Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Women, Men, and Vice
On September 28, I linked to Tyler Cowen's post concerning a survey that indicated that
the typical gambler in US casinos is a female. Steve Levitt, economist par excellence at the
University of Chicago, informs me that an informal tally he conducted (in collaboration with
Sudhir Venkatesh) in Chicago suggests that the typical crack buyer is female. Are women
more vice-addled than men?
In general, it seems as if the answer is no. Measures of lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use in the
US indicate that men are some 22 percent more likely than women to have tried illicit drugs. (This
figure is calculated from Table H.14 here.) Men are more than three times as likely to be arrested
for drugs than are women, according to the FBI (see section IV of the 2001 Crime in the United States.)
For alcohol, women are again much less likely to indulge than are men. My suspicion is that drug and
alcohol abuse, as opposed to simple consumption, is even more skewed towards males. A report
prepared for the 1999 National Gambling Impact and Behavior Study indicated that problem
and pathological gambling is some 47 percent more common for men than for women. Indeed, cursory
observation suggests that women are not only likely to have fewer problems with self-control with
respect to vices than men do, but that the influence of women even serves as a bolster to the self-control
Three and One-Third Standard Vice Concerns
I first mentioned the standard three and one-third vice concerns on September 21,
and the terminology (OK, my own invention, for what it is worth) magically re-appeared on
September 27. These concerns are: (1) kids; (2) addicts; (3) external harms;
and (3 and one-third) endangered health and other negative impacts upon
non-addicted adult consumers.
I'll say a bit more about these now, but before I do, let me reveal the punch line,
which I do not otherwise expect to actually get to in today's post: the three and one-third
standard vice concerns are insufficient to justify a prohibition on adult consumption of
our currently illicit drugs, i.e., they do not provide for a reason to ignore or avoid Mill's
harm principle. Once again, that conclusion does not rule out extremely coercive measures:
even 1920s-style alcohol Prohibition did not make adult consumption or purchase or
(for the most part) possession illegal. But the conclusion does rule out throwing people in prison
because they happen to be walking around with a little bit of a substance that they later
might want to consume.
Back to the three and one-third concerns. At first glance, perhaps they look like four concerns.
They only sum to three and one-third, I maintain, because harms suffered by non-addicted
vice consumers (or producers) don't rate as a full unit, equivalent to each of the first
three concerns. The rationality of decisions made by kids and addicts is questionable.
Choices made when some of the costs of those choices are borne by others (i.e., when
externalities are present) carry no presumption of equivalence between private and
public benefit. But if you are a normal adult, why should there be public concern, even
only one-third of a concern, over those aspects of your decisions that do not harm others?
In self-regarding areas other than vice, we generally don't question adult consumption
of goods or activities, even if some risk is involved. If people want to scuba dive, or ski,
or mountain climb, then they jolly well can, even though these are quite risky activities.
While we might want to find ways to make these activities safer, we don't look upon
their practitioners as hopelessly misguided souls. We respect skiers' abilities to judge
the risks and benefits for themselves, and to make their own skiing-related decisions.
But for vice, we might have some concern about the rationality of decisions even by
non-addicted adults: more concern than we have with their skiing decisions, but less
concern than we have for the choices of kids and addicts. Approximately one-third of
the concern, I arbitrarily maintain. Whether the vice is gambling, or pornography, or
heroin use, the standard three and one-third concerns dominate the effort to
construct a desirable regulatory environment.
Now that I have presented the three and one-third standard vice concerns, I still have to make
the case that they are insufficient to support a prohibition of adult consumption or possession of
small quantities of drugs. I won't do that today (I knew I wouldn't get to it.) Rather, I will simply mention
that there are some costs associated with vice that are not explicitly included among my
standard concerns. Perhaps the major one is productivity losses. Sometimes these
are prominently featured when the costs of vice are being tallied: "alcohol abuse
costs so many billion dollars in reduced productivity" is not an uncommon trope. Why do I not
include such costs in my standard set? Well, laziness, video games, skiing, lunch, or almost any
use of time not directly tied to production are also sources of similar "productivity losses". As we
don't know how much productivity we have the right to expect or demand, any calculation of
productivity losses is bound to be arbitrary. Of course, part of the reason that we don't see
calculations of the productivity cost of lunch is because we trust adults to be making rational
decisions about their lunch habits. We are less sure of vice-related decisions. But to some
extent, that uncertainty is implicitly taken into account as a component of the one-third concern
identified above, the negative impacts of vice upon non-addicted adult indulgers. Those users
will tend to have lower earnings if their vice consumption reduces their productivity. Beyond this
implicit accounting, however, we should be wary of counting "productivity loss" as part of the
social cost of engaging in vice, skiing, or anything else.
I could also talk about the omission of tax revenue (from legal vices) in the standard concerns,
but I will spare you at this point. I will note, though, that productivity and budgetary effects
pertain to a whole range of public policy issues. What separates vice from other policy areas
is the centrality of the three and one-third concerns identified above, those dealing with kids,
addicts, externalities, and the costs borne by non-addicted vice participants.
Every now and then I have mentioned some issue, only to remark that it would undoubtedly
be discussed later on Vice Squad. As these are beginning to pile up, I thought that I would
at least make a handy list of what has been promised but not delivered. Only in one case,
though, will I begin to fulfill my obligation today, and I will save that one for the subsequent post.
On September 18 I referred to a newspaper article concerning a UN report on coca
cultivation in Colombia. I have tried, without success, to locate that report. The 2002 Coca Survey
for Colombia can be downloaded from this page, however, along with opium
and cocaine surveys for other major source countries. The UN provides a wealth of other material
related to drug control; much of it can be found here.
On September 23, I mentioned some of the controversy concerning the rationality of choices
involving potentially addictive goods. I also indicated that harm reduction would be a topic of
future Vice Squad posts. For an introduction to harm reduction with respect to drug use, see
On September 25, I introduced the topic of civil asset forfeitures, a particularly pernicious
practice that has become common in vice control in the US. Here is
the ACLU's helpful page concerning asset forfeiture with respect to drug policy.
On September 27, John Stuart Mill's "harm principle" was discussed, though many of its implications
for vice control were postponed.
I received an e-mail from my friend Dr. Christopher Young of London, UK, suggesting that I
have been remiss in not talking more about the three and one-third standard vice concerns.
I'll try to move that discussion along in the next post. In the meantime, as I have not yet put links
and other info on the side of the blog, let me note that my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, September 29, 2003
Hemp and Code Names and Victory in Russia
Michael Alexeev, an economist at Indiana University, has passed along a report on a hemp confiscation
in the Amur region of the Russian Far East (click here if your Russian is good). Seems that agents of the
federal drug control agency Gosnarkontrol have apprehended three locals and confiscated 430 kilos of
dried hemp. The seizure and the arrests were part of the program code-named "Hemp-2003." (Professor
Alexeev's comment on the name: Doesn't it sound like a jazz festival? Still, it sure beats Operation Holocaust.)
The authorities have filed a criminal suit against the three villagers. If convicted, the culprits will face prison
terms from 7 to 15 years. It looks like Russia, too, can now safely declare victory in the War on Drugs.
Industrial hemp is illegal in the US, though not illegal in many other parts of the world. Hemp food products may
be on the verge of escaping the jurisdiction of the DEA.
Was Alcohol Prohibition Popular?
Tyler Cowen has more on vice, this time on alcohol Prohibition in the US. Tyler, relying on
Nathan Miller's New World Coming, claims that Prohibition was (initially) popular. I disagree to some extent with that claim, though I agree with Miller that temperence was popular. As implemented, however, national Prohibition was not all that popular, especially in northern and midwestern urban areas. A strict prohibition probably did not represent the majority viewpoint of US citizens; for instance, neither of the major political parties endorsed prohibition as part of their platforms -- even in 1920, after Prohibition was the Constitutionally-sanctified law of the land! There was never a nationwide vote on Prohibition; in Ohio, the only state that held a popular referendum on ratification of the federal prohibition, the measure failed, even though a state-level prohibition had been adopted.
Following the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, Congress needed to formulate
legislation to implement the national Prohibition. (The Amendment itself referred to
"intoxicating liquors...for beverage purposes," prohibiting imports and exports, manufacture,
sale, and transportation. The "beverage purposes" condition was necessary to exempt alcohol
intended for industrial, medicinal, or sacramental use.) One possibility was that the wartime
standard would be maintained, and hence that 2.75 percent beer would still be available.
Alternatively, both beer and wine could have been exempt, if "intoxicating liquors" were
deemed to refer only to distilled spirits. Congress chose a much stricter standard, however: the
implementing legislation, known after the chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary as the
Volstead Act, defined any product with an alcohol concentration above 0.5 percent (measured by volume) as an "intoxicating liquor." Note that, while sale was prohibited, purchase and
consumption remained legal, so that the alcohol ban during Prohibition approximates what is
referred to as "decriminalization" in today's drug policy debates. In short, it was possible
to support the 18th Amendment, but still oppose the very strict standard of the Volstead Act.
Sunday, September 28, 2003
US Gambling Survey
Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution describes a new survey of the characteristics of gamblers at
American casinos. One surprise: the majority of gamblers are female.
Saturday, September 27, 2003
J.S. Mill's Harm Principle
Yesterday I suggested that for day-to-day regulation of cocaine (and similarly for heroin and
marijuana and the other currently illegal drugs), the criminal law is an improper tool. This position
has a long pedigree, first receiving a systematic treatment in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty,
published in 1859. Today I thought I would expound a bit on Mill and his "harm principle."
The question Mill asked himself was, under what conditions should the government (or society
more generally) intervene in the activities of individuals? Mill's answer has become known as
the "harm principle":
...the only purpose for which power can be rightfully
exercised over any member of a civilised community,
against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His
own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient
Social coercion exercised over you for your own good, in the absence of "harm to others,"
violates your liberty. Of course, Mill quickly offers the requisite qualification, "that this doctrine
is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties."
Most vice is what Mill referred to as "self-regarding" conduct, which does not directly harm
other people, though it may harm the person engaging in it. And so the harm principle
presents a barrier, though not necessarily an insuperable one, to the societal regulation
of vice or other types of self-regarding conduct.
This is all fine and good, but Mill's principle is tricky to apply in practice, because the line
between self-regarding behavior and other-regarding behavior is murky. Mill gave many
examples, however, to help delineate where he thought the boundary is located. Mill's harm
principle seems to rule out general prohibitions against adult indulgence in most vices:
there would be no such thing as an illegal drug, for instance, were a straightforward
interpretation of the harm principle the guiding force underlying our vice laws. Likewise,
prostitution and all other forms of consensual sex involving adults would not be criminal
matters. Drugs and sex could still be regulated, and perhaps even regulated quite strictly,
under the standard established by the harm principle, but the private use of drugs
and private exchanges for sex could not be forbidden to adults.
The harm principle continues to hold some appeal, not least because once it is
discarded, it looks as if anything a majority (or the relevant ruler) dislikes
can be banned. In Uzbekistan, billiards are prohibited; in Turkmenistan, opera
and ballet are outlawed; and rock music has been banned in more than one
Muslim society. If you don't adopt the harm principle, you have a hard time
providing a principled argument against the propriety of these sorts of bans.
So drug prohibitionists rarely say that they are not beholden to the harm principle.
(Some do eschew the harm principle, however.) Rather, they tend to point to three of
the three and one-third standard vice concerns (kids, addicts, externalities)
to argue that drug use is not self-regarding behavior. This is generally (not always) an
incorrect claim -- Mill was explicit in saying that a ban on alcohol would not be consistent
with the harm principle -- but I will postpone further discusison on that. I will repeat,
however, that though the harm principle would generally rule out broad bans on vicious
activity, many quite stringent regulations would be acceptable, even to a committed Millian.
Friday, September 26, 2003
The Trib had a small item (registration required) in the metro section today about a 52-year old
man sentenced to 2.5 years in federal prison for possessing more than 5 grams of crack.
He could have received up to 14 years. How did he avoid 14 years, and even the mandatory
minimum sentence of 5 years? About the only way available, it seems: he provided
substantial assistance to the prosecution in another, major drug investigation. Presumably
it is the other case mentioned in the report, that of a dealer involved in "a string of drug-related
kidnappings and tortures and one murder."
That should do it. His fate should deter all others, and we can safely conclude that we have won
the war on crack.
The report suggests that the sentenced individual was simply a prodigious crack user, not a
dealer. (He admitted that he gave new luxury cars to dealers in exchange for drugs.) So even
without the jail term, he was ruining his life through drugs. But how does our system treat such
an individual, who (for all we know) may have made bad choices, but is not necessarily a bad
person? (No evidence of "harm to others" (to invoke the phrase of John Stuart Mill) in the story.)
We threaten such people with a huge jail term, but let them buy some of their lives back if they
testify against others. So people cooperate, even fabricate.
The fact that drugs are illegal means that the black market is populated by criminals, many of
whom have few qualms about using violence. (The illegality precludes the usual forms of police
protection and access to contract law, so only those who can self-protect will be able to survive
in the business in the long run.) So we force our otherwise harmless coke-heads to deal with
violent criminals as they pursue their life-destroying habit, and then, to avoid a long prison
sentence, they have to testify against these same criminals, who are unlikely to take kindly to it
and have friends who also are comfortable with inflicting violence. I don't envy the fellow in
today's story either now or when he gets out in 2.5 years. Is this really the best way for a society
to control the consumption of a dangerous product?
Normally I would just stop with the question, but today I'll provide an answer: no. Drugs like
cocaine need to be controlled, and probably much more strictly than alcohol, say, is today.
But the criminal law is the wrong tool for quotidian cocaine regulation, though some criminal
penalties (for transfers to minors, for instance) are needed at the boundaries of the system,
just as they are for alcohol.
[The on-line article differs from the print version, and this is common for the Trib, it seems. I won't
point it out in the future unless the difference is pertinent to the commentary.]
Almost Pyrrhus-like, I am tiring of these victories in the War on Drugs (so should be our country,
I submit), and hope to blog about gambling or prostitution or some other non-drug vice
in the near future...
Thursday, September 25, 2003
Tuesday's reverse sting operation on the west side of Chicago that Carol Marin
wrote about yesterday receives more ink today (registration required; link
good for one week). Tuesday's total haul -- 288 would-be buyers arrested, along
with 29 alleged sellers. (No word if any of the arrestees are speculators,
engaged in both buying and selling.) Over the course of the recent reverse
stings (the overall operation began on August 21), some 1,265 of our friends
and neighbors have been arrested. To repeat our mantra, well, it's
over, we have won the war on drugs!
The reverse stings started about 3PM on Tuesday and were ended at
nightfall. Why? "for the officers' safety". Wow. Imagine the poor folks
who live there and can't leave at nightfall. Hmmm, if only we could think
of some policy change that would bring more safety to the neighborhood.
Those who were arrested had their vehicles seized. "Owners will
have to pay a minimum of $650 in fines, towing and storage fees to get their
vehicles back..." Does anyone remember when you had to be found
guilty of something before being punished? How did we ever manage
under such a primitive system?
I do not know under what authority these cars were seized, though the
general issue of civil asset forfeiture is, of course, a major one in
drug regulation in the US. More on this as Vice Squad progresses. For now
I will restrict myself to just one small observation that is related
to the two large cannabis plant discoveries in the past 8 days in Chicagoland.
These discoveries were made on publicly-owned land. Why? In part, perhaps,
because of civil asset forfeiture laws. If these plants were growing on
private land, the owner's property would potentially be subject to
forfeiture. (In the majority of drug-related forfeiture cases, incidentally, no
criminal charges are even filed.) One result is an incentive to grow pot on
public lands -- and, to commandeer your neighbor's home for your crack house,
instead of using your own. How does asset forfeiture affect inner city neighborhoods?
Yale law professor Steven Duke notes: "Bankers have few incentives to lend
money on such property, for the bank itself can lose its security interest if
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Just when you thought that the last big marijuana field in the Chicago area had
been eradicated (see the post from Thursday, September 18), it turns out
that 10,000 more cultivated (i.e., not wild!) cannabis plants, of nearly harvestable
quality, turn up, according to this story in the Trib's online edition (registration
required). Surely this one does it -- we have won the war on marijuana. No longer need we
fear that our friends and neighbors will try to enjoy themselves through the wicked weed.
Mythical numbers update: last week we were told that the plants were worth $6000 each.
Today we learn that the 10,000 plants (who counted them?) carry "an estimated street
value of $27 million." Hmmm, that's $2,700 each. Are these lower quality plants, or are these
numbers, um, mythical?
Here's a great line from the article: "...police destroyed an even larger marijuana patch,
with 27,000 plants, in the same area about two years ago, but found no evidence of cultivation
at the time."
Stinging Chicago Drug Consumers
In a column on the Commentary page of today's Chicago Tribune, Carol Marin
describes her experience accompanying Chicago police on a drug sting operation.
In the Harrison district, officers posed as drug sellers: "In less than four
hours, 102 buyers were in plastic handcuffs and on their way to lock-up."
Somehow the fact that there were two such stings in the same location in
the previous five days had not been enough to deter the would-be drug buyers.
Marin records the welcome news, that the homicide rate on the West Side
is down 75% from a year ago. But she also registers the whiff of
futility in the war on drugs, describing the buyers as "an ant army of
addiction" and sellers as "an endless stream of people willing to risk
prison to make big money."
(Steven D. Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh found that the money
available to the typical street dealer in one Chicago gang actually isn't big
at all -- generally below the minimum wage, despite the risks of prison and
Marin's conclusion is that the currently depressing equilibrium can be
overcome only by taking the money out of the drug market. Legalization
would be one means, perhaps a further ratcheting up of the drug war, with new
tactics, is another. On the latter, I would suggest that the previous twenty
years of ratcheting up the war on drugs don't leave great room for optimism.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
"Holy Guacamole -- What a Drug Bust" That's the title of this story in today's Chicago Tribune (registration required: story available for 1 week).
Seems that 180 buckets of frozen guacamole each had a 2-kilo brick of cocaine hidden inside.
The (mythical?) monetary value attached to the total police haul of 310 kilos of cocaine
is $39 million. The four men arrested in connection with the bust each face a mandatory
minimum sentence of 15 to 60 years, according to the State's Attorney of DuPage County,
though this prosecutor intends to upgrade to charges that would make the minimum 30 to
120 years in prison. 26,000 pounds of guacamole also was sacrificed.
That should do it -- we have won the war on drugs! No more need we fear that some of our friends and neighbors might pursue their wicked and dangerous pleasure by consuming cocaine (or is it guacamole? Now I am confused.)
What was that again that Adam Smith said about a smuggler? Oh yeah: "a person, who, though no doubt highly blameable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been, in every respect, an excellent citizen, had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so."
Italy Rethinks Drug Depenalization
It is hard to be satisfied with any regulatory regime towards potentially addictive drugs.
Italy decriminalized drugs (even hard drugs) for personal use in 1975, and then re-criminalized
them in 1990; come 1993, decriminalization for personal use was reinstated. (MacCoun and
Reuter's book, Drug War Heresies, pp. 230-6, provides a good description and analysis of
the Italian experience. They more accurately refer to the Italian approach not as
decriminalization but rather as "depenalization." Apparently a similar regime is in effect in Spain.)
Now, according to a brief article on page 6 of today's Chicago Tribune (which I could
not find in the electronic version), the Italians are rethinking the decriminalization.
The current situation means that drug users need not fear prison, though substantial
penalties still remain for sellers and traffickers. As a result, according to Deputy Prime
Minister Gianfranco Fini, "Today it is virtually impossible for law enforcement to distinguish
between personal use and trafficking."
It sounds as if the Deputy Prime Minister would be OK with decriminalization for adult users
if it didn't undermine enforcement of rules against trafficking and selling. He practices, to borrow
a phrase from MacCoun, Reuter, and Schelling, "reluctant denial." (The more typical rationale
forwarded for reluctantly denying a drug to adults is that failure to do so might make the drug
too available to children.) The more general issue is, what regulatory distinctions are stable and
enforceable? Can a drug widely available to adults be made unavailable to adolescents?
The cases of alcohol and tobacco in the US give one reason to pause, though it may be that
there hasn't been all that much effort put into enforcing the barrier against distribution of
these drugs to kids -- only in recent years has the ban on kids purchasing cigarettes been
given much attention. (When I was in first grade, my friends were often sent to
the 7-11 by their parents to buy cigarettes.) But it isn't clear that adult prohibition offers
an improvement: despite the limited enforcement of underage alcohol rules, surveys indicate
that marijuana is more widely available to many American high schoolers than alcohol.
The phrase "reluctant denial" is from Robert MacCoun, Peter Reuter, and Thomas Schelling, "Assessing Alternative Drug Control
Regimes." Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 15(3): 330-352, 1996.
Colombian Plane Crash Update
It seems as if some of the information in my earlier post (from yesterday
-- can't seem to get the permalink to work) about a coca crop fumigation plane
crashing in Colombia was incorrect, according to a story (registration required) in the New York Times.
(The Chicago Tribune today carries a similar update.) The crash was not
accidental; rather the plane "was apparently shot down." Also, the earlier
post claimed that the pilot was an American, but he actually was a citizen of Costa Rica.
Here are two almost chilling paragraphs (but not the most chilling) from the Times story:
A Colombian army commander said the anti-narcotics offensive in which Alvarado was participating will continue until all drug crops in the region have been fumigated.
Operation Holocaust, being waged by U.S.-trained Colombian Army soldiers in the mountain-studded jungles of Norte de Santander state, is aimed at destroying huge cocaine-producing plantations that finance leftist insurgents, said Gen. Eduardo Morales.
The Summer 2003 Journal of Economic Perspectives arrived yesterday
with an article about the research of Berkeley economist Matthew Rabin.
Among many other things, Rabin has worked on models of choices that
display "dynamic inconsistency." Would you prefer $100 today or $112
one week from today? Many people would take the immediate $100.
Would you prefer $100 one year from today, or $112 one year and one
week from today? Many of those same people who liked the immediate
$100 in the first choice are willing to wait one more week for $112
when the choice concerns the same outcomes, but delayed for one year.
These people are "dynamically inconsistent". Why? Because in the second
situation, what happens after one year has passed? The choice is now the first
situation, an immediate $100 or a one-week delayed $112. But their choice
in the first situation tells us that now they don't want to wait that week
for the additional $12. There is some evidence that many people tend to
exhibit this form of dynamic inconsistency, a greater impatience displayed
in choices concerning the near future than the more distant future. In my
case, introspection also lends support to the hypothesis of dynamic
What does this have to do with vice? Dynamic inconsistency is
important with respect to potentially addictive goods. From the point of
view of the more patient version of our inconsistent consumer,
the person deciding today on whether to consume cocaine or
alcohol is excessively indulgent. And potentially addictive goods are
reinforcing, use today encourages more use tomorrow. So a person could
end up consuming large amounts of alcohol, for instance, even though
her more patient persona would consume very little, and regrets the
fix that her short-term decision-maker has got her in.
The policy implications for this sort of behavior can be extremely
significant, as Rabin pointed out in a recent paper with Ted O'Donoghue,
"Studying Optimal Paternalism, Illustrated by a Model of Sin Taxes."
Specifically, a "sin tax" on addictive goods can be very valuable for
someone who is dynamically inconsistent, while at the same time imposing
few costs on fully rational, consistent consumers. A similar approach
has been taken to cigarette taxes by MIT professor Jonathan Gruber;
Professor Kip Viscusi of Harvard Law has a different perspective.
The rationality of choices concerning potentially addictive goods, and its
implications for vice control, will undoubtedly be a topic that this blog
will return to....
Monday, September 22, 2003
Coca Fumigation Tragedy
Limited but sad vice news in the Chicago Tribune today. A plane crashed in Colombia,
killing its American pilot. The plane was fumigating coca fields. The plane did not appear
to be shot down; presumably, the crash was accidental and may have been abetted
by harsh weather. [This information turned out to be incorrect -- see the update in this
post from Tuesday, September 23, 2003.]
In Chicago, a man was stomped to death early Saturday. An alleged attacker is being
held. The stomping is said to have occurred during a dispute over drug money.
One of the components of the Colombian tragedy is the rather substantial element of
futility that accompanies eradication and interdiction programs; see, e.g.,
Peter Reuter, "The Limits of Supply-Side Drug Control." The Milken Institute
Review, pp. 14-23, First Quarter, 2001. I tend to be reluctant to jump to policy
futility or perversity claims (the terminology is from Albert O. Hirschman's The Rhetoric
of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991),
but in this case the arguments for futility in the medium term are pretty compelling. And
even if the flow of foreign cocaine were substantially trimmed, we would have to worry about
substitution to domestically produced methamphetamine or even increased consumption
of alcohol. And it is always useful to keep in mind that this US-led eradication program in a
distant foreign land is undertaken in the name of making it harder for some of our neighbors
and friends to pursue their personal pleasure by consuming cocaine.
The stomping death is so outrageous that it might be a bit overboard to deem it
drug-law-related. It reminds me of the case in NYC, when a bouncer was murdered by a man
who was enraged by the bouncer's attempt to enforce the then-new smoking ban. A member
of the murdered man's family blamed the killing on the ban, and indeed, that did appear to
be a proximate cause. But a person who is willing to kill someone because he is not allowed
to smoke sounds enough like a walking time bomb that he is almost bound to explode
on someone, somewhere. So while the murdered bouncer probably would be alive today if it
were not for the smoking ban, I think there is a good chance that some other unfortunate
soul might have paid a similarly heavy price from the assailant.
On the connection between alcohol and drug prohibition and homicide, see Jeffrey A. Miron,
"Violence and the U.S. Prohibitions of Drugs and Alcohol." American Law and Economics
Review 1: 78-114, Fall 1999. On my reluctance to jump to futility or perversity claims, see
Jim Leitzel, The Political Economy of Rule Evasion and Policy Reform. London: Routledge, 2003.
Finally, when people were contemplating making drugs illegal, did the sorts of deaths that
were in today's news enter into their cost-benefit analysis?
Sunday, September 21, 2003
Access to legal gambling has accelerated in recent decades, particularly in the United States.
State lotteries, effectively forbidden during the 20th Century until 1964, spread rapidly in the
1970s and 80s, and now 38 states offer lotteries. Casino betting, spurred in part by
legislation in 1988 that codified the rights of Native American tribes, also skyrocketed; by the
end of the 20th century, more than half of the US states housed legal casinos, whereas only
a quarter-century earlier, Nevada was the sole state offering casino gambling. Developments
in many other countries also tended towards liberalization of gambling, as exemplified by the
introduction of the British National Lottery in 1994 and the expansion of casino gambling in
Britain, Australia, and Canada.
Somehow, in overall terms, this enormous increase in legal gambling opportunities has taken
place with rather limited controversy. For the most part, I would say, folks accept the new
status quo and are not that anxious to roll back legal gambling to the situation of the 1960s
or even the 1970s. Further, one of the major remaining legal constraints, that forbidding
betting on sporting events (except in Nevada, basically), is widely and almost openly evaded.
Nevertheless, a major battleground remains, and that concerns gambling via the Internet.
Gambling websites are essentially illegal if they are housed in the US, but in many other
countries they are legal, licensed, and welcome. These sites offer betting in various forms to
US citizens, both over the phone and over the web. That Internet wagering sites are quite
popular with Americans is evidenced by the fact that they make billions of dollars in revenues
from US-based bettors.
Senator Jon Kyl (R, AZ) has been waging a battle against Internet gambling for some time
now. The recent suggestions from his Republican Policy Committee (which can be
downloaded as a PDF from this page) are aimed at preventing financial
institutions from facilitating payments from bettors to Internet gambling operations. (Thanks
to my primo research assistant, Ryan Monarch, for digging up the linked document.) This
proposal is an improvement over Sen. Kyl’s preferred legislation circa 1997, which would have
made gambling over the Internet a federal crime, creating the specter of grandmothers who
played a few hands of Internet video poker being arrested by federal agents. A bill to make
the consumption of Internet gambling a federal crime actually passed overwhelmingly in the
Senate in the late 1990s.
And are we really all that worse off because that bill did not become law (so far, at least)?
Like most vices, Internet gambling is prey to what I call the three and one-third standard
vice concerns: kids, addicts, externalities, and (the one-third component) harms to
non-addicted adult indulgers themselves. But the existence of the three and one-third
concerns does not imply the desirability of a prohibition backed by criminal penalties,
whether the vice that we are discussing is gambling or pornography or heroin consumption.
(And of course, lots of folks take some pleasure from gambling.)
The three and one-third vice concerns, as well as "harm reduction" measures, will
undoubtedly be recurring themes as the Vice Squad blog develops. For now, let me just note
that the approach of many other countries towards Internet gambling is less punitive than that
envisioned by Sen. Kyl. The British, in particular, are moving towards a regulatory structure
for Internet gambling, and are liberalizing their gambling restrictions more generally. With
respect to the Internet, British citizens can already legally gamble from their homes. Websites
based in Britain currently cannot offer gambling, but the government intends to change
that. A British licensing system will be established that will
attempt to ensure that licensed on-line casinos meet high standards of quality. (The Internet
is not the only method to bet from home in Britain. Recently, wagering via interactive television
has become popular in the UK.)
By the way, the New York Times Magazine from a month ago (August 17, 2003)
contained a fine article ("Bookies in Exile" by William Berlind) on American web gambling
operators based in Costa Rica.)
Kids and Sex
Will Baude of Crescat Sententia has a brief discussion of whether it is a Bad Thing
for 13-year olds to engage in consensual sexual activity, motivated by some blogosphere traffic concerning
a recent unsavory case in Pennsylvania. [Will is also educating me regarding permalinks -- I already had
them (the time stamp at the bottom of each post) without knowing it, not unlike that Moliere character
who learned that he had been speaking prose all his life.] You might also want to read Will's review
of a controversial book concerning teen sex, Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors. Another book
that looks at kids and obscenity, among other topics, is Marjorie Hein's fine Not In Front of the Children.
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...
Friday, September 19, 2003
Lap Dancing to End in L.A.?
My friend and former student Dima Masterov informed me about recent changes to
a Los Angeles city ordinance that will have the effect of ending lap dancing. The
ordinance requires dancers to remain at least 6 feet away from the customers.
Perhaps you feel that the dancer's free speech rights are infringed by this regulation.
It seems that the Supreme Court disagrees with your assessment. While the Court
has long held that nude dancing is expressive conduct (like flag burning, in that
respect) and hence is entitled to free speech guardianship, "it falls only within the
outer ambit of the First Amendment's protection [Justice O'Connor opinion, Erie v.
Pap's A.M., 529 U.S. 277 (2000)]." In practice, it appears that the outer ambit isn't
enough to render distance requirements unconstitutional -- lower courts have tended
to apply the Constitutional tests in ways that are unfavorable to nude dancing, even
when it seems that the obvious application of the test would lead in the other direction
(though the outcomes of cases have varied across Federal court districts.) For critiques
of the current legal situation, see Kevin R. Bruning, "Note: Nudity and Alcohol: Morality
Lies in Public Discussion." Stetson Law Review 29: 775-810, Winter 2000; and Jenna
Doviak and Gina Scamby, "Casenote: Table Dancing Around the First Amendment: The
Constitutionality of Distance Requirements in Colacurio v. City of Kent." Villanova Sports
and Entertainment Law Journal 7: 151-180, 2000.
Incidentally, the rationale for the ordinance, as put forth in the news article linked above,
is that neighbors of strip clubs are complaining about prostitution, drug use (one
suspects that alcohol is the chief problematic drug, though), excessive noise and littered
condoms. Does this ordinance really address those problems?
This is my first attempt at including links in a post. Will Baude of Crescat Sententia,
who inspired this blog, has informed me that blogging is an organic process. Perhaps one
day Vice Squad will actually have a Squad, and useful links on the side, and all the usual
markers of the blogosphere. But embedded links are the current hurdle!
Attempted Possession of Cocaine?
The front page of the Trib today brings us a story entitled “FBI Sting Nabs Cops in Cocaine, Cash Thefts.”
Nine current or former officers were arrested for their activities related to five sting operations. Eight of
the nine officers worked for Chicago area law enforcement agencies but none of them, as far as I can tell,
was with the Chicago Police Department.
(Incidentally, as the sting operations involved fake cocaine buys, seven of the officers were charged with
“attempted possession of cocaine,” which carries a sentence of 5 to 40 years in prison and fines of up to
$2 million, apparently – imagine what actual possession of cocaine could get you! And I suppose that this
also means that somewhere there are workers whose job it is to manufacture fake cocaine. Maybe it is
even a thriving business – “the Department of Labor reports that jobs in automobiles and steel
production fell by 2.4% in the third quarter, but overall employment remained high, thanks to an 11%
increase in jobs in the fake cocaine sector.” And just as cocaine comes in various qualities, I suppose fake
cocaine does, as well. Imagine low quality fake cocaine, and the sales pitch: “Well, it’s true, it doesn’t
really resemble cocaine very much – looks rather more like saltwater taffy – but if you squint, you might
mistake it for real cocaine, or at least higher quality fake cocaine, and it is much cheaper than the higher
quality fake coke.”)
I don’t know the “optimal” regulatory scheme for cocaine, nor do I think that anyone does, but I am pretty
sure that our rather strict prohibition is a significant blunder. (One element of a desirable drug control
regime that I think is important is that penalties for adult possession of “personal use quantities” be
minuscule or non-existent. This does not rule out most strict regulations, however, nor does it, in itself,
rule out bans on sale, purchase, manufacture, and so on. As the blog develops, I will say more about this.)
One of the main problems with our current rules, and one that I think is underappreciated, is their
tendency to undermine law enforcement. What a trap we set for our police, when they can make
thousands of dollars simply by looking the other way, without harming anyone directly and without
generating complaints to the sergeant! We set up similar traps for inner-city youth. Harsh penalties on
drug sales by adults give kids a comparative advantage in working in the drug trade, reinforced by the
lack of legal employment options. (Indeed, child labor laws preclude most forms of legitimate employment
for them.) When kids (or the cops) succumb to the huge temptation that we dangle before them, we then
condemn them as drug sellers or for selling out the integrity of the force. I am not arguing that cops should
be corrupt or kids should sell drugs, but our laws create a huge “attractive nuisance,” to redeploy a legal
phrase, and we shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of folks find it, er, attractive.
Stateville update: The Joliet area prison (the Stateville Correctional Center) has had another former guard
plead guilty to smuggling drugs to prisoners, this time, marijuana, as well as a charge of assisting in the
distribution of crack. She also pleaded guilty to having sex with two prisoners. No word if any rock and roll
charges were brought against her.
Thursday, September 18, 2003
Defiling the Collar
Thursday’s Trib also had a brief item about the arrest of an Illinois “youth pastor” as he attempted to enter Canada from Washington State – with a 16-year old girl bundled into the boot of his car! (I somehow felt that the British locution was required. Imagine his declaration at customs, incidentally.) The pastor allegedly had videotapes of the two of them involved, shall we say, and though the Trib article does not say so explicitly, the videotape appears to be the rationale for a charge of possession of child pornography accompanying a count of sexual misconduct. The youth pastor is 30 years old.
If he had been carrying virtual child pornography, he would have been OK on that count, at least -- according to a 2002 US Supreme Court decision. With the advent of the Internet, Congress passed the Child Pornography Prevention Act (CPPA). This short-lived amendment to earlier legislation outlawed the possession of computer-generated or virtual child pornography, i.e., images that were created without the use of real children. On April 16, 2002, the US Supreme Court struck down CPPA, on the grounds that the Constitutionally-valid rationale permitting a ban on “real” child porn – harm to actual children – does not directly apply to virtual child porn. “Pseudo-photographs” of child porn remain illegal in the UK, I believe, and for all I know, in Canada, too. Part of the rationale for forbidding pseudo-photographs is that they are used to help make “real” child porn, though British officials and others have also pointed to the potential for such images to spur child abuse by pedophiles. Another justification for prohibition is that the ban on actual child porn might not be enforceable if producers could falsely claim, with some credibility, that their depictions were really pseudo porn.
Victories #2, #3, etc.
From the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, September 18
Victory #2: The UN Drug Control Program has released a report suggesting a 32 percent fall in
Colombian coca cultivation. (Wow, what specificity: I was sort of expecting only 31 percent.)
Even with some increased production in Peru and Bolivia, “overall coca production in the Andes
Mountains region is dropping at a rapid pace.” More specificity, by the way: Colombian coca
fields fell from 251,940 acres in December to 170,430 at the end of July. How the former coca
farmers are managing to scrape out a living was not mentioned in the article, though perhaps
later I’ll look for the UN report itself. I understand that opium fields have increased in popularity
in Colombia, however.
This welcome news from Colombia, following yesterday’s revelation of a seizure in the Chicago
suburbs, indicates that we have won the war on drugs, and we never again have to fear that one
of our fellow Americans will pursue pleasure by snorting cocaine.
Victory #3: 6,000 marijuana plants growing in a forest preserve in Cook County were
confiscated. On the heels of this week’s eradication of the cocaine problem, this seizure provides
more evidence of victory in the war on drugs. No longer must you live in dread that your friends
and neighbors will smoke marijuana. Rather, they will have to confine their intoxication efforts
to alcohol, glue, various household solvents, prescription medications, and whirling dervishly.
VD Day will no longer just be September 16 – perhaps we can celebrate the entire third week in
September as Victory over Drugs Week. Incidentally, we are informed that each of the plants
has an estimated street value of $6000 (coincidence? 6,000 plants, 6,000 dollars?). Wow. And I
thought ferns were expensive.
Seattle: A proposed 10 cent per drink tax on espresso was voted down in Seattle yesterday. An
initiative to allow police to give marijuana possession laws the lowest enforcement priority was
approved, however. Normally I would suggest to our nation’s Attorney General, John Comstock
Ashcroft, that he immediately flood Seattle with DEA agents to ensure that the new local
enforcement priorities do not lead to a surge in folks walking around with a little marijuana in
their pockets. But given the news above, there is no longer any marijuana in the US, so the
enforcement reduction should not make any difference.
As for espresso, yesterday in a coffee shop I thought I saw a 12 year old consuming an espresso
(though I could be wrong as I am not an expert in identifying the age of children or the contents
of coffee-based beverages). He seemed to be doing homework, too. Espresso can’t be good for
kids - shouldn’t there be a law against selling such poison to our youth, and a prohibition on
possession by a minor? (And because we care so much about our kids, those who are caught
using espresso should probably be kicked out of school and possibly jailed, to deter others.) If
espresso is homework performance enhancing, and we don’t nip this in the bud, soon all the kids
will feel pressured to consume the stuff. If I see that kid again, I think that I will read him the riot act.
Zero tolerance for kids and espresso!
Flagger death update: The suspect in the death of the construction worker has been charged with “aggravated DUI in the death of another,” which carries a 7 to 14 year sentence upon conviction. The victim was 36 years old and the mother of seven children. For some reason, the fact that the suspect has children of his own was mentioned to the judge by the public defender at a Bond Court hearing.
More Comstockery: Speaking of our nation’s Attorney General, he told the president of the American Library Association that he would make public the number of times the FBI has sought bookstore and library records under the powers in the USA PATRIOT Act. I’d also be interested in how many terrorists these records have helped identify, and how many innocent civilians have had their records examined to produce the intelligence windfall that has uncovered this bevy of terrorists. What does this have to do with vice? Well, nothing really. I noted it because I am still contemplating the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which the Supreme Court upheld against Constitutional challenge in June, 2003. Most public libraries in the US receive federal funds earmarked to help them establish and maintain Internet access. CIPA requires public libraries that receive such federal funding to install filters on all of their computers that are connected to the Internet. This one hits close to home for this vice researcher, who frequently accesses the Internet at public libraries and who likes to run searches on such terms as vice, obscenity, pornography, prostitution, cocaine, and so on – the very kind of searches that most filters don’t take well to.
Victory #1, etc.
At least five vice-relevant stories in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, September 17. I’ll
comment on the first three and just note two others.
(1) Victory #1: More than half a ton of cocaine, claimed to be worth more than $50 million, was
confiscated in a drug bust in suburban Aurora. Undoubtedly this large haul means victory in the
war on drugs, and ensures that none of our neighbors will ever purchase and consume coke again.
We are free of the drug menace. In the future, we can celebrate September 16 as Victory Over
Drugs (VD?) day.
A few drug policy commentators, including former San Jose police chief Joseph MacNamara and
the authors of The Corner, David Simon and Edward Burns, have noted the resemblance of drug
haul and arrest stats to the enemy body counts of the Vietnam war.
(2) The suspect in a death of a highway “flagger” on Monday was allegedly driving drunk, and
with a revoked license. His license was originally revoked in 1997, and he has not held a valid
license since then. The suspect has apparently been arrested six times for driving under the
influence (four convictions), and five times for driving with a suspended license (three
convictions). His BAC after the accident Monday was measured at .191 (surprising number of
significant digits if nothing else.) Another flagger in Illinois was killed by a drunk driver in July;
a total of 21 people have died in highway construction zones in Illinois in 2003, though only four
of them were construction workers.
There are two problems here. One is how to keep an extremely high risk driver from operating
an automobile. A second is how to induce all motorists to drive more slowly and safely in
construction zones. For the first problem, there are some technological devices that might make
it harder for drunk-driving recidivists to drive. But in Monday’s crash the suspect was driving
someone else’s car, so unless “personalization” or breath-analyzing" devices are widespread,
drinkers such as he will be hard to keep from driving if they are free to move around at all. So,
though I prefer not to fall back on the “stricter sentences for recidivists” mantra, it seems to
apply here – the suspect was released from jail in July after serving 67 days of a 138-day
sentence that had been imposed for his three most recent drunk driving convictions
(according to the September 18 Tribune.) As for the second problem, well, Illinois has recently
increased penalties for speeding in construction zones, and has tried to enforce the rules
more diligently, too. But perhaps there is a technological gimmick that might help here, too.
One possibility being explored is video cameras, but I am thinking about some sort of
“portable speed bumps” that would render the injunction to slow down more of an order
than a suggestion.
(3) A former guard has admitted smuggling drugs and a cell phone into the maximum security
prison in Joliet. His plea agreement calls for 4 years and 8 months in federal prison, where it
might be harder for prisoners to establish a reliable connection. Incidentally, this story reminds
me that providing alcohol to prisoners was at one time a perk in a jailer’s job. According to
Jessica Warner in her book Craze (concerning the gin epidemic in England in the 18th century),
the practice was so lucrative that when it “was finally banned in the 1780s, several jailers in
London were compensated in the range of [pounds] 200 to [pounds] 350 each.” Recall also
Barnardine in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. He was the prisoner facing execution whose
demise was delayed because he was always drunk.
(4) 50 students at a suburban high school were banned from extra-curricular activities for
attending a party in which alcohol was consumed.
(5) The Illinois Supreme Court reduced to $6.8 billion the bond that Philip Morris USA has to
post to appeal a March 2003 judgment. At that time a Madison County judge ordered Philip
Morris to pay $10.1 billion in compensatory and punitive damages (exclusive of lawyers’ fees)
for failing to inform consumers that light cigarettes were not less harmful than full-tar
cigarettes. The state Supreme Court also agreed to hear the appeal of the case directly, without
an intermediate stop at the state appeals court level.
Vice Squad: Explorations of public policy concerning alcohol, nicotine, other drugs, prostitution, gambling, pornography, ....
Welcome to Vice Squad, a blog devoted to the regulation of vice. My name is Jim Leitzel and I am an economist and co-chair of the public policy concentration in the undergraduate college at the University of Chicago. For the past five years I have taught a course on vice policy, and I have recently started to write a secondary text for the class. (We use MacCoun and Reuter’s Drug War Heresies as our primary text, along with lots of articles.) My friend and former student Will Baude (of Crescat Sententia, www.crescatsententia.net) provided the inspiration to create a vice policy blog. My hope is to turn this into a collective blog by recruiting some savvy vice policy experts to join in -- hence the “Vice Squad” sobriquet. The intention is to combine running commentary on vice policy developments, seasoned with occasional forays into more in-depth or scholarly analysis.
On the first day of vice class I always prepare a handout entitled “One Day of Vice News,” where I simply go through a newspaper, noting all of the stories that pertain to vice. The point of the exercise is to convince the students of the extent to which our news and public policy is vice related. This exercise has suggested to me that there is plenty of raw material to keep a blog busy, though I guess I would think so anyway: drunk driving and drug possession are the two most common reasons for arrest in the US, and few families have been untouched by troubles related to vicious behavior.
Beyond the scope of vice policy itself is the influence that it exerts in "topically" unrelated areas of our existence. In the US, for instance, court decisions involving nude dancing and drug searches have gone a long way to delineating the extent of our First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights. So even those with little interest in vice per se might have good reason to keep abreast of the regulation of vice.
Enough by way of introduction. On to the task of blogging. I think for now I will use the Chicago Tribune as my primary source to get things started....