Should being drunk in public from alcohol intoxication be a crime?

Laws that try to control consumption of alcohol by punishing the effects of alcohol differ by country and jurisdiction within the same country. But should being drunk in public necessarily be a crime? We discuss here.

minute read

What is legal alcohol intoxication?

Legal alcohol intoxication is a definition that varies across cities, states and countries.  In fact, tere is no common way that legal jurisdications define what it means to be intoxicated by alcohol in public.  This makes is hard to define what it actually MEANS to be intoxicated by alcohol in public.

What’s more, doctors even have problems diagnosing intoxication, because specfic blood alcohol content or alcohol consumption in and of themselves do not define intoxication.  Instead, medical definitions of alcohol intoxication are linked to displays of impairment.  As are legal definitions.

As a result, alcohol intoxication is rarely legally defined using scientific terms that are precise (except for blood alcohol levels that define use of a motor vehicle).  This makes intoxication in public very subjective to define.  In other words, law enforcement officers can and do base their decisions on whether a person is drunk or not on the BEHAVIORS associated with intoxication.  This is how laws can become subject to interpretation in the hands of the police.


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Docile vs. disruptive drunks

People who are drunk in public can be either docile or cause disruption.  In disruptive cases, drunk people distrub the peace by being loud, causing fights, destruction of property, etc.  And in these cases, it seems pretty clear that disruptive drunks break social code by comitting anti-social acts.  But what about the docile drunks?  Is the mere POTENTIAL for disorderly conduct and the ASSUMPTION that drunks in public will disturb the peace enough to arrest and charge someone for intoxication?

Is drunkenness itself a crime?

Laws exist to protect the public.  But docile drunks seem to do harm to no one but themselves.  So should we really punish people who are harming themselves?

Laws about being drunk enforce moral judgments

The degree to which a society can accept another person’s personal choice is the degree to which that society shows tolerance.  When being drunk in public becomes a crime, simply for the sheer moral judgment that drunkenness (not the behavior associated with intoxication) is not acceptable, a society declares that it does not respect personal choice and that it will control the behavior of its people through governance.  Do you endorse this?  Why or why not?  Your comments are welcomed and invited here!

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. I live in the UK where drunks have become a problem, assaulting nurses and doctors in A & E department in hospitals, attacking ambulance and fire engines. as well as making a thorough nuisance in city and town centres, leaving empty beer can and bottles ans vomit all over the pavements (side walks).
    I really think they should be subjected to an on the spot fine if over a certain limit as registered on a breathaliser.

  2. I live in Finland and have never tasted beer, never been drunk. Once I got a mouthful of wine and immediatedly spit it out so, I’ m special.

    The reason I think public drunkenness should be prohibited is the many dangerous situations it causes. For the safety of all, there should be a space for the drunks where they could sit on the drunks benches and not puke on the rest of the benches in the parks. Drunks don´t belong outside the kindergarten, schools, playgrounds or in thee store. NOT around kids. Perhaps…..only in the pubs, since only 18 Year olds are allowed in the pubs, drunks should not be allowed outside the pubs.

    Reason to my thinking this way,
    On Fridays and Saturdays (evenings) people go out to the pubs and if they are underaged they get drunk on the streets. It is usually a chaos of drunk people wandering around, puking, shouting, fighting, swearing, having a public pew, throwing glassbottles around the streets and men imposing themselves on 13 year old girls (also drunk). The finn is known in Europe for being drunk travelling around the continent, swearing shouting and being a nuisance. Myself having travelled a lot in Europe get very ashamed every time that fat ugly drunk Finn start shouting.

  3. I think that if a person is intoxicated and endangering himself or the public then he should be removed from that public space. A docile drunk wandering into the street could get hit by a car or kill someone by causing a crash. If he is falling over, he can injure himself. However, I do not think that the police or the public should have the right to govern by assumption. You cannot assume that someone will be aggressive, disorderly, disruptive or even dangerous just because they have over imbibed. If I see a drunk in the streets, especially when I’m with my children, I get scared. I worry that he/she is unpredictable and I do not want to walk past them, but I do not think that that person should be arrested merely for being drunk on my block. It is still a free country, yes? and being drunk in itself is not a crime, is it? I have used opportunities like this as examples to show my children one of the outcomes of drinking, and also how they should be very aware of their surroundings. This is also an opportunity to discuss with them compassion.

  4. In my personal experiences with public drunkeness in regards to the police, they tend to assume the worst and usually are more worried about fulfilling a quota more then their actually trying to enforce the law. Most officers of the so called law are alcoholics themselves and could careless about the wellbeing of the general public and just try to look as good as possible so they can get promoted and make more money. In another sense if you really do have a problem with alcohol such as your seeing yourself in these situations frequently you should probably seek out some help of some sort. i found this really cool facebook page about a conference where you can actually experience the different types of treatments they offer and hear evidence based research about this kind of treatment. if you have some time take a look at The Holistic-Conference-Info-Evolution-of-Treatment on Facebook.

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