Beer As Methadone

A charity group in Amsterdam is paying alcoholics to clean up public parks – and paying them in beer:

The former public nuisances start off the working day with two cans of beer each at 9 a.m. and walk out into the park and the adjoining streets with their garbage bags. They have another two beers at lunch and one more when they’re done at 3:30 p.m. Apart from the beer, the day’s wages amount to 10 euros ($13.69). In typical Dutch fashion, this is a highly practical arrangement: With a can of beer costing as little as 40 U.S. cents, the men earn less than $20 per six-hour day if you count the hot meal they are served. This is far below the national minimum wage, $11.60 per hour. Nobody complains. The beer is the alcoholics’ fuel, and some of them even say they are drinking less because, for the first time in years, they have some structure to their day.

Katelyn Fossett wrote last month about the problems she sees with the policy:

Paying alcoholics in beer doesn’t just turn a blind eye to the problem in the name of practicality but turns it into labor that benefits the city, even at the risk of worsening these alcoholics’ drinking problem. The plan highlights a problematic quality of so-called “Dutch pragmatism”:

If a government really does subscribe to the premise that social ills like alcoholism are inevitable, then can it be implicated in encouraging it, even if it’s part of a scheme that obviously profits the city? In other words, if cities are free from the burden of correcting social ills because they are inevitable, are they also free from the guilt of potentially worsening it?

Eric Crampton disagreed with Fossett, writing that instead of “enabling alcoholism [the initiative] looks a lot more like harm-minimisation to me”:

I don’t know, but would be willing to bet, that most of these workers were consuming rather more than the equivalent of five cans of beer per day before they started in. The delivery is paced throughout the day so there’s no chance any of them get drunk. By delivering the beer as beer rather than as the cash equivalent encourages pacing things rather than having the workers spend it all on lower cost per unit binge at the end of the day.

Sarah Hedgecock zooms out:

Although the first program of this kind was in Canada, it’s well-suited to the Netherlands’ famous disdain for zero-tolerance policies. It’s certainly an approach employed in many countries with regard to other vices: the idea takes the same approach as methadone clinics, which provide a less-strong drug to serious heroin addicts on the road to recovery. If some of Amsterdam’s alcoholics are working a full shift and drinking beer, it’s that many fewer lying unemployed in the city’s parks, polishing off bottles of hard liquor. In other words: it’s not a cure, but it’s a start.

Update from a reader:

Your post about Amsterdam’s harm reduction strategy for alcoholics reminds me of a story on This American Life a few years ago about the St. Anthony wet house in St. Paul Minnesota.  It’s a residence for homeless chronic alcoholics in which the residents are allowed to drink on site.  The theory is that it keeps them from doing so under a bridge and dying of exposure.  It was also chronicled in the New York Times Magazine in 2011.  I like this sort of pragmatic harm reduction, though the idea of someone being so far gone is really quite sad.