Friday, October 31, 2003
Cannabis Reclassification in Britain
The UK took another step this week in downgrading cannabis from a so-called
class B drug to a class C drug, according to this article in The Guardian. As a
"Possession of cannabis will no longer be an arrestable offence in most cases,
although police will retain the power to arrest users in certain aggravated
situations - such as when the drug is smoked outside schools."
The change is slated to take effect on January 29, 2004. I was alerted to
The Guardian article by Last One Speaks.
Las Vegas Prostitution Update
The mayor's remarks last week have rendered the potential legalization of prostitution in Las Vegas a hot topic. A new poll reports that most Nevadans (?) are happy to continue to
use the criminal law to semi-regulate prostitution.
Polls about the legalization of illicit vice are sort of interesting, irrespective of the outcome. Can you imagine anyone conducting a poll inquiring into opinions about the legalization of burglary or theft -- or having one-third of the respondents in support of the legalization? To be honest, I almost see
the poll itself as evidence that, to repeat a recent refrain, the criminal law is generally the wrong tool for regulating consensual adult activity.
College Drinking Environment
Friend of Vice Squad Dima Masterov passes along this news story concerning a study
indicating that campus diversity (in the form of women, minorities, and older students)
tends to decrease binge drinking in college. Young white males binge drink at higher
rates than other groups, but the study found that "the greater presence of groups at
lower risk of binge-drinking seemed to have a moderating effect on the high-risk
groups." The article suggests that the heavy drinking associated with (predominantly)
white fraternities might be due to similar environmental factors.
Earlier, Dima directed the attention of Vice Squad to a recent paper that found that
a good way to lower your college GPA, if you are a male and especially if you are
a male who drank frequently in high school, is to have as a roommate a male who
drank frequently in high school! The earlier paper and today's article suggest that
the drinking behavior (or previous drinking behavior) of the folks around you can
exert substantial influence over your own drinking behavior and scholastic
achievement. Will/Should schools redirect their recruitment or roommate assignment
policies to try to engineer low-drinking cohorts?
Yesterday Vice Squad was in attendance at a talk by Judith Levine, author
of the highly controversial book Harmful to Minors. The talk was entitled "Crimes
of Passion: Statutory Rape, Female Desire, and the Ambiguities of Consent."
I'll try to provide some of the flavor of the talk below, though no one
should fully rely upon my memory and notes. (I also left a few minutes,
I guess, before the Q&A portion came to an end.)
Ms. Levine told the (true) story of a love affair between a 20-year-old
young man and a 13-year-old girl. Her parents did all that they could to
disrupt or destroy the affair, it seems, including taking legal action. The
young couple was persistent, however, and eventually they ran off together.
After a few weeks, they were spotted, and the man was later sentenced to
12 to 24 years in prison, though the girl emphasized that their relationship
was consensual, and she did not feel that any crime at all had been committed.
It seemed to me that Ms. Levine presented this case as if it represented a
miscarriage of justice. I would characterize her main point as involving the
word "ambiguities" in her title: real relationships, including adult/teen
ones, involve ambiguities, whereas the statutory law brooks no ambiguity. The
impression that I got was that Ms. Levine thinks that the criminal law, at
least, is not the appropriate tool for societal regulation of
adult/young teen relationships. She spoke approvingly of the Dutch approach.
Apparently, in the Netherlands, adults can have legal consensual relationships
with 12 to 16-year olds, as long as the adult is not in some sort of power
relationship with the youth (e.g., teacher, priest). There is a state-supported
system of some type (notes and memory are sketchy here) that provides a place
for the youngsters to go if they begin to feel uncomfortable or worse with
the relationship (and they can involve their parents). But the parents of
the youth cannot ask the state to interfere just because they disapprove.
Once the situation has been brought to the attention of the state by the
young person, apparently some sort of settlement is sought, in a negotiation
that involves the adult member of the couple. That is, the Netherlands seems to
keep the criminal law pretty much on the sideline when it comes to regulating
consensual relationships between adults and 12 to 16-year-old kids.
Should the US consider a Netherlands-style approach? Levine emphasized that
the US and the Netherlands are so different that being 12-years old means
something quite different in the two countries; nevertheless, she seemed
to favor the Netherlands approach. To this "conclusion", I guess I would have
to render the Scottish verdict of "not proven," at least on the basis of the
Levine talk alone. That there is ambiguity within relationships and that
the criminal justice system sometimes errs in dealing with that ambiguity seems
more-or-less certain to me. But whether the parents of a 13-year old girl,
distraught over her relationship, say, with a 50-year old man, should
have no standing to involve the state to preclude the relationship -- well,
there I am far from convinced.
Update, November 1, 2003: As is becoming the custom, Vice Squad's ramblings
about adult/child sexual relationships were preceded and superseded by
Will Baude at Crescat Sententia; see here and here. Will (in the second of the
linked posts) proposes eliminating a bright-line statutory rape law with "a rule
of legal presumption. Say, perhaps, that children are presumed not to be able
to consent to sexual intercourse with somebody much older or more powerful
than they, but that this presumption is rebuttable (by, for example, combined
testimony of the child and the parent, or perhaps a psychiatrist's examination,
or . . .). Then limit this "rebuttable presumption range" and maintain some
absolute lower bound, whether that's 12, 14, or something else." A similar
suggestion was made by an astute audience member at the Levine talk;
Ms. Levine, it seemed to me, was not very receptive to the proposal:
if anything, she seemed to want the presumption to go the other way, that
such relationships should be presumed consensual in the absence of evidence
to the contrary.
A brief review of Judith Levine's book prepared by Will Baude is also available on-line,
here. I believe that the review was originally prepared as a class assignment.
What sort of excellent undergraduate institution would have courses that
encourage such creative thinking?
Thursday, October 30, 2003
Native Americans as Suppliers of Vice
The September/October edition of the recently founded magazine Legal Affairs
holds much of interest for vice policy enthusiasts, including this article
concerning Native American casinos. "Today 221 tribes operate 348 casinos
in 30 states, making more than $14 billion a year." (Those interested in
Native American gambling should also see this report prepared in the late
1990s for the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.)
How did Native American tribes end up as major players in the gambling
industry? This was a case of almost accidental public policy. The genesis
was a 1987 Supreme Court decision that prevented states that allowed
legal gambling from outlawing gambling operations on tribal lands
within their borders. A year later, Congress passed the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act, which regularized the growth of Native American gambling
but, contrary to the hopes of some of its supporters, did little to curtail
it. The growth of the Native American casino industry, in turn, increased
pressure in nearby states or jurisdictions with stricter gambling controls
to expand legalized gambling, to grab a share of the significant tax revenues
that legal gambling can generate.
Native American reservations are also big players in the tobacco market,
a condition driven primarily by their ability to avoid or evade the
significant excise taxes most states place on tobacco products. An attempt
by New York state to close the tax loophole is currently being challenged
by the Seneca Nation; Oklahoma recently entered into an agreement with the
Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw nations that requires them to turn over
one-quarter of the state tax on their cigarette sales.
While Tommy Chong Sits in Jail
Vice Squad friend Nikkie Eitmann stumbled across a catalog
for Urban Outfitters, only to discover an entry for
"Mary Jane's Sticky Brownie Mix." You can find it online at
the Urban Outfitters website, if you search on "brownie mix".
Both the online and non-virtual entries have a photo of
the box, which includes renderings of marijuana leaves.
Here's the description from the website:
mary janes brownie mix
get baked in 20 minutes - complete with recipe book,
pot leaf-shaped cookie cutter, and brownie mix to
sweeten up your 4:20
*note - does not actually contain any illegal substances
That's right, folks, a pot leaf-shaped cookie cutter. Incidentally,
it appears that Urban Outfitters targets its merchandise at trendy
types in their late teens and early 20s.
Ms. Eitmann goes on to make a few points, some of which I reproduce
below, in condensed form...
(1) "It's also interesting that items associated with drug
culture (beaded curtains, lava lamps,..., etc.) have been
sold in [mainstream] stores like this for years, and everyone
kind of knew what was being implied, but it was 'wink wink,
isn't this cool, we won't say why, 'cause you know.' Now, it's
just right out there, 'Hey man, if you like getting high, you
should buy this product.' It's like society on some level has
recognized that there are a lot of people getting high out there,
but that doesn't translate into more sensible drug policies or
even to more sensible opinions on drug policies..."
(2) "People maybe think [that the brownie mix is] cool and
cute, which is also fine, but if people think that, why are we
incarcerating our citizens for using [pot]?"
(3) Are the customers of Urban Outfitters so out of it that
they will pay $12 for brownie mix? "They are giving stoners
a bad name."
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Pyrrhus Watch: Victory #11
Friend of Vice Squad Alan Calder sends along this link to a National Review Online article on Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame) and the war on drugs. The article's concluding line: "An honest, national debate on the war on drugs in general -- and its uniquely idiotic marijuanaphobia in particular -- would be a welcome development in the sad history of this national fiasco."
Pete Guither at the indispensable Drug WarRant has Tommy Chong's address; click on the "Tommy Chong" link to find out more from Drug WarRant about the massive law enforcement operation that, by corralling the notorious Mr. Chong, has secured victory in the War on Drugs. No longer need we fear that some of our friends and neighbors might smoke their marijuana using illegally-marketed paraphernalia.
Harm Reduction and Benefits
Yesterday I noted the reluctance to adopt harm reduction measures
(such as needle exchanges and methadone maintenance) in the case
of currently illicit drugs, when analogous measures would be all but
universally applauded in other areas. (I mentioned the case of safer
football helmets, which could increase total football-related harm by
inducing more folks to play football.) Why this asymmetric treatment?
Presumably much of the answer has to do with perceptions of the
benefits of the activities themselves. Even people who loathe football
do not expect that everyone share their preferences, and they don't
take a dim view of those who recreate on the gridiron. But decisions to
pursue pleasure through the use of illicit drugs do not receive the
same license, obviously. (The use of nicotine and alcohol falls
somewhere in between in terms of social warrant, I would suggest.) It is
as though the consumption of an illicit substance has no benefits, though
millions of consumers evidently disagree.
The terms "harm reduction" or "harm minimization" themselves involve
the same implicit assumption. Economists talk about maximizing net
benefits, but not (typically) about minimizing harms. These different
objectives only are equivalent if the activity involves no benefits.
"Harm reduction" is a term more at home in the field of public health.
Diseases generally are taken to be wholly negative phenomena, and for
those diseases that cannot be prevented or cured, minimizing their
attendant harms is a sensible strategy.
The public debate over vice (and not just illicit drugs) often invokes,
implicitly, the notion of no benefits from vice consumption. When was
the last time you heard someone say, "you know, we really need to have
a bit more pornography available"? The debates about legalizing
prostitution mentioned in Vice Squad a couple days ago are framed
in terms of controlling the harms of prostitution, not of maximizing
[Public health and economic approaches to vice also differ in that
economists make much of the distinction between internal and external
harms (and benefits), but I will save that thought for another time.]
Why are football-related decisions by adults accorded respect, when
drug-related decisions (by non-addicted adults) are typically viewed
as suspect? Presumably because of some reluctance to view decisions
surrounding the traditional vices (psychoactive drugs, illicit sex, and
wagering) as fully rational. (The standard neoclassical economist
doesn't share this reluctance, and hence typically would be unwilling to
support regulations aimed solely at reducing harms to the users
themselves.) But even if you stipulate that self-control problems are
often associated with vice-related decisions, and hence that some
consumers are not fully rational (at least in the traditional sense), that
situation is still insufficient to justify a vice prohibition backed by criminal
penalties. The role of regulation, as I have argued before, should
be to aid those who suffer from self-control problems, but without
unduly inconveniencing those whose decisions to engage in vice are
fully rational. Prohibition (at least if accompanied by meaningful
enforcement) is too imposing upon rational adults.
Labels: harm reduction
Monday, October 27, 2003
Less Hazardous Cigarettes and Harm Reduction
A class-action lawsuit in Illinois against R.J. Reynolds has been postponed for almost three
months, according to this story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The delay means
that it is possible the Reynolds case will not resume until after the Illinois Supreme
Court comes to a decision on a similar case against Philip Morris. The cases allege that
the cigarette makers failed to inform consumers that light cigarettes were not less harmful
than full-tar cigarettes. Morris lost its case last March in Madison County, and was ordered
by the judge to pay $10.1 billion in compensatory and punitive damages (exclusive of
lawyers' fees). In September, the Illinois Supreme Court reduced to $6.8 billion the bond
required of Philip Morris USA to appeal the lower court judgment; simultaneously, the
state Supreme Court also agreed to hear the appeal of the Morris case directly, without
an intermediate stop at the state appeals court level.
But are light cigarettes safer? Whoa, even asking that question might expose me to
legal risk! Philip Morris International is no longer taking any chances; here's an excerpt
from their FAQ:
Are 'light' cigarettes safer?
There's no such thing as a safe cigarette. Smokers shouldn't assume that "light" or "ultra light" cigarettes are safe, safer or less harmful than others. Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases in smokers, and it is addictive. This is true for all cigarettes. The only way to reduce the serious risk of smoking-related diseases is to give up smoking. For detailed information about the health effects of smoking and our use of terms such as "light", please see the Smoking and health section of our site.
Back to Vice Squad (i.e., not Philip Morris International). This report issued by the Institute of
Medicine of the National Academies of the Sciences in 2001 talked of the "conflicting" data
on whether low-yield cigarettes have any health benefit relative to regular cigarettes. The
main issue, it seems, is that smokers increase the intensity of inhaling when they use
light cigarettes, offsetting some (or perhaps all) of the lower concentration of toxicants.
"Moreover, widespread use of these products [low-yield cigarettes] might have increased
harm to the population in the aggregate if tobacco users who might otherwise have quit
did not, if former tobacco users resumed use, or if some people who would otherwise not
have used tobacco did so because of perceptions that the risk with low-yield products
was minimal [p. 2]."
So, we get the old harm reduction trade-off. Introducing a safer cigarette might lead to
smaller harm per use (or might not, if changes in smoking intensity
are completely offsetting) but more harm in total if prevalence increases enough. In many
areas of human endeavor, that would be good enough to endorse harm reduction
approaches. Improved football helmets reduce harms per football player, but maybe more kids
then play football, with total harms increasing. Nonetheless, almost no one argues against
safer football helmets. But if it is a drug we are talking about, harm reduction tends to
be more controversial. Incidentally, the Institute of Medicine offered a tempered
endorsement of the pursuit of harm reduction in tobacco use; for a stronger endorsement
(though relying heavily on the Institute of Medicine report), see this article by Gio
Sunday, October 26, 2003
Tax Revenues as a Benefit of Vice Legalization
Yesterday I gave a "sample class" on the Regulation of Vice to parents of
students at the University of Chicago. Things seemed to be going smoothly
enough until I hit a snag in discussing tax revenues from legalized vice. I'll
try to recap and clarify here.
Vice policy debates, I claim, differ from other sorts of policy discussions in the
prominence of the three and one-third vice concerns of kids, addicts,
externalities, and (the one-third component) harms to adult, non-addicted
consumers (or producers). While prominent, however, the three and one-
third concerns are by no means the only influences on vice policy. Workplace
productivity effects are also commonly brought up in vice policy argumentation --
I think in general incorrectly (though they are partially accounted for in the
one-third concern of harms to non-addicted adult consumers, as I hope my
previous post (linked above) makes clear.)
What about the argument that the legalization of drugs or prostitution (see today's
earlier post), say, would bring with it a large benefit in the form of tax revenues
for the government? I think that this contention is not entirely correct, or at least,
it requires some explication. It is true that a legalized vice can generate significant
tax revenues, as the cases of alcohol, tobacco, and gambling abundantly illustrate.
(For instance, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms collected $13.5 billion in
fiscal year 2000 from alcohol and tobacco excise taxes.) The problem is that on a
first-cut analysis, these revenues do not represent a net social benefit, as they are
paid for by consumers. In other words, the tax revenues are simply a transfer from
vice consumers to the government (or to the beneficiaries of the programs that the
government pays for with the revenues). If the government shows up at my door
and demands an additional $100 in tax revenue from me, there is no direct social
gain -- I am out $100, and the government is up $100. It is a wash in terms of the
size of the pie (absent any other info, at least), though the size of individual slices
I think that there are two further considerations that can be quite important,
however. First is that the black market for illicit vice can operate rather like
a taxation system, but a clumsy one. All of the precautions that I have to take
to consume my illicit vice, all of the sneaking around, etc., essentially raises the
price of the good to me, but without being received as revenue by anyone
else. Legalization could keep the effective price of the vice to consumers the
same, but by replacing the clumsy tax (which just wastes resources) with a
standard one (that gains revenue), there can be a social gain -- measured
essentially by the size of the tax revenues. (By keeping the effective price the
same, consumers are indifferent between the clumsy tax and the legal one; but
the government (or its beneficiaries) gains by the extent of the revenues.) For this
reason, the argument that a vice ban is widely evaded really is a good argument for
legalization: the more the clumsy tax is being paid by evading the ban, the greater
the potential gain in replacing the clumsy tax with an equivalent legal one. (And if
the taxes really are equivalent, consumption of the vice will stay the same, too.) An
article that develops this argument with respect to the minimum drinking age is
Donald S. Kenkel, "Prohibition Versus Taxation: Reconsidering the Legal Drinking Age."
Contemporary Policy Issues 11:48-57, 1993.
Incidentally, the more efficient the underground market, the smaller the clumsy
evasion tax. So, organized crime and corruption can undermine the incentive
to legalize a vice! At the same time, though, the fact that organized crime is
collecting what looks a lot like a tax will motivate some to suggest that the
government could collect it just as easily, with better social consequences. On
this point and the more general argument, see pages 45-47 of my book,
The Political Economy of Rule Evasion and Policy Reform.
The second complication about tax revenues is that they are only a wash in
terms of social benefits if the tax itself is not correcting for some market distortion.
But to the extent that decisions to consume potentially addictive products are marked
by some degree of short-sightedness, however, the tax could help correct for this
distortion. It could even be the case that consumers of a potentially addictive good
are made better off by a higher tax on the good, as the tax helps them to bolster their
self-control. For a development of this argument and some empirical evidence, see
this paper by Jonathan Gruber and Sendhil Mullainathan.
Legal Prostitution for Las Vegas? Thailand?
Brothel prostitution is legal in some rural counties in Nevada, but not in the large cities
of Reno and Las Vegas. Recently the mayor of Las Vegas suggested that perhaps
legal prostitution could be used in the city for economic revitalization. Across the world, similar sentiments are being expressed in Thailand. Government fiscal motives are one of the driving forces behind a move to decriminalize prostitution, according to this article in the Bangkok Post: "The Thaksin government, following the scandal surrounding commercial sex baron Chuwit Kamolwisit, introduced the idea of legalising prostitution in order earn more tax revenue from the trillion-baht industry."
The issue of raising government revenue through legalizing and taxing a currently
illegal vice surfaces again and again, and I intend to discuss it a bit on Vice Squad
today or tomorrow.
Saturday, October 25, 2003
In keeping with Vice Squad's tradition of commenting on developments that are no longer
newsworthy, let me mention that Thursday's (October 23) Chicago Tribune contained a
brief item about another former corrections officer at the Stateville prison. (See early Vice
Squad posts on the developments at Stateville here and here.) Thursday's story involves
a guilty plea from a former prison employee who helped another guard acquire crack
cocaine, ultimately intended to be provided to prison inmates. The facilitator will be
sentenced in January, and is facing approximately 4 years in prison.
Here's the opening paragraph of a May 10, 2000 press release from the US Bureau of
"An estimated 10 percent of the inmates tested for drugs in local jails during June 1998
tested positive for one or more illegal drugs, the Justice Department's Bureau of
Justice Statistics announced today. More than two-thirds of the 712 jails that tested
inmates had at least one inmate who tested positive."
Friday, October 24, 2003
Those Wild, Wacky Wheaton College Kids
The Chicago Tribune ponies up a front-page story today on the demise of the
dancing ban at Wheaton College in west suburban Chicago. An official school-
sponsored dance is slated to be held in the near future -- the first in Wheaton
College's existence: "Throughout the school's 143-year history, students have
been banned from drinking, smoking, gambling and social dancing on and off
campus during the school year." (The status of anti-social dancing is curiously
To be honest, the reform is not as precipitous as it sounds, because the
previous ban was full, just full, of loopholes: "Until now, Wheaton students
were allowed to dance only with members of the same sex or to square
dance....In 1997, a small policy change allowed students and teachers to dance
with spouses or relatives at family events." Those who argued against the
1997 change on slippery-slope grounds have now had their fears justified.
Perhaps the liberalization will cause some professors to turn to other vices for
solace; fortunately, Wheaton has also just "lifted a longtime ban on drinking
and smoking in private for faculty."
Neither the slippery slope nor a reinterpretation of biblical precepts, together
or alone, would have precipitated the reforms, it seems. According to the
president of Wheaton, both the end of the dance ban and the liberalization
of faculty drinking and smoking were induced, at least in part, by fear of a lawsuit
based on the 1991 Illinois Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act! This law precludes
"discrimination against employees who drink or smoke off the job unless there
is a strong religious belief against the practice." (The connection to the dancing ban
is not obvious, though presumably the problem lies in the college's historical prohibition
of off-campus dancing during the school year. Why doesn't Wheaton, a Christian college,
qualify for the religious exception? Apparently because their policies have more to do
with tradition than with religion.) Here's a case (unlike the previous smoking regulation
discussion) where I think private ordering, absent the 1991 rule, would have been
Update, October 25: Will Baude of Crescat Sententia scooped me on this one by, er,
six months. (I have never claimed that Vice Squad was cutting-edge.) Here are Will's
thoughts on the changes at Wheaton.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
Smoking Bans, continued
Will Baude of Crescat Sententia is no fan of legal bans on smoking in
restaurants. Will prefers a market-based solution to the potential
"problem" of restaurant smoking: "Wouldn't we expect some businesses
to allow employee smoking (while on the job), then specialize in
hiring smokers, while other businesses disallow employee smoking and
specialize in hiring anti-smokers? Those workers who are more
flexible (willing to work with or without the smoke) could reap
the tiny benefit of extra job flexibility, just as workers who
are indifferent to what hours they work have more options
available to them by working night or days as available?"
Professor Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA also was kind enough to bring
my attention to his own post on smoking bans. He, too, favors a
market-based approach. Prof. Bainbridge argues that you shouldn't
be allowed to foist your smoke on captive audiences, but for
establishments (such as restaurants) patronized voluntarily by informed
folks, the government has no business dictating the smoking
(or rather, non-smoking) policy: "...restaurants are clearly places
in which private ordering can work and in which government
intervention is unnecessary."
I concur in the result, I guess -- I am against restaurant smoking
bans -- but I am not ready to fully join the judgment. Maybe markets
and private ordering "work," but the issue is how well they work. In
general, how well they work depends upon lots of factors, including
the rationality of decisions. If people routinely "undercount"
their future health in their current decisions, then some regulations
that increase the representation of future selves might make sense.
As I have argued before, policy should be robust with respect to deviations
from rationality and from other markers for perfect competition; in
particular, policy should work pretty good for folks who are always fully
rational, and it should work pretty good for those folks who have
self-control problems or other occasional lapses from full rationality.
(Incidentally, I think we are all in the latter category.) Smoking
bans are too constraining upon those whose decisions to work in
smoky environments are fully rational -- but many other regulations
would not be so imposing, while being quite beneficial to those who
undervalue (from their own long-term point of view) their future health.
As for customers as opposed to employees, even here, I am not sure that
a rule that sets aside some part of a restaurant as non-smoking is
prima facie a bad idea. Again, such a requirement would be a bad idea
if markets were perfectly competitive (and folks were rational). But
markets are never perfectly competitive. After a long day's journey to
a small town, the costs of going to a different restaurant because you
can't breathe in the first one you enter can be significant. More
generally, the knowledge that I won't have to do that (assuming that
secondary smoke is a big problem for me -- it actually isn't --) in
any town to which I travel is maybe worth quite a bit. And the fact that
I won't get turned away because of my race, religion, sex, and so on,
is also valuable. Sure, in a good market world there would be another
restaurant next door willing to serve my kind, but we don't all live
in that world.
Let me reiterate that I feel a bit silly with this long post,
because by and large I agree with the Baude and Bainbridge analyses!
For earlier Vice Squad musings on smoking bans, please see here
and especially here.
Update on Officers Caught in FBI Fake Cocaine Sting
Yesterday and today the Chicago Tribune has reported on guilty pleas by law enforcement
agents to federal drug charges stemming from an FBI sting operation. In the first case, the
guilty pleas were characterized as being part of a plea agreement, and sentencing is
scheduled for January 5. The sting, named Operation Blue Steal (playing with homonyms
this time, those mischievous operation-namers), resulted in charges against nine current
or former officers. The law enforcement personnel allegedly took part in thefts from cars
on Chicago's South Side that contained cash and fake drugs. Vice Squad noted (here) the
original story of the arrests.
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
More on Smoking Bans
Beth Plocharczyk of Crescat Sententia (hey, where's Will?), despite the fact that cigarette smoke is more than irritating for her, does not favor a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. Neither does Sasha Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy. The proximate cause of their commentary is the prospect that Massachusetts will implement a statewide ban on smoking in taverns and nightclubs.
The commentaries seem to be written from the point of view of patrons, but supporters of such bills typically focus on employees. People who work in smoky bars have longer and more sustained exposure than do customers, so to the extent that second hand smoke causes health problems (a controversial issue, though many people certainly don't like environmental tobacco smoke), employees are at the greatest risk. Vice Squad has addressed this issue a bit in the past, and comes down on the same side as Plocharczyk and Volokh -- prohibition is too stringent. But not all regulation of smoking in private workplaces is misplaced, I would suggest. How far it should go -- well, here I am unsure. Requiring some sort of air filtering system that keeps tobacco smoke concentration below some threshold (though environmental tobacco smoke has been pegged as having "no safe level" for health) is, to me, not obviously too stringent a standard (if the threshold is not set too low, that is.)
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Internet Porn: Costs, Benefits, and Self-Control
It has come to my attention that pornography is available over
the Internet! And not just my attention, believe it or not. The
cover story for the October 20 issue of New York magazine concerns
cyberporn, with an accompanying essay from Naomi Wolf.
In regulating traditional pornography, the standard three and one-third
vice concerns (kids; addicts; externalities; harms to non-addicted
consumers and producers themselves) have been front and center, though
addiction has not received much of the attention. With cyberporn, kids
have been the focus of most US regulatory attempts. (I am referring here
to underage access to adult pornography -- child pornography is another
matter entirely.) But relative to traditional pornography, the ease of
access and variety of cyberporn augments the possibility for addiction,
while generally lowering access costs (including embarrassment) and hence
magnifying the overall availability of porn. In the words of the cover
story, "...the mass consumption of cyberporn has slyly moved from the
pathetic stereotypes (fugitive perverts, frustrated husbands) into the
potent mainstream (young professionals, perhaps your boyfriend)."
The cover story suggests a few of the potential harms from cyberporn:
(1) compulsive consumption by men, possibly to the detriment of
their real-world relationships and to their careers; (2) pressure on
women to perform like porn stars for their boyfriends; and (3) disinterest
by men in non-virtual women. There is a quick mention by a psychologist
of some of the benefits of pornography, in stimulating men with low sex
drives and in helping some couples. A few of the men interviewed for the
article also speak positively of the consumption benefits.
The excellent Naomi Wolf essay explores the theme that the flood of
pornography lessens male interest in real women, and makes it hard for
non-virtual women to compete: "Today, real naked women are just bad porn."
They try to compete, however, but tolerance develops: "Pornography is
addictive; the baseline gets ratcheted up."
As with other potentially addictive goods, some measure of self-control
is required, and finding it will make you better off, as Wolf notes:
"The reason to turn off the porn might become, to thoughtful people, not
a moral one but, in a way, a physical- and emotional-health one; you might
want to rethink your constant access to porn in the same way that, if
you want to be an athlete, you rethink your smoking. The evidence is in:
Greater supply of the stimulant equals diminished capacity."
Monday, October 20, 2003
Will the Prostitutes Be Next?
Sharp-eyed Vice Squad friend Michael Alexeev passes along this CNN.com story on the one-day (October 20) strike by French tobacconists. They are upset about a recently implemented tax rise on cigarettes that has caused prices to increase 20%. High-quality cigarettes have seen their price increase from 3.90 to 4.60 euros per pack after implementation of the higher tax.
According to the article, an earlier 16% tax hike last January led to an 8% fall in cigarette sales. If by the 16% increase they mean that the retail price went up by 16% -- it's unclear in the article -- then an 8% decline in sales indicates a price elasticity of (minus) 0.5%, which is in line with many previous estimates. The article mentions, however, that the fall in sales is not matched by a fall in consumption, as illegal imports or other unrecorded acquisitions make up for most of the decline in official sales. This, too, is in line with some earlier studies, though the extent of the substitution is quite large here: the article says that consumption fell by only 1 or 2%, despite the 8% decline in sales.
In keeping with tradition, the strike involved roadblocks, this time at the border crossing with Germany. Apparently much of the tax avoidance has been accomplished through purchases in neighboring countries (Germany, Spain, Belgium) with lower taxes on cigarettes.
Update, October 21, 2003: Today's Chicago Tribune also includes an article about the tobacconists' strike. "Some 20 million French smoke -- over a third of the population -- as do 50 percent of youths aged 15-24, the highest rate in the European Union, government figures show." The non-virtual version of the article also notes that this summer, a minimum purchase age of 16 was established for tobacco products in France.
The FDA and the DEA are teaming up to combat the illegal sales of
prescription narcotics over the Internet, according to this article
(registration required) in the NY Times on Saturday, October 18.
"And for the first time, regulators are hinting that those who order
the drugs may face prosecution."
But this post isn't to examine the merits of the crackdown, or the
prescription system more generally. I want to focus on the name of
the new initiative: Operation Gray Lord. This apt moniker should bring
a little flutter of nostalgia into the hearts of Chicagoans. In the early to
mid-1980s, corruption in the Cook County Court System was unearthed
by a federal sting operation named....Operation Greylord. Some 15 judges,
more than three times that number of attorneys, and others working in
the justice system were convicted under Greylord auspices. Eminence
In the overall naming competition, however, I am afraid that Operation Gray Lord
cannot match the coca-plant eradication effort in Colombia: Operation Holocaust.
Labels: prescription drugs
A Bit More on Drug Pricing
Professor Michael Alexeev of Indiana University's economics department has written in about
my warning against immediately interpreting lower drug prices as evidence of the failure of the
drug war to reduce supplies. My claim was that quantity or prevalence information is also needed
(sometimes "availability" is assessed via surveys, such as, "is marijuana easily available in your high
school?"), because lower prices could be due to decreased demand, not increased supply. Prof.
Alexeev notes that in any case, we would not expect the price to be below "marginal cost," as in
any market. So, if the market for illicit drugs is more-or-less competitive, and assuming (as seems likely)
that the marginal costs of supplying drugs are not steeply rising, the radical reductions in price noted
by Prof. Kleiman should be a very good indicator of the effectiveness of the interdiction effort.
(Economistas will recall that in a perfectly competitive, constant-cost industry, marginal costs of
supply are constant and equal to the equilibrium market price.)
Sunday, October 19, 2003
Spending on Illegal Drugs
My primo research assistant, Ryan Monarch, has uncovered a good deal of vice policy material for me in the last few months. The unacknowledged fruits of some of his efforts have appeared in Vice Squad in the past, including some data on drug prices from a December, 2001 report (PDF version here) prepared for the US Office of National Drug Control Policy. The report comes out every two years, so we can expect an update within a few months.
Ryan has kindly provided Vice Squad with his summary of that publication, which I have edited, excerpted, and supplemented below:
What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs 1988-2000 estimates consumption and spending on cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, marijuana, and various other drugs. The report is careful to make a distinction between chronic and casual drug users. Chronic users account for only about three-fourths of all illicit cocaine and heroin consumed in the US. The estimates for 2000 place the number of chronic cocaine users at 2,707,000, occasional cocaine users at 3,035,000, chronic heroin users at 898,000 and occasional heroin users at 253,000.
The researchers estimate that about $212 was spent weekly by individual chronic cocaine users and $201 by chronic heroin users in the year 2000. The total amount spent on cocaine has decreased from 1997 while heroin totals have decreased slowly over the past decade. Using the estimated retail price per gram of heroin and cocaine, the researchers put the consumption level of cocaine for the year 2000 at 259 metric tons and heroin at 13.3 metric tons. These are significant falls from some earlier years. Total cocaine consumption, according to these estimates, has fallen by some 60% between 1988 and 2000, though most of the decline was recorded by 1991. Heroin consumption has been much more steady, though the 2000 figure is some 20% below the anomalously high year of 1989.
There was about $63.7 billion spent on illicit drugs in the year 2000; in 1988, about 2.5 times as much was spent (in real terms).
The following bullet points are taken directly from pages 1 and 2 of the report:
• In 1999, about 2.8 million Americans were chronic cocaine users, and about 900,000 were chronic heroin users. The number of chronic cocaine users has declined over the last decade (the figure was 3.6 million in 1990). The number of chronic heroin users had decreased, perhaps due to the AIDS epidemic and increased incarceration, but that decrease had largely abated by the latter part of the decade, perhaps because new users were attracted by the availability of high-quality low-cost heroin.
• About 3.2 million Americans were occasional cocaine users, and about 250,000 were occasional heroin users. The number of occasional cocaine users dropped from 6.0 million in 1988, and the number of occasional heroin users increased from 170,000 in 1988.
• More Americans use marijuana than either cocaine or heroin. In 1999, about 12 million Americans had used marijuana at least once in the month prior to being surveyed. The number of marijuana users has remained fairly constant over time, with some dip in use during the middle 1990s when prices were relatively high.
• Methamphetamine abuse is now recognized as a major problem, but estimates of the size of the problem are imprecise. Perhaps 600,000 Americans are chronic methamphetamine users. Consistent with other sources, we find increases in the number of methamphetamine users over the last decade.
• Many Americans use illicit drugs other than cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, or they may use licit drugs illegally. About 12 million Americans admitted using these other drugs in 1999. These numbers include some overlap of polydrug users.
• In 2000, Americans spent about $36 billion on cocaine, $10 billion on heroin, $5.4 billion on methamphetamine, $11 billion on marijuana, and $2.4 billion on other substances […]
More on Underage Drinking from the National Academy of Science
A few days ago Vice Squad commented on underage drinking in the US, taking a look at
the Executive Summary of a recent book prepared under the auspices of the Institute
of Medicine of the National Academies of the Sciences. The book was prepared by a
committee of twelve alcohol policy experts with the assistance of five colleagues.
The original Vice Squad post elicited a suggestion from one of the people involved
in producing the volume that I take a look at Chapter 1, and I have now done so.
The ambivalence about underage drinking mentioned in the previous post is the subject
of a section in Chapter 1. For all of its faults, "Just Say No" is an unambiguous message
sent to kids about illicit drugs and tobacco -- and essentially the same message is sent to
adults with respect to those substances. For alcohol, however:
"The message to young people is 'wait' or 'abstain now,' rather than
'abstain always,' as it is with tobacco and illegal drugs. Unlike the
policies for those other products, the ban on underage alcohol
use explicitly represents a youth-only rule, and its violation is often
viewed as a rite of passage to adulthood. The problem is exacerbated
because the age of majority is higher for alcohol than it is for any
other right or privilege defined by adulthood...[pp. 22-3]."
In the previous post I also suggested that the recommendations of the committee appeared
to be aimed more at reducing underage drinking per se as opposed to being targeted directly
at the chief harms associated with youth drinking. In Chapter 1, the committee argues that
selective prohibitions (of just risky behaviors associated with drinking, not underage drinking
in toto) are misguided: "...any such dangerous drinking prohibitions are extremely difficult to
implement successfully and would not exert a sufficient deterrent by themselves to prevent
the risky behaviors associated with underage alcohol use [p. 29]."
Lowering the drinking age for beer and wine to 18 might actually help sell the "youth-only rule"
of alcohol prohibition, of course. Whether targeting of harms is as futile as suggested in
Chapter 1 is hard to say. As with all significant changes to vice rules, the transition to a lower
drinking age (along with, perhaps, more enforcement against major harms such as drunk driving)
would have to be managed carefully. Minimum drinking ages do seem to "work," as this excerpt
from Chapter 9 of the report indicates:
"There is ample evidence that raising the minimum drinking age in the United
States [to 21, during the early to mid-1980s] reduced drinking and its associated
harms among youth. In all likelihood, these effects on underage consumption were
mediated in part through the reduced accessibility of alcohol to youths."
In some sense, the substantial evasion of the existing minimum drinking age represents
a de facto reform, one that is not well-managed. The adoption of many of the
recommendations of the Committee, along with a lower drinking age for beer and wine, might
codify the de facto situation while still reducing both drinking and harms among older teenagers.
Saturday, October 18, 2003
Victory is Just Around the Corner
Mark Kleiman had an interesting post a few days ago about prices
for illicit drugs. Here's an extended excerpt, with an internal link omitted and a couple spelling changes:
"Now, after twenty years of intensified drug law enforcement, the wholesale price
[for heroin] is about $70,000 a kilo and the retail price in New York about 20 cents
per pure milligram, a factor-of-three reduction at wholesale and a factor-of-ten
reduction at retail, reflecting a greatly reduced markup. The general price level,
as measured by the CPI, has roughly doubled over that period, so the inflation-
adjusted price of a pure milligram of heroin is actually down about 95%.
The price drop for cocaine has been a little bit smaller: from about 80 cents per
pure milligram in 1980, the price fell very rapidly until about 1988, and has since
stabilized (in nominal-dollar) terms at about 15 cents per pure milligram, which
adjusted for inflation is a decline of about 90%.
All of this happened in the face of an enforcement effort that increased the
number of drug dealers behind bars from about 30,000 in 1980 to about
Price declines do not imply increased supply, of course. Among other factors, decreased demand
for illicit drugs could drive lower prices; so, prevalence figures would be helpful in interpreting
these stunning price declines. More on the prices of illicit drugs in the near future!
Friday, October 17, 2003
Another Chicago Reverse Sting Update
Today's Chicago Tribune provides some more details on the ongoing reverse sting
anti-drug operations in Chicago. More than 2,300 of our friends and neighbors (463 on
Thursday alone) have managed to get arrested and charged with attempted drug
possession, and 956 of them have had their automobiles impounded. The cost of
reclaiming a car for these unconvicted but alleged misdemeanants is more than $650.
These are the eggs that must be broken, it seems, in preparing the omelette of a
Oops, maybe not a drug-free world -- just a drug-free Chicago. Our neighbors in the
Hawkeye State will appreciate this sentiment from a Chicago Police chief: "We're going
to make it so unprofitable to run a dope ring in this city, you're going to have to move
The Trib article comes with two pictures of a total of ten of our friends and neighbors
handcuffed; how did Trib photographers manage to be on the scene? Embeddedness!
"Nearly 1,000 police officers from across the city, accompanied by dozens of TV
cameras and reporters invited to witness the operation, spread over 20 locations
throughout...the West Side." It's always in the public interest, of course, when
the police and the media team up against consensual crimes. And what if you don't play
by the rules set by the police? With arrests dwindling off in the afternoon, the police
"got a report that a man on the street was tipping off neighbors to the police
operation. After being warned to stop, the man was arrested."
Pyrrhus Watch: Victory #10
The reverse stings in Chicago (noted earlier on Vice Squad) just go from success to success! Here's the latest from Chicago television's Channel 7: they report that in the first three hours today, 253 of our friends and neighbors have been arrested, and 85 cars have been confiscated! This victory in the war on drugs more than compensates for the disappointing Cub's loss on Wednesday! No longer need we fear that any of our friends and neighbors will seek to pursue their pleasure through unapproved means.
According to the local ABC news report, "The crackdown, with other strategies, helps to curb the number of violent crimes. It lessens turf wars and drive by shootings and murder, which is ultimately the goal." Gee, can anyone think of any other strategies that might be even more effective at reducing turf wars and drive-by shootings? Hmmm, would prohibiting alcohol do it? Maybe not; I am flummoxed. Looks like with this brilliant reverse sting operation, we have stumbled upon an optimal drive-by-shooting-minimizing strategy.
Typing with candor for a second, I think that, given the criminalization of drugs, some efforts to suppress open-air drug markets might be a good idea. But the "given" is so much a second-best (or nth-best) solution that it is hard for me to judge whether any particular tactic is worthy or not. These now thousands of arrests, and the all-but-unconstitutional auto seizures, are far from obvious winners to me, even within a prohibitory regime.
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
Will Baude of Crescat Sententia, claiming inspiration from this previous Vice Squad
offering, has provided some interesting insights into comparative alcohol culture in
British and US universities.
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a long article on attempts to curb problem
drinking at Florida State University. A sentence that pretty much encapsulates
the article's message: "What happened here in Florida's capital shows how difficult
it can be to curb student drinking in the face of industry resistance and
ambivalent academic leadership."
The Journal article (by Bryan Gruley) mentions a couple of other recent
contributions concerning underage drinking. One is part of the ongoing work
at the Harvard School of Public Health, available here. A second is a
recent book from the National Academy of Sciences, Reducing Underage
Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, edited by Richard J. Bonnie and
Mary Ellen O'Connell, available here. From p. 1 of the book's Executive
Summary: "The social cost of underage drinking has been estimated at
$53 billion including $19 billion from traffic crashes and $29 billion
from violent crime."
The Executive Summary lists the book's thirty-something recommendations,
many of them with multiple parts. Most of the recommendations seem sensible
to me, such as voluntary controls on alcohol advertisements that are viewed
disproportionally by youths and some calls for more research. Raising excise
taxes, as I suggested in my earlier post, is also one of the book's
recommendations, with special attention to raising the tax on beer.
Other than that, I didn't see any discussion of trying to separate beer
and wine from distilled alcohol via policy reforms.
There is a bit more of a punitive tone in the volume's recommendations than
I am comfortable with, I must say. There is an explicit endorsement of
increasing the deterrence provided by zero tolerance laws through improved
enforcement, though (in the Executive Summary, at least), no discussion of
what constitutes a zero tolerance law. By and large, the recommendations were
not so much focused on youth alcohol abuse or targeting the major harms,
I would say, but about reducing youth drinking in general.
Part of the reason that I am uncomfortable with a rigorously punitive approach,
despite the huge alcohol-related harms (by both adults and youths) in the US is
that the drinking age, as I indicated in the previous post, is too high. I don't
think that a 20-year old who drinks responsibly should have to fear much in
the way of legal penalties, nor do I think that his 21-year old girlfriend
who buys the bottle of wine to share with him over dinner should face legal
troubles, either. The "ambivalent academic leadership" referred to in the
WSJ column is ambivalent for a reason -- responsible drinking by 20-year olds
is not a major concern (whereas irresponsible drinking by people of any age
is a major concern, and even more of a concern with youths.) The researchers
responsible for the NAS volume had their hands tied, however: "The committee
conducted its work within the framework of the current national policy
establishing 21 as the minimum legal drinking age in every state [p. 2]."
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
Tobacco Black Market
Overlawyered reports that Colorado's attempt to ban smoking in prisons has spurred a
flourishing black market, according to this article in the Denver Post. The article chronicles
many ingenious schemes that have been concocted to smuggle tobacco into the prison,
though I guess we don't know about the best ones! Eighteen prison employees have
been prosecuted in connection with tobacco smuggling in the past three years, it seems.
Jamaica Ginger Paralysis
The September 15, 2003 New Yorker included a fascinating story, "Jake Leg," by Dan Baum.
(The article is available for download here.) The article tells the tale of a strange
paralysis that may have affected as many as 100,000 Americans, primarily poor men, in the early 1930s.
Symptoms of the disease included paralyzed feet and partial to full paralysis of the legs, along with sexual
impotence. This large-scale public health disaster might be lost to history if it weren't for the efforts of
Dr. John Morgan, who has written quite a bit about it. (See, e.g., Morgan, John P., "The Jamaica Ginger
Paralysis." Journal of the American Medical Association 248(15): 1864-1867, October 15, 1982.)
An important source of information for Dr. Morgan has been references to jake leg in blues songs from the
early 1930s. Dan Baum interviewed Dr. Morgan and had access to Morgan's copious files for the
New Yorker article.
The Jamaica Ginger Paralysis was a product of national alcohol Prohibition, it seems. Jamaica ginger
extract ("jake") was a high-alcohol product, but as it was ostensibly intended for medicinal, not beverage
purposes, it could be legally manufactured and sold during Prohibition. Jake's high alcohol potency and
affordability made it particularly popular with poor drinkers. Consumption of adulterated (and poisonous)
jake seems to have been the cause of jake leg, the paralysis.
If jake was able to be manufactured and sold legally during Prohibition, why would there be adulterated
versions or any significant problems with quality control? The reason lies in the desire that Prohibition
enforcers had to limit the size of the "for medicinal purposes" loophole. To prevent this particular end run
around Prohibition, regulations were enacted to make fluid extracts like jake unpalatable (in a manner
similar to the denaturing of alcohol intended for industrial purposes to preclude its diversion to
beverages.) It was in an effort to skirt these regulations, it seems, that led two shady Boston brothers
to adulterate their jake, and ultimately to paralyze many thousands of people.
Monday, October 13, 2003
Today's Chicago Tribune contained two articles related to college drinking. The first was the sad case of a 22-year old Bradley University student who died last month, presumably from acute alcohol poisoning. His BAC was reported to be somewhere between .33 and .41.
The second Trib article discusses technological improvements in picking out fake IDs used by underage would-be alcohol buyers. One new device is a scanner that reads the bar codes (no pun intended) that most states place on the back of their drivers' licenses. These scanners have apparently allowed police in Florida to arrest thousands of spring-breakers who tried to use a fake ID to buy some alcohol. (A reminder that free access to the online Chicago Tribune requires registration, and access to a story disappears seven days after that story is first posted.)
Alcohol consumption, especially in the binge manner favored by many teenagers and young adults, is very serious business, as tragedies like the one at Bradley continually remind us. And drinking by younger people even carries some risks beyond those faced by older people. Nevertheless, our (effectively national) drinking age of 21 is too high. No one really believes that nineteen year-olds drinking responsibly is a major problem. Nevertheless, we are willing to punish nineteen year-olds when they try to procure alcohol, even as we know that our efforts are not all that effective and that we don't really care -- provided that consumption and behavior is responsible -- if they actually succeed in consuming some. (American adults who came of age between the early 1970s and mid-1980s themselves were probably able to drink legally at an earlier age, often at 18.) Once again, we set up a trap, a type of "attractive nuisance" that practically demands law-breaking, and then punishes those unlucky few who actually get caught.
What should we do? First, we should get rid of the federal near-mandate and let states experiment with their own regimes. Second, states should focus on the most damaging harms associated with drinking, those associated with bingeing in general and bingeing and driving in
particular. I also think that there is much to be said for a regime that sets a lower age limit, perhaps 18, for beer and wine, and a higher one, perhaps 21, for distilled spirits. Yes, any alcohol is capable of causing great harm, but the distilled variety is sufficiently more potent that
I view it as almost a different beast -- distilled liquor has repeatedly led to major problems when it is first introduced into societies, even those that are comfortable with fermented beers and wines. (This distinction between the drinking age for distilled spirirts and for beer
and wine, not so incidentally, characterized the alcohol-control regime in Maryland when I was growing up.) And taxes on beer and wine could safely be raised quite a bit, as they have generally fallen substantially (in real terms) over recent decades. There are many other
potential alcohol policies that could offer an improvement, I think, but getting rid of our only-half-serious drinking age should be part of the reform mix.
Some Quick Limbaugh-Related Thoughts
Vice Squad has had little to say about the Rush Limbaugh opioid addiction case, other than keeping track of the developments.
But there is one obvious point that, nevertheless, I have not seen made anywhere else. (Maybe it is only obvious to those who
have spent considerable time studying drug policy?) Rush Limbaugh has admitted an addiction to powerful opioids. Somehow,
this addict has managed to maintain an extremely high level of professional performance during the course of his addiction,
holding down a 3-hour per weekday radio show along with numerous television and other professional commitments.
On two occasions prior to his current treatment (according to his own admission), Mr. Limbaugh engaged in inpatient treatment
to help him shake his habit. This is strong evidence that he viewed his addiction as a problem (and probably not solely for the
legal jeopardy in which it was placing him, though we can't be sure.) Indeed, any opioid addiction is likely to be a very serious
matter, one that involves much suffering and calls for sympathy. Nonetheless, his case must come as something of a surprise
to those who think that the chemical properties of opioids are sufficient to render them life-destroying, and hence to justify their
criminalization. Mr. Limbaugh, like it or not, provides evidence that the effects of drugs are not simple functions of their chemical
properties, but depend on the environment and the user's characteristics and all sorts of other factors. (See Norman Zinberg's
justly renowned Drug, Set , and Setting.) His case sounds very much like that of a functional alcoholic, though few who
support the criminalization of heroin are willing to extend their prohibitionist impulses to alcohol.
I'll give the last word here to another high-functioning opioid addict, Thomas de Quincey, 19th Century author of Confessions
of an English Opium Eater. (De Quincey faced no legal jeopardy, of course, because opium at the time was available in
pharmacies without a prescription. He was quite put-off by the fact that life insurance companies did not take well to opium
I, for my part, after I had become a regular opium-eater, and from
mismanagement had fallen into miserable excesses in the use of opium,
did nevertheless, four several times, contend successfully against the
dominion of this drug; did four several years renounce it; renounced it for
long intervals; and finally resumed it upon the warrant of my enlightened
and deliberate judgment, as being of two evils by very much the least. In
this I acknowledge nothing that calls for excuse. I repeat again and again,
that not the application of opium, with its deep tranquilising powers to the
mitigation of evils, bequeathed by my London hardships, is what
reasonably calls for sorrow, but that extravagance of childish folly which
precipitated me into scenes naturally producing such hardships.
Sunday, October 12, 2003
Today's New York Times Magazine leads with an article blaming the obesity epidemic on a shift in US agricultural policy in the early 1970s to one that encourages overproduction (as opposed to the New Deal policy that fought overproduction.) Terms like "overproduction" and "underproduction" are employed in a rather blithe manner throughout the article, and there are many assertions that at least this economist finds doubtful ("The rules of classical economics just don't seem to operate very well on the farm"). Nevertheless, gluttony is a growth vice right now, and there is a good deal of discussion about policy initiatives aimed at reducing obesity.
One problem with the Times Magazine article is that obesity has been increasing for a century or more, not only since the 1970s. Second, perhaps the major influence on American obesity has not been cheaper food, but more sedentary lifestyles. According to this NBER working paper by Darius Lakdawalla and Tomas Philipson, about 40 percent of increased obesity (since the mid-1970s) can be traced to technological innovations in agriculture, with 60 percent associated with lifestyle changes. In another NBER working paper, Philipson and Richard A. Posner have argued that behavioral feedbacks might render increases in obesity to be self-limiting. And by and large, the tremendous increase in agricultural productivity in the past 50 years has been extremely beneficial to people worldwide.
Cheaper food for the masses, however, no doubt does play a role in increased obesity. The Times article starts off with another vice example, that of cheap whiskey in the early 1800s in the US. Per capita consumption of alcohol surged, peaking in approximately 1830, at levels some three times higher than today. The gin epidemic in Britain in the early 18th Century is another instance where increased availability (via lower prices) of alcohol led to significant problems.
More generally, heightened availability of a drug (distilled alcohol) or other vice-related commodity, in a community that has not yet "socialized" the vice, has often brought with it severe costs. Cheap, well-marketed and palate pleasing calories undoubtedly have
contributed to increased obesity. As with drugs, however, we need to inquire about the "rationality" of decisions to consume extra calories. For public policy, I maintain once again, the goal should be to offer some assistance to those who have significant self-control problems, without imposing significant costs on those whose eating and exercise decisions are "fully rational." Banning fatty foods does not meet this test, though marketing controls or even some targeted taxes might.
Saturday, October 11, 2003
Prostitution in the Czech Republic
Reuters reports that police in the Czech Republic stormed more than 400 brothels on Friday night. (More details
are available in this story from the Czech News Agency.) It seems as if the raids are aimed at those who traffic in
women rather than the prostitutes themselves. (Update: The Czech News Agency reports the results of the raids.
Seventeen people have been charged with procuring, and another sixteen have been charged with trafficking
The Czech Republic has been under pressure from the EU and the UN to try to do a better job of controlling trafficking in women. As the
Czech Interior Ministry has noted in the past, differentiating voluntary from coerced prostitution is not always straightforward. Foreigners
coerced into prostitution generally are wary of cooperating with authorities, as they might fear either their pimps or that they will be
deported (or both). The Czech Interior Ministry has been developing methods to try to overcome that problem, by providing temporary visas
and even the prospect of permanent legal residency for those prostitutes who cooperate with police against illegal traffickers.
Finding regulatory mechanisms that do a good job of discriminating between coerced and voluntary prostitution is no easy matter. In 1910,
the US enacted the White Slave Traffic Act (the Mann Act) to combat a perceived (and almost entirely fictional, it seems) mushrooming of
coerced prostitution across state lines. (Here's a great book by David Langum on the Mann Act.) Within a few years, the Mann Act was being
used to prosecute consensual adult relationships, many of them not even involving prostitution or commercial sex of any kind.
Though enforcement slowed after the 1930s, it wasn't until the mid-1980s that the Act was amended to put couples traveling across state lines
out of harm's way.
Is prostitution itself illegal in the Czech Republic? The Reuters article says yes, but that it is widely tolerated. I have seen previous reports
(including a claim from a Czech Interior Ministry spokesperson) that prostitution per se is not illegal (which is the case in many European countries),
though public solicitation is a misdemeanor. There has been talk of setting up German-style regulations around legal prostitution in the Czech Republic.
Friday, October 10, 2003
Rush Limbaugh announced at the end of his radio show today that he is addicted to painkillers and that he is checking into a treatment center for the next 30 days. Previous Vice Squad posts related to the Limbaugh story are here and here.
Mark Kleiman laments two recent horror stories associated with zero
tolerance (ZT) policies. The failures of ZT are sufficiently legion
to keep at least two websites well-supplied -- see here (ZT Nightmares) and here (End ZT).
Nevertheless, faced with a longstanding problem with drugs or violence,
many jurisdictions still turn to ZT.
Regulatory regimes can be characterized by the standards of behavior that they call for, the nature
and extent of enforcement of those standards, and the punishments imposed on those violators
who are identified and apprehended. (This trichotomy is drawn from the work of Berkeley
professor Eugene Bardach -- see the reference at the bottom.) Zero tolerance policies
try to ratchet up the strictness in all three dimensions: standards are raised, so that behavior
that was not transgressive before becomes redefined as an offense; more police officers or other
enforcement resources are deployed to raise the probability that offenders are caught; and jail
sentences, fines, or other punishments are enhanced. More cops and stiffer penalties are
familiar components of any crackdown. The broadening of what constitutes an offense, however,
is somewhat more surprising. Schools seem particularly prone to designate offenses broadly when
they adopt zero tolerance policies: aspirin becomes a forbidden drug, or a key chain becomes a weapon.
"Zero tolerance" was born of vice policy: the term seems to date from the early 1980s, when the
US Navy was looking to control drug use among its sailors. Later, in 1988, the National Drug Policy
Board adopted a Zero Tolerance Program, which led to such measures as the seizure of a $2.5
million yacht because less than one-tenth of an ounce of marijuana was found on board. (The yacht
was eventually returned.)
Zero tolerance policies are designed to work by increasing deterrence. If people know that
impeccable behavior is expected, that failure to meet high standards is likely to result in
apprehension, and that the penalties imposed on violators are significant, then they will adjust
their behavior to conform to the standards. Or at least that is the theory.
The problem is that the theory of zero tolerance is internally inconsistent for most adult, vice-
related offenses (for kids, too, though that is another story). For the deterrence to work, you
have to make it clear that you will actually be able to catch offenders, and that you will be willing
to punish them according to the zero tolerance standards. In other words, the threatened
punishments must be credible. But for adult vice, both the ability to uncover offenses and the
willingness to punish them are hard to establish. Indeed, the "victimless" nature of vice crime
undermines both components of credibility -- the crimes are hard to bring to light, and the
willingness to impose harsh sentences for behavior that harms no one is frequently absent.
As a result, the adoption of a zero tolerance policy often sets a trap for enforcers. To try to
establish credibility, they indulge in public proclamations of their commitment to the new policy.
Then some minor or inadvertent "violation" comes to light, and the authorities can either destroy
the hard-gained credibility of the policy by not implementing it, or look foolish by harshly punishing
some minor violation, or even a clearly beneficial act.
Even when ZT policies can be imposed with a strong dose of credibility -- for instance, if mandatory
drug testing is sure to uncover any violations -- the credibility can still come with a heavy
price attached. You must still occasionally harshly punish people who haven't done much of
anything wrong, and furthermore, you might induce behaviors that are even worse. Having marijuana
smokers switch to alcohol (or hallucinogens) in order to pass mandatory drug tests is probably not an
improvement. Even when few people are punished, the price of a ZT policy might be severe. Imagine a
credible ZT policy against speeding, following too closely, or changing lanes without signaling while
driving. The entire driving experience would be incredibly nervewracking -- even well-intentioned
people will have to watch over their every move with such assiduous care that their quality of life will
be undermined. But to some extent this is what we have done to many teenagers, who have to ensure
that they don't have an aspirin on hand, don't forget to wear their belt, don't forget 1000 other things
that might trigger a ZT "violation" and suspension.
A lot more can be said about ZT, but perhaps the less the better. Diehards can check out Chapter 3
of my book, The Political Economy of Rule Evasion and Policy Reform.
Bardach, Eugene, "Social Regulation as a Generic Policy Instrument." Chapter 7, pp. 197-229, in
Lester M. Salamon and Michael S. Lund, eds., Beyond Privatization: The Tools of Government
Action, Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 1989.
Labels: zero tolerance
Thursday, October 09, 2003
The Internet and Vice
Microsoft Canada is working with the police in Toronto to develop "software
that will make it easier for police to investigate the dissemination of child
pornography on the Internet," according to this Reuters story. Somehow the software
will allow for computers to do the work of examining photos and identifying those
images that constitute child pornography.
It is a commonplace to say that the Internet has "changed everything," but in the
area of vice control, that has largely been the case. Gambling, pornography, and
prostitution have all been profoundly influenced by the growth of the web. I will
save for the future a discussion of most of these influences. For now, I'll note
just one effect, that of undermining some previously potent social controls. One
limit on the purchase of pornography in the old days was the possibility of running
into your boss while you were at the counter with your smut; even the necessity of
dealing with a shop clerk no doubt dissuaded some would-be porn purchasers. Now no
one need know of how much porn you are acquiring, or how much time and money you
spend gambling. These things can cut both ways -- on a web casino you are not plied
with free drinks by attractive waitresses -- but all in all, it appears that not only
legal controls on vice consumption, but social controls, too, have been undermined
to some extent by the development of the Internet. And not just consumption -- the
web also has made it much easier for people to become purveyors of pornography, for
instance. And it goes without saying that the web has rendered it possible for almost
anyone to become a vice policy blogger these days.
While the initial impact of the web seems to have been to undermine some existing
vice controls, it is not obvious that that will be the case in the long run, as the Reuters
article suggests. Internet communications often are highly anonymous but they also leave
a trail, one that can be exploited by law enforcement -- as the file-sharing cases are
Wednesday, October 08, 2003
Distorting Law Enforcement Priorities Through Asset Forfeiture
Sarasota, Florida has discovered that it is lucrative to attract drug dealers to town, so
that they can be arrested, according to this article in the Tampa Tribune. Under
federal and state asset forfeiture provisions, money and cars can be seized from the
arrestees, and Sarasota's Police Department gets to share in the bounty. The lead
detective involved in these arrests denies that he is focused on the forfeiture windfalls,
but he acknowledges that the program isn't primarily about reducing crime in Sarasota.
The federal DEA is a partner in the program.
The technique is a reverse sting (fake buys), luring suspected dealers to Sarasota under
the guise of selling drugs to them. Why not set-up sellers instead? The article doesn't say,
but presumably that decision is driven by the money, too. The drugs confiscated from
sellers are of no use to a police department, but it gets to keep a large share of the cash,
cars, and other valuables seized from buyers.
Thanks to DrugSense, where I first lighted upon this story. Drug WarRant
offers some further commentary.
Rush Limbaugh, Drug Policy, and Addiction as Disease
The op-ed page in today's Trib includes a Clarence Page column on Rush Limbaugh's alleged drug use. (Here's Rush's latest
commentary on the allegations.) Page suggests that "perhaps [Limbaugh] might speak out for more enlightened treatment of
non-violent drug offenders." Page also asserts that "Drug Addicton is a disease." Is it?
Well, I certainly cannot settle that one. Whether or not addiction should be considered a
disease may be largely a matter of the definition of disease. Addiction is surely not a
disease with a single cause or a single cure. It does resemble certain diseases in being a
chronic, recurring condition, and one that can be ameliorated but not necessarily cured --
in these respects, addiction is similar to rheumatoid arthritis, to use a common analogy.
Neurobiological factors play a key role in much drug use, but simultaneously, there is a
volitional element in addiction -- as there is in many diseases, even infectious diseases:
people make choices that put them at a greater or lesser risk of contracting the disease.
For some addicts, viewing their predicament as a disease might be helpful, even if it is not
descriptively accurate. Addicts themselves struggle with gauging the extent to which their
condition is physiological, a disease, as opposed to a moral failing, a weakness of will.
The incoherence of views towards addiction is a long-term phenomenon. Addiction
traditionally has been perceived as some (possibly incompatible) combination of moral
failure (poor or weak, but rational choices) and disease. The relative strength of these
dual approaches changes over time, though not primarily as a result of improved scientific
information. The "disease" portion of this ambivalent view towards addiction has
garnered strength in the past two centuries.
Though connecting addiction with disease is generally put forth as a reason to move away
from a punitive model of drug control policy -- this is the manner in which Clarence Page
employs it -- that need not be the final destination. Indeed, a disease view of addiction
can be used to justify very strict controls on drugs. Policy towards those who are not
regarded as responsible, such as children and the (mentally?) ill, tends to be very coercive.
Civil commitments already take place with respect to mental patients and sexual
offenders who are deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others. If the actions of
addicts are beyond their control, could Millian self-regarding addicts, those who commit
no crimes (other than purchasing their illegal drug, perhaps) be forced into treatment or
In other words, the disease view of addiction potentially provides a considerable
justification for strict drug regulations. If we go further and view addicts not just as
diseased in themselves but as carriers of a latent epidemic, then there is an even greater
rationale for coercive measures based on public health considerations. Forced
institutionalization of addicts could be undertaken in the name of quarantine.
This just brushes the surface of the addiction-as-disease issue. I'll conclude by noting that
many treatment programs, in the Alcoholics Anonymous mode, explicitly adopt a disease
view of addiction, while simultaneously stressing personal responsibility. Some addiction
researchers, including Stanton Peele and Herbert Fingarette, have provided important contributions
challenging the association between addiction and disease.
Tuesday, October 07, 2003
Pyrrhus watch: Victory #9
The Chicago Tribune reports that an apartment in the South Loop was found to contain marijuana stalks, almost ready for harvest.
Six men, all either 20 or 21 years old, were arrested and charged with felony possession of drugs. The marijuana (stalks?) was
said to weigh 170 pounds, and to be worth a mythical $462,000. That would make $2717 per pound, or almost $170 per ounce.
(The Office of National Drug Control Policy has used a figure of $320/ounce as a typical retail marijuana price in 1998. Apparently,
some of the 170 pounds was useless "stalk".)
Well, that should do it, we have won the war on marijuana. No longer need we fear that some of our friends and neighbors might choose
to amuse themselves through the nefarious means of marijuana smoking.
Oh, an update from the Trib on the sting operations involving fake drug sales currently underway in Chicago. This past Saturday and
Monday, Chicago police were able to arrest 169 of our friends and neighbors and to impound 74 automobiles. The arrestees are charged
with attempted drug possession. That should do it, we have won the war on (fake) drugs.
Medical Marijuana in Canada
Pete Guither at Drug WarRant has a summary of today's appeals court decision in Ontario concerning medical marijuana. Looks like the court has ruled that users of marijuana for medical purposes should have fairly easy access to a legal supply; simultaneously, by making such provision for medicinal users, the prohibition of marijuana use for recreational purposes can be continued.
Tobacco Advertising Bans
Do bans on advertising curtail smoking? It turns out that it is pretty hard to answer that question
by examining international data on changes in smoking prevalence, before and after bans have been
introduced. Some studies find that advertising bans do reduce smoking, some find that they do not,
and some find that it depends on the breadth of the ban. A recent contribution by Jon Nelson,
an economist at Penn State, tries to correct for some of the problems faced by previous studies.
In particular, one complicating factor is that advertising bans do not just pop up at random. Rather,
bans are likely to be adopted precisely at times when pro-smoking sentiment is in decline. Falls in
smoking after an ad ban, then, may not be the result of the ban; the ban and the decline might both
be products of increased anti-smoking sentiment.
Nelson tries to account for this "endogeneity" of advertising bans, using data from 20 OECD countries
for the years 1970-1995. He concludes that the results of previous studies finding that advertising
bans reduce cigarette consumption are not robust to the correction for ban endogeneity.
Of course, one wouldn't want to base tobacco policy on a single econometric study, as the next study
down the pike, employing different data or a different estimation procedure (or both) might come to
the opposite conclusion. One thing that is clear is that smoking prevalence has declined very
significantly in OECD countries in recent decades. In the US, Nelson reports, "male smoking prevalence
declined from about 44% of the population in 1970 to 32% in 1985 and 26% in 1995..." Per capita
consumption of cigarettes in the US was highest in 1963, the year before the renown Surgeon
Nelson's study includes in a footnote one amazing factoid. A complicating factor in using cigarette
sales to determine the extent of cigarette smoking is that some people roll their own cigarettes.
Surely roll-your-own cigarettes are but a small part of overall consumption, no? Well, it depends on
what country you are considering. In most OECD nations, less than 10% of cigarettes are
hand-rolled. But in 1995, in both the Netherlands and Norway, nearly half (46%) of the cigarettes
were hand rolled! No word if this finding applies to all countries with names starting with "N".
Monday, October 06, 2003
Punitive Damages and a Smoking Lawsuit
The Supreme Court has ordered an Oregon court to reconsider an award of $79.5 million in punitive damages from
Philip Morris to the family of a deceased smoker. Not at issue are $800,000 of compensatory damages in the case, though Philip Morris
will seek to have the entire case re-litigated. The Court remanded the case to bring it in line with its April, 2003 ruling in STATE FARM MUT.
AUTOMOBILE INS. CO. V. CAMPBELL; this Utah case involved punitive damages 145 times as great as the compensatory damages. Here is an
excerpt from the conclusion of the majority opinion in State Farm v. Campbell:
"An application of the Gore guideposts to the facts of this case, especially in light of the substantial compensatory damages awarded (a portion of which contained a punitive element), likely would justify a punitive damages award at or near the amount of compensatory damages. The punitive award of $145 million, therefore, was neither reasonable nor proportionate to the wrong committed, and it was an irrational and arbitrary deprivation of the property of the defendant. The proper calculation of punitive damages under the principles we have discussed should be resolved, in the first instance, by the Utah courts."
Sunday, October 05, 2003
Drugs and Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
In finding anti-sodomy statutes to be unconstitutional, the Supreme Court majority in Lawrence v. Texas argued that: “The statutes do seek to control a personal relationship that, whether or not entitled to formal recognition in the law, is within the liberty of persons to choose without being punished as criminals.”
What about the traditional social disapproval of homosexuality? Well, first, the Lawrence Court noted that the legal prohibition of homosexuality wasn’t all that traditional to begin with, and was becoming less so: many states had repealed their anti-sodomy laws in recent years. Of course, there has been (and still is) a good deal of moral condemnation of homosexual behavior; but that proved not to be determinative for the majority:
“The condemnation has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law.” And, quoting the dissent of Justice Stevens from the earlier (1986) Bowers v. Hardwick sodomy case, ‘...the fact that the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice...’
Of the Stevens quote, a dissenting Justice Scalia claimed: “This effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation.” It is not clear why the failure of a sufficient condition to hold implies that the result cannot hold, but at any rate, it does look as if some morals legislation is in trouble – especially laws regulating sexual acts conducted in private between consenting adults. Does the Lawrence decision pave the way for a Constitutional decriminalization of adult drug use in one’s private residence (or for that matter, engaging in other prohibited, non-commercial vices)? It is unlikely that the Court would take that step any time in the foreseeable future, of course, but certainly some of the quotes selected above from the Court’s opinion apply almost as directly to drug use as they do to sodomy.
In determining the consequences of Lawrence down the road, the key question, presumably, is where the line will be drawn on what behavior is protected by the liberty interest associated with the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The opinion of the Court in Lawrence (and Justice Blackmun’s dissent in Bowers) could be characterized, without much exaggeration, as saying that for consensual, adult, victimless activity that occurs in the privacy of the home, society will eschew the use of the criminal law. Society need not grant such behavior any other imprimatur. The activity can be punished in public manifestations, certain privileges can be withheld on the basis of the activity, negative consequences can even be brought to bear if a person so much as talks about the activity in public (a’ la the military’s “don’t ask-don’t tell” standard for homosexuality.) But society will not throw you in jail because of such private conduct alone. That is, the Lawrence court, especially in matters of sexual intimacy, is close to enunciating as a Constitutional standard a doctrine we have seen before: John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.