthy, and sometimes downright poisonous. But severe alcoholics can and do turn to these sources of alcohol, which are perfectly legal to sell.

The next thing that I think a lot of people fail to realize about alcoholism is that it’s a severe physiological addiction. The symptoms of withdrawal are more than a mere annoyance or challenge. Everyone has heard of “the shakes”, or Delerium Tremens. This is more than the nervous twitch of an addict looking for his next fix – it’s a severe physiological reaction involving disorientation, confusion, paranoia, seizures, and (in 35% of untreated cases) death. For severe alcoholics (a significant portion of which are homeless), getting alcohol in their system day by day can literally be a matter of life and death.

So, the answer to alcoholism among the homeless (which, I should note, is a sizeable but not dominating perentage) is not as simple as a cold-turkey, “pull yourself up from your boot-straps” type solution. It’s just not, sorry. More creative and rational approaches are necessary – such as this one in Ottawa. While I commiserate with the good intentions of wanting to institute a ban on individual alcoholic beverage sales, there’s a good case to be made that it could make things tremendously worse.