Vice Squad
Monday, July 30, 2007
The Alcohol-Detecting Ankle Bracelet

Vice Squad has long been fascinated with the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor (SCRAM) ankle bracelet. If it works, it can reduce the external costs of alcohol abuse, and possibly reduce the need to target alcohol more generally via an excise tax. SCRAM received some good publicity when a celebrity voluntarily wore one on her way out of a rehabilitation clinic, but the limits of the bracelet were suggested when the celebrity subsequently was arrested on various charges, one of them alcohol-related. (The charges have not been proven, of course. One of them is a felony charge for cocaine possession, which to my mind is more of an indictment of the law than of the arrestee.) Newsweek takes the opportunity to interview an official with the company that makes the alcohol monitor. He indicates that 5 to 10 percent of the uses are voluntary; many of these are initiated by defense attorneys anxious to establish a record of sobriety for their clients.

One of the benefits of a prolonged stay in Tbilisi is that the news of celebrity arrests can take weeks to reach me, or miss me altogether.

Vice Squad first mentioned the bracelet in 2004.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007
Snus in Norway

Time permits only one brief note and link, so it has to be about snus. Norway remains outside the EU, allowing Vice Squad obsession snus to be available in Norway. The public smoking ban is helping to promote snus use in Norway, even though most of the Norsepeople think that snus causes cancer. (OK, only something like 6% of the adult population uses the stuff.) Here's a recent newspaper article with the story.


Friday, July 27, 2007
Targeted Legalization as Harm Reduction

From Marginal Revolution, word has reached ex-Soviet Georgia of this New York Times op-ed by economist Justin Wolfers. Wolfers argues that legalizing betting on the outcome of sporting contests, as opposed to betting on "immaterial outcomes like point spreads," would reduce the susceptibility of sports to gambling influences. The idea is that potential insider fixers don't see all that much wrong with diverting an element of the contest that has no effect on the outcome, but might mean a lot to bettors. "To the corrupt participants, point shaving feels like a victimless crime." One might also add that the more the betting is aboveground, the easier it is to detect betting patterns that suggest some underhandedness.

The Wolfers argument is one of a species with suggestions for improvement for virtually all criminalized vices. A targeted legalization -- targeted on the low-social-cost version of the vice -- frequently serves as a harm reduction measure. That is, even if the prevalence of the vice increases, the harms associated with the vicious activity can fall. Whether the precise legalization that Wolfers proposes would have that effect is hard to say, but for currently criminalized vices from hard drug use to prostitution to sports betting, I think that some such targeted legalizations would offer improved outcomes.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007
Eradication in Afghanistan

My English-language reading material is pretty restricted here in Tbilisi, but this means that the two New Yorker magazines I have with me are, uncharacteristically, being devoured rather thoroughly. In the July 9&16 edition, Jon Lee Anderson has a lengthy (well, New Yorker length) piece entitled “The Taliban’s Opium War.” The article is not about drug policy; it chronicles one eradication effort, without questioning whether keeping opium illegal is such a great idea in the first place, or even mentioning the Senlis alternative of legalizing the Afghan crop for pharmaceutical use. The relative lack of interest of the Dutch and other Europeans serving in Afghanistan to the US-led eradication campaign is mentioned (though not explicitly endorsed or opposed.)

Whatever the merits of eradication in Afghanistan as drug policy, as a military policy, it is leaving a lot to be desired. The farm families whose crops are destroyed do not become enamored of the US as a result – rather the reverse. (Anderson writes: “the only American a farmer ever meets might be the one who is destroying his harvest, rather than someone who is building a school or a clinic.”) The fact that eradication is sure to be quite partial also means that a decision of whom to target is also seen as being made in a partial manner. And as the areas in which Taliban influence is most intense are also the hardest for the US and allies to operate in, eradication efforts might even be partial towards the Taliban. An unsavory business all around.

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High Profile Vice Revelations

On the way to Tbilisi a week ago Vice Squad had a layover in London, where the dribbling out of confessions of prior illegal use drug use by leading British politicians was in the news. Guardian columnist Zoe Williams said that she wanted to record the complete tally, but that “it was like trawling through a list of first-world-war dead.” She notes how they never really admit to using pot, only to having “tried” it.

Before leaving the good ol’ US of A, a recurring news item there concerned prominent folks who may have “tried” an escort service or two, though certainly not for what you are thinking. Like the British weed smokers, they can’t come right out and just defend their activity, or announce that they have every intention of continuing in their vices. No, they have to pretend that their behavior was a Very Serious Error, though one that should be excused for some reason or other. (Williams points out that for the druggies, they like to point out that they were young, or the times were different then, or the misstep was so long ago as not to be an issue.) But on either side of the Atlantic, even though these prominent folks don’t actually defend their behavior, they also never seem to say how much better off they would have been if only they had been caught in their illegal act, arrested and jailed. The official, punitive approach is fine for those other folks, though.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007
Back in the ex-USSR

Two weeks ago, Vice Squad was in Kyiv. This week finds us in another post-Soviet Wonderland, Tbilisi, where we will be surveying the local vice scene for one month. But in our last hours back in Chicago, we came across this article on some inspired allocation of policing resources. It concerns MethCheck, wherein someone who exceeds the government's view of how much Sudafed you should be buying automatically has his or her name sent to the anti-drug constabulary. The article does its best to spin this as a wonderful law enforcement tool, as opposed to the ludicrous waste of time and money that it is. But it doesn't sound like MethCheck is really fixing that meth problem, especially if the opening anecdote is the best they could come up with:

LONDON, Ky. - Detective Brian Lewis returns to his desk after lunch, scanning e-mails he missed.

One catches his eye: It says a suspected member of a methamphetamine ring bought a box of Sudafed at 1:34 p.m. at a CVS pharmacy.

Minutes later, Lewis is in his truck, circling the parking lot, searching for the woman. Lewis did not find her that day, but the scenario illustrates the way law enforcement is increasingly relying on computerized tracking systems in their fight against meth, which is often brewed in makeshift labs.
Why are CVS and WalMart participating in these silly rituals?

It seems, incidentally, that former Soviet Georgia only made it to Vice Squad once before, in an inauspicious manner. Tbilisi is very pleasant, however.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Whiteclay Revisited

Fourteen people live in Whiteclay, Nebraska, it seems. Daily alcohol sales in Whiteclay amount to the equivalent of 10,000 beers: that's a Ruthian per-resident average of more than 714 beers per day.

Of course, it is not the residents who are buying all of those beers. Whiteclay is a creature of prohibition, in this case, the prohibition of alcohol sales within the neighboring Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There are about 20,000 folks living on the reservation, and the majority of those who are in the labor force are unemployed. The alcohol problems on the reservation are staggering.

Activists have been trying for years to close the beer sellers of Whiteclay; last month, demonstrators blockaded the road linking the reservation with the village. But the alcohol continues to flow into the reservation, and it is far from certain that if Whiteclay were to disappear tomorrow, the situation would improve very much.

All of the information above is drawn from this recent story in USA Today. But it sounded sadly familiar to me, and sure enough, Vice Squad linked to a rather similar story on February 12, 2004. A quick comparison indicates that since that time, there has been a slight fall in the number of Whiteclay residents, a rise in the population on the reservation, and a rise in alcohol sales in the village.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007
Is Khat Illegal in the US?

Khat is legal in Britain and, I believe, the Netherlands, but not in much of the rest of the developed world: Khat is illegal in Canada and the US, for instance. Or is it?

A stimulant, khat leaves are chewed like tobacco in social settings in Africa and the Middle East, where it was been used for centuries. Khat technically isn't illegal in the U.S. -- but the cathinone it contains is. That mild stimulant, however, begins to break down into legal cathine as soon as the leaves are picked; and it's nearly is absent 72 hours after harvest.

In this country, the federal court system has little experience with prosecuting khat cases and hasn't yet established guidelines for how the drug should be handled for testing.

In Seattle, according to the linked article, khat charges were dropped against some defendants, apparently in part because it was unclear whether the khat in question could be shown to have enough cathinone to be be illegal. The New York case mentioned in the article resulted in a mixed verdict, so it remains possible to be convicted of khat trafficking in the US.

I was in London last week, where khat is legal. Somehow the British civilisation stumbles along without locking up khat sellers. I managed to pick up -- no, not some khat, but Khat, while I was there. And if you are a British subject travelling to Canada, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a warning for you:

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Saturday, July 14, 2007
Raise Alcohol Taxes, Save the Planet

A doubling of the US federal alcohol tax would restore it, in real terms, to about the level that it stood at in 1974. And I think that there is much to be said for an alcohol tax hike. Nevertheless, it would probably require a much more significant tax hike before the US could avail itself of a benefit that very-high-alcohol-tax Sweden has uncovered: improving the environment. It's quite simple, really. First, you institute those really high alcohol taxes. Then, as folks attempt to smuggle untaxed alcohol into your country from abroad, you seize the occasional smuggled shipment. Then, you dispose of the confiscated hooch by giving it to a biofuels firm that converts the beverage alcohol into enviro-friendly fuel. Then you power trucks and busses with the alcohol-based biogas, so smugglers and customs agents can operate more cheaply. The policy is not only win-win, it violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (OK, maybe the smugglers aren't winners, and then there are all those Swedish citizens who are paying huge prices for a glass of wine with dinner.)

I wonder if the Finns hit on that idea?

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Friday, July 13, 2007
Towards Banning Brothels in Nevada?

A federal court decision has handed Nevada's legal brothels the right to advertise, even in those Nevada counties that do not permit legal prostitution. The court found the Nevada state laws banning brothel advertising to be overly broad, and hence inconsistent with the First amendment. But this is a case where more freedom today could well mean less tomorrow, if the marketing of brothels causes Nevada to join the other 49 states in banning them -- and their advertising. Somehow the judge failed to take the Vice Squad advice to follow the Posadas case.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007
Open Containers

The US has a de facto national minimum drinking age of 21, even though setting a drinking age falls within the power of the several states. Likewise, there's a de facto national blood-alcohol content (BAC) standard for drunk driving, 0.8 (centigrams per milliliter). These alcohol policy benchmarks were thrust upon the states by threats to cut the federal highway funds of those states whose standards were less strict than the federal guidelines.

But there is one element of alcohol policy on which the federal government has not been quite as successful in forcing compliance upon the states: open container laws. The feds want states to (among other things) prohibit open containers of alcohol in cars, even if the driver is not consuming any alcohol. The penalties for non-compliance are not all that draconian, however: three percent of the scofflaw state's allotment of federal highway funds becomes earmarked for anti-alcohol purposes. A handful of those ornery states have been willing to pay this price to skirt the federal mandates.

The recent news is that Delaware will remain outside the fold. The state senate couldn't get around to approving a bill that would have mildly fined drivers whose adult passengers were tippling during the trip. (Actually, I am uncertain whether the fine was to be imposed upon the driver or the open-container-possessing passenger. Montana, for instance, fines the passenger.) Delaware has shown more backbone in this regard than Texas, a state which practically celebrated open containers (even for drivers) when Vice Squad resided there in the early 1980s.

I haven't studied the issue, but my unconsidered reaction is to oppose federal fiscal pressure to coerce states into passing laws that the feds support but do not have the direct power to enact. We have a federal system with enumerated powers for the center. Since the Constitution that set up this system was passed, we have evolved a framework of public finance that makes states quite reliant upon transfers from the central government. Threats to cut off funding, therefore, can be used (and I think have been used) to shift state legislative authority to the federal government, dissolving the constitutional limits placed upon federal powers. Sorta like the commerce clause dodge...

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007
How to Fight Methamphetamine?

The most curious vice story out of the UK in recent days concerns a non-barking dog. Specifically, the large increase in the prevalence of meth use that might have been expected has failed to materialize. The police have a ready explanation:
Crystal meth, predicted by some to become Britain's deadliest drug, has so far failed to take off in the UK because cocaine remains so cheap and popular, according to senior police officers.
Ensuring inexpensive and plentiful cocaine as a policy for reducing social costs from the use of illegal drugs; this is not your granddad's harm reduction.

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Back in the USA...

...after sojourns in the UK and the Ukraine. (Vice Squad undergoes multi-stop travel only if the destinations lend themselves to wordplay. Watch out, Paraguay and Uruguay.) Mucho vice policy news out of Britain in the last few days. New Prime Minister Gordon Brown has scrapped the mega-casino planned for Manchester. All of the substitutions that would ensue in the wake of the public smoking ban were perhaps not thought through fully in advance; in particular, the smell of cigarette smoke covers up other odors, which can now have their day in the sun, as it were. And a failure to pass some implementing legislation in a timely manner has left Stoke-on-Trent as the one town in Britain where smoking in pubs lingers on, more-or-less without hindrance -- but only for a few days more.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Smoking Ban Update

Greetings from London, where Vice Squad arrived just in time to enjoy the least favorable (for US tourists) exchange rate in, oh, 26 years. So this posting will have to be short, as what US of A'er can afford British internet cafes?

The smoking ban implementation appears to be smooth. There were the ironic last legal smoking parties, paralleling similar gatherings when national alcohol Prohibition went into effect in the US. There are the malcontents, who include the musician Joe Jackson, who questions whether there's really any hard evidence that secondary tobacco smoke harms people (as Vice Squad noted in July 2004). And there's the pesky problem of what bars and restaurants will do with old ashtrays, the ones surviving informal removals by customers. And for the facts, we can turn to the Observer's malcontents article:

The Facts

· Shortly after the Second World War 80 per cent of men smoked. Today, about 24 per cent of the population continues to enjoy lighting up. Dramatic falls were seen in the Seventies and Eighties, but the rate of quitting has slowed to 0.4 per cent a year

· The government's wants just 17 per cent of Britons to be smoking by 2010

· The UK-wide smoking ban does not apply to three places: Alderney, Sark and the Isle of Man

· Smoking will also still be allowed in prisons, army barracks and care institutions

· 600,000 of Britain's 10 million smokers will give up as a result of the ban, the
government believes

· Age reduces addiction to nicotine. One third of 20- to 24-year-olds smoke, but just one in seven people over 60 do

· The Treasury takes over £4 of the typical £5.50 cost of a packet of 20 cigarettes in tax, and makes about £8bn a year from smokers

· It costs the NHS an estimated £1.5bn a year to treat smokers made ill by their habit

· Smoking kills about 100,000 Britons a year through cancer, lung conditions and heart problems. About 1,000 people a day are admitted to hospital in England with a smoking-related illness

Incidentally, between taxes and that exchange rate problem, a pack of decent cigs costs about $12 in London.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007
Field Work

Apologies for the pathetic pace of blogging recently. To make amends, I intend -- no, not to blog -- to go to England immediately so that I can view firsthand the effects of today's smoking ban implementation. Here's the Guardian article on the prospect of the ban in heavy smoking Hull. The article provides some choice quotes. Here's a smoker:
"I smoke 100 to 120 cigs a day. The ban will kill us. I like to sit with my mates after work with a pint and a cig. It will be gone. It's a dictatorship. It's worse than Russia."
Here's someone from the National Health Service, not exactly putting to rest those fears of Big Brother and the nanny state:
"People say you've got to die of something, or that it's their right to smoke. I get really irritated by that," says Wendy Richardson, director of public health in Hull. "That's the culture we're trying to change. The NHS has to look at all the deaths and say these are smoking-related deaths. We can avoid this."

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