Monday, May 31, 2004
Prostitution Arrests in Texas
The constant toll of arrests caused by our prohibitions on some drugs and prostitution is almost benumbing. In the case of prostitution, we arrest more than 1,000 people a week, embarrass them via the accompanying news stories, and perhaps even intentionally embarrass them by putting their pictures on the web or on "John TV." Police officers and public school teachers arrested for soliciting lose their jobs. Is any of this necessary? How is it that other countries, perfectly fine countries like Britain and Switzerland and Germany, can get by without the full-scale criminalization of prostitution?
Today we look at Texas, where police departments have scored major victories against prostitution this past week. In Conroe, Texas, 5 men and 3 women were arrested on Wednesday for prostitution-related offenses. In Houston, a two-day sting netted 55 arrests, including 15 women "suspected of being prostitutes." In Waco, 28 men fell into a prostitution sting:
Half of the 28 solicitors taken into custody, called "Johns," went to jail.
The other half qualified for Waco P.D.'s new John program.
The Waco P.D. is the first law enforcement agency in Texas to initiate what is called a John School.
If a John has no violent criminal history, he is eligible to participate in the school without being arrested.
At the school, former prostitutes and Johns speak to the class about how they were affected by prostitution.
Also beginning next week, the Waco P.D. will post Johns' pictures on the Waco city website.
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Obesity and ....Gay Marriage?
The UK has gone obesity wacky (or anti-obesity wacky) lately. Here's an article in today's Observer suggesting that this week's anti-obesity craze should have happened when the Observer launched its Fit for the Future campaign last September. The current handwringing follows this week's publication of a report on obesity from the British Parliament's Select Committee on Health. Here's the first paragraph from the Introduction to the report:
With quite astonishing rapidity, an epidemic of obesity has swept over England. To describe what has happened as an epidemic may seem far-fetched. That word is normally applied to a contagious disease that is rapidly spreading. But the proportion of the population that is obese has grown by almost 400% in the last 25 years. Around two-thirds of the population are now overweight or obese. On present trends, obesity will soon surpass smoking as the greatest cause of premature loss of life. It will bring levels of sickness that will put enormous strains on the health service, perhaps even making a publicly funded health service unsustainable.The Intro also, er, introduces Vice Squad to a new term: "A generation is growing up in an obesogenic environment in which the forces behind sedentary behaviour are growing, not declining." (The new term is "obesogenic," not "sedentary"; sedentary I know.)
Now Vice Squad is no fan of obesity, despite last weekend's post about the obesity contrarian. So it would be nice to know what is causing this trend towards obesity. Vice Squad noted one answer a while back, but now a new hypothesis has been floated:
Lord Tebbit, an influential conservative leader in England, continued his tirade against gay men on Thursday by claiming the country's current "obesity epidemic" can be blamed on the government's support for "buggery."Thanks to Alas, a Blog for the pointer.
One of the more emotionally-charged arrows in the drug prohibitionists' quiver is crack babies. If drug legalization were to lead to a substantial (or perhaps any) increase in the number of stunted, cocaine-addicted infants brought into this world, well, that would provide good reason even for committed drug policy reformers to reconsider.
And yet, the media reports of crack babies from the late 1980s and early 1990s probably created an impression that is much worse than reality, bad as reality is. (Or at least, the nature of the problem was misdiagnosed.) Infants born to crack-addicted mothers face a very tough row to hoe in life -- but not, apparently, because of the maternal crack use per se. From "When Pregnant Women Use Crack," by Harold Pollack:
All else equal, healthy pregnant women who consume moderate amounts of cocaine usually deliver healthy infants (Inciardi, Surratt, and Saum, 1997; Finnegan & Kendall, 1997). But all is not equal. Heavy users often drink to manage side-effects of cocaine use (Kleiman, 1993). Many are malnourished, in part because they squander scarce resources to finance their habit and perhaps because cocaine suppresses appetite. Some users frequent crack houses where they are vulnerable to violence and sexually-transmitted disease (Edlin, 1994).The May 26, 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association provides a new study that looks at cocaine-exposed infants when they reach four years old. Here are the study's conclusions:
Prenatal cocaine exposure was not associated with lower full-scale, verbal, or performance IQ scores but was associated with an increased risk for specific cognitive impairments and lower likelihood of IQ above the normative mean at 4 years. A better home environment was associated with IQ scores for cocaine-exposed children that are similar to scores in nonexposed children.For the conclusion of this post, let me borrow the end of the Pollack article:
In any event, the most important task is not to resolve basic moral questions, but to improve the capacity of beleaguered bureaucracies to accomplish what obviously must be done under any reasonable view. The reproductive rights debate would be less divisive and less necessary if we had systems to track severe substance abusers regardless of pregnancy, if effective drug treatment, family planning, and medical care were carefully linked with correctional and social service systems, if child protective services offered continuing and competent supervision of known offenders. Can we create such systems given the poor starting-point of essential institutions? After 15 years, public discourse that disparages or excuses drug-using women will not help us answer that question.[UPDATE, June 1: Pete Guither at Drug WarRant looks at some of the legacy of the crack baby panic.]
Saturday, May 29, 2004
Tobacco Lawsuits Declining in the US
An Indian journalist is visiting New York courtesy of Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, and he apparently has been given access to tobacco industry lawsuit statistics maintained by Altria. Here's his short article, which is chock full of statistics on the lawsuits. A sample:
Since January 1, 2003, there have been 14 trials of individual cases against the industry. Of these, ten verdicts have gone in the favour of tobacco companies.
The remaining four, for punitive damages collectively worth $ 333 million, are currently in appeal. All four cases are from the West Coast, which has traditionally seen a high incidence of anti-tobacco litigation.
But both states [California and Oregon, apparently] have seen a reduction in the number of such litigation in recent years. In California, there were 14 cases pending as of May 2004, against 39 in May 2000.
Obligatory Link-Based Lazy Weekend Post
Link (1): A friend (but sometime critic, alas) of Vice Squad brings us word on this Jacob Sullum column at Reason.com concerning the effort in Congress to ban flavored cigarettes -- even though all the cool kids are smoking them. Not to be outdone, Chicago Alderman Edward Burke and two colleagues introduced a measure to ban the sale of sweet-flavored cigarettes locally. (Here's the link to a Chicago Tribune (registration required) story: the cigarette bill is briefly mentioned towards the end.) It has been a ban-happy week for Alderman Burke: he also wants to ban video-stalking of the type that has hounded US Senate candidate Barack Obama. Fortunately Obama is more sensible: 'the nice thing about our society is that not all problems have to be solved by laws.'
Link (2): Overlawyered notes three recent judicial losses for the tobacco industry. Vice Squad mentioned two of them this week; the third concerns the verdict of a Louisiana jury demanding that Big Tobacco pay more than half a billion dollars for smoking cessation efforts -- though the verdict is hardly the final word on this case.
Link (3): Last One Speaks informs us of a new study that looks at the effectiveness of the Drug Tsar's anti-marijuana advertising. Looks like a political winner: while there isn't evidence that the ad campaign dissuades kids from using pot (and hints of evidence in the opposite direction), parents like it.
Friday, May 28, 2004
New South Wales Parliament Member Speaks Truthfully...
...and hence had to back off from her statement. She was speaking about how the drug trade, particularly heroin, is troubling a neighborhood in a suburb of Sydney: "Clearly if there's not so much money in drugs and they're not illegal then you wouldn't have a problem." But the MP didn't have to back off too far, as the Sydney Lord Mayor "called for the decriminalisation of heroin and a safe injecting room in the suburb." Memo to Drug Tsar John Walters: they're in danger of slipping off the plantation Down Under.
Georgia Makes Way for Full-Fledged Big Hoppy Monster
Big Hoppy Monster is a red ale with an alcohol content of 7.5%. That makes it illegal in a handful of states that limit the maximum alcohol percentage available in beer at 6 percent. After July 1, Georgia will no longer be one of those states, as its maximum alcohol content for beer is being raised from 6 to 14 percent. The reform follows seven years of lobbying by Georgians For World Class Beer (GWB, er GWCB); they offer a helpful history of 20th Century beer regulation in Georgia here.
New Mexico Eliminates Prostitution
Why didn't they think of this earlier?
The man who police describe as the godfather of prostitution in New Mexico is now out of business."godfather"? Why not "kingpin"?
In a surprise move on Wednesday, 70-year-old Tom Charity agreed to close a sex shop in Albuquerque's North Valley and get out of the business all together. In return, a nine year prison sentence will be suspended.
Sad jokes in the Russian parliament
According to this sarcastic report by gazeta.ru (in Russian), the last working day of the Russian parliament (the Duma) generated a few laughs. Since the last election cycle, the Duma has been completely controlled by the pro-Putin’s United Russia party that tends to pass only the laws that are proposed or at least actively supported either by the government or by the Presidential administration. The proposals that have not been cleared with the government, even those that are introduced by the members of United Russia, usually do not pass. This makes for a rather boring legislative routine. The boredom was somewhat relieved today by Mr. Raikov, a Duma member belonging to the United Russia faction. He proposed amendments to the Criminal Code that would punish consensual homosexuality by prison terms of one to five years. One of the first speakers during the debate was Mr. Zhirinovsky, the notorious vice-speaker of the Duma and the leader of the Liberal-Democratic party. He strongly objected to the softness of the proposed amendments. “Death penalty is needed here,” he said, “Only by adopting such an amendment would we be able to stop this depravity, the influence of the Western culture,” and so on. Next speaker was Mr. Raikov himself. He was brief. “I am proposing to end all the public aspects of this phenomenon in the streets, in the clubs, and everywhere. The amendments do not contradict the Constitution with respect to the right for privacy and personal and family secrets, but instead they are consistent with Article 55(3).” (Here is the text of this item: “Human and civil rights and liberties may be restricted by the federal law only to the extent required for the protection of the fundamentals of the constitutional system, morality, health, rights and lawful interests of other persons, for ensuring the defense of the country and the security of the state.”) Nobody had the time (or desire?) to object before another representative from United Russia, Ms. Barzhanova, moved for a vote without further debate.
The result was 58 votes for the originally proposed amendments, 34 against, and 1 abstention. According to the Duma rules, in order to pass, the proposed laws have to be supported by the majority of all members (i.e., 226 votes; see Art. 103(3) of the Russian Constitution). This particular set of amendments did not get the quorum and, therefore, was defeated essentially due to the apathy of the representatives. (It is possible, of course, that many of those who did not show up for a vote missed it on purpose.)
Mr. Raikov’s aides were upset. As one of them joked, the Duma revealed itself to have 58 “real men”, 34 homosexuals, and one bi-sexual. (It wasn’t clear if Ms. Barzhanova was one of those “real men” or whether she belonged one of the other two categories.) Mr. Raikov himself was no more subtle: “Those who did not take part in the voting assumed the position of an ostrich: buried their heads in the sand to avoid the problem and stuck out their … rear ends.”
This is laughter through tears indeed.
Completing the Nude Dancing Trifecta: Erie v. Pap's A.M.
Those Crescat folks have a lot to answer for: this is the third post that their nude dancing discussion has inspired on Vice Squad. The most recent post described the 1991 Supreme Court case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre. Today, we turn to the 2000 case of Erie v. Pap's A.M. But first, some background...
The four-prong test (from the draft card case) that the Supreme Court applied in Barnes
is only appropriate if the restriction under review is "content neutral." If the
restriction is content based (for instance, applies on the basis of what is being said
as opposed to the time, place, and manner in which it is expressed), then a more
demanding test is appropriate. Specifically, the Supreme Court looks at content-based
restrictions with "strict scrutiny." A regulation can survive strict scrutiny only if
it serves a compelling government interest and does so through means that are narrowly
tailored to minimize the amount of speech that is affected.
A Pennsylvania court, faced with an ordinance very similar to the Indiana statute
litigated in Barnes, felt that, except for the issue of whether nude dancing gets any
First Amendment protection (it does), the four separate opinions in Barnes provided
no clear precedent on other issues. The Pennsylvania court decided that the city of
Erie's public nudity ordinance was content based and unconstitutional under the strict
scrutiny standard. The Supreme Court disagreed, in Erie v. Pap’s A.M. Further, a
plurality of justices based their conclusion that the ordinance was content neutral
by adopting the "secondary effects" approach that Justice Souter had employed in Barnes:
the state's interest in reducing these harms "is unrelated to the suppression of the
erotic message conveyed by nude dancing." But with four separate opinions again
generated, Erie has not significantly cleared up the tangle of nude dancing
Recall that the Twenty-First Amendment, which brought an end to alcohol Prohibition,
did not legalize alcohol manufacturing, distribution, and sales; rather, it gave the
power to regulate alcohol to the individual states. For this reason, a state regulation
that controls nude dancing only in establishments in which alcohol is sold had, at
least until recently, an additional basis for surviving Supreme Court review. The
ability of the Twenty-First Amendment to trump other Constitutional provisions has
been impaired by 44 Liquormart v. Rhode Island, 517 U.S. 484 (1996), however. Earlier
this week, Will Baude at Crescat has reported on an upcoming case on mail-order
wine that soon will help demarcate the power of the 21st Amendment.
Municipalities and states continue to adopt all sorts of regulations that apply
to adult establishments, including distance requirements between dancers and patrons,
bans on nudity, bans on tipping, and so on. The Constitutional status of these rules
currently is rather confused. While the Supreme Court claims that nude dancing receives
some First Amendment protection, courts tend to apply their "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 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.
Thursday, May 27, 2004
Panda Cigarette Craze
What do you get when you cross one of those cuddly bear-like (but raccoon-related) bamboo-eating cuties with a highly addictive drug? A Panda cigarette craze, of course. The cigarettes are made in China, where the Panda brand was famously favored by Deng Xiaoping. Oddly, in the former workers' paradise [It's still officially a workers' paradise -- ed.], the Panda brand was ONLY available to Deng and a a handful of high-ranking officials: the production run was but hundreds of packs per year. Creeping capitalism now has extended the availability of Pandas to the lumpen, er, the hoi polloi. Typical cigarettes manufactured in China cost some 20 cents per pack, whereas Pandas go for....almost $10 per pack. And even at those prices, folks are lining up overnight to purchase them.
This information comes from an article by James T. Areddy that appeared on the front page of yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Here's an excerpt:
"Few Panda buyers smoke the cigarettes they acquire. They prefer to give them to friends or to superiors and officials whom they wish to influence or thank. One Shanghai internist says he regularly receives gifts of Panda cigarettes from grateful patients, even though he is a nonsmoker." The cigarettes are so valuable, maybe ne'er-do-wells will try to pawn off some fake Pandas to you, no? Not to worry: current Pandas "feature six anticounterfeiting measures, including a logo that appears on the filter when the cigarette is lit and colors on the box that change under infrared light."
Nude Dancing Reprise: The Barnes Case
If you want to dance in the nude in the privacy of your own home, among adult friends and relatives, then you have my blessing -- more importantly, you have the government's blessing. If you want to operate a club open to the public (adults only, of course) in which some of your employees dance in the nude, however, things get a bit more complicated -- the extent of their Constitutional rights to dance undraped may depend on the Federal District in which your establishment resides. The reason that the constraints on regulating nude dancing are not more uniform (ha!) is that the Supreme Court decisions that are the basis for the rules have not provided authoritative majority opinions.
You might ask what the Constitution has to do with nude dancing. You would not be alone: Justice Scalia essentially asks that question in his concurring opinion in Barnes v. Glen Theatre, 501 U.S. 560 (1991), answering that a general law regulating nude dancing concerns conduct, not expression, and thus "is not subject to First-Amendment scrutiny at all." But the Supreme Court as a whole (including the other eight justices in Barnes) has long held that nude dancing is expressive conduct (like flag burning, in that respect) and hence is entitled to free speech guardianship...though "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)]." Once granting nude dancing the status of symbolic speech, the Supreme Court then takes the approach that it has developed towards regulations over other forms of symbolic speech -- and in particular, draft card burning -- and applies that approach to nude dancing regulations.
In 1988, the state of Indiana enacted a law that banned complete nudity in public places, including adult entertainment establishments. An Indiana corporation whose business included nude peep shows sued the state, claiming that the public nudity prohibition violated the First Amendment. And thus was born the case that became Barnes v. Glen Theatre.
Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the opinion of the court for Barnes, though the Chief Justice was joined only by Justices O'Connor and Kennedy. In the draft card case (United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968)), the Court ruled that the non-speech component of "symbolic speech" or "expressive conduct" can at times be regulated, even if that regulation simultaneously imposes some incidental burden on the speech component of the conduct. There is a four-prong test that is used to determine if the regulation is justified. Among the conditions that a regulation of this type must meet to not fall afoul of the First Amendment is that the regulation must further a substantial government interest, where the interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and the incidental burden on speech must be as small as possibly can be achieved when trying to advance that substantial government interest. The Barnes court determined that "protecting societal order and morality" was substantial government interest enough, even though there was no direct evidence that protecting order and morality was the goal behind the Indiana statute. Further, the court claimed, this "interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression." The "expression" that is part of nude dancing is eroticism, presumably, and eroticism, even erotic dancing, was still permitted by the statute -- it was only completely nude erotic dancing, along with all other forms of public nudity, that was suppressed. As for whether the burden on speech is the unavoidable minimum needed to promote morality -- well, the Rehnquist opinion summarily (and knowingly punnily?) disposed of that issue: "...Indiana's requirement that the dancers wear at least pasties and G-strings is modest, and the bare minimum necessary to achieve the state's purpose." Therefore, the Court held that Indiana's statute forbidding public nudity, even in adult entertainment establishments, was not in violation of the First Amendment.
Justice Souter wrote a separate concurring opinion. Rather than rely on the state's substantial interest in promoting order and morality, Justice Souter relied on "...the State's substantial interest in combating the secondary effects of adult entertainment establishments..." The secondary effects that Souter identified, which were noted by Indiana's lawyers, were prostitution, sexual assault, and other criminal activities. (As the dissent recognized, if these harms are the source of concern, then it would seem that there are ways of dealing with them that do not require the suppression of the expressive conduct of nude dancing.) The Souter opinion has been influential in later cases.
The four dissenters did not believe that the prohibition was unrelated to the expressive conduct, as required by the four-prong test. "Since the State permits the dancers to perform if they wear pasties and G-strings, but forbids nude dancing, it is precisely because of the distinctive, expressive content of the nude dancing performances at issue in this case that the State seeks to apply the statutory prohibition." If you think that nude dancing conveys a message that differs significantly from non-nude dancing, then it could not be prohibited even in a content-neutral way, as such regulations must still leave open ample channels of communication.
I foresee more nude dancing in Vice Squad's future....
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
My slow blogging lately -- apologies to the loyal Vice Squad reader, but I have been busy missing other deadlines -- means that I am late to point readers to the law and nude dancing discussion involving Will and Kazakhstan-bound Amanda at Crescat. I hope more later on this from Vice Squad, but the Crescat discussion is certainly worth a look in any event.
Shame on Ted Koppel
Nightline did a piece last night on poppy production in Afghanistan. There were three features of the story that stuck out most for me. 1. The reporter talked about how poppy production feeds terrorism, but failed to even comment on the fact that it is the prohibitory regime, not the production of poppies that feeds terrorism. 2. At the end of the piece, the reporter said that it will take a long time for Afghanistan to eradicate poppy production. After all, it took Pakistan 21 years to eradicate production of the plant, and Thailand 18 years to do the same. Can ABC News really believe that poppy production has been completely eradicated in these countries? Just last year the Thai government murdered over 2,000 citizens in the name of their war on drugs. 3. The new drug czar in Afghanistan admitted that if poppies were legal, the current state of affairs would be a great development success - apparently the money men behind the poppy farmers offer crop insurance! It is a well-functioning market within a sea of utter chaos. Unfortunately, the broadcast offered no analysis of current drug policies, or any discussion of whether or not the policies were a good idea or a bad idea. It just focused on efforts to comply with them.
The damage that U.S. drug policies have on developing countries is often not at the forefront of the debate, but it is an important consideration, and when taken into account, increases the costs of the war on drugs in human lives exponentially. Poor farmers are victimized, and ruthless, corrupt governments benefit from U.S. drug policy. The North must give up its insane notion that legalization will produce a world of dope fiends, and it must stop its brutal attack on developing countries. The media would be wise to offer some type of informed and thoughtful reporting on the issue, instead of taking the merits of these horrible policies at face value.
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
The Fruits of Intensive Investigations
Sure, everyone knows that Lafayette, Louisiana is a relatively safe place to live. But could it really have no violent crime at all? Apparently that is indeed the case, given the attention being paid to the owners of "Bad Kitty," an adult novelty shop. About one year ago, some of Lafayette's finest raided Bad Kitty, seizing some 230 adult videos. After a painstaking investigation revealed that some of the videos were arguably obscene -- one wonders how many viewings were required to reach this professional determination -- the owners of Little Kitty have been charged with, er, obscenity. They now face up to three years in prison and a $2,500 fine if convicted.
No word on if the Lafayette police and prosecutors are keeping close tabs on low-slung pants.
Suits Against Big Tobacco Get Go-Ahead in US, Canada
One of my first-rate students informs me that today's Chicago Tribune includes this article (registration required) concerning a ruling against the tobacco companies in their ongoing federal racketeering lawsuit. The ruling allows the US government to proceed in its efforts to force the companies to "disgorge" past profits, to the tune of, oh, $280 billion. The government alleges, among other things, that the tobacco companies were deceptive in their advertising practices. Vice Squad looked at an earlier anti-tobacco company ruling in the same case in mid-March.
Our northern neighbors in British Columbia have a similar lawsuit pending against tobacco companies, though the monetary stakes are smaller: $10 billion, Canadian. The BC government was given the right to proceed when a Court of Appeal ruled that the lawsuit itself satisfied constitutional norms.
Monday, May 24, 2004
Finland Continues to Counter the Effects of Cheaper Booze
Prices for alcohol in Finland declined markedly in March as taxes were lowered. The tax cut was motivated by the recognition that the Estonian entry into the EU was going to lead to a significant decline in the effective price of alcohol for many Finns, in any case. With the price decline has come increased consumption and a spike in alcohol-related problems, as Vice Squad noted in mid-April. The Finnish police are now hoping to combat the trend towards more alcohol-related problems: "The main focus of the operation will be under-age drinking, rowdy drinkers in public places and stricter checks to ensure that licensed premises are observing the law." (The most recent related Vice Squad post was on May 11.)
A Nevada County Reconsiders Legal Brothels
Until recently, there was an operating legal brothel in Churchill County, Nevada, and earlier, there were two: county law permits up to two legal brothels outside the city limits of the town of Fallon. But some residents want to eliminate the possibility of legal brothels from Churchill County.
The Coalition to Keep Brothels Out of Churchill County planned to deliver petitions containing 1,200 signatures to the county clerk today to get an initiative on the ballot deciding the fate of legal prostitution in Churchill County.The Nevada Brothel Association doesn't appear to be poised to contest the initiative.
County Clerk Gloria Venturacci has 20 days to determine if there are 743 valid signatures on the petition. The number of signatures represents 10 percent of registered voters who voted in the 2002 election.
Prostitution Policy Updates, Berkeley and Scotland
Ongoing efforts in Berkeley to decriminalize prostitution look like they have come to naught, at least for the time being. According to this article in the Contra Costa Times (registration required), speaker after speaker showed up at a Council meeting last week to argue for decriminalization. But the speakers turned out not to have much pull with the Council: "That's when the truth of the maxim 'All politics is local' became evident. Councilmembers noted that all the supporting speakers were from Oakland. The only Berkeley speaker was Ted Kubik, who complained bitterly about what he called 'a plague of (prostitutes), pimps and johns' on San Pablo Avenue." The decriminalization proposals were effectively tabled. (Vice Squad's most recent post on Berkeley prostitution was on March 12.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, the informal tolerance zones for soliciting that previously have been employed in Edinburgh and other Scottish cities may be on their way back, decked this time in legal formalities. Representatives of Scottish city councils are preparing to support a measure in the Scottish Parliament that would provide the legal framework for prostitution tolerance zones. The rationale is harm reduction, of course. In Edinburgh, "Figures released earlier this year show the annual rate of attacks on prostitutes has soared from 11 to 111 since the old non-harassment zone was scrapped." (The longstanding informal prostitution tolerance zone in Edinburgh apparently collapsed when the area near the zone became more upscale.) The bill in the Scottish Parliament "would allow councils to establish designated red-light tolerance zones where it would no longer be illegal to solicit and where health checks and other support could be offered to the women." Vice Squad's most recent post on the Scottish tolerance zones was on March 4.
Sunday, May 23, 2004
Tobacco buyout controversy
A week ago, Washington Post reported that tobacco farmers and their representatives were angered about President Bush’s statements opposing a buyout for tobacco growers. I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on from the article itself, so I looked elsewhere for details. Here is the story based on the Washington Post article and other sources such as this and this. The US tobacco farmers have been operating under a quota or allotment system since 1930s. The quota, which is adjusted every year, limits the supply, thereby supporting the price of tobacco in the US. However, the decline in cigarette smoking and increasing competition from foreign growers has resulted in the recent downward trend of the allotment. Since 1997 the quota has been cut in half (although admittedly the 1997 quota was apparently unusually high). Moreover, under the current market trends, the quota would decline by another 20-30% in 2005. One proposal that has been discussed at least since 1997 would buy out the farmers who are allowed to grow the leaf under the current allotment system. A recent Republican proposal in the House would pay the quota owners $7 per pound of tobacco and the farmers who actually grow the stuff -- $3 per pound, based on 2002 quota. This would give the farmers more than $15,000 per acre or, reportedly, over $200,000 per average allotment, while allowing them to keep their land. The purpose of the buyout is simply to eliminate the quota system.
As I mentioned, the President has objected to these buyout proposals. He said (as quoted in the Washington Post), “They’ve got the quota system in place – the allotment system – and I don’t think that needs to be changed.” One possible reason for Bush’s reluctance to change the system is the size of the current federal budget deficit. (The immediate cost of the buyout to the budget would be about $12 billion.) If that is indeed the case, then this is one cost of the deficit that I haven’t really appreciated so far. The buyout system may be criticized on distributional grounds, but in terms of efficiency it makes a lot of sense. The quota distorts market prices hurting consumers more than it benefits the farmers, at least if we treat tobacco as any other good. The buyout by itself is a transfer from society at large to the farmers and as such does not affect social wealth (except that in order to pay the farmers, the government need to raise revenues and that is distortionary too). Meanwhile, the elimination of the quota system is going to raise economic efficiency.
I don’t know who advises the President on these matters, but the anti-buyout position looks like one of those bad recommendations, both politically and economically, that he seems to have been getting a lot of over the last year and a half.
Yes, a lazy blog post....
(1) Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist" at the New York Times Magazine, is asked if it is unethical for a former federal prosecutor who has helped lock up drug offenders to use currently illicit drugs him or herself. Cohen reads the query as being motivated by a re-evaluation of the justice of the drug laws:
A major part of ethics is considering the effects of our actions on others. Yours did real harm to those you prosecuted. If you acted in service of policies you now consider unwarranted, you have an ethical obligation to undo that harm, perhaps by working to free those currently in jail as a consequence of your efforts, perhaps by helping to reform the laws that put them there. When you've done harm in the past -- and your query suggests that you now believe you have -- your duty isn't merely to lament, but to make amends.The second query to The Ethicist this week might also be considered a vice topic, though I am not sure I would lend that dignity to the semi-public nudity the question concerns. (Incidentally, The Ethicist has met with some severe and, I think, frequently justified criticism in the blogosphere. Even his critics, I think, would have to admit that Randy Cohen is a really funny writer -- his old "News Quiz" columns at Slate were gems.)
(2) An Alabama schoolgirl was sent to an alternative school for 15 days for taking a Motrin to relieve menstrual cramps. It is not an aberration: at least 10 other students met a similar fate for over-the-counter medicines last Fall in Jefferson County, courtesy of the school system's zero-intelligence policy. Thanks to the Media Awareness Project for the pointer.
(3) If you are drinking so much alcohol that you are risking liver damage, you should cut back on your drinking. A complementary policy, it seems, is to increase your consumption of caffeinated beverages. Thanks to Newmark's Door for the pointer.
Saturday, May 22, 2004
Arctic Smoking Ban
Overlawyered points us to this New York Times story (registration required) on a public smoking ban (including bars and restaurants) in the Canadian Arctic -- where stepping outside for a smoke can be a chilling experience.
The Obesity Contrarian
Today the World Health Organization decided to initiate a global campaign against obesity. Is this a good idea?
Until recently, increased average weight was beneficial for health -- undernourishment was a much more pressing concern than obesity from a public health perspective. This may still be the case in most countries today. In rich countries, however, undernourishment is no longer as severe, while obesity rates have risen. The US has seen major increases in obesity for 40 years, with the bulk of the increase occurring in the last two decades. In March, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report claiming that some 400,000 deaths per year were associated with obesity. Surely such carnage should put obesity near the top of our public health concerns.
Or maybe not. Paul Campos, for one, isn't buying it, as indicated by the title of his recent book, The Obesity Myth. An edited excerpt appeared last month in The Guardian, and is available on-line here.
Campos suggests that the standard measure of obesity, the Body Mass Index (BMI), is itself quite flawed. The index is computed by taking your weight measured in kilograms and dividing it by the square of your height measured in meters. A BMI of 25 or more is generally interpreted as signalling an "overweight" condition, while BMIs of 30 or above are generally interpreted to signal "obesity". But as Campos points out, this crude measure leads to absurd results in individual cases: "According to the public health establishment's current BMI definitions, Brad Pitt, Michael Jordan and Mel Gibson are all 'overweight', while Russell Crowe, George Clooney and baseball star Sammy Sosa are all 'obese'." Campos also argues that the scientific evidence does not support the contention that a BMI above 25 is bad for one's health -- though those who are quite obese, with BMI's in the mid-30s and above, are at increased health risk. There is much more to Campos's critique, including a look at those parties (medical and pharmaceutical industries) that would seem to have a pecuniary interest in hyping the dangers of obesity, and the class origins of America's current anti-fat crusade: "The disgust the thin upper classes feel for the fat lower classes has nothing to do with mortality statistics and everything to do with feelings of moral superiority." I highly recommend The Guardian excerpt for those who would like to develop a fuller understanding of Campos's position.
Friday, May 21, 2004
Kansas Students Question Vice Answers
The Baldwin City (Kansas) Signal surveyed Baldwin High School's graduating class about various topics, including drug and alcohol use. Of the 75 students who responded, it seems that 96% (72 out of 75) claimed never to have smoked marijuana, while almost two-thirds of the graduates reported that they didn't drink alcohol. But then the Signal interviewed six of the surveyed students, and voila, all six claimed that the survey results seemed about right -- except for those pesky alcohol and drug questions! One student said that more than three fellow graduates smoked marijuana on any given weekend, much less in their lifetimes. Interestingly, the students who were squeaky clean when asked about their own drug and alcohol use nevertheless thought (on average) that drug abuse was either somewhat of a problem or a serious problem at their school!
Now why would high school graduates in Kansas be less than forthright about their own vice-related behavior?
Fifty-Plus Days of Smoke-Free Irish Pubs
Friend of Vice Squad Will Pyle helps our cause even while he engages in survey work in Russia. Will brings our attention to this Slate article talking about the effects of the public smoking ban that went into effect in Ireland not quite two months ago. There's the usual crowding just outside the door -- an area now marked by extensive cigarette butt litter -- which at least has provided opportunities for flirting. Occasionally someone who claims to be stepping outside for a smoke skips his check. Compliance with the smoking ban is fairly high, it seems, though far from perfect. Here's a brief excerpt from the linked Slate article:
Wizened old men who look like they grew up with a Guinness in one hand and a toitini in the other huddle forlornly in dark pub doorways for a furtive puff as their pints go flat at the bar. Pubs where smoke was previously a three-dimensional wallpaper now boast (almost) Everest-clear air, allowing the various aromas that the Marlboro Man and friends obscured—vomit, urine, yesterday's lunch special, spilled Smithwick's Irish Ale—to reek pungently in their full glory.
Thursday, May 20, 2004
Greenpeace Beats Prostitution Rap
OK, technically Greenpeace was not charged with prostitution. It is just that the law under which the environmental group was prosecuted was originally aimed at the control of slightly offshore solicitation. From ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) News Online:
Passed in 1872 to prevent "sailor mongering," the law has been gathering dust since it was last prosecuted in 1890.
Sailor mongering was common in the 19th century, when brothels sent prostitutes onto ships before they had reached harbour to lure sailors ashore with booze and promises of warm beds.
The case stemmed from a day in April 2002 when two Greenpeace activists climbed onto the APL Jade freighter just off Miami to hang a sign reading: "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging".
Two Greenpeace members were charged and pleaded guilty after the incident and 15 months later, prosecutors targeted the entire organisation with a grand jury indictment.
Two Quick Gambling Stories
(1) "A man scheduled to be sentenced [in New Jersey] for masterminding an illegal million-dollar investment scheme went to Las Vegas instead to play poker." He claimed he hoped to win money playing poker to make restitution to those he scammed out of $1.8 million.
(2) Bingo game raided in Utah. Utah and Hawaii do not allow any forms of gambling.
A bill that will make medical marijuana legal to use and possess for certain individuals will become law in Vermont, without Governor Douglas' signature. The final bill is a very watered-down version of the bill originally proposed by the Senate, and for some baffling reason moves jurisdiction over use of medical marijuana from the Department of Health to the Department of Public Safety, which includes the State Police. So, I'm not sure there's all that much to cheer about in this bill, but what I found disgusting was the Governor's reaction to the law.
Douglas said that advocates of the legalization of marijuana for recreational use should not take joy in the new medical marijuana law. Douglas said that, "To ease suffering is commendable, but to crusade for legalization of an addictive, destructive and dangerous drug is contemptible." I personally think it's contemptible for our elected officials to spread lies, propaganda, and ignorance.
The Chicago Sun Times reports today on a man fired from his job because he wasn't able to pee on command for a drug test. Mr. Smith suffers from paruresis, otherwise known as "shy bladder syndrome". Paruresis has been recognized as a legitimate social phobia by the American Psychiatric Association, but the federal government does not classify it as a disability.
Mr. Smith is suing Caterpillar to get his job back, alleging that they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not offering alternative tests. Interestingly, Smith passed an independent hair drug test he paid for himself before he was fired, but Caterpillar required him to pass the urine test. Hair tests are generally considered more accurate than urine tests.
Maybe Caterpillar should recognize that what people do in the privacy of their own homes should have no bearing on employment status, as long as their actions do not adversely affect their job performance. Do they test people for being hung over? What about those that are jittery from too much caffeine? Smith is a victim, but so are all the other employees throughout the country who are subjected to embarrassing and ridiculous drug tests.
Vice Squad previously discussed this case back in Februrary.
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Creativity Required When Reporting Drug Arrests
An investigation is underway of a now-resigned officer from the Pittsburg, California police department. The officer is accused of falsifying reports of drug arrests. In the wake of the scandal, 10 to 15 misdemeanor cases and one or two felony drug cases have been dropped by the District Attorney. The falsification was uncovered because the reports tended to reproduce near identical purported dialogue, along the lines of "I used heroin earlier," and, to the query of where it was injected, "I'd rather not say." The police claim that the arrests themselves were not tainted -- i.e., that those arrested really were under the influence of drugs at the time of arrest.
Maybe if drug users nationally coordinate on precise language to tell the police....
New Zealand's Lower Drinking Age
The de facto national drinking age of 21 in the US is, in my opinion, too high. I would probably support a reduction in the minimum drinking age to 19, or perhaps a two-tiered age, with beer and wine available at 18 or 19 and spirits available at 21. But I recognize that any change along these lines would require great care, particularly in trying to keep teenagers from driving while impaired. The adoption of 21 as the minimum drinking age did result in fewer drunk-driving deaths and injuries. (And in many other ways I think that alcohol could be more closely regulated in the US, and taxed more heavily.)
In 1999, New Zealand (which like the US, UK, and many other countries, has a problem with binge drinking by younger imbibers) lowered its drinking age from 20 to 18. On Monday, the Justice Ministry issued a report on the change: "It found that:
* There has been no increase in the number of 16 and 17-year-olds drinking alcohol since 1999 but they are drinking larger volumes and more often.
* The number of 18 and 19-year-olds drinking increased slightly, and the average amount drunk on each occasion rose from five to seven drinks.
* The number of under 18-year-olds apprehended by police for drinking in public jumped from 834 in 1994 to 2597 in 2002.
* There has been a slight rise in under 18-year-old drunk drivers since 1999.
* Apprehensions of under 18-year-olds in bars have decreased since 1999, as has the number of minors apprehended buying alcohol from off-licence premises."
It is heartening to see that the lowering of the drinking age was accomplished without a rise in the number of 16 and 17 year olds drinking, though less happy is the increased consumption of those who do imbibe. It looks as if a better job could have been done in implementing the reform on combating drunk driving and binge drinking.
Here's the newspaper article that the quoted material is taken from; here's the Justice Ministry report.
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
Chewing the Qat in Yemen
Minutes after posting about growing qat, I stumbled upon this wonderful article by Elisabeth Eaves in Slate concerning the chewing of qat in Yemen. Here's a brief excerpt that refers to the pleasures and pains of qat:
Part of the charm of qat is that no one, at least in Yemen, has ever tried to distill it or speed up its effects. Qat can be strong stuff, but it takes a long time to take effect, and while you are waiting you must sit and pick at the little stack of shrubbery you have brought, painstakingly stuffing bad-tasting foliage into you mouth, and washing it down with water or soda pop. This will frustrate anyone chasing a quick high, but it preserves the social ritual, which is a major part of qat's appeal. If I'm in the right mood, I love the hours of ebbing and flowing chat that segue seamlessly from one-on-one confidences to group discussions to solo speechmaking and back, about politics and culture and love and war. It makes me wonder how often, back home, I really took the time to listen and talk.
The drawbacks are serious and numerous. To name a few: Qat cultivation uses up scarce water resources, and consumption uses up even scanter incomes. Little children run wild in the streets while their parents indulge—one afternoon I saw a group of them playing with a sizable fire they had built in the street.
Supply-Side Substitutions: Turning Coffee Into Qat
One of the most vexing problems in thinking about desirable vice policies concerns possibilities for substitutions. It might be the case that making marijuana less accessible leads to increased use of alcohol or other drugs, possibly with worse social outcomes. So even a drug prohibition that "works" in terms of reducing prevalence might be a policy mistake, due to undesirable substitutions (and perhaps one hundred other reasons). (Here is one recent sad story along these lines, and a Vice Squad post from early May that touched on this theme.)
Most discussion of substitutions deals with the demand side, though occasionally supply-side substitutions enter the picture: crack down on alcohol, and there will be a shift from beer to spirits, and crack down on marijuana smuggling, and there might be a shift to cocaine. There is an interesting substitution currently underway in Ethiopia and some other African countries: low coffee prices are inducing a substitution by farmers to the growing of qat (or "khat"). Here's an excerpt from the linked Reuters article:
"No one tends coffee plants any more because they are not worth the effort. We prefer to look after our qat crops which generate good income for us," said one farmer in Kaffa.
Ethiopia exports qat across the Horn of Africa, counting the crop as its second biggest foreign exchange earner. Ethiopia is the largest coffee producer in Africa with annual production estimated between 250,000 and 300,000 tonnes, most of which is consumed locally.
Addendum: Here's a recent news story that provides some information about the consumption of qat.
Nineteenth Hole Threatened
A leading golf course in Ireland, Dublin's Portmarnock Golf Club, has a policy of not admitting women as members. (It has an exception for women who happen to be the President of Ireland.) But Ireland's Equal Status Act of 2000 might make such a membership policy illegal -- at least that is the view of the District Court judge who ruled against Portmarnock in March. Today, the same judge imposed the punishment: Portmarnock must forego its liquor license for one week, so the serving of alcohol to members will have to cease during that time. The decision awaits appeal. As the thought of the tedium of golfing on a cold, windy course without the use of alcohol is horrifying, Vice Squad expects that Portmarnock will quickly see the wisdom of a non-discriminatory membership policy. [Wouldn't the golf be tedious in any case? -Ed.]
Monday, May 17, 2004
'Shrooms in Scotland
Like any well-meaning, law-abiding citizen, Paul Stewart, who ran a cannabis shop in Scotland, called the Home Office to determine whether or not it was legal for him to sell magic mushrooms in his store. The government told him in writing that it was perfectly legal, as long as he did not prepare them in any way, such as making them into tea. Of course, following the government's guidance has landed Stewart in jail, facing four counts of selling a Class A drug. Stewart noted that humans have been ingesting the special mushrooms for thousands of years, and pointed out that animals eat them as well. They grow wild all over England, and are legal to pick and eat, as long as they are not "prepared". The definition of "preparation" is the key issue in this case, although no legal definition exists on the books in Scotland.
The story can be found here.
Vice Squad previously reported on magic mushrooms in England here.
More College Poker
When did I become a curmudgeon? I find the boom in poker playing among US college students to be disconcerting. I keep seeing tragedy brewing, both in terms of the running up of enormous debts, and in some nasty legal consequences. I have no problem with low stakes, small poker games among friends, but I am worried that college games are becoming too large, too organized, and involve too much money. Here's the latest newspaper account, this time of poker at the University of Georgia.
Update: Will Baude at Crescat Sententia provides a non-curmudgeonly response to this post -- though his list of illegal activities by college students might fan curmudgeonly flames in others: "drinking illegally, buying liquor for those who will drink illegally, not reporting certain kinds of income on their tax form, not filing taxes at all, and consuming and dealing myriad other substances and services whose markets are prohibited by law." (Oh for those days of 'borrowing' the mascot of the rival school!) On the point about whether the college-aged should be allowed to gamble, I agree with Will on the small-stakes stuff; when stakes get large, I would be inclined to support some regulation for the college-aged or older. My concern about legal consequences pertains to the college kids who organize these games, and possibly to the schools that are passive in the face of publicized illegal activity taking place on their campuses. Some prosecutors might feel compelled to go after even small-stakes gambling if it falls within the illegal realm and becomes publicized.
Gambling With a Lawsuit over Slot Machines
Vice Squad recently (on May 9 and May 15) has been talking about the reinforcing qualities of slot machines, the ways in which today's computer-chip driven slots are engineered to induce players to spin the reels one more time. Some players (presumably not those who have actually won money) are not amused by these reinforcing qualities, and have been pursuing a class-action lawsuit for the last decade. The lawsuit charges "that casinos, slots manufacturers and cruise ship operators - virtually the entire gambling industry - have fleeced machine patrons with a knockout cocktail of computer technology, crafty marketing and outright deception.
The case is pending in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco."
According to the linked article, the plaintiffs charge that the casino industry disguises the odds on slot machines and video poker terminals; the fiction of a near-miss is also part of the complaint. David Boies, Al Gore's Florida recount advocate, is the lawyer for the plaintiffs. (Boies's son is currently involved in a lawsuit against alcohol manufacturers claiming purposeful marketing to underage drinkers.) One of the plaintiffs hit upon the idea of suing, apparently, following twelve straight losing hands at a video poker terminal in 1990.
Gambling is far from a "perfectly competitive" industry, and we seem to want it that way, out of concerns with problem gamblers and the exposure of kids to wagering. As a result, there is no reason to believe that the disclosure of information is "optimal." I don't really object, then, to a requirement that each slot machine indicate the payout rate. (I realize that such rates vary based on the type of wagers made and whether there is some sort of cumulating jackpot, but a minimum payout rate based on a one-unit bet could still be determined.)
Sunday, May 16, 2004
Towns Vote on "Wet or Dry?"
Many counties and municipalities throughout the United States prohibit the sale of alcohol, both for on-site and off premises consumption. Every week, it seems, some dry town is voting on whether to go wet -- though there aren't many votes taken in wet towns that are considering going dry. (Chicago is a bit of an exception on this score, as many electoral precincts in Chicago have voted themselves dry.) This past week has seen quite a few votes in North Texas, and one in Massachusetts. Perhaps surprisingly, almost all of the Texas alcohol liberalization measures passed (Dallas Morning News registration required), while a Town Meeting in Weston, Massachusetts, resulted in a 97-67 vote against a proposition that would have allowed two licenses to sell wine and beer, along with some options for non-profit organizations to serve alcohol. According to the linked article, the discussion against the proposition noted the likely increase in crime and the temptation for children to shoplift that would accompany beer and wine sales. Weston is home to about 11,200 people. And although you can't sell liquor legally in Weston, that hasn't always been the case, according to the town's website:
"By the 18th century, [Weston] residents were profiting by the traffic on the Boston Post Road. Taverns of great historic importance were established on the Road. The Golden Ball Tavern, built in 1750, and the Josiah Smith Tavern, built in 1757, still exist in the town."
In an eerie coincidence, one town that split the difference on their liquor vote this week was Lancaster, Texas, which approved liquor by the drink at restaurants but chose not to lift its ban on liquor stores. The uncanny coincidence is that the previous Vice Squad post concerned Lancaster, California. Meanwhile, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, there's a move afoot to bar gay marriage (registration required). Not to be outdone, Lancaster, Ohio, in what is not quite a vice story (registration required), is home to a a high schooler who has won one for freedom of expression:
"The city's board of education voted to allow a student to return to school after he was expelled because of comments on his personal Web site.
Thomas Siefert, 17, was suspended March 29 for 10 days and later expelled because of the Web site, which included images of teachers and a message board with postings aimed at Lancaster High School and administrators."
Vice Squad has noted in the past the bottlenecks that Los Angeles has faced in trying to seize the cars of people accused of soliciting prostitution. Some seventy miles way, the town of Lancaster, California, has picked up the habit of punishing people who have not been convicted of any crime -- these sorts of tendencies are addictive, it seems. In March, Lancaster also started to impound the cars of those accused of soliciting prostitutes. Since it was a new police tactic for Lancaster, however, the town cut the accused a break -- the drivers "only" had to pay an impoundment fee of $500 to $1000 to get their cars back. But it's no more Mr. Nice Guy in Lancaster, oh no. From now on, the Deputy District Attorney says, drivers accused of soliciting will have their cars confiscated and sold at auction.
Incidentally, only 25 of the 30 cars that were seized in March were ransomed. "The five remaining vehicles could be sold at auction or city officials could decide to keep them for municipal use."
Saturday, May 15, 2004
What Constitutes a Slot Machine?
Last week I mentioned an article detailing how slot machines are designed to induce us to fill them with money. Just as the pleasure pathways in our brains evolved in a world without purified cocaine or distilled alcohol, so did they evolve without slot machines. People seem to be programmed to find intermittent reward schemes to be particularly motivating: if things always turn out good or bad, there's little reason to put forth any effort. But lots of negative feedback combined with occasional, random positive reward, can be quite reinforcing, as we "search" for what we can do to reproduce the good outcome. Such an "intermittent reward" system has been brought to a state of near perfection by the designers of slot machines, and some people succumb to gambling addiction.
But today's question is, what is the definition of a "slot machine"? The reason it matters is that Indian tribes that operate casinos have to sign agreements with the state in which they are located. The agreements detail what payments the casinos have to make to the states. A typical term in the agreement is that the casinos pay to the state a percentage of the revenue earned by slot machines. But what if you have a machine that looks and acts a lot like a slot machine, but somehow falls outside the definition? Then the revenue raised by that machine doesn't fall under the slot machine provision, and you can avoid those payments to the states.
The Supreme Court of the United States, believe it or not, was recently asked to resolve the "what is a slot machine" issue, but it declined to take it up. Here's the story from SFGate.com; here's an excerpt:
States fear Indian tribes with casinos could avoid sharing revenue with them by replacing slot machines with machines that look and play much the same but are classified differently, under recent federal court rulings.
The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers New Mexico, has ruled that machines featuring bingo- and lottery-like games are not slots under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis, has ruled the same.
The Bush administration, backed by nine states, had asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the rulings, arguing the machines were "indistinguishable in any meaningful sense from any other slot machine along the casino wall." The Supreme Court on March 1 declined to hear the appeal.
Friday, May 14, 2004
Alcohol Consumption as Part of Our Evolutionary Heritage
Purified morphine and cocaine only date from the 19th Century; distilled alcohol and tobacco only became available to most humans a couple hundred years earlier. But alcohol itself has been around since time immemorial, in the form of naturally fermenting fruit. So while heroin and cocaine, for instance, might be said to hijack the brain reward pathways that were developed to motivate survival and reproductive activities, our taste for alcohol (and our ability to ingest it safely) might have evolved along with us. At least that is one hypothesis, as explained in this article. Here's a brief excerpt: "Primate ancestors of Homo sapiens were highly dependent on fruit, and so, the new theory goes, they developed a strong attraction to the ethanol that naturally spikes lusciously ripe and overripe fruits. This predilection was then passed on to humans."
Profanity Wins Another Round in Michigan
First there was the cussing canoeist. Now, the failure of a police camera to provide compelling proof has let another (allegedly) profane Michiganer escape justice.
The One Dipstick Standard
Yesterday's Wall Street Journal included a front page article entitled "One Man's Campaign To Rid Radio of Smut Is Finally Paying Off." The man is question is David Smith, a fellow Chicagoan. His bete noire, it seems, is the Chicago-based disc jockey Erich "Mancow" Muller. According to the WSJ article, "Since 1999, Mr. Smith has sent the FCC more than 70 complaints about Mancow's humor. They have resulted in $42,000 in fines that Mr. Muller's employer insists he [Mancow Muller] pay....Half of them [the complaints] are still pending."
Somehow I have managed to miss Mancow's broadcasts during my five and a half years in Chicago. From the descriptions I have seen and heard, however, I doubt I would be a fan. Nevertheless, I find this to be a perverse method of regulating broadcast radio -- even granting that some regulation is requisite. It is what one of my co-bloggers refers to (actually, I am paraphrasing) as the "one dipstick standard." By lodging sufficient complaints, any one guy, in this case Mr. Smith, can determine the sort of discourse that everyone is allowed to hear on broadcast radio.
For years, in both the US and the UK, the standard for whether a book could be suppressed as obscene was whether the book tended to "deprave and corrupt" those whose minds were vulnerable to such influences. One significant problem with this standard is that it makes the most vulnerable mind the arbiter of the availability of literature to all potential readers, vulnerable or not. As the renowned American judge Learned Hand put it in a 1913 obscenity case, the "deprave and corrupt" test would "reduce our treatment of sex to the standard of a child's library...." But now we have our broadcast media limited to the level recorded by the most sensitive and vocal dipstick.
Thursday, May 13, 2004
It Looks Like a Cigarette, and it Burns Like a Cigarette...
....but in the eyes of the law, it isn't a cigarette -- and hence it is a great way to get around rules against smoking cigarettes in public. "It" is an herbal cigarette, in this case one that burns a "real leaf of lotus, corn silk and licorice root." A play being performed in Syracuse, New York calls for smoking, but state law prohibits cigarette smoking in public locales, including theaters. Herbal cigarettes to the rescue! (Incidentally, it doesn't exactly smell like a cigarette -- at least it doesn't smell like a tobacco cigarette.)
The Subcontracting Informant
One of the underappreciated effects of criminalizing consensual adult activity is that you have to rely on innovative police methods to enforce your prohibition. Sure, you can try stings and reverse stings and dog sniffs and pretext stops, but there's always room, even a place of honor, for informants. Reward them generously enough -- perhaps through reduced jail time, or perhaps through direct monetary payments or a share of the forfeited assets -- and you can have as healthy a supply of informants as you could possibly want.
Mr. Guillermo Francisco Jordan-Pollito has earned some $350,000 in the last ten years by informing for the DEA (and another $50,000 for informing for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies). He's been involved in some 80 cases! That is quite a bit for one person, but you see, Mr. Jordan-Pollito actually heads an organization of informers. He hires others to arrange his drug buys for him.
This is all well and good, of course, an efficient procedure for uncovering drug offenders. The fly in this otherwise pleasant ointment, alas, is that the use of the subcontractors hasn't always been mentioned in the subsequent legal proceedings. What difference does it make, the Vice Squad reader might ask, given that the illegal drug transactions took place in any case? Well, one technicality, alas, is that the law still provides for entrapment defenses -- what if the subcontractors worked really, really hard, to try to set up the sale? Mightn't that be a case of entrapment?
Read all about it in this story (registration required) from the Los Angeles Times. (Thanks to MAP for the pointer.) Here's a somewhat lengthy excerpt:
Ronald O. Kaye, a former federal public defender now in private practice, uncovered Jordan-Pollito's use of "sub-informants" last year after combing through telephone records turned over to him by federal prosecutors in a methamphetamine-trafficking case.
The prosecution contended that the sub-informant in Kaye's case had done nothing more than introduce Jordan-Pollito to the three defendants. But Kaye was able to show that the sub-informant, Jose Agapito Gomez, made 29 telephone calls to the defendants during a one-week period leading up to their arrests. The defense attorney also documented 68 calls between Jordan-Pollito and Gomez during the same period.
After hearing arguments from both sides, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ordered the government to disclose the names and file numbers of all cases in which Jordan-Pollito or Gomez had been employed and how much they had been paid.
When the prosecution refused to do so, Cooper tossed out the indictment and ordered the defendants freed.
"The government's representations regarding the use of confidential informants in this case have repeatedly proven to be unreliable," the judge stated in a strongly worded opinion. Cooper said that either the government did not know about the sub-informant's existence, which she called "highly unlikely," or the government deliberately lied to the defense.
If the government did not know, she went on, then its ability to monitor the activities of its undercover informants has been seriously compromised. And if the government did know and withheld the information from the defense, "that is an even greater evil," the judge wrote.
Cooper said it appeared at first that an entrapment defense was not feasible, because there were so few contacts between Jordan-Pollito and the defendants, and those tape-recorded encounters showed no pressure being applied by the DEA informant.
But the series of phone calls by the sub-informant to the defendants, which were not tape-recorded, supports "an inference that pressure was being brought to bear by the sub-informant, which could have been used to support an entrapment defense."
"A law enforcement agency must not be allowed to shield itself from accountability by hiring someone outside of law enforcement who is free to violate citizens' rights," she said.
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
Russia's new drug law
Gazeta.ru reports (in Russian) that the Russian government has just published the definitions of the “average single doses” of drugs. These are not intended to prevent overdose by inexperienced users. Instead, these definitions are supposed to play a critical role in determining the criminality of drug consumption and possession. You may recall (see here and here) that Russia's anti-drug law does not rely on zero tolerance, at least with respect to consumption. According to the new law that became effective today, the sale of illegal drugs constitutes a crime regardless of the amounts involved. However, the possession and consumption of drugs are deemed to be criminal only if the amount exceeds ten “average doses.” (The person apparently can still spend time in jail even if he had fewer than ten doses, but in this case the punishment is limited to 15 days of “administrative arrest” or a fine. The criminal punishment for larger amounts can be up to ten years (!) in prison.) Initially, the government asked the Ministry of Health, State Committee on Drug Control (SCDC), and the police to develop the definitions of average doses. Not too surprisingly, these watchdogs of public health and morality came up with such small “average doses” that a realistic single dose of a drug would have been enough to put a person away for a few years. Interestingly, according to the aforementioned gazeta.ru’s report, SCDC had complained that realistic definitions of average doses would require it to drop up to one third of all criminal cases.
BTW, for those of you who would like to learn what, as of today, is viewed as conventional average doses in Russia, here are some numbers: heroin – 0.1 grams; hashish – 0.5 grams; marijuana – 2 grams; cocaine – 0.15 grams. (The full Russian-language list can be found here.) The law is retroactive. So, quite a few people who are already doing time for possession of a few grams of pot, etc. can now petition the courts to overturn their convictions. While I am not a great believer in the reasonableness of the Russian courts, my guess is that these cases will be sufficiently straightforward to make sure that a large number of people could be freed relatively soon.
Interestingly, SCDC has complained that “even in America” there is no such legal concept as an “average dose.” I am glad that Russia is not copying the US drug laws. In fact, it appears that it might be time for us to start borrowing some aspects of criminal law from Russia. And while we are at it, maybe we can take a good look at their flat 13% personal income tax rate as well.
Anti-Smoking Measures in NYC Taking a Toll on Smoking
It looks as if much higher taxes and the restaurant and bar smoking ban have contributed to an 11 percent decline in the number of adult smokers in New York City -- this according to this New York Times article (registration required), sent to us by Friend of Vice Squad Will Pyle. The decline was measured by two large-sample surveys, one dating from mid-2002 and the second conducted approximately one year later.
"City health officials and opponents of smoking said they believed that the decline was caused primarily by sharply higher tobacco taxes that went into effect in 2002, including an increase to $1.50 from 8 cents a pack in New York City.
The drop also coincided with a new city law banning smoking in bars, a new state law prohibiting it in restaurants and bars, and the Bloomberg administration's aggressive anti-smoking campaign, which has included advertising and the distribution of free nicotine patches to thousands of people."
Russia to Raise Cigarette Excise Taxes
Friend of Vice Squad Professor Will Pyle sends us this notice from Mosnews.com about the impending tax hikes. Current Russian cigarette taxes are among the lowest in the world, and even below those in neighboring Ukraine and Belarus. The changes will raise the excise tax on unfiltered cigarettes by 30 percent and on filtered cigarettes by 17 percent: "If in Europe and the United States the logic behind raising excise taxes would be to get citizens from smoking altogether, then in Russia it is to get smokers to at least smoke cigarettes with filters."
One Duma deputy, formerly a cigarette enterprise director, notes that cigarettes sold in Russia vary tremendously in price, from 2 rubles a pack to more than 40 rubles per pack. He is concerned, and probably rightly so, that the increased excise taxes will undermine the profitability of the manufacturers of the cheaper cigarettes.
Legalizing Czech Prostitution?
Friend of Vice Squad "Misspent Youth" -- a smart fellow who nevertheless, somehow, remains unconvinced of many of the positions taken on the VS blog -- brings our attention to an article in National Review Online arguing against the legalization of prostitution in the Czech Republic being prepared by the Czech government. I find the article to be well over the top; the author claims of the prostitutes that "most of them are slaves, victims of sex trafficking." The Czech police don't seem to think that is the case. When they raided 400 brothels in October, they arrested only 16 people on trafficking charges. No doubt there are many cases of trafficking and near-slavery, but the claim that the majority of prostitutes are slaves seems unfounded to me. The article also notes the ongoing problem with child prostitution in the Czech Republic, and the rampant prostitution near the German and Austrian borders.
The article is a pretty effective piece of advocacy against the legalization of prostitution, though as the loyal Vice Squad reader will know, I disagree with the policy recommendation. The author's definition of prostitution virtually precludes a regulatory regime. For her, prostitution "is abuse and exploitation that women only engage in if forced to or when they have no other options."
One surprising complication is that it isn't all that clear whether or not prostitution is already legal in the Czech republic. The current rules are ambiguous and hard to ferret out -- here's an earlier Vice Squad post expressing the uncertainty. Adult prostitution per se is at least de facto legal, though explicit legalization might run counter to a UN Convention signed in 1951 by the then Czechoslovakia. At any rate, it is certainly possible that the proposed reform, which includes a licensing scheme and some local option, represents a tightening, not a liberalization, of prostitution laws in the Czech Republic. Here's the beginning of an Associated Press Worldstream article (not available on-line, it seems) from April 29:
"The Czech government plans to tighten controls on rampant prostitution in the country by licensing the sex trade and confining it to certain areas, an official said Thursday.
Spokeswoman Anna Veverkova said the government on Wednesday agreed to draft legislation that would allow cities to license prostitutes in certain districts.
Prostitution in the Czech Republic is not a criminal offense and is widespread, especially in the capital, Prague, and near the nation's western borders with Germany and Austria. There are as many as 25,000 prostitutes in the country according to some estimates."
As for the border area prostitution, there were fears that it would snowball following the May 1st Czech accession into the EU. Early reports, however, are that exactly the opposite has happened. It seems that lengthy border delays were the main factor fueling prostitution at the German border. Here's the beginning of this BBC article:
"The number of prostitutes lining the main truck routes through the Czech-German border has plummeted since the Czech Republic joined the EU on 1 May.
The Czech press says truck drivers - the prostitutes' chief clients - are now passing through the border swiftly without needing to spend hours in traffic queues."
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Sweden Might Follow Finland in Lowering Alcohol Taxes
Estonian accession to the EU was the proximate cause of Finland's significant reduction in taxes. Sweden, which also has high taxes and strict alcohol controls, remained steadfast, despite the popularity of day trips to Denmark to purchase alcohol. But with neighboring Finland now another source of alcohol tax avoidance, Stockholm is rethinking its high levies on alcohol.
The most recent related Vice Squad post can be found here.
North Carolina Unlikely to Raise Cigarette Tax
When Virginia raised its cigarette excise tax last week, Vice Squad and others asked if North Carolina and Kentucky, the two states that will have the lowest cigarette taxes following the Virginia hike, would follow suit. For North Carolina, the answer seems to be in, and it is...not this year. No word on cigarette taxes from Kentucky that I have found, but the fact that at least 14 Kentucky public high schools teach tobacco growing has raised a bit of a stir recently.
Testing Porn Actors
Yesterday's Times also had a story (registration required) about Sharon Mitchell, the founder of the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation. That's the place that runs the clinic that has been performing the HIV (and other STD) tests on sex industry workers (1200 tests per month), and uncovered the five positive tests in the past few weeks. The initial positive tests led to a (partial) moratorium on filming that probably prevented a much wider outbreak of HIV.
Dr. Mitchell has an unusual biography, having starred in adult films before earning her doctorate in human sexuality and opening the clinic. On May 2, she wrote an op-ed for the Times on how it might be possible to make condom use a more regular part of the adult film landscape. The key is to pressure the producers, directors, and distributors. According to her op-ed, "Two of the largest film companies, Vivid and Wicked Pictures, regularly use condoms and the other companies will if the actors insist on it." Dr. Mitchell does not think that a regulatory response to the current crisis by the state will help, as it will drive filming (back) underground.
As an alternative, she suggests a "seal of approval" be developed and awarded to films that are made using safe workplace and health practices. Mainstream hotel chains and cable companies could then be persuaded to show only films with the seal of approval, providing the financial incentive to filmmakers to employ the safe procedures. Sounds like a worthy proposal to me.
Rush Limbaugh Censored in Indianapolis
It's true: "an Indianapolis radio station pre-empted words like 'urinate,' 'damn' and 'orgy' from going out over the air during a recent broadcast of Rush Limbaugh's talk show." Masterpiece Theater has also upped its bowdlerizing of episodes that are rebroadcast in the good ol' USA. Isn't it about time that significant resources were put into making sure that mispronunciations of "parachute" (another real example) don't go out over the airwaves of our nation?
These cases come to us from this story (registration required) in yesterday's New York Times. The reason for the self-censorship is the enhanced fear of sanctions stemming from FCC actions against Howard Stern and others and the higher fines made available through Congressional actions. (Here's the most recent Vice Squad post relating to Mr. Stern.)
Monday, May 10, 2004
Searching for a Needle in a Haystack
Q: How many cops does it take to track down cars with secret compartments in a city of three million people?
That's right, the Chicago Police Department has assigned a seven-person team to patrol the city looking for cars with secret compartments that stash drugs and guns. A Sun Times article claims that "the team has confiscated $8.1 million in cash, $62 million in cocaine, $34 million worth of marijuana, 23 handguns and three assault weapons." The team has also seized more than 100 vehicles pursuant to the unconstitutional asset forfeiture laws. No mention of where these statistics come from, but like all police programs, no matter what common sense tells you, the police will tell you that this policy has been an overwhelming success.
Blogging is the Crack Cocaine of Web Publishing
It seems that whenever someone wants to emphasize the reinforcing qualities of a good or an activity, or just its undesirability, the phrase "the crack cocaine of [fill in the blank]" is likely to emerge. In yesterday's excellent Times Magazine story on slot machines, it is noted that "Anti-gambling activists refer to slots as 'the crack cocaine of gambling.'" A quick Google search reveals that spam is the crack cocaine of modern advertising; video lottery terminals are the crack cocaine of gambling; casinos are the crack cocaine of gambling; cybersex is spiritual crack cocaine, even for women; and of course, our nation's drug czar, Mr. Walters, finds Canadian hydroponic cannabis to be "the crack of marijuana."
One of the interesting elements concerning the common use of the crack cocaine metaphor is just how darn unpopular crack cocaine actually is. In commenting on the recent Reinarman et al. paper finding that decriminalization does not seem to increase the prevalence of use of currently illicit drugs, Pete Guither at Drug WarRant reproduces a chart on the consumption of various drugs in San Francisco and Amsterdam. In San Francisco, 1.1 percent of those surveyed had used crack in the past three months; in Amsterdam, 0.5 percent had used crack in the past three months. The survey group consisted only of folks who had used significant amounts of marijuana during their lifetime.
Sunday, May 09, 2004
My venture into a New Orleans casino two weeks ago reminded me of something that I had already sensed: the designers of slot machines have really figured out how to get a customer to put another quarter in, to play one more time..and one more after that, and so on. This is the chief marker of an addictive good or activity, that it displays "reinforcement": past consumption begets future consumption. Today's New York Times Magazine offers up a fascinating article (registration required) on how that reinforcement is designed into the sophisticated slot machines of the computer age.
The tricks vary with the intended audience. Novices like machines that have lots of small wins; these are called "cherry dribblers," as they take your money in small increments, not in big chunks. The notion of the "near miss" is important, too, in reinforcing play, although there really isn't such a thing as a near miss -- there are only wins and losses. Having two "bars" out of the requisite three is a loss, and no "closer" to a win than having no bars.
It is the computer chip that has resurrected slots, and now they take $30 billion per year from gamblers in North American casinos -- 70 percent of casino winnings. Most slots, according to the article, are aimed at women over 55 years of age.
Probably more on this excellent article tomorrow...surely that tease will keep the Vice Squad reader coming back!
Stern Fines Chill Glass
Just two days ago, while musing on appropriate regulation of indecent material over broadcast radio and television, I quoted one encomium of Howard Stern. Today's New York Times Magazine offers a second one (registration required), this time by National Public Radio host Ira Glass. Here's Ira on Howard: "...Stern has invented a way of being on the air that uses the medium better than nearly anyone. He's more honest, more emotionally present, more interesting, more wide-ranging in his opinions than any host on public radio. Also, he's a fantastic interviewer. He's truly funny. And his staff on the air is cheerfully inclusive of every kind of person: black, white, dwarf, stutterer, drunk and supposed gay. What public radio show has that kind of diversity?"
More importantly with respect to indecency regulation, Glass notes a whole litany of recent broadcasts on his (Glass's) NPR show, "This American Life," that conceivably could result in mega-fines from the FCC -- if it applied the same standards that it applied to Stern. But it seems that Glass doesn't really expect those standards to be applied: "Because the whole process is driven by audience complaints, enforcement is arbitrary by design. Political expediency also seems to play a role. Stern has pointed out how a recent ''Oprah'' featured virtually the same words he uses but drew no fine. He urged his listeners to file complaints, to test whether the F.C.C. will penalize only those it sees as vulnerable. Agency aides told The Hollywood Reporter that Oprah Winfrey was probably untouchable."
When I brought up indecency regulation two days ago, and my ambivalence towards it, I failed to mention that I believe that the large fines assessed against Howard Stern and others are unjust. Among other shortcomings, these fines do not satisfy the usual legal requirement of notice: how can broadcasters, from Howard to Oprah to Ira, know in advance what will be subject to a fine, if the fines are not based on what is said or shown but rather on whether a critical mass of complaints is received?