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Archive for the ‘drugs’ Category

As we all know, Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana went into effect the other day, and Washington will soon follow. I would spend some time discussing the merits of legalization, but I largely agree with Grover’s post on Green Wednesday.  As one might expect, it didn’t take long for the op-eds to offer their opposition to legalization.

David Brooks (NYT) weighs in on the issue. He remembers his days smoking weed as an adolescent and assures us that he is no prude (“I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.”) The real concern is the impact of marijuana on the adolescent mind and the impact of legalization on marijuana use. Ruth Marcus (in WaPo)  focuses on this issue, arguing that “our children will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance.” If early marijuana use has negative impacts on the adolescent brain (Marcus cites research that “long-term users saw an average decline of eight IQ points”) this should be a source of concern. Of course, Colorado does not legalize the use of marijuana by people under age 21—a point that Marcus acknowledges—but this is beside the point. Alcohol is prohibited for those under 21, and yet illegal drinking is widespread.  The core issue for Marcus: “although alcohol seems to be the teen drug of choice among the adolescents I know, the more widely available marijuana becomes, the more minors will use it.”

Brooks arrives at the same conclusion:

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.

It is simple economics: legalization should result in a reduction in prices. A reduction in prices should lead adolescents who drink alcohol to consumer marijuana instead. The core question: is this necessarily a bad thing? (more…)

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My Twitter feed has been filled with Americans and others expressing outrage about a Saudi court’s sentencing a man to be paralyzed from the waist down. He had stabbed a man in the back, paralyzing him.

I’m not going to defend or oppose the sentence, but I am going to defend a principle here: the violence inherent in the justice system should be obvious rather than hidden.

A couple of years ago, Peter Moskos suggested bringing back flogging as an option for prisoners: a year off your sentence for every stroke of the lash. He wrote eloquently of the horrors of the carceral state. And, so long as judges don’t simply respond by increasing sentence duration, it’s hard to see how the option to choose the lash would make prisoners worse off. As I wrote at the time:

I’m pulled to agree with Moskos. But I worry. I worry that the best evidence seems to suggest that prison deters crime mainly through incapacitation – criminals cannot commit crimes except against other criminals while behind bars. There’s good evidence for deterrent effects through things like California’s three strikes legislation, but incapacitation matters a lot. Longer term crime rates could go down with a switch from prisons to flogging if those committing crimes were better able to maintain a connection to the community and if prisons encourage recidivism. But rates would almost have to increase in the short term: those viewing flogging as much cheaper than a jail term would expect a reduction in the effective expected punishment for a criminal act. I’d hope that Moskos’s prescription would maintain the use of prisons as preventative detention for the really scary crazy dangerous cases.

A decade ago I would have worried that reducing the price of punishment experienced by the state would increase the total amount of punishment. If it’s expensive to keep a prisoner for a year, the state might be reluctant to put marginal offenders in jail. That’s not proven much of a constraint, so I worry rather less about that now.

But I do worry that the mob used to enjoy the spectacle of a public hanging.

When I read about cases like John Horner, (likely) entrapped by the DEA and facing a 25 year mandatory sentence for having sold his leftover prescription pain medicine to another man who had made him believe that he was in desperate pain, I wonder whether it’s the Saudis or the Americans who are really out of line. If you had two young daughters, and were facing 25 years delivered by the American justice system for doing no harm to anyone, wouldn’t you prefer surgical paralysation? I would.

Sometimes I wonder whether the focus on injustices committed abroad are a way of avoiding thinking of the ones at home.

In other news, we now have decent evidence that “tag and release” is more effective in preventing recidivism than incarceration. Here’s the abstract from the newly published paper by Di Tella and Schargrodsky in the Journal of Political Economy:

We study criminal recidivism in Argentina by focusing on the rearrest rates of two groups: individuals released from prison and individuals released from electronic monitoring. Detainees are randomly assigned to judges, and ideological differences across judges translate into large differences in the allocation of electronic monitoring to an otherwise similar population. Using these peculiarities of the Argentine setting, we argue that there is a large, negative causal effect on criminal recidivism of treating individuals with electronic monitoring relative to prison.

Lengthy carceral sentences for drug crimes are arguably behind much American inner-city disfunction. When a reasonable proportion of men of marriageable age are in prison, really bad things start happening to family formation.

Moskos is looking more right all the time.

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Two Economists vs. the Drug War

This piece doesn’t really contain anything all that new for those of us who have followed the debate on the drug war, but it is nice to see two prominent economists (Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy) making the case against it in a big paper of record such as the Wall Street Journal.  Here is a snippet, but I recommend the whole piece:

The direct monetary cost to American taxpayers of the war on drugs includes spending on police, the court personnel used to try drug users and traffickers, and the guards and other resources spent on imprisoning and punishing those convicted of drug offenses. Total current spending is estimated at over $40 billion a year.

The more interesting debate is (or should be) over the question of whether recreational drug use of one sort or another is immoral.  Since I drink alcohol socially in a limited fashion, my revealed preferences suggest I’m not opposed to some recreational use of drugs.  Moreover, I utilize caffeine as a performance enhancing drug — meaning, I have enjoyed drinking soda the way others use coffee.  But I’ve never used an illegal drug in my life and have abstained for much more than legal and prudential considerations.  I’d like to have something deeper to say on this at some point but am still thinking through some facets of the issue.  A starting point is that I generally don’t see drug use as consistent with human flourishing, especially in terms of the exercise and maintenance of the most important human faculty: reason.

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“Ten years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. One decade after this unprecedented experiment, drug abuse is down by half.”

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Florida recently passed a law requiring welfare recipients to be tested for drugs and throwing them off welfare if they test positive. Governor Rick Scott justified it as saving taxpayers’ money and discouraging drug use. It turns out to be costing taxpayers more money than it saves them, because hardly anyone tests positive. This isn’t conclusive proof, by the way, that the law isn’t discouraging drug use – after all, prospective welfare recipients could have modified their behavior after the law was passed – but it’s strongly suggestive that it is not, for low-resource citizens tend to have higher levels of political ignorance, and it would not be surprising if many of them did not know of the new law before applying.

Even if the law were working as intended, I think it would still be unjust. As Mike Riggs points out in the first link above, the law does not test corporate welfare recipients for drugs, only poor people. The fact that this is a government benefit does not mean that the government is justified in attaching any conditions it wants to it. Would it be justified in requiring every public school student (and parent??) to be tested for drugs? Would it be justified in requiring strip searches of welfare recipients? Drug testing is invasive and should always bear a significant burden of proof when conducted by government. In my view, while private employers have every right to test their employees for drugs, the bureaucratic, “zero tolerance” culture of drug testing has gone too far and should not be further encouraged.

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At The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead makes a prediction about the future of the drug war. Unlike many libertarians and legalization activists (whom he calls the “Stoner Lobby”), he believes that legalization would be a disaster – but that continuing the drug war would be a catastrophe. As a “least bad” option, he believes that what ought to and will eventually happen is legalization of supply combined with strict, perhaps even harsh, demand-side measures. His arguments against public control of the supply of hard drugs, as attempted briefly in Switzerland and advocated by some moderate legalization activists, are interesting and difficult to refute.

As a challenge to both sides of the debate, this piece is worth a read. I am not so sure that the demand for hard drugs is anywhere near as price-elastic as he believes, however.

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