Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Cheating on Drug Tests
A few days ago this story on methods of cheating on drug tests appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, and yesterday it was reprinted in the Sun-Times edition for people with short attention spans (that's the edition I have), Red Streak. The article claims that America hosts more than 40 million employment-related drug tests per year. (It doesn't say, but surely this must be yet another area in which America leads the world!) Less than 5% of these tests turn out positive. (The article somehow interprets the low percentage of positives as suggestive that most people aren't using drugs or cheating, but, well, that conclusion requires some further assumptions.) Of those tests that do turn out positive, more than 55% are positive for marijuana.
An accompanying article in Red Streak (I couldn't find it online) briefly recounts a story from a man who conducts drug tests on offshore oil platforms. The tester "said entire work crews have quit on the spot -- even in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico -- rather than submit to his test." It is nice to know there is still some backbone in America -- or at least just a bit offshore. How about some of that similar, New England spirit of independence, town workers of Seabrook, New Hampshire?
Tuesday, March 30, 2004
More Cruel and Unusual Punishments For Drug Offenders
I have argued again and again that there should be no criminal penalties for mere possession of personal use quantities of drugs, though I don't oppose on principle criminal penalties for trafficking or sale. (In most circumstances I would oppose such penalties on cost-benefit grounds, but I do not generally view them as prima facie unjust.) But even accepting the validity of criminal penalties for certain drug transactions, the penalties cannot be very severe: even a year in prison for one relatively small drug buy or sale is close to unjust from my perspective. Perhaps you are willing to punish drug transactors more severely than I am. How severe are you willing to get? Two recent stories of insanely severe penalties for drug offenders have surfaced. The first is actually an old story, though updated at Drug WarRant: a fellow, a youthful trouble maker, it seems, matured to the point where he was married with a son, and had not been arrested for 14 years. He bought a pound of pot, and received a life sentence -- he has served about 15 years so far. The second comes out of Thailand, though the result is similar: a 19-year old Briton who presumably tried to smuggle 3,400 ecstasy tablets into Thailand last year has been rewarded with a life sentence. And the sentence really is a reward, a bonus for his guilty plea: had he not pleaded guilty, he could have faced execution.
Adam Smith, on a smuggler: "a person, who, though no doubt highly blameable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been, in every respect, an excellent citizen, had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so."
And more Smith: "An injudicious tax [or prohibition!] offers a great temptation to smuggling. But the penalties of smuggling must rise in proportion to the temptation. The law, contrary to all the ordinary principles of justice, first creates the temptation, and then punishes those who yield to it; and it commonly enhances the punishment too in proportion to the very circumstance which ought certainly to alleviate it, the temptation to commit the crime."
We could use a little of that Scottish enlightenment today.
The Federal Medical Marijuana Law
The United States federal government began enrolling patients in a medical marijuana program in 1975. In 1992, in response to a flood of new applications from AIDS patients, the Bush administration closed the program to all new applicants. The Clinton administration refused to reopen the program in 1999. Therefore, only seven surviving individuals approved prior to 1992 remain enrolled in the program.
One of these individuals is Irvin Rosenfeld. Delta Airlines refused to let him on a plane with his medical marijuana in 2001. The government has acknowledged that Rosenfeld should have been allowed to fly with the marijuana. The Sun-Times reports today that Rosenfeld has now filed a complaint alleging that the airline discriminated against him by not allowing him to fly. The government says Rosenfeld is "grandstanding."
Monday, March 29, 2004
The Dangers of Underpromoting Alcohol
Walter Olson at Overlawyered brings news of a suit filed against some bars located near the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Under pressure from the university and federal government, the bars voluntarily eliminated drink specials on weekends. (Pressure for bars near college campuses to eliminate happy hours and other alcohol promotions is pretty common.) The bars now face an anti-trust claim (and potentially "treble damages") on behalf of those weekend imbibers who have been paying full price.
This lawsuit hits at a persistent source of conflict in vice regulation, namely, the control of advertising and other promotional activities. In general, I think that desirable regulatory regimes for vices as widespread as alcohol, heroin, tobacco, gambling, and prostitution, involve legality with a good deal of regulation -- including regulation of promotion. One problem (OK, one big problem) is that the controls over promotion in the US might be unconstitutional or, as (allegedly) in this case, violate antitrust laws. Unfettered advertising -- and arguably we are moving in that direction -- will possibly lead to criminalization of some currently legal vices, and serves as a barrier to legalization of our currently illicit vices.
For more on this theme, see this previous Vice Squad post on alcohol, and this one on brothels.
The Tennessee Lottery
The state of Tennessee instituted a lottery in January of this year. The Tennessee lottery follows the Georgia model, with proceeds going to scholarships for Tennessee high school graduates to attend in-state (public or private) colleges. The Nashville Tennessean has been covering the lottery pretty closely. Sunday's Tennessean brought a debate about a recent legislative initiative, one that would augment the current "Play Responsibly" message on tickets and ads with something more pointed ("WARNING: GAMBLING, INCLUDING PLAYING THE LOTTERY, CAN BE ADDICTIVE") or a toll-free phone number for help with gambling addiction. Here's the view of a prominent opponent to gambling, while here is the take from the state senator who helped spearhead the state referendum on a lottery.
Sunday, March 28, 2004
During the past week of slow blogging here at Vice Squad, lots of exciting vice-related stories have appeared on blogs to which we link. We can't possibly make good the arrears, but I will mention just a few of the highlights:
(1) Mark Kleiman offers a fairly detailed post about personal alcohol licenses, which would be revoked (for some period of time) if a person is convicted of misbehavior under the influence of alcohol. Mark suggests that to be efficacious, sellers would have to do the enforcing, that is, check all potential buyers for a valid alcohol license. Related systems now in use in the US as conditions for probation or pre-trial release rely on such things as random tests to provide a modicum of enforceability.
Vice Squad has mentioned the possibility of personal licenses for drug use many times in the past, most recently, here. Such licensing, which could be used for heroin and cocaine as well as alcohol, also would create an environment conducive to some private drug policy responses: some employers might be unwilling to hire someone with who has a heroin license, while life, health, or auto insurance rates might vary based on the licenses a person holds. People might even use the license to control their consumption, perhaps by agreeing to be licensed for only limited purchases (that is, below some maximum that would be established by law) of their drug per month.
Mark also links to and comments upon this fine LA Weekly piece on the use of psilocybin (the main active ingredient in magic mushrooms) to reduce death anxiety.
(2) Tyler Cohen at Marginal Revolution brings word of the World Trade Organization decision that the US cannot legally ban Internet gambling by US residents from web-based casinos located abroad. The case pitted the nation of Antigua and Barbuda (population: under 70,000; Internet betting operations: 30) against the most powerful nation on earth, and the underdog has won the first round. Some members of Congress won't take this lying down, however, as this NY Times article (registration required) linked by Tyler makes clear. (Vice Squad occasionally comments upon the regulation of Internet gambling.)
(3) Belle at Belle de Jour offers an FAQ-style post that provides some information you probably didn't know about the call-girl business in Britain; for instance, only about one-quarter of her customers tip. (Keep in mind, as you read the linked post, that commercial sex is not illegal in Britain, though Belle's "manager" is on the wrong side of the law. ) Belle's award-winning blog has led to a book deal for her. Those of us who will never earn a dime can try to take the moral high ground: making money off of a blog? Isn't that a sort of, er, prostitution?
Irish Smoking Ban is Here
A nationwide ban on smoking in pubs, restaurants and offices has come into force in Ireland. (Vice Squad has plenty of material on smoking bans -- here, for example. I am sure there was something on the upcoming ban in Ireland too, but I couldn’t find it.) The prime motivation has been apparently to reduce the number of deaths from smoking, government expenditures on smoking-related illnesses, and losses to productivity. This type of reasoning is eerily reminiscent of the arguments used by Mr. Gorbachev’s government to justify tough restrictions on drinking in the former USSR in the mid-1980’s. That experiment didn’t work too well. BTW, in my one visit to Ireland (which incidentally happened together with the good host of Vice Squad) I found the Irish to be in many ways similar to the Russians, although it was harder for me to understand their accents. Among other things, in my experience, the Irish drunk a lot and were not particularly respectful of government regulations. I suspect Vice Squad will follow the developments in Ireland in this respect.
Apparently, the Irish experience will be closely followed also by other governments that try to impose healthy lives on their citizens. In particular, Scotland's government appears to be getting frustrated with the failure of the "voluntary bans" to take root in 90% of food-serving establishments. And when governments notice that their recommendations do not work on a voluntary basis, they often tend to blame the "voluntary" part and not the substance of the recommendations.
Interestingly, according to at least one survey, 20% of the Irish said they would visit the pubs more often once the ban is in place. If an increase in pub attendance does occur, I wonder how that would affect the death rate, government expenditures on health, and productivity losses.
Saturday, March 27, 2004
Welcome Back, Mike
Professor Alexeev has returned and provided Vice Squad with an interesting post on various aspects of the war on drugs. Good to have you back, Mike, hard as it must be for you to live in a state with those wacky liberal judges. I want to mention that the three events that Mike discussed -- Russian drug "decriminalization"; Tulia, Texas; and the current NYC corruption case -- have all received at least passing mention in earlier Vice Squad posts, which I have linked to. Last week's Drug War Chronicle also discusses the Russian situation.
Shoring Up the Tobacco Settlement
As the loyal Vice Squad reader knows, states have been trying to force small tobacco producers who operate in only a few states to charge more for their cigarettes -- otherwise, the states see a decline in their payments from those tobacco companies that reached the 1998 multi-state settlement. (The most recent Vice Squad entry on this issue is in the second half of this post from March 18.) But lately, state legislatures have not been willing to go along with the scheme, it seems. A bill to tack on a 50 cent per pack tax on the cigarettes of small manufacturers failed to make it out of committee in Florida last week. (Florida is one of the four states that is not part of the multi-state agreement, but forged a similar, separate settlement with Big Tobacco.) And in Kentucky, the state House voted 46-45 against a measure aimed at penalizing the non-participating small tobacco manufacturers. Don't expect this issue to go away, however, as the amount of money involved is substantial.
In other tobacco lawsuit news -- this time an old-fashioned lawsuit brought by the wife of a heavy smoker who died from lung cancer -- the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the trial court verdict in favor of the defendant, R. J. Reynolds. One of the bases for the appeal was that the trial judge did not let into evidence an advertisement by tobacco companies from 1954 that apparently questioned the link between smoking and lung cancer. The presiding justice noted that the deceased smoker was 2 years old when the ad appeared, and so he "could not have read, understood, or relied on this statement in any meaningful way."
Friday, March 26, 2004
A Journey from Bloomington to Moscow (and beyond)
Despite Jim’s announcement that I would regularly participate in Vice Squad, I have been remiss in my contributions. In part, my excuse is that I have recently traveled to Moscow and have not had the time or the facilities to write for Vice Squad. Actually, I traveled all the way to Bishkek, but that could be viewed as a side trip (just a four-hour hop by plane) from Moscow. While I have not been contributing, I have been on a lookout for the relevant anecdotes along the way. Here are a couple of them.
“Liberalization” of the war on drugs, Russian style
The war on drugs is a global phenomenon. And so, apparently, are both the efforts to bring at least some sense into it and the resistance to such efforts. In Russia, the amendments to the Criminal Code aimed at reducing the punishments for drug-related offences were supposed to become law as of March 12, 2004. However, on the same day, another law was enacted, postponing these amendments until May 12. The current Russian law criminalizes not only the dealers, but also the users of drugs, because by law, possession is a crime even for relatively small amounts. (How barbaric! Are there any other more or less democratic countries that do that? Ooops… I guess there are.) The threshold for the criminal amount is currently determined according to a government regulation. The original idea of the amendments was to increase this threshold, so that possession would become a crime only if the amount is ten or more “average doses” of the drug. The Ministry of Health, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Internal Affairs (i.e., essentially, the police), and the State Committee for the Control of Drugs were supposed to agree on the definition of these “average doses” by March 1. Interestingly, the latter two agencies apparently pushed for the old small thresholds and won, at least temporarily. There was also an alternative approach, according to which these thresholds were closer to the European standards. But this more “liberal” approach was losing out, and its proponents decided to push through the law that postponed the amendments, hoping that they will be able to improve them later. After the recent changes in the Russian government, the position of the liberals has become much stronger in this respect, because both the new Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Alexander Zhukov, and the new Chief of Staff for the government ministries, Dmintry Kozak, seem to be on their side. Of course, we have to wait and see to what extent the attitudes of these players expressed before they had risen to the highest rungs of leadership are going to be preserved in their current positions of power. We should find out around May 12.
To me, one interesting thing in all this is that the Russian police leadership is apparently for the greatest possible legal restrictions on the use of drugs. At first, this might seem surprising. After all, the illegality of drug use promotes both disorganized and organized crime, probably making police work more dangerous. However, one could easily think of the benefits for the police of the legal restrictions on drugs. The more restrictions are imposed on both the dealers and consumers alike, the greater are the opportunities for police corruption. Realizing this, the Russian police leadership is for toughening the anti-drug use restrictions.
This kind of reasoning would not, of course, be applicable to the good ol’ US of A, or would it?
The War on Drugs, New York style
On my way to Moscow, I was flying through New York City, where I picked up a copy of the New York Times (3/11/2004). Naturally, I immediately started looking for evidence of recent victories in the War on Drugs. However, I couldn’t find any mention of drug busts. Has New York already won the War? Unfortunately, it looks more like a defeat than a victory. Apparently, the regular drug busts don’t make the news in New York nowadays. The only drug-related story from New York was about a widening of the police corruption investigation in Brooklyn that now involves 12 current and retired members of the police. The investigation started in late November when one active and one retired detectives were videotaped taking $169,000 from a drug courier. The policemen have been accused of conspiring with the courier to steal the money the latter was dropping off to be laundered. It turned out that the courier was under surveillance by the federal agents. After some digging, the investigation has claimed that the two men have taken approximately $1.5 million in cash and drugs from dealers. Sometimes the accused have been hitting on dealers based on information gathered in the streets. They would detain a dealer or a courier, take their cash or drugs and let them go. In other cases, they simply picked up their targets in the streets. The policemen would then take the drugs confiscated from their victims to one of “their” dealers, who would in turn sell the drugs and give the officers their cut. This story has another vice angle: one of the accused claims that he has gambled away his share of the loot. Since the beginning of the investigation, the two detectives have apparently implicated some of their colleagues.
The surprising thing to me is not that these allegedly corrupt policemen were caught on videotape. What I wonder is how long it will take for the prosecutors to become sufficiently corrupted to start hitting up their targets for a cut.
The War on Drugs, Texas style
But it can’t be all about money, not in the good ol’ idealistic USA. The same issue of the NY Times reports on an outcome of an almost opposite case, where instead of letting off drug dealers or colluding with drug couriers, an undercover narcotics agent apparently used fabricated charges to have 46 innocent people arrested for allegedly being part of a drug ring in Tulia, TX. These 46 people, most of them black, have just obtained a $5 mln. settlement in their civil suit. In addition to the money, a federally financed narcotics task force covering 26 counties is going to be disbanded. The narcotics agent at the center of the case was named Texas Lawman of the Year in 1999 for cracking the Tulia “ring.” He will go on trial on perjury charges in May. He has plead not guilty, claiming at a hearing last year that the drug ring actually existed even though there has been no tangible evidence of any drug transactions and no drugs or large sums of cash were uncovered in the mass arrests in 1999. No weapons (either of mass destruction or of conventional kind) were found either. The judge presiding over the hearing found that the agent had committed “blatant perjury.” For example, one of those arrested in 1999 was able to prove that she did not sell cocaine to the narcotics agent by producing bank records demonstrating that she was 300 miles away at the time. A lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which participated in representing the plaintiffs in the civil case said, “It’s not that [the agent] was simply a rogue officer. The problem is that federally funded narcotics task forces operate nationwide as rogue task forces because they are utterly unaccountable to any oversight mechanism.” Hear, hear. Let me add that making them accountable would solve only part of the problem.
Indiana's Liberal Judges Promoting Drug Use By Limiting Police Tactics
In 2002, a Honda Prelude speeded through the town of Prospect, Indiana. The car was stopped for speeding, a drug sniffing dog was on the scene, and the Prelude's passenger was found to be in possession of cocaine. Now the passenger will beat the rap, however, as a three-judge appeals court panel will not allow the seized cocaine to be used in the prosecution.
The judges attempted to justify their leniency by seizing upon a technicality. Seems that the driver of the car was an informant for the police -- so much the better, right? He arranged with the cops to speed through Prospect on purpose, so that they could stop his car, and uncover the cocaine that the informant knew his passenger was carrying. OK, so you don't like to encourage speeding, but when you make an omelette, you have to break some eggs, and a little speeding is no big deal. Oh, there is this one further detail: when the driver arranged the sting with the state trooper, seems he mentioned to the officer that he (the driver) had been drinking all day and was on cocaine himself. But the officer did the only reasonable thing and went ahead with the speeding plan. And now the cloud-cuckoo, don't-live-in-the-real-world judges have put the kabosh on the prosecution. Read all about it here.
One more detail that the judges noted as they cast about for any legal thread upon which to squash the case: the driver/informant was on home detention at the time -- a fact known by at least one of the officers involved -- and, technically speaking, should not have been allowed out to take part in the brilliantly conceived sting operation.
Alcohol Prohibition in America was largely brought about by the efforts of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). Founded in Ohio in 1893, the ASL became a national organization in 1895. The League’s construction along a single anti-alcohol dimension resulted in enormous political influence. The ASL endorsed candidates from any party, for local, state, and national elections, provided they were committed to its "dry" agenda. With significant sway over single-issue dry voters, these endorsements reduced the number of major party politicians willing to adopt a "wet" stance. Its influence growing, in 1913 the ASL called for a Constitutional Amendment to institute a federal alcohol ban, and the Amendment became reality in 1919.
Why would a large group of people and resources coalesce around an organization formed in opposition to saloons? Much of the reason is that pre-Prohibition saloons differed significantly from modern bars or bars/restaurants. Saloons were all-purpose alcohol establishments, encompassing both on-site consumption and take-away purchases. What they generally did not encompass was a welcoming environment for "respectable" women. Saloons were viewed, often rightly, as hotbeds of public nuisance; most notably, they were associated with gambling and prostitution, the toleration or encouragement of which were often conscious marketing elements for the saloons. Many saloons were decidedly odious, at least from the point of view of non-patrons.
I just finished reading The Old-Time Saloon, by George Ade (New York: Ray Long and Richard R. Smith, Inc., 1931). The author was a journalist in Chicago in the 1890s, and he wrote his book during Prohibition -- there had been no legal saloons for more than a decade, so he wanted to record what they were in fact like. Ade places the "blame" for Prohibition primarily on the liquor industry itself:
"The trouble with the drink places was that they tried to think up cute ways of making a fool of the law instead of wisely endeavoring to keep up a semblance of decency and placate the non-customers. In communities which attempted to enforce midnight closing they went in for double curtains and heavy blinds, so that when the place seemed dark from the outside it was very much illuminated and going full blast on the inside. Keeping open on Sundays and holidays, selling to minors, harboring outlaw elements, lining up voters who could be bought -- these were some of the major offenses [p. 23]..." Ade says that in the Chicago loop, the day a saloon opened (so the story went), the owner threw the key to the place into the river, because it was never going to be needed again.
Not only does Ade view the extremism of the saloon owners as the cause of their undoing, he correctly foresaw a similar unwillingness to compromise as a threat to the continuation of Prohibition -- in words that should gladden the heart of those of us opposed to today's War on Drugs:
"The ultra-Drys have had their day in court, and now they are in danger of getting on the nerves of those who do not happen to absolutely agree with them. They are so militant in their goodness that they attribute the basest motives to all opponents. They should remember that the American public will not stand for intolerance, in the long run, and that it has a way of jumping from one extreme to another...[pp. 169-70]."
Thursday, March 25, 2004
The Internet and Alcohol
The ambiguous influence of the Internet on vice regulation is highlighted by two recent alcohol-related stories. The first comes from Michigan, where a group is forming to try to counter the potential for kids to circumvent age controls by using the Internet to purchase alcohol. (The linked article does not actually mention any cases where this circumvention has been successfully (or even unsuccessfully) employed, however -- perhaps the chief motivation for the group to act at this time is to influence the ongoing litigation concerning Michigan's controls over out-of-state, mail-order alcohol sales.) The second story comes from Cabrini College in Pennsylvania, where nine students were disciplined for drinking in their dorm rooms. The initial evidence of their drinking consisted of photos placed on the web (at webshots.com) -- and we all know that anything on the web is completely reliable. The students were each fined $50 and placed on housing probation, and one student lost her work-study job! Well, at least that student can take heart in knowing that she didn't have to face a Texas judge.
Texas Drug Leniency
The state of Texas is practically begging its residents to take up illicit drugs, given the ridiculously light sentences being dispensed by state court judges. A man was recently convicted of possession of between 4 and 200 grams of a controlled substance. This week, the judge, perhaps being oversensitive to criticism of the frequent use of the death penalty in Texas, decided to let the malefactor live, and furthermore, only sentenced him to 35 years in prison! This felon could be out of jail in 2039, poised to possess again.
A new book, Life on the Outside, by Jennifer Gonnerman, chronicles the life of one woman who spent 16 years in prison for a cocaine sale under New York's insane Rockefeller drug laws. Here's a brief review of the book from the Village Voice, the publication for which the author (Gonnerman) works.
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
Pressure on Christiania Builds
Back in January Vice Squad reported on the bonfire of hash-selling stalls on Pusher Street in Copenhagen's "Free City" of Christiania -- the hash sellers themselves torched the stalls, to remove one rationale for a police invasion. But hashish sales continued, and last week, the police showed up, en masse, making 53 arrests. Days earlier, the Danish government abrogated the long-standing deal of toleration for the Christiania "squatters," so the drug crackdown could be part of a broader plan to eliminate Christiania. Drug War Chronicle has details.
Oh, and I have returned to Chicago, and, I hope, to more regular blogging. Apologies to the loyal Vice Squad reader for the lapse.
Monday, March 22, 2004
According to today's Chicago Sun-Times, Illinois Governor, Rob Blagojevich, has proposed that a new job training facility be created at the nation's only correctional facility focusing exclusively on drug treatment. The center is located in southern Illinois. The purpose of the facility is to reduce recidivism rates for drug offenders, which I am all for. I also think that treatment is important for those addicts that want it.
However, if we turn more and more to coerced treatment programs instead of jail time, I'm afraid people will fail to fully understand the horrors of our current drug policy. Treatment is often coercive; i.e., one doesn't really need treatment, but would rather do time in a treatment facility than in a maximum security prison, and so accepts treatment as an alternative to jail time. Further, even if someone serves their time for a drug crime in a treatment facility, they'll come out with a criminal record. It's hard to shake that stigma, no matter how much job training you get. Treatment facilities still lock you up, take you away from your family, and marginalize you.
Drug treatment is woefully inadequate in this country, and I believe there should be more treatment options available. That should not cloud the underlying issue though that our drug laws remain barbaric and unjust. Treatment should be there when people want it, or need it. However, forcing someone to undergo treatment for simple possession of an illegal substance is no more humane than locking them up in jail.
Saturday, March 20, 2004
British Cocaine Problem Solved
We knew it was only a matter of time before Lastrade and his colleagues at Scotland Yard solved the case of the concealed cocaine; from Crim Law. Turns out the solution is elementary: a neutron scanner! This should confound Moriarty! (Hey, isn't Holmes a cocaine user?)
Just wanted to mention that blogging at Vice Squad will be a bit slow, at least on my part, for the next few days; I temporarily left Chicago in protest at the latest casino license contretemps. (See that, as soon as Vice Squad hits a milestone, things fall apart.) Drug WarRant continues to offer a steady stream of incisive posting; also, check out newly blogrolled Last One Speaks, another good drug policy blog (and one that I learned about from Drug WarRant).
World Health Organization Releases Substance Abuse Report
The World Health Organization has released Neuroscience of Psychoactive Substance Use and Dependence, which it describes in this press release as "an authoritative report summarizing the latest scientific knowledge on the role of the brain in substance dependence." It looks as if the report fully subscribes to the disease model of addiction. The report also re-emphasizes the well-known point that the addictive substances that cause the most health problems are the licit alcohol and tobacco, and not the currently illicit drugs. Of course, in itself, this observation says little about appropriate policy towards any of the potentially addictive substances.
Thursday, March 18, 2004
More Violent Opposition to Alcohol in the Middle East
Young Bahrainis went on an anti-alcohol rampage Wednesday night, torching cars, attacking the home of an Asian alcohol distiller, and terrorizing the staff and patrons of a restaurant:
"About 40 Bahraini youth armed with sticks and knives entered the La Terrasse restaurant demanding that some 42 customers leave before they attacked staff and began to break and loot the restaurant and parked cars.
'Why do you drink?' they shouted, according to eyewitnesses. Three people were injured in clashes at the restaurant after one of the customers managed to wrest a knife from one of the attackers and stabbed him with it."
"The group later clashed with riot police in Sanabis village on the outskirt of Manama City and police used tear gas to keep the rioters from reaching the main roads and endangering the lives of people and property. The clashes continued well into the early morning hours of yesterday before leading clergymen and municipality officials intervened to end the standoff."
There was a similar anti-alcohol rampage one week earlier in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Anti-alcohol thuggery in Iraq has been frequent in recent months, as noted in this earlier Vice Squad post.
Vice Squad Half-Milestone
Today marks seven years since Vice Squad first ambushed an insufficiently vigilant world. Oh, no, I've re-checked, turns out it was only 6 months ago, September 18, 2003, that the first Vice Squad post made its way into cyberia -- just seems like seven years. We have managed to attract some four or five readers, most of them accidentally drawn here while looking for information on a Britpunk band that shares our name. Thanks to those of you who have dropped by, and to those who have sent links, or even linked to us. May these good deeds go unpunished.
The main development in the last sixth months is that we have managed to become a Squad, with Nikkie, Bernard (now being prodded into more posting), and, I am happy to announce, former guest blogger Michael being part of the team. (Michael agreed to remain a contributor last week but minutes after he did so, he went to Kyrgyzstan; alas, this is true, though as economists are fond of saying, correlation does not imply causation.) Thanks to the Squad members for helping out -- and you thought it was a thankless task!
I could now share the great insights that 6 months of blogging have engendered in me, but, well, I have nothing too profound, or nothing you haven't seen already from some of the approximately 718 gadzillion other blogs. There's the obvious point that if you chronically miss deadlines (as I do), you pay a high price by being a blogger. It's like when you lend money to someone and they don't repay you in a timely fashion, you begin to notice (even against your will) all their other purchases, all the uses of their funds that they evidently deem More Important Than Repaying You. I hope my creditors are not looking at this blog as the use of my time that I evidently deem as More Important Than Meeting My Obligation To Them, but, well, it is understandable if they do. (On the other hand, I know that most of them do not look at the blog at all, given the comparative numbers of creditors and readers.)
As for the future of Vice Squad, well, vice seems to be as prevalent as always, so I hope to keep Vice Squad active for the foreseeable future (while cutting down on the usage of "..., well, ..."). I have dreams of redesigns and bells and whistles and..., well,... (darn!) all those good things. But we shall see; suggestions are always welcome.
More Tobacco Lawsuits (Yawn)
OK, surely that last post wasn't long and rambling enough, so I will mention two more tobacco company lawsuits. The first is a class action suit in the Illinois state courts, where at the trial level last year the judge ordered Philip Morris to pay, uh, $10.1 billion for misleading smokers into thinking that "light" cigarettes were safer. (Here's an earlier Vice Squad post relating to that case.) Similar cases have been filed in other states, but according to yesterday's Chicago Tribune (registration required)...:
"Since the [Illinois trial court] ruling, Philip Morris, the nation's largest tobacco company, has won pretrial judgments in three states, stopping those class-action suits in their tracks. More than a dozen nearly identical cases are pending across the country.
The company's recent victories place even greater significance on the Illinois class-action case, originating in Madison County, which Philip Morris has appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The case, accepted by the high court in September, remains the only light cigarette class action to go to trial, providing a road map to other trial lawyers on how to win such suits.
A reversal would be a setback not only for Illinois plaintiffs but for others in other states."
In a battle of the vilified industries, tobacco won one today against asbestos producers in the Supreme Court of Mississippi:
"[Asbestos producer] Owens Corning was trying to recover billions of dollars paid out in asbestos settlement cases by arguing the tobacco industry shared some of the blame for the health problems.
The justices, in a 5-1 decision, sided with Jefferson County Circuit Judge Lamar Pickard, who dismissed Owens Corning's lawsuit in May 2001.
Asbestos companies have blamed cigarette smoking for thousands of workers' injuries costing them millions of dollars in damages."
Maybe someone can keep track of what is happening with respect to the multitudinous ongoing tobacco lawsuits, but I can't. Nevertheless, I soldier on. The case that the US government is pursuing against tobacco firms continues apace, now that the judge ruled today against the tobacco companies' request for dismissal. The companies claimed that the lawsuit violates the separation of powers, as it essentially is using the courts to perform a legislative function. The judge disagreed, so the $289 billion racketeering suit also soldiers on. Here's a brief description of the case from this Reuters news story:
"The government has brought claims against the Philip Morris unit of Altria Group Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc., the Loews Corp.'s Lorillard Tobacco unit, British American Tobacco Plc, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. and the Vector Group Ltd.'s Liggett Group.
Brought in 1999 by the Clinton administration, the suit seeks damages and tougher rules on marketing, advertising and warning claims on tobacco products."
Last week, the judge in the case ruled that the government could target pre-1970 tobacco company profits, even though the RICO statute that the government is employing did not exist in those years. From the linked LA Times story (registration required): "U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler said that "disgorgement of illegal proceeds is not 'punishment,' " allowing the government to seek remedies for the pre-1970 activity as long as it does not add new punishments."
Disgorging profits "punishment"? Well of course not. It's a compliment, really.
Meanwhile, attempts to hold on to their stream of future payments from Big Tobacco are causing states to target "Little Tobacco" firms. It's Florida's turn now. Though Florida was one of four states that was not part of the 1998 master settlement, it negotiated a similar, separate deal, but is worried that its revenues will fall as smokers switch to the cheaper cigarettes manufactured by non-settling firms. From today's Miami Herald:
"Florida's Republican-led, staunchly antitax Legislature is mulling a 50-cent-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes -- but only on some cigarettes.
Smaller manufacturers of dozens of mostly lower-priced cigarettes that have seen their sales mushroom in recent years would be targeted. The nation's biggest tobacco companies -- makers of well-known brands such as Marlboro and Newport -- would be exempt."
I assume that Florida won't actually enact such a discriminatory "tax," but will dress it up, as other states have, as payments into an escrow account reserved for future lawsuit damages. Some of Vice Squad's earlier looks at the Tobacco Settlement shenanigans are here and here.) Incidentally, West Virginia has rejected for now, but might reconsider, a plan to sell its claim to future tobacco settlement payments for current cash; look about halfway down here.
Oh, here's an excerpt from another recent Miami Herald article that neatly lays out the main issue for the settling states:
"In 1998, the major tobacco companies agreed to settle lawsuits from 46 states that alleged Big Tobacco engaged in deceptive marketing practices and should pay for smoking-related illnesses. The companies agreed to pay the states more than $200 billion over 25 years, though the precise amounts vary depending on cigarette sales.
Last year, North Carolina received $164 million, money it uses for health and economic development programs, among other uses. That amount could decline if discount cigarette sales soar, reducing the number of brand-name cigarettes sold.
Concerned about that possibility, the states that signed the settlement passed laws requiring small tobacco companies that weren't part of the lawsuit to pay fees to cover future costs associated with tobacco liability. Last year, North Carolina collected about $20 million from small tobacco companies.
But because of the way the settlement was written, companies that sell cigarettes in only a few states can receive big refunds. In 2003, North Carolina refunded about three-quarters of the money it collected from discount cigarette makers."
Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Not 'Politics As Usual' in Illinois For Once
Last night, Illinois State Senator Barack Obama won the Democratic primary, and will compete in November for a US Senate seat. If he wins, he'll be the only African-American in the Senate. This guy is awesome - great ideas, level-headed, rational. And he beat out candidates with big political machines and big money to win last night's race.
What does this have to do with vice you might ask? Well, one of the other candidates, Blair Hull, the former frontrunner, was plagued by a messy divorce in 1998, and admissions that he used cocaine and sought treatment for alcohol in the 80's. The Chicago Sun Times today, in its coverage of last night's election, briefly noted that Obama has also admitted to using cocaine and marijuana as a teenager. I didn't know this about him.
Here's why it matters. Mr. Obama is one of millions of smart, successful individuals with great ideas and the passion to make a difference in this world, who happened to use an illegal substance. He is not one of millions of smart, would-be-successful individuals with great ideas and the passion to make a difference in this world who happened to use an illegal substance and get caught. He got lucky. There are literally millions of people out there who have tried illegal substances, and nothing bad happened to them. There are millions of others who regularly use illegal substances, and nothing bad happens to them either. In fact, they are productive and successful members of society. They are the lucky ones.
It's not simply enough for our leaders to say, "yes, I tried A, B, and C when I was a kid." That statement is usually followed by, "but A, B, and C are terrible, terrible things and you shouldn't do them." Right, if you try them you could end up holding national office. It's time that our leaders recognize the harm that this country's drug laws inflict on so many people, and stop being hypocrites. It's time for them to be honest.
Here's my dream speech for Senator Obama on the issue: "Yes, I tried A, B, and C. Here are the dangers, here's why I wouldn't want my kid doing that on a regular basis. Here are some regulations and constraints we should have regarding these substances, as they are not completely harmless, but my god it is simply unjust to keep locking people away, destroying lives, and decimating our inner cities for something that I, and probably 90% of the people on this stage with me, have also done."
Selling Magic Mushrooms and Cannabis Seeds Legally, in Bath
That's Bath, England, folks, where a shop that sells hallucinogenic mushrooms and cannabis seeds has opened. According to this article from the Bath Chronicle:
"Although it is illegal to buy, grow or sell cannabis, it is not against the law to sell cannabis seeds or the equipment used to grow it.
Magic mushrooms, which can be picked in fields throughout the country, can be sold as long as they are fresh and not dried out. The shop sells five types of magic mushrooms, ranging from Mexican to the strongest Hawaiian - the hallucinogenic effects of which can last for ten hours."
Cannabis itself was downgraded to "Class C" status in January, so in general, small-scale marijuana possession does not merit an arrest in the UK. (Have you noticed the collapse of British civilisation following this radical step?)
My Anglophilia is growing. The article is once again so sensible -- no hysterical reactions to the shop, even from its opponents. Here's the Home Office spokesperson (policing falls under the ambit of the Home Office in Britain): 'It is difficult to make illegal what can be found in nature, and cannabis seeds can be used for other purposes.' Just the sort of response we can expect from the Drug Czar or the DEA.
Illinois Casino License
The saga of the state of Illinois' ill-fated tenth casino license continues. On Monday afternoon, the five members of the Illinois Gaming Board announced their 4-1 decision to award the license to Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc., which bid to place the casino in Rosemont, a Chicago suburb next to O'Hare airport. The license is available because the current holder of the license, Emerald Casino, never actually was allowed to open their proposed Rosemont casino, amid allegations of organized crime infiltration. As the in-bankruptcy Emerald still owns the license, the award to Isle of Capri is far from final: not only does the bankruptcy court have to agree to the sale, the transfer could meet a legal challenge from the Attorney General of Illinois. The award of the license to Isle of Capri is particularly controversial because of its Rosemont connection, and because the staff of the Gaming Board had recommended that the license be awarded to a different, non-Rosemont bidder. I find this politically-charged soap opera to be rather tiresome, but readers with stronger stomachs can learn more from two articles (here and here) from today's Chicago Tribune (registration required), as well as this Trib editorial and especially this op-ed column by Carol Marin, entitled "A Scam, a Sham and a State's Shame."
The States Don't Care About the Lives of Their Citizens....
...at least not like the US of House of Representatives does. It seems that many
individual US states are practically begging their citizens to drive under the influence of illegal drugs, by not having regular testing regimes and per se standards established. Fortunately, the laggard state capitols across our land will be forced to rectify this situation, at least if Nevada representative Jon Porter has his way. From this AP story at Yahoo News: "His bill would make states that don't enact drug-impaired driving laws forfeit 1 percent of their annual federal highway funds to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [internal links deleted]. The amount forfeited would double each year up to 50 percent." The fact that 42 states have not yet felt such a law to be requisite only indicates the pressing need for Rep. Porter's bill. My own additional concern, one unaddressed so far by all 50 of those incompetent state governments, regards the problem of people driving while distracted by classical music playing softly in the background. Hey, watch where you are going, Beethoven-breath. Perhaps a little federal pressure, Representative Porter? [Of course, no one should drive while intoxicated (or otherwise distracted) -- editor.]
Tuesday, March 16, 2004
Vice Is Elsewhere in Blogistan
Will Baude at Crescat Sententia links to an NPR interview with I. Nelson Rose, an expert on gambling law, concerning the legal (er, illegal) status of NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament pools. A column in Tuesday's Chicago Tribune (registration required) segues from NCAA pools to the sad story of one-time NFL quarterback Art Schlichter: "The No. 1 draft choice of the Baltimore Colts in 1982, Schlichter gambled away his $350,000 signing bonus. In 1983 he was suspended for a year by the NFL for gambling. From 1987-94 he was arrested four times on charges of bank fraud, unlawful gambling and writing bad checks." Schlichter currently is in prison.
Also at CS, Amanda Butler looks at US and British developments in obesity policy; Overlawyered summarizes some of the discussion about Congress's effort to ban obesity class-action lawsuits aimed at fast food establishments. (Vice Squad's most recent obesity entry was last week -- oops, perhaps this is the most recent VS obesity entry?)
Crim Law on March 14 presented 4 interesting vice-related tales, including the seizure of 7 tons of cocaine (gee, do you think they got all of it?) and a reprimand of the West from Iran for our lack of rigor in prosecuting the drug war.
If things go well, some more blog-borrowings tomorrow.
Clergy Arrested for Performing Same Sex Marriages
Paul Mooney, a comedian and former writer for Richard Pryor said recently that he could tell the government wasn't really serious about opposing gay marriage because they weren't arresting people for engaging in it like they did interracial couples in the 60's. Well, if that's the criteria, I guess we had better sit up and listen - the government is taking gay marriage seriously. The District Attorney for Kingston, New York is now arresting people for performing same-sex marriage ceremonies, according to today's Chicago Sun Times.
Bravo District Attorney Donald Williams! Not only are your streets safer today, but now that those who believe that homosexuals should have the same rights as heterosexuals are under threat of jail time for their beliefs, the institution of heterosexual marriage in Kingston, NY is finally safe.
Monday, March 15, 2004
Licensing Illegal Prostitutes
Operating a retail trade business in India typically requires a license. The mayor of Kolkata, India wants to make sure that prostitutes are complying with this regulation. This despite the fact that prostitution is illegal. The mayor "has said he would grant trade licences to about 16,000 sex workers and their family members living in Sonagachi, one of Asia's biggest brothels in the city's north.
'I don't want to know who is into what trade or whether it's right or wrong. That the government will decide. I only know if you are trading, then you must have a licence,' [the mayor] has argued.
He said he had decided to ask sex workers to get trade licences subject to the fulfilment of some conditions.
Prostitution is considered a crime in India that can fetch an offender up to one year in prison and a fine."
Alcohol Policy in England
The British government released a report (100 page pdf file here; a short summary from the Guardian here) today concerning alcohol regulation in England -- devolution meaning that Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are producing their own strategies, though with consultation across the UK. The main issues of concern are binge drinking and chronic heavy drinking, though underage (under 18) drinking is also addressed. Britain's level of alcohol consumption is rather middling for European countries, but it has been rising for the last few decades, and underage drinking is high in Britain relative to Europe.
The report is quite comprehensive, looking at a wide spectrum of alcohol-related behaviors and policies. It is refreshing in its lack of hysteria, its overall good sense -- no proclamations of a great crisis, no demonizing of producers or pub owners, even as it calls for better self-policing within the industry. The report does not look to higher taxes as a method of reducing consumption (despite a recent call (42-page pdf here) for substantial alcohol price increases from the independent Academy of Medical Sciences.) Among the policies that it does call for are more use of individual-specific bans (from certain pubs or even town centres) for those who have behaved badly under the influence in the past, and increased oversight of advertising to ensure that it does not target youths or "glamorise irresponsible behaviour." And OK, there is something akin to a tax, where the industry is expected to provide funds (in an unspecified manner) to help combat alcohol-related harms. All-in-all, a quick reading suggests that this report is well informed and reasonable.
Perhaps not coincidentally, a short item, "Why Alcohol is Addictive," was put out by the BBC today.
Sunday, March 14, 2004
Just Say No Film Fest
The Independent Film Channel held a "Just Say No" movie festival this Saturday, March 13th, by showing movies that prominently featured excessive, I mean really excessive, drug use.
Movies (and substances) featured were: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (pretty much every drug known to man), Requiem for a Dream (heroin/speed), and Another Day in Paradise (heroin/alcohol). All pretty good films in my opinion. None of these movies really glamorize drug use. In fact, they do a pretty good job of showing the seedy underbelly of addiction. However, the movie Fear and Loathing, like the book, is conscious of the political and social climate surrounding a time in America's history when recreational drug use was part of a larger battle against the status quo.
One of my favorite lines from "Fear and Loathing" is taken from the book upon which the movie is based. Thompson is talking about the late 60's/early 70's:
"And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave....So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
It's a bummer man. Maybe someday that wave will swell again.
Witchhunts Back in New England!
For some time now, many employees of the town of Seabrook, New Hampshire, have been subject to random breathalyzer and urine tests. Apparently there's been a problem with maniacal, intoxicated behavior by other town employees not subjected to the testing regime, however. So now Seabrook has closed this dangerous loophole, by overwhelmingly voting to require all town employees to undergo alcohol and drug testing:
"Following Tuesday’s vote, all town employees, including those who serve on town boards, will be subject to random drug-and-alcohol testing, according to Town Manager Fred Welch. Union contracts will need to be negotiated to include the requirement or the contract will not be valid, he said on Wednesday."
Where did this outstanding idea originate? Well, it is sort of hard to say, as this Boston Globe article reports. An article in today's New Hampshire Sunday News (registration required) doesn't fully clear things up, either, but it does offer up a gem from a selectman who favors the new rule: "Asked if he thought such testing might violate people’s privacy, [the selectman] said: 'I don’t know that there is such a thing as privacy rights when you work for the people.'" Incidentally, the testing mandate applies to volunteers who serve on various town boards.
Update: I really have to start reading Vice Squad. Seems that Seabrook is the very town that Vice Squad member Nikkie identified as being in the midst of a heroin epidemic.
Estonia Mulls Making the Purchase of Sex Illegal
Friends of Vice Squad are relentless in their lobbying for more stories from the web-editions of Finnish newspapers. So today we pass along word that Estonia, a destination site for sex tourists -- especially from Finland and Sweden -- is considering making the purchase of sex illegal. It appears that Estonia currently operates under rules like those in Britain and Canada, where purchase and sale of sex is not illegal, though related activities such as brothel-keeping or "living off the proceeds" are proscribed.
The suggestion to make the purchase of sex illegal would not criminalize the sale of sex. (See this earlier Vice Squad post on "one-sided enforcement.") This is the symmetric twin of a more common anti-prostitution strategy, where selling sex is illegal but buying sex is either legal or punished comparatively lightly. Indeed, in most vice enforcement, sellers tend to face a stricter regime than do buyers. (During alcohol Prohibition in the US, sales were illegal, but purchases were legal.) For the last few years, however, Sweden has adopted the "sales legal, purchases illegal" approach to prostitution control. (Here's a quite negative view on the Swedish experience; a much more sympathetic take (from 1999) appears here. Finally, here is another view of the Swedish experience by a group that hopes to export the Swedish model to New Zealand.) Finland has considered but rejected the Swedish model in the past. Vice Squad previously has noted the split among feminist groups concerning prostitution policy, especially between groups that favor the Swedish approach and those that support broad decriminalization of prostitution.
Saturday, March 13, 2004
Update on Finnish Alcohol
Prices for alcohol in Finland took a tumble on March 1, as the Finnish authorities lowered taxes to forestall personal liquor imports from Estonia. (The two previous Vice Squad posts on this development are here (March 4) and here (February 29).) The initial report was that the lower prices didn't seem to be having much effect, but that has changed. The biggest impact seems to be occurring at retail establishments near the Swedish border. Sweden has maintained its high alcohol taxes, and now Finland has joined Denmark as an alcohol supplier to day-tripping Swedes. (In Finland, incidentally, the state operates the alcohol retail distribution network, with stores names "Alko".) From this article published on Friday in a Finland newspaper:
"Customers from as far as Central Sweden flocked to Tornio to stock up on fairly large quantities of booze. 'Swedish krona now account for 60% of our turnover, whereas normally it is just five percent', says Juha Ohtonen, manager of the Tornio Alko.
The Tornio Alko was almost sold out on the first Friday of March. The small sales outlets in Southern Ostrobothnia also had to struggle to keep enough bottles in stock on the first Saturday of the lower prices.
When some brands did run out in Tornio, many Swedish customers drove on to Keminmaa 20 kilometres away."
Absinthe Ban in Switzerland
"Swiss Government Supports End to Absinthe Ban"...
...so reads the headline to the linked Yahoo news story. The ban itself has been around for nearly a century:
"The federal Swiss government said in a report that the 1908 ban no longer was justified, since the quantities of thuyone -- the substance in absinthe considered dangerous -- were now clearly regulated in the drink.
Legalizing it would actually enable authorities to control the production of the alcohol and tax its sales, it said."
Is absinthe, because of thuyone (or thujone), more dangerous than other beverages with similar alcohol content? For modern absinthe (at least not the bootlegged variety), it looks as if the answer is no, but very high levels of thuyone would be a cause for concern. Did pre-ban absinthe contain sufficient thuyone to cause health problems (including mental illness)? Here's the final paragraph of an informative look at thujone by Ian Hutton:
"In conclusion, there is no evidence that absinthe ever contained the high concentrations of thujone that would have led to detrimental effects or that it has hallucinogenic or mind altering properties. The health problems experienced by chronic users were likely to have been caused by adulterants in inferior brands and by the high levels of alcohol present. Claims for beneficial effects must also be treated with some scepticism as again, the detrimental effects of the alcohol would presumably outweigh any benefits. It seems likely that the phenomenal success of absinthe during the 19th century was due to one factor, the French love of aniseed drinks. The modern equivalent of absinthe, pastis, is by far the most popular distilled spirit in France with 125 million litres being consumed annually. Perhaps the reason that so much absinthe was consumed, and absintheurs waxed so lyrically about it was simply because it tasted good."
Absinthe is now legal in most of the European Union, though it remains prohibited in the United States. If you do try absinthe, try not to end up like this perplexed soul; try to be more like this happy-seeming imbiber.
Friday, March 12, 2004
Recent Drug War Killings
This week's Drug War Chronicle provides an update on three drug war deaths of recent months:
"On December 10 [in Columbus, Georgia], Kenneth Walker, a 39-year-old black professional and family man, was riding in an SUV with friends when their vehicle was pulled over by police doing a drug investigation (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/316/columbus.shtml). Walker ended up dead with a bullet wound to the head. No drugs or weapons were found in the vehicle.
Three weeks later, on January 3, 19-year-old Michael Newby, a black resident of Louisville's predominantly black West Side, was killed by a Louisville police officer during an undercover drug buy (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/319/threeshots.shtml). Officer McKenzie Mattingly said he shot Newby in self-defense during a scuffle, but the fact that Newby was shot in the back has raised numerous questions, as well as tempers in the black community -- some of whose members engaged in a mini-riot, breaking the windows of the police chief's office and tangling with riot police, a week after the shooting.
Then, on February 17, Oakland resident Rudolfo Cardenas was and killed by a California narcotics officer attempting to serve a parole violation warrant (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/326/wrongman.shtml). But Cardenas wasn't the man the cops were looking for. The 43-year-old ex-con just happened to pass by the house targeted by police and fled for unknown reasons. Police chased him in vehicles and then on foot. Cardenas died in an alleyway, shot in the back repeatedly. No drugs or weapons were found, although police initially claimed he pointed a digital scale at them."
These shootings are tragedies for the victims, their friends and families, the communities -- and for the police, as well. Back to Clarence Darrow again, on alcohol Prohibition: "No other statute is openly enforced with guns and revolvers. For no other minor offense can officers with impunity shoot down a human being in seeking to make an arrest."
Prostitution in Berkeley
At the end of January, Vice Squad member Bernard noted efforts in Berkeley, California, to "decriminalize" prostitution. In reality, Berkeley cannot fully decriminalize, as prostitution violates state law, but a successful "decriminalization" would likely lead to diminished enforcement of anti-prostitution laws. The Oakland Tribune updated the story one week ago: the effort now is for the decriminalization question to appear on the ballot in November.
Prostitution enforcement brings on many of the usual ills of illicit markets, of course. Further, lots of otherwise law-abiding people find themselves publicly embarrassed and in legal trouble when arrested for prostitution-related crimes. The recent haul along these lines includes a New Jersey police chief, a Pennsylvania police officer (who allegedly was far from "otherwise law-abiding," actually), and a 76-year old California judge whose wife passed away in 1999. Some or all of the serious crimes alleged against the Pennsylvania police officer, involving agreements to drop prostitution charges in exchange for sex, also seem to stem from the criminalization of prostitution.
One Strikeout Victim
Crim Law points to this Christian Science Monitor article on the impact of California's Three-Strikes law. Here are the final three paragraphs:
"But to Sue Reams, who 10 years ago voted for the law but now is part of a growing grass-roots movement to amend it, such analysis is simplistic and misses the human element. She's quick to tell her son Shane's story to drive the point home.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, he was a teenager struggling with a drug addiction. To help him, she became a 'tough love' parent. When she realized he'd stolen from her home and her neighbor's, she reported him to the police. As a result, he was convicted of two felonies for burglary. In 1996, two years after the law was passed, he was standing 30 feet away from a friend selling crack. He was arrested and charged with aiding and abetting a $30 sale of cocaine. He and his friend were both convicted. The friend was given a four-year sentence and served two years of it. Shane was given 25 years to life, because it was his third felony.
'I voted for the law. I helped send my son to prison when what he really needed was drug treatment,' says Ms. Reams. 'That's how I feel now, and I intend to get him a second chance.'"
Thursday, March 11, 2004
Obesity (with update)
All sorts of movement on the obesity front recently. A few days ago, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their report showing that physical inactivity and poor diet are on their way to catching tobacco as the leading behavioral causes of death. CDC estimates that in 2000, some 435,000 Americans died from tobacco-related causes, with obesity behind another 400,000 deaths; alcohol claimed 85,000, while illicit drugs were connected to 17,000 deaths. One day after the report was released, the US House of Representatives passed a bill (Los Angeles Times story, registration required) that would forbid class action lawsuits attempting to hold the fast-food industry responsible for obesity in their customers. Some states have already adopted similar legislation, while other states have related bills under consideration. Here's an article about Ohio's measure; Wisconsin, Washington, and Florida also are among those states with pending legislation. Meanwhile, McDonald's has announced that it is phasing out super-size portions (no word on the super-duper-size), while the Swiss are considering a tax on fatty foods.
The standard off-the-shelf economics approach to all this, of course, is to ask, well, what's wrong with obesity? Eating mounds of food and not exercising are consumer choices, and as long as there is no deception taking place, there's not much of a case for government intervention (or for those blame-the-seller lawsuits). But such reasoning only applies if we can trust the "rationality" of decisions to eat and (not) exercise. How could we make an argument that such choices are not rational? One approach might be to note that our tastes for food evolved over eons in which food was harder to procure than it is now -- sugar itself did not become a global commodity until relatively recent times. So our appetites are not well suited to the new situation of food abundance that characterizes today's rich nations. Alternatively, one could make the same sort of “self-control” (dynamic inconsistency) argument that comes up in looking at consumption of addictive products.
A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer 2003), “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?,” by David M. Cutler, Edward L. Glaeser and Jesse M. Shapiro, attributes American weight gain to improvements in the mass production of food and a resulting increase in caloric consumption (calories expended have not changed much in the last 20 years). These authors argue that for most people, these technological changes have been welfare-improving, even though they have contributed to obesity. Only people with extreme self-control problems, according to the article, would find themselves worse off from the technological improvement in centralized food preparation, and as there is little evidence for such extreme preferences, most Americans have benefited, just as naive economic reasoning would suggest.
Update: Vice Squad has looked at obesity policy in the past; oh, and another look was taken during my guest stint at Crescat Sententia. Overlawyered has a post on the House vote, with reams of useful links. The Adam Smith Institute fills us in on developments in the UK, where food advertising is attracting regulatory attention.
Wednesday, March 10, 2004
Teen Anti-Smoking Campaigns
The Chicago Sun-Times reports today on a new study about cigarette smoking in PG-13 and PG rated movies. The author of the study would like to see movies that depict smoking slapped with an R-rating. I agree, and movies that show two hours of deplorable, bloody violence, such as a spike getting rammed through the fleshy part of someone's hand should be celebrated as a wholesome family experience. What is wrong with this guy? It is a sad commentary on our society that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) says that movies with frank and honest discussions or depictions of human sexuality are inappropriate, and often must either be edited for American audiences or be faced with the kiss of commercial death: an NC-17 rating, while the bloodiest of films can often get by with a PG-13 seal of approval. Now we want to add cigarette smoking to the list of things we're going to be prudish about in the movies?
Personally, I don't smoke cigarettes but I'm thinking of taking it up to protest against the anti-tobacco ads on t.v. I can't stand campaigns like "The Truth" that try so hard to be cool by "exposing" evil tobacco companies to teens. I think everyone can agree that Big Tobacco is not going to win philanthropist of the year. We all know that smoking is bad for you, and we've known it for a long time. We know Big Tobacco puts stuff in cigarettes to make them addictive. Do we really need to be spending millions of dollars on television ads and whiny propaganda like this bit from Thetruth.com:
"It's tough going out there day after day infecting the populace with the truth about the tobacco industry. Some days it seems like it's all a conspiracy and the whole world's against you."
The money that funds this campaign comes from the settlement Big Tobacco reached with the states. I think we might be able to find a better use for these resources.
South Park had a great episode a while back where the kids were subjected to a school program presented by "Butt Out", a teen anti-smoking singing group. The group sang a ridiculous song about the dangers of smoking, and acted like complete fools. The group told the South Park kids that they shouldn't smoke, and if they didn't, they could grow up to be just like the members of "Butt Out". Cut to the next scene where the kids are frantically smoking cigarettes in an effort to not end up like the Butt Out crew.
I'd like to see some empirical data a few years from now on whether or not these teen anti-smoking campaigns had a positive or negative effect on teen smoking rates.
Perhaps the Final Post on Clarence Darrow and Prohibition
OK, even the loyal Vice Squad reader is pretty much Darrowed-out. But the quest for closure necessitates one more post about what Clarence Darrow had to say about Prohibition in his autobiography, The Story of My Life. Forthwith.....
"If the prohibition law had been treated like any other act of Congress or
State legislation it would have died long ago. No other statute is openly
enforced with guns and revolvers. For no other minor offense can officers
with impunity shoot down a human being in seeking to make an arrest."
"The tyrant believes that if the laws do not fit the people then the people
must be bent to fit the laws and forced to obey."
"The Volstead Act in effect brands every one who takes a drink as a criminal,
as a felon. It does this in spite of the fact that the greatest men of the
world have always taken intoxicating drinks."
Plus ca change.... Diehards can find the earlier Darrow posts here, here, here, and at the end of the post here.
Tuesday, March 09, 2004
Blogger Contending With Alcoholism
Will Baude at Crescat points us to this sad but hopeful tale of a blogosphere denizen who is struggling against his alcoholism. Here is his wife's post, seeking assistance, at the time that he bottomed out.
Update: The link to the blogger's wife's post has been corrected. Also, Will brings our attention to this interesting post from the recovering blogger concerning Rational Recovery, an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous. (Alas, this link had to be corrected, too.)
"No Alcohol" as a Condition for Release Pending Trial
Yesterday, I mentioned that while a general drug prohibition is an unjust policy, individuals who have engaged in criminal behavior while under the influence of a drug potentially are fit objects for targeted prohibitions on drug consumption -- prohibitions specific to those individuals. So if someone drives a car while under the influence of marijuana, he could lose his marijuana consumption "license" (as well as his driver's license!) And if he accosts someone when he is drunk, he could lose his "license" to drink. Probation conditions frequently include drug-free requirements, backed up with testing.
In Bennington, Vermont, an interesting case has arisen. A fairly prominent citizen has been accused of groping a woman at a bar, while he was under the influence of alcohol. (The actual charge, apparently, is for "lewd and lascivious conduct." The linked article is from a newspaper, the Bennington Banner, that used to be published and owned by the accused man.) The accused has pleaded not guilty to the charge. As a condition of his pre-trial release, the judge forbid the accused from buying, possessing, or drinking any alcoholic beverages. Random checks by law enforcement are permitted to check compliance with the condition.
Conditions for pre-trial release are not meant to be punitive, as the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Rather, they are put in place if they are believed to be necessary to help protect the public from potential misconduct. The defendant's lawyer claimed that it is outrageous to think that the public requires any such protection from further (i.e., allegedly further) drinking and groping by his client.
If the "no alcohol" requirement came after conviction, then Vice Squad would have no problem with it, and might even applaud it. Whether it is reasonable as a condition for pre-trial release is less clear. (The judge also rejected a suggestion by the defendant's lawyer that the defendant be allowed to drink at home, but not in public, and that restriction would be much easier to defend.) The defendant was convicted of driving under the influence in 1996, which strikes me as relevant. At any rate, I am uncertain about how I feel about this -- I would be much happier with the "no public drinking" restriction -- but I guess that I cannot condemn the condition as unreasonable based on the one news story that I have read.
New York City Returning Cars It "Borrowed"
Legal niceties can be soooo tiresome. Some smarty-pants judges told New York City that it wasn't respecting the "due process" rights of the owners of cars that were seized from accused (but not convicted) individuals. That was in September, 2002. In January, 2004, another federal know-it-all judge suggested that hearings where those car seizures could be challenged were needed, pronto. Turns out NYC is better at taking cars than holding hearings, so they are now trying to return the cars, some 6,000 of them. If I were an owner, I wouldn't hold out for a car wash, oil change, and full tank of gas.
According to the New York Times article (registration required) sent to Vice Squad by an attentive reader, "The vehicles had been seized from suspects in a wide range of offenses, including drunken driving, patronizing prostitutes, and crimes involving guns or drugs."
The rules governing such seizures in the future, as ordered by one of those activist judges, include a requirement that the suspect receive a "request for hearing" form at the time the vehicle is seized, and that the hearing be held within ten business days of the request. Further, the hearings themselves "should address three issues, [the Judge in the January ruling] wrote: whether probable cause existed for the arrest, whether it is likely that the city would prevail in an action to forfeit the vehicle, and whether it is necessary for the car to remain impounded to ensure its availability as evidence. The judge said the department would have the 'burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence as to all three issues.'" So the rule of law wins one in NYC.
The Times article concludes with updates from the New York counties of Nassau and Suffolk, which figured in a previous Vice Squad post on asset forfeiture:
"The Nassau County Legislature voted unanimously last night for an amendment to allow a seizure only after a conviction. The amendment would also require hearings in which owners can seek to get cars returned, especially if the owner is not the arrested driver, and in hardship cases in which other people need to use the car. Legislators said the changes should satisfy the courts, which found the existing law unconstitutional.
In Suffolk County, Legislator Cameron Alden has proposed a change that would entitle car owners to seek a hearing before an independent hearing officer, instead of the current procedure of applying to a police officer, which a judge has struck down as unfair."
The Making of an Epidemic
Three people were recently arrested in Seabrook, NH for heroin possession and distribution. Sergeant Ellen Arciri of the Seabrook Police Department was quoted as saying "It's [heroin use in Seabrook] of epidemic proportions". The people arrested only had at most $600 worth of heroin on them, which hardly seems like an indication of an "epidemic" to me, so I decided to look into recent heroin-related stories about Seabrook.
News stories abound with various law enforcement and community figures exclaiming that there is a "heroin epidemic" in the town of Seabrook! Yet, according to the Portsmouth Herald, in one story at least, "none of the law-enforcement officials interviewed nor the Hampton District Court had figures on the number of users or even the number of recent [heroin] arrests."
Similarly, a recent news story talks about the growing number of heroin addicts in the state of New Hampshire, and Seabrook's efforts to curb the problem. Although the piece is filled with terrible tales of addiction, there are no figures to back up claims that heroin use is actually on the rise in these communities.
It seems like we haven't matured beyond the days when "Reefer Madness" gripped the country with fear and all it took to gain support for your viewpoint was to scare the crap out of people. Is heroin good for you? No, but neither is causing hysteria over a problem that may or may not exist. Reasoned, objective analysis of addiction and use rates of a substance is essential to planning responsible public policy. I don't think you should be able to just throw around a word like "epidemic", which implies certain policy responses, unless you have more than just a few scary anecdotes and a $10 bag of white powder to back you up.
Darrow on Prohibition (Vol. 48)
The loyal Vice Squad reader demands, "More about Prohibition from
Clarence Darrow 's autobiography, The Story of My Life!"
So without further ado....
Darrow recounts the disingenuous approach to Prohibition that was taken
during World War I, during which a temporary prohibition was enacted
under the guise of saving food (grain) for the war effort. Darrow believes
that the supporters of this measure were more motivated by an interest
in stopping drinking than in winning the war.
A Constitutional Amendment was needed for the federal government to
have the power to regulate alcohol. But that was all that was "needed",
Darrow notes: the amendment could simply have given the Federal
government that power (without specifying the nature of the regulation),
and then Congress could have voted for national prohibition. But instead,
the dry forces enshrined the policy itself, prohibition, into the
Constitution, "intending thereby to make it impossible ever to permit
the sale of intoxicating liquor in the United States." As for the 18th
Amendment and its implementing legislation, the Volstead Act,
"If senators and representatives had voted as they drank, no such
legislation would ever have disgraced America."
"A small minority cannot nullify a law, but where a statute is considered
tyrannical and unjust it always meets with protest. Refusal to be bound
is such a protest. If protest is so great as to interfere with its
enforcement by ordinary methods, it is plain that it has no place in the
law in the land."
"Men were as sure that it was just to condemn heresy and witchcraft
by death as their lineal descendants are sure of the righteousness of
spreading poison broadcast to-day in the interest of the 'Noble
Experiment' of prohibition."
Monday, March 08, 2004
Quibbles can be useful
I am glad my quibble has provoked the Vice Squad host to write his excellent reply. I agree with everything Jim said there, including his admission that he was a bit blithe in his earlier post. Now, if we could get a sufficient majority of our righteous representatives to agree and stop this senseless prohibition... I am not holding my breath though.
Obscenity Updates, Including COPA
Back in November, Vice Squad (guesting at Crescat Sententia) mentioned a couple in Dallas who had been convicted of three federal obscenity charges. The couple, who distributed rape porn from a website titled "The Rape Video Store," were sentenced last week to 33 months (for the husband) and 30 months (for the wife) in federal prison. The content of the videos was not available over the web; rather, the website advertised the videos, which were then mailed to people who placed orders. At the time of his arrest, the husband was a member (and 8-year veteran) of the Dallas Police Department.
In other obscenity news, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was back in the Supreme Court for arguments last week. This law makes it illegal for commercial websites to post indecent material that is construed to be harmful to children unless it is placed behind some sort of filter to keep kids out. The law has a long history, being the progeny of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. The CDA was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, on the grounds that its content-based restrictions on speech were vague and overbroad.
Congress responded in 1998 to the invalidation of the CDA by passing COPA, which appropriated much of the language from the 1973 Miller v. California case that provides the framework for US obscenity law. (Here's an earlier post on Miller.) For instance, under COPA, the prohibited material, taken as a whole, must lack serious artistic, literary, scientific, or political value to minors, and “contemporary community standards” are to be employed by juries in determining whether material is harmful to minors. In addition, COPA applies only to communications for commercial purposes, which currently receive a lower level of First Amendment protection than some other types of communications, such as political speech. Further, unlike the CDA, which arguably applied to all Internet communications, including e-mail and chat room messages, COPA restricts itself to webpage communications. A preliminary injunction has so far prevented enforcement of COPA. A couple years ago the Third Circuit invalidated COPA on the grounds that the community standards provision was substantially overbroad for regulating Internet communications. (The fear was that given the borderless nature of the web, every community would be held to the standards of the most puritanical.) On May 13, 2002, the US Supreme Court disagreed with the Third Circuit, claiming that COPA’s reliance on community standards by itself did not meet the “overbroad” test that would render COPA unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. The Supreme Court kept the injunction in place, however, while sending the case back to the Third Circuit for a thorough hearing on COPA’s constitutionality that would go beyond the “community standards” issue. In March, 2003, the Third Circuit again found COPA to be unconstitutional, for an array of reasons. For instance, according to the Third Circuit, the restrictions on speech contained in COPA are not narrowly tailored to achieve the government’s purpose of preventing harm to minors from exposure to indecent materials, nor does COPA employ the least restrictive means of achieving this purpose.
Whew. For reports on the oral arguments at the Supreme Court last week, from two divergent standpoints, see here (the Baptist Press) and here (Adult Video News).
Clarence Darrow Responds to Guest Blogger!
Guest blogger Michael Alexeev has done his host the honor of quibbling! Mike is
concerned that I too blithely assumed that drug possession is unworthy of jail,
and yes, I agree, I was too blithe about it in my post. For one, I did not
specify that I was talking "personal use quantities", and the immediate "no
punishment" argument only applies to possession for private use, not sale,
so I should have made that clear. But Mike goes further, and suggests that
maybe drug possession is like drunk driving, not immediately and necessarily
harmful to others in itself but posing enough of a risk of harm that we rightly
can proscribe drug possession and punish drug possessors, as we punish drunk
drivers. This criticism is a species of a traditional attack on John Stuart Mill's
harm principle, that we cannot easily draw the line between self-regarding
acts and acts that harm (or pose a non-negligible risk of harming) others.
In general, it is indeed hard to draw the self-regarding/non-self-regarding
line. But for me (and for Mill), it isn't a close call with drug possession (hence
my leaving it out of the post). The criminalization of drug possession is an
unjust restraint upon liberty.
The full argument requires an examination of the external costs of
drug use, and the certainty with which these externalities arise from drug
use. I won't go through all the possibilities here, but I will state the general
conclusion: the external costs that plausibly arise from drug use are way too
uncertain to justify criminalization. Millions of Americans have used illicit
drugs, and the vast majority of them have not caused any problem for anybody.
But my assertion alone is of course unsatisfactory, so let me at least point
the way to a more organized approach. In what ways do drugs cause harm to others?
Mark Kleiman, in his book Against Excess, offers one potential accounting of
"harms to others" associated with drug use: dereliction of duty; crime; nuisance;
health damage; drain on common resources; risk-spreading and cross subsidy
effects; leading others to use drugs (in epidemiological fashion); and "notional"
damage. (Notional damage is the possibility that some people are made
unhappy or disgusted simply by knowledge of others' drug use.)
Consider Kleiman's first three external costs, dereliction of duty, crime, and
public nuisance. Dereliction of duty (such as failure to provide for children)
can rightly be punished, whatever the cause. But the potential for drug taking
to lead to this outcome is not sufficiently direct and certain to justify
making drugs illegal. Likewise, the crime that is engendered by some types of
drug consumption -- violence by drunks, for instance -- is not sufficiently
direct and certain to stand as a basis for outlawing drugs. The external harm
that arises from creating a public nuisance, like the harms from dereliction
of duty or drug-induced crime, could provide a reason to punish those who
create public nuisances. Again, however, the public nuisance associated with
most types of drug use is insufficiently direct and certain to justify drug
If a person had once been violent under the influence of alcohol or drugs,
however, then a prohibition specific to that person would be OK by Mill
and by me.
Some drug use might have a direct influence on the health of others, and such
use could justly be controlled on that basis. Second-hand smoke is the premier
example here, though the extent to which it causes health risks to others is
Kleiman's remaining types of external costs (drains on common resources,
risk-spreading and cross subsidy effects, leading others to use drugs, or
"notional" damage) do not appear to me to "rise to the Millian level" to
justify prohibition. Such costs, to quote Mill, generally do not constitute
"perceptible hurt to any assignable individual...."
Let me give the last word (for now--Mike?) to new Vice Squad hero Clarence
Darrow: "Criminal statutes are very different from civil legislation. Punishment
is inflicted on the theory that a right-thinking person could not commit the
act without a feeling of guilt. No such feeling has ever been experienced
with the taking of a drink of intoxicating liquor." (...or from the taking
of a hit of an intoxicating drug...OK, couldn't leave the very last word to