Vice Squad
Friday, August 31, 2007
Nadelmann on Afghan Opium

I finally managed to read the cover story (subscribers only) in the September/October edition of Foreign Policy, in which Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance makes the case for abandoning the war on drugs. Most of the arguments will be familiar and persuasive to the Vice Squad reader, whoever you are. But Dr. Nadelmann offered some insights on the situation in Afghanistan that were new to me. Who would benefit, Nadelmann asks, if opium production in Afghanistan really were to fall?:
Only the Taliban, warlords, and other black-market entrepreneurs whose stockpiles of opium would skyrocket in value. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan peasants would flock to cities, ill-prepared to find work. And many Afghans would return to their farms the following year to plant another illegal harvest, utilizing guerrilla farming methods to escape intensified eradication efforts.
The bottom line? "[M]aybe the world is better off, all things considered, with 90 percent of [heroin] coming from just one country."

Vice Squad has long been tracking the Afghan opium situation, with the most recent "contributions" occurring on July 26 and August 27. And Vice Squad once met Dr. Nadelmann.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The September issue of The Atlantic offers a lengthy article (subscribers only) by James Fallows on gambling in Macau (or Macao). I learned a lot:

-- In geographical terms, Macau is one-sixth the size of Washington, DC, with a population of about half a million.

-- The fact that Macau surpassed Vegas last year in gambling revenue is misleading, because "[c]asino earnings make up nearly all of Macau's tourist-related revenue, while they're barely 40 percent of the Las Vegas Strip. The rest comes from conventions, shows, high-end dining, and fancy malls."

-- "Macau also imposes a tax of up to 40 percent on casino earnings, far higher than in most U.S. states." (But not higher than in Vice Squad's base of Illinois.)

-- Macau's casinos are relatively quiet. First, alcohol is not prevalent and is not given out free to gamblers. Second, the gambling is dominated not by noisy slot machines, but by table games. "In Las Vegas, slots account for roughly 60 percent of the total casino win; in Macau, roughly 5 percent."

-- Most of the money wagered in Macau is put down in sub-contracted "VIP rooms" that operate within casino premises but are not operated by the casino company. The betting currency typically is Hong Kong dollars.

I could go on, but the main point is that the article is well worth reading. If you do not like to read, you are still in luck. Here's a related and superb 5-minute slideshow on Macau, narrated by Fallows and available to subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

Previous Vice Squad posts on Macau include these on March 27, 2007, and December 1, 2004.

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Monday, August 27, 2007
First, World Peace; then, Opium Eradication

Today's Baltimore Sun includes an op-ed from "the political counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington," asking for help in weaning Afghans from growing opium. The counselor notes that "International experience has taught us that eradication in isolation is ineffective." But if all of the right pieces are in place, why then, the poppy crop will wither away.

What are some of the conditions that are required?

(1) "Counter-narcotics efforts must be enacted contemporaneously across the country in a strategic manner."

(2) "Above all else, farmers must be given the opportunity and necessary resources to grow alternative crops."

(3) Farmers must "have access to both land and alternative financing, such as widely available micro-lending."

(4) "[I]nvestments in infrastructure are needed. In addition to supplies of water, seed and fertilizer, farmers must have access to reliable farm-to-market roads or to cold-storage facilities to preserve products for later export."

(5) "To be effective, counter-narcotics efforts must target all players in the long chain of the opium trade, including traffickers, distributors and dealers, who pull in about 80 percent of the export value of Afghan narcotics. Essential to the prosecution of these kingpins is a functional justice sector, with coordinated law enforcement and judicial activities." (Please remind me again why alcohol sellers are never called kingpins?)

(6) "But even with international support, transnational drug traffickers will continue to permeate Afghanistan's borders and undermine the rule of law in the absence of coordinated prosecution and enforcement efforts among Afghanistan, its neighbors and consumer countries."

(7) "The international community must double its law-enforcement cooperation with Afghanistan and recommit to providing the country with long-term development aid to meet the farmers' demand for legal livelihoods."

Right then. We'll just take care of these seven issues and we can put the scourge of opium behind us. Oops, no, I meant Afghan opium. You don't think it might crop up elsewhere, do you?

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Sunday, August 26, 2007
A Vice Career

Vice Squad has temporarily decamped for Baltimore, where today's Baltimore Sun contains this notice of the retirement of a police officer who spent half of his career with the, er, vice squad. I have no reason to doubt the integrity of this officer, but I found the story rather depressing. He recounts arrest after arrest, including those of the clergy members he collared (sorry) while posing as a male hustler, and of female prostitutes with various disabilities. (The story claims he made 5,000 prostitution arrests and 1,000 gambling arrests.) I recognize that under any regulatory system the public manifestations of prostitution have to be controlled, but our prohibition leads to so many unnecessary arrests, while simultaneously putting prostitutes at great risk from violent crime. The officer is a wine aficionado -- I hope that in his forthcoming book he can make the connection between social costs and vice prohibition.

The prostitution arrest drumbeat is every bit as regular, but not as intense, as the drug arrest drumbeat. Search Google News for 'prostitution' and you can read of the latest toll, in community after community in the US -- and all for behavior that in much of the world is neither illegal nor a matter of public interest.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007
Estonia to Raise Alcohol Taxes

OK, I recognize that if you haven't been following this issue for years, the title of this post does not promise much excitement to follow. And your suspicion, alas, would be correct. But for the interested Vice Squad reader, this BBC News article will prove informative.

The Estonian tax rise will hold repercussions for Finland, which felt compelled to decrease its high alcohol taxes prior to Estonian entry into the EU. The tax rise from Tallinn will probably engender an alcohol tax increase in Finland, too; Finland has seen a significant increase in alcohol-related problems since the tax cut, though perhaps the worst is behind them.

The linked BBC article contains a quote from someone at the Finnish health ministry that employs two frequent Vice Squad tropes, that of alcohol (and vice goods more generally) not being "ordinary" commodities and a comparison with one specific ordinary commodity, ketchup. Warms my heart:

At the Finnish health ministry Ismo Tuominen, in charge of devising new alcohol legislation, says the 2004 tax cut was a mistake - but that Finland is helpless to tackle its growing alcohol consumption.

"EU legislation is at the root of our problems," he says. "They treat alcohol like an ordinary product, like tomato ketchup or milk. They have to allow us to develop a health-based policy on alcohol - so we can limit the now limitless possibilities to bring alcohol in from other EU member states."

These comments are in league with the points recently raised by Dani Rodrik and Vice Squad.

The blog Finland for Thought currently sports a cornucopia of vice-policy-related posts. (First I wrote that the blog "currently hosts" those posts, but I found the rhyme to be troubling.)

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Friday, August 24, 2007
Obscenity Omission

I am still playing catch-up on vice-related news following my month in Tbilisi; today I discovered this August 10 New York Times article concerning, a webpage (operated by Morality in Media and linked to by the Justice Department) on which folks can turn in internet sites that they suspect contain illegal obscenity. Two retired police officers seek out illegal cyberporn and review the sites identified through the web informant page. According to the Times article, these efforts are funded through federal grants made to Morality in Media. And for those of us who think that our own toil has a Sisyphean element, take heart.

In the last few years, 67,000 citizens' complaints have been deemed legitimate under the program and passed on to the Justice Department and federal prosecutors.

The number of prosecutions resulting from those referrals is zero.

In what is surely a coincidence, Vice Squad's own Northern District of Illinois leads the nation in supplying the seemingly fruitless smut referrals.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007
US-Antigua WTO Dispute in the Times

Dani Rodrik points us to an article in today's New York Times on the WTO case between Antigua and Barbuda and the United States. One point that the article does not make clear -- indeed, it sort of suggests the opposite -- is that for the most part, the US won the case. But it does note the stonewalling tactics of the US on that portion of the dispute, primarily concerning internet betting on horse races, in which Antigua prevailed.

Existing domestic vice controls, for all of their faults, represent a sort of evolved equilibrium that in part tries to deal with the social costs of vice. Allowing these controls to be trumped by trade treaties is dangerous, as Vice Squad continues to proclaim. Undoubtedly it would be possible to imagine a world in which a nation's chosen approaches towards vice could be made consistent with trade non-discrimination principles. But allowing those principles to overturn the existing equilibrium, before the first-best system of rules is worked out, puts a country at risk of a difficult transition that might involve much higher social costs of vice. And this dynamic in turn will put trade openness at risk. Dani seems to agree:
To me, this is another example of how existing WTO practices are leading to the narrowing of policy space to the detriment of legitimacy (and economic logic). When the system serves to enforce new restrictions on domestic policy autonomy that would be wildly unpopular at home, it is time to rethink the system.
Dani couches his reaction by invoking the "residual rights of control" approach to ownership. This is not an approach I have ever found to be particularly compelling, though I imagine that I am missing something obvious. Imagine that there is an asset over which there are two payoff-relevant dimensions of use, say, intensity and duration. We write a contract that says that I get to choose intensity and you get to choose everything else. Then by the "residual rights" approach, you are the owner. Now imagine the (equivalent, by stipulation) contract that gives you the right to choose duration, and I can choose everything else; handy dandy, I'm the owner?

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Drugs Blur Vision...

...oops, I mean, Blur's Drug Vision. David Rowntree, recovering addict, aspiring barrister/politico, and the drummer for the British band Blur has an op-ed on drug policy in Tuesday's Guardian. First, Rowntree points to the ineffectiveness of drug policy, or at least to the paucity of data pointing to policy efficacy: "there seems to be no evidence that any country's policy has had any lasting effect on the number of recreational or dependant [sic] drug users at all. Ever." He then suggests that in shaping policy it is sensible to consider dependent and non-dependent users separately, recognizing that for most users, there are no negative long-run consequences from a standard recreational drug career that fades away by the age of thirty. Eventually, Rowntree proposes "a strategy based on research, education and harm reduction." But en route he offers what I consider to be some profound insights into his own addiction. At first the alcohol and coke seemed to be problem solvers.

However, my experience of life when not on drink or drugs got progressively worse. The world became an increasingly hostile place, relationships got more difficult and an all-encompassing sense of dread and paranoia set in. Drink and drugs became progressively less effective in soothing those feelings. At some point, the drugs stopped working, but life without them had become impossible. It was a catch-22 situation where it was impossible to live without alcohol or drugs but impossible to continue using. I managed to get help before they destroyed my life, and these days I'm active in the recovery community. The key point is that all the way along, I thought my behaviour was normal and it was the rest of the world that had gone mad. I had no idea my experience was different to anyone else's because I had nothing to measure it against.

So if my experience is typical, and I think it probably is, many addicts aren't interested in treatment because they don't believe there's anything wrong with them.
Incidentally, both Rowntree and Blur hail from Colchester, where Vice Squad was happily seconded for a year in the mid-1990s. Speaking of secondments, I have returned (sans luggage) to Chicago, allowing me to pick up the Guardian in one of the too-many airports that I visited today; I hope that more regular Vice Squad posting will ensue.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Slate's William Saletan argues that in some dimensions the war against smoking and tobacco has gotten out of hand. (OK, maybe that isn't quite strong enough. The article is entitled "Kicking Butt: The International Jihad Against Tobacco.") One of Saletan's leading examples is Vice Squad obsession snus:
The latest target is snus, a tobacco product that delivers nicotine without smoke. Despite studies showing it's far safer than cigarettes, most European countries allow smoking but prohibit snus. In the U.S., sponsors of legislation to regulate tobacco under the FDA are resisting amendments that would let companies tell consumers how much safer snus is. The president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids complains that snus will "increase the number of people who use tobacco," letting "the big companies win no matter what tobacco products people use." But the goal shouldn't be to stamp out tobacco or make companies lose. The goal should be to save lives.
Though Saletan and Vice Squad feel similarly about snus, I am not sure that adopting as a general goal that of saving lives is necessarily a good idea (though to argue against it, admittedly, makes one sound uncharitable or worse). There are lots of things that people enjoy that are a bit risky, and perhaps more lives could be saved (or prolonged, rather) by using coercion to curtail these activities. But the decision to pursue these risky activities might be perfectly reasonable; maybe some sort of compromise might be appropriate?

If you click over to the Slate article, check out the links on the left side to some previous Saletan articles that deal with non-tobacco vices, including coffee, sex, and fatty foods.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007
Discuss This Book

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution posts about the new book by Vice Squad mentor Phil Cook on alcohol control. Phil's book is Paying the Tab: The Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control, and the blurb from Thomas Schelling is a keeper. I haven't seen the book yet -- I am in Tbilisi, so it might take awhile -- but I did see Phil present a portion of the book last year. Phil is a supporter of raising taxes on alcohol, which also coincides with my view (hmmm, maybe I got it from Phil?). Tyler is unconvinced.

I hope to have more to say about Paying the Tab when I return to Chicago.

Tyler's post, incidentally, induced a comment from me, which I will reproduce below (not that it is the sort of thing that merits repetition)...

The alcohol excise tax falls in real terms every year, because it is not indexed to inflation. In real terms, the current federal excise tax is less than one-quarter of what it was in 1951. If we doubled the federal alcohol excise tax, it would be back at about the level it was at in 1973.

Incidentally, at least one scholar often thought to be a libertarian, John Stuart Mill, thought that it was perfectly appropriate for the government to impose higher tax rates on goods like alcohol.

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Don't Discuss This Book

Vice Squad has heard from the author of You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos. The subject matter overlaps with Vice Squad on the drugs and sex front, though a glance at the Table of Contents also will show you the non-vicious (but fully taboo -- mucus makes an appearance --) topics covered by You Will Die. The third section of Chapter One has the intriguing title "Definition of Taboo: Shut Up". The website hosts lots of other helpful stuff, too, including a page on prostitution legalization links that is easily the best of its kind that I have surfed upon. And I just noticed -- really -- that the drug legalization links page includes (along with Pete's indispensable Drug WarRant) our own modest corner of the blogosphere. You Will Die (at least the website -- I haven't read the book yet, though I have high hopes for it) is even more insightful than I suspected.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Buffalo-Area Escorts

The Buffalo News has run a two-part story on web-based prostitution in the Buffalo area. Part one is here, and part two is here. There's quite a bit of information in the articles, which generally avoid the "isn't this terrible?" tone that I have come to expect from journalism about prostitution. (There is a hint of that tone in part two.) And though the dangerousness of the profession (prostitution, not journalism) is noted (in part 2), there is no suggestion that most of that danger arises from its illegal status.

Nevertheless, the series is pretty well-balanced, and presents the views of sex industry workers with respect. And among the pieces of information that I learned are that the standard price seems to be about $200 per encounter, and that the Buffalo re-education camps -- er, John Schools (4-page pdf here on Brooklyn's version) -- have not been operating for the past few years.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007
British Internet Gambling Advertising Partial Ban

The new UK gambling regulations are going into effect and they include efforts to ensure that internet gambling providers are held to high standards. One such effort is to permit (as of September 1) the advertising of web-gambling sites only if they are located in a geographical location that provides a high level of regulatory oversight. This approaching regulation is both inducing some internet gambling providers to relocate, and some cyberbetting havens to upgrade their oversight.

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More on Sweden and Alcohol

Sweden's high tax/public retail monopoly regime for alcohol has been under assault from the EU for some time. It's a standard free (or non-discriminatory) trade versus vice policy collision, not unlike the one that the US has going with Antigua and the WTO concerning internet gambling. Last month, an EU court adviser indicated that the much higher taxes applied by Sweden to wine than to beer were a form of disguised discrimination, because much of the beer is Swedish whereas most of the wine is imported. But it's perfectly sensible to tax higher alcohol products more highly, so once again, Vice Squad sides with a country's domestic vice policy over the free trade mandates; in the long run, I think that allowing trade rules to trump domestic vice policy is likely to harm both vice policy and commitment to free trade.

The EU court need not follow the advice, however, of either Vice Squad or of the official adviser.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007
China's Drug War Cruelty

The absurd punishments for the consensual drug-related 'crimes' in the US are disheartening, but some countries are even worse -- I suppose the States can take some comfort there? China is one of the most egregious offenders. Right now, seven Ugandans have been sentenced to death for heroin trafficking in China. They were convicted of trafficking in more than 50 grams -- that's nearly two ounces, folks, and might be enough to keep a single addict supplied with heroin for a whole month. (If they were convicted of trafficking of less than 50 grams, they would have been eligible "only" for 15 years in prison.) The Ugandan government is pleading for clemency from the Chinese, but at the same time, doesn't want anyone to think that Uganda isn't committed to the well-designed global drug war policy. The story can be found here.

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Friday, August 10, 2007
"Sweden and Alcohol"

The Swedish approach to alcohol provides plenty of fodder for vice policy researchers. The current system involves a state-owned monopoly over retail sales and high taxes. But for a few decades prior to the mid-1950s, Sweden operated a rationing system for spirits, in which, among other features, those who misbehaved under the influence would lose their ration. A short primer by Laurie Thompson from 2003, "Sweden and Alcohol," is available online; thanks to Alcohol and Drugs History Society for the pointer.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007
Bingeing on Beer

Adult drinkers in the US who binge -- that's 5 or more drinks at a sitting -- tend to binge on beer. That's not surprising, but it turns out that when teenagers binge, they binge on hard liquor. These results come from two just-published CDC-sponsored studies, as described here.

My previous understanding had been that beer was the alcohol of choice for the younger set. So this new study makes me wonder if efforts to police underage drinking -- the teens in the study were mainly high schoolers -- are actually having more of an effect. And as the country as a whole found out in the 1920s, a prohibition pushes consumers towards more potent forms of their substances. When the prohibition against teen drinking was lightly enforced, this line of thinking would go, teens preferred beer, and for the same reasons as adults: relatively cheap and relatively available. But make alcohol harder for kids to come by, and the couple of bottles of vodka -- more easily transported and hidden, and perhaps easier to consume more quickly -- begin to look better than a case of beer.

One of the policy issues this touches upon is the tax mix among different forms of alcohol. I have long believed that hard liquor is almost a different drug than beer or wine, and much more dangerous. Therefore, I think a policy that taxes hard liquor more heavily than wine and beer (and regulates it more strictly in other manners) is generally a good idea. And though I am against the current federally-imposed drinking age of 21, the fact that underage kids now prefer to drink heavily with hard liquor reinforces my view that the hard stuff should be differentially taxed.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007
English Smoking Ban Enforcement

The English didn't manage to convey anyone to the Tower for violating the smoking ban, at least in its first two weeks of operations. (That's the first two weeks of the smoking ban, not of the Tower -- the Tower has been around for a few months already.) One bar owner in Blackpool was fined for not enforcing the ban, but he has pleaded not guilty. (A new indignity for Blackpool, on top of losing out on the mega-casino.) During those first two weeks of July, some 89,000 establishments saw a smoking inspector call. The inspection brigade wrote a spate of warnings and proffered some sage advice, but only the Blackpool scofflaw induced a display of their full ticket-issuing authority.

The smoking ban in Wales had about a three month start on the English ban, and some pubs and bingo halls -- it's always the bingo halls that suffer the most -- have seen significant declines in their business.

More on Blackpool's dashed-gambling-hopes malaise here; one nearby place that has just adopted gambling, of the cyber variety, is that wacky Principality of Sealand located a few miles off the British coast.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007
Anti-Prostitution Laws Challenged in Canada

Prostitution per se is not illegal in Canada, but associated activities like soliciting and living off the proceeds are illegal. It is possible to be a prostitute without breaking Canadian law but hard to legally work as a prostitute. That might change if a new legal challenge succeeds. From this article, published on Friday:
Two Vancouver lawyers will launch a constitutional challenge today of Canada's prostitution laws, arguing they force sex workers into unsafe conditions and infringe a sex worker's right to freedom of expression.
This case parallels an ongoing constitutional challenge to Canada's prostitution laws from Ontario.

Vice Squad has long been amazed at how little influence the carnage inflicted upon prostitutes has had on public policy. Perhaps these lawsuits will alter that situation in Canada.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007
Asset Forfeiture

Last week the California Supreme Court ruled that the cars of people arrested for drug or prostitution offenses could not be seized by municipal governments. The Court didn't say that these seizures violate due process provisions; rather, it said that the municipalities need state legislative blessing before they can go asset hunting. So attempts are already underway to give a legal patina to the whole smelly business. Incidentally, earlier in July, Berkeley found that its own asset forfeiture funds were not the best-managed part of city government.

It's a different story at the federal level, where asset forfeiture is a wonderful and oh-so-fair component of the brilliantly conceived war on drugs. The Attorney General, known for his candor, has willed it so:
...the Asset Forfeiture program has never been stronger.
Established in 1984, the program was created to punish and deter criminal
activity by depriving criminals of their ill-gotten gains and the
instruments of their trade.

More than two decades later the program has surpassed all expectations.
Over $10 billion in assets have been surrendered by criminals, including
more than a billion dollars last year alone. Over and over again,
forfeiture has proven to be a powerful and effective tool in pursuing drug
dealers and in disrupting and dismantling their criminal organizations.
The Attorney General's prepared remarks are not easy reading for anyone with a feeling for the misguidedness of the drug war. But if you can make it to the end, you can read about how the War on Drugs saved a four-year old. Again I find myself asking, is this really the best pro-drug-war anecdote they can come up with? This is a war in its death throes.


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