Monday, February 16, 2004
Vice Control Mispriorities
Page 3 of the Metro section in today's Chicago Tribune provides a microcosm of the misplaced priorities in US vice regulation. Our largest vice-related problem is drunk driving. [Update: I should also note HIV transmission as an enormous vice-related problem.] Yes, our regulations have done what they can to make drug control a bigger problem. Yes, tobacco is implicated in many more deaths each year than alcohol. But for vices other than alcohol, especially if it weren't for our perverse policies, the overwhelming bulk of the costs (as well as the benefits) of vice consumption fall upon the users themselves. While these "internal" costs cannot be ignored -- and indeed, public policy should look for ways to reduce such internal costs -- they do not carry the same weight as costs that vice consumption imposes upon innocent bystanders. Thousands of such innocent bystanders are killed each year by drunk drivers.
Page 3 has stories of two fatal (alleged) drunk driving incidents. The first concerns a man charged with DUI from a February 6 incident in which he was badly injured, and his girlfriend, a passenger in the car he was driving in downtown Chicago, was killed. The second story tells of another couple who were pedestrians early Valentine's Day when they were struck by an SUV allegedly driven by a legally drunk motorman; the male pedestrian was killed while the female was injured, though apparently not severely. Tragic tales, these. In both cases, a death might have been averted if a marked police car was visibly parked nearby.
Not that the police aren't busy. Also on page three we have two cocaine-related stories. The first tells of the outstanding success in ending the cocaine trade in the Chicago area, thanks to recovery of nearly $7 million in cocaine and five arrests, in two separate incidents this weekend. No more need we fear that some of our Chicago-area friends and neighbors will pursue their own pleasure by consuming cocaine.
The second cocaine-related story concerns a police raid on a man and a woman's home in which no cocaine was uncovered. (The information in this story comes largely from the allegations made in a lawsuit filed by the couple.) The Tinley Park (south suburban Chicago) police had a warrant to raid the apartment of the woman's son, who lived in a separate apartment upstairs. (The warrant was based on a suspicion that the son was selling cocaine, but no coke was found in his apartment, either.) The son's apartment had its own entrance, and was not directly reachable from the downstairs apartment where the couple lived. Nevertheless, at around 8:30 on a Friday night in November, officers simultaneously burst into both apartments. Here's what the couple say happened to their quiet Friday evening at home:
"[The man] says he was talking on the telephone to his landlord when suddenly a loud explosion sounded outside his home and a SWAT team broke in his front door and knocked him to the floor.
His girlfriend... was pulled naked from the bathtub of the ground-floor apartment they rent in a Tinley Park two-flat." (Well, they say many accidents happen in the bath.) Then... "The officers ransacked the apartment, dumping drawers, overturning furniture and throwing about clothes, the lawsuit stated."
Our vice policy has simply lost its way.