Vice Squad
Saturday, September 20, 2003
Vice Policy and Moral Ambivalence

It was a slow vice news day, at least in the Chicago Tribune, so I thought that I would take advantage
of the lull by offering a few thoughts on changes in US vice regulations. There seems to be a tendency
to view our current vice laws, maybe not as eternal, but at least as more-or-less stable and correct in
their broad outlines. Of course heroin is illegal, of course tobacco is legal, of course states can run
lotteries, of course alcohol is legal. The problem is that all of these broad characterizations would have
been inapplicable not all that long ago, indeed, over the lifetime of a nonagenarian. Cigarette sales
were banned in many US states in the early years of the 20th century, and into the 1920s. National
prohibition of alcohol spanned 1920-1933, and of course, county and local bans are still common. Heroin
was available without a prescription until the Harrison Act, which became
law in late 1914 and went into effect in 1915. And there were no state lotteries throughout the 20th
Century until New Hampshire initiated the new wave in the early 1960s. Similar flip-flops in
regulations can be identified for the other vices, too, such as prostitution and pornography (for instance,
pornography was once banned and now it is mandatory.)

The huge, sometimes 180 degree changes in vice policy over the course of one lifetime should make us
wary of thinking that our current approaches to vice control are eternal. (And such changes typify earlier
eras, too.) Jerome Skolnick has noted that vice "implies moral ambivalence, that is conduct that a person
may enjoy and deplore at the same time. As a corollary, moral ambivalence generates controversy over
public policy concerning certain activities." (Quoted from "The Social Transformation of Vice." Law and
Contemporary Problems 51 (1): 9-29, 1988.) The fact that many other countries, including Canada and
much of Europe, are experimenting with substantially more liberal approaches to our currently illicit drugs
might also give us pause. I think a strong case can be made that cocaine and heroin, as well as marijuana,
will in the not too distant future be at least decriminalized in much of the US - look at the Seattle vote
on marijuana enforcement earlier this week for some evidence. The "fact" that our current drug policies
are so far from optimal is one reason to believe that forces for change are in the offing. But even if it were
not so obvious that we have turned down a very undesirable path in regulating drugs, there would be
reason to hope for change, thanks to the "moral ambivalence" of vice.

Tomorrow I will attempt to embark on the process of setting up a permanent link for individual posts.
Maybe titles for posts, too. But that is tomorrow...

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