- Published: November 30, 1999
Alcoholism has always had major connections to the legal system due to discrepancies in the age of legal alcohol use, driving under the influence, and drinking irresponsibly. However, the root of almost all criminal or unlawful behavior that stems from the use of alcohol is that alcohol alters and damages the brain. Specifically, it alters the prefrontal cortex activity through ion channel disruption (http://www.news-medical.net/?id=36965). Since the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is involved in decision-making, a person with reduced PFC activity--such as those that are under the influence or drink excessively on a normal basis--does not have full control of their actions. Therefore, it clearly makes sense for the law to state that individuals under the age of 21, who probably have not yet fully developed the PFC, may not consume alcohol.
But, what about individuals over the age of 21? If the law legalizes the consumption of alcohol for "adults," it is in effect legalizing one's ability to transiently reduce their own PFC activity. This is true even when individuals do not drink excessively. I'm not advocating that our nation further increase the drinking age or proposing that drinking should be illegal, but I find it strange that the same legal system that is now trying to deal with cases involving PFC damage also allows individuals to alter the activity of the PFC. Furthermore, according to the Centre for Forensic Neuroscience, alcoholism and drug dependency can be used as mitigation factors for sentencing (http://www.forensic-centre.com/).
Personally, I find this far too lenient. While a person who has weak PFC activity as a result of their developmental stage or personal medical problems may possibly be able to use such factors for mitigation purposes in criminal sentencing, I don't believe that it makes sense to use the same argument of PFC weakness as mitigation in a crime involving suspects who have chosen to drink or use drugs. This is regardless of the fact that the current legal system legalizes the use of such drugs (to a certain degree). While a person may not be in control of their actions after having drank any amount of alcohol, they were in control of their initial choice to drink.