Vice Squad
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Vietnam v. Singapore...

..and Vietnam wins.

Life in prison for possession of a few pounds of heroin
is a travesty of justice. But the bar for justice has been set so low, especially in Asia, that even such a cruel sentence looks compassionate. Let's hope that this signals the start of a Dutch auction in drug possession sentencing.

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Monday, February 20, 2006
Truck-Stop Prostitution

Police near Carlisle, Pennsylvania set up a prostitution sting last Friday. A female undercover officer walked through the truck stop, and believe it or not, she was (allegedly) propositioned. Five men were arrested without incident, but a sixth man resisted. He tried to drive off, and some officers were thrown from the truck. No one was badly hurt, fortunately.

But someone could have been killed. How many victims do we need before we look to make truck stop prostitution safe? Along I-40, at least 14 prostitutes have been murdered in recent years -- a break in the case last week might lead to the crimes being solved. Are we so worried that someone might buy or sell sex that we are willing to tolerate death after death without looking for a way to make commercial sex safer?

The Seattle area "Green River serial killer" murdered at least 48 women. His chilling statement includes his rationale for choosing to target prostitutes: "I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought that I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught." [The statement is available from a sidebar here.]


All the Snus That's Fit to Print

British American Tobacco has joined the struggle to make snus available throughout the European Union. It isn't even legal in Britain right now, but BAT is "trialling" snus in South Africa.

The Observer article that brings us this news also notes that Swedish snus manufacturing dates from 1822.

While trolling through the British papers, I came across a story in the Telegraph with more about how snus will undo the EU.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

For my own demented purposes I wanted to put in one place a set of links to some of the past Vice Squad discussion of (the Swedish smokeless tobacco) snus -- can a composite absinthe post be far behind? Here goes:

January 2, 2004: Snus and Harm Reduction

August 9, 2004: US Snus Use
September 8, 2004: EU Snus Ban
October 4, 2004: Snus Smuggling

November 30, 2004: Update on Snus and Cancer

January 12, 2005: Court Rules Against Snus

April 10, 2005: Snus Fridges

February 7, 2006: Snus Destroys the EU


Hot Electronic Goods

Quite hot. Indeed, they are on fire.

There have been two public burnings of televisions, CD players, and other electronic goods in Pakistan recently. Why? Well to eradicate obscenity and nudity, of course. No word yet on whether this innovative tactic has succeeded.

We are told also that the electronic devices in question have been voluntarily surrendered, but I can't help thinking that perhaps there is some coercion involved when the nice young men show up at your door and suggest that you donate. Maybe I shouldn't be so jaded, though. After all, sometimes your old set is just cluttering up the place once you have your flat-panel installed, and the opportunity to donate the obsolete receiver, no-muss, no-fuss, would be heartily welcomed. Perhaps that's why VCRs were mentioned as part of the haul, but not DVD players.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006
Will Vice Policy Break Up the EU?

Two traditional Vice Squad preoccupations, snus and international organizations (like the World Trade Organization and the European Union), are coming together in an unexpected fashion. Snus is that Swedish smokless tobacco that is illegal in the rest of the European Union, even though snus is almost surely much safer than cigarettes, which are a legal product throughout the EU. The internal free trade that the EU requires on alcohol and tobacco products threatens the established vice policies of some of the member states -- most particularly, the high-tax alcohol regime in Sweden and (formerly) in Denmark. It is this loss of control over internal vice policies that I think represents a threat to the long-term stability of both the EU and the WTO.

But more or less the opposite problem (oops -- OK, it's the same problem of vice policies threatening stability...) could lead to an EU break-up, of sorts. Aaland is a Swedish-speaking island in Finland, but it is semi-autonomous. Ferries from Aaland to elsewhere in the EU sell snus! The EU says that snus is illegal except for in Sweden, and Aaland is not in Sweden, but is in the EU. There will be a court case, but Aaland will be represented by Finland -- and Finland isn't really on Aaland's side in this controversy. So Aaland is talking about leaving the EU.

Folks, you heard it at Vice Squad first: this snus flap is the start of something much bigger. (Was this an economist making a prediction? Feel free to ignore that last bit.)

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Monday, February 06, 2006
Why are Drugs Still Illegal?

A couple weeks ago I was in cold Russia for the Global Development Network conference. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times provided the kick-off address, and in it, he surprised me by twice referring to the crazy narcotics control policies of the US (and other developed nations) and their deleterious consequences upon developing countries. (Maybe the tide is turning?) His timing was fortuitous for me, as just prior to his remarks I was struggling through a drug policy debate with others at my table who were not particularly receptive to legalization. The juxtaposition of the discussion at our table and the Wolf remarks got me to thinking that I had never fully articulated (at least in a single post) why I thought drugs were still illegal, given that the prohibition is extremely costly, largely ineffective, and (most importantly) unjust. (Pete at Drug WarRant has provided a definitive discussion of why marijuana is illegal.) So, how is it that this "insane" (or "crazy" – Wolf used one or both of these terms but I do not trust my notes) policy remains in place?

Let me suggest four reasons. The first is simply the tyranny of the status quo. In the case of drug prohibition, the usual status quo bias is bolstered by the fact that the currently illegal drugs are not all that popular (relative, for instance, to alcohol during national Prohibition in the US), and there is essentially no memory (in the case of opiates and cocaine) of a regulatory regime that does not involve prohibition. This lack of pertinent experience is itself partly a cause and now also an effect of the UN conventions that render drugs illegal on a global basis.

Second, there is a dose of logic which is persuasive (on the surface, at least) and irrefutable, but not dispositive – though the fact that it is not dispositive apparently is subtle. That logic goes along the lines of “if there were no drugs, there would be no drug problems.” Because this logic is absolutely correct, any tragedy that occurs under the current prohibitory regime – instead of discrediting prohibition, which would seem to be the obvious response – can be met, without conspicuous senselessness, by a call for a more committed prohibition. The notion that the drug-free world that the logic calls for is itself either a chimera or not worth the cost seems to be less than immediately accessible. So prohibition becomes a self-justifying policy.

Third, parents in the middle and upper classes in developed nations might believe – and they might be right to believe – that prohibition (relative to some undelineated alternative) makes it a bit less likely that their kids will become enmeshed in drugs. (This might be true even of parents who are former or current illegal drug users themselves.) Certainly the bulk of the observable costs of drug prohibition tend to be foisted upon lower class neighborhoods, because these are the neighborhoods in which open markets for drugs are likely to arise. The less obvious costs of prohibition – for instance, that there are black market sellers who have a significant financial interest in selling to the underaged, that the purity of the product is compromised (leading to unintentional overdoses), that stronger forms of the drug (heroin instead of opium) become relatively more available, and that ridiculously severe jail sentences are imposed – are, well, less obvious, though they are brought home quickly when it is your kid who pays one of these prices.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, people don’t have a good idea about what a legal alternative entails. (This point obviously parallels point one.) Legal channels for the distribution of opiates to adults for recreational purposes do not imply that every convenience store sells heroin to all comers. Kids will remain prohibited, licenses can be required for both buyers and sellers, advance purchase agreements can be mandated, significant taxes can be imposed, and so on. Perhaps the time has come for the legalization advocates to coalesce around some very specific policies that spell out, on a drug-by-drug basis, the precise regulatory regime that we have in mind.

And the day we prevail, we can celebrate the end of a supreme injustice. The next day, we have to redouble our efforts to help those whose drug consumption is problematic, and to penalize those who are unwilling to play by the liberalized rules.

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