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Archive for the ‘drugs’ Category

Marc blogged the other day about the New York Times editorial board’s endorsement of repealing federal marijuana prohibition, just months after having rejected that step. Now, this isn’t quite the same as endorsing marijuana legalization – just returning it to the states – but it is a significant step nonetheless. Still, they are well behind the rest of the country. An absolute majority of Americans favor legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana more or less like alcohol. Liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly in favor.

Fivethirtyeight recently showed how out-of-step the New York Times is by comparing their position to that of representative Americans with a similar demographic profile. Money quote:

[P]eople with this demographic profile are somewhere around 25 or 30 percentage points more supportive of marijuana legalization than the average American. That implies that back in 2000, when only about 30 percent of Americans supported legalization, perhaps 55 or 60 percent of these people did. The margin of error on this estimate is fairly high — about 10 percent — but not enough to call into question that most people like those on the Times’ editorial board have privately supported legalization for a long time. The question is why it took them so long to take such a stance publicly.

The political class everywhere, regardless of left-right ideology, has been vastly more opposed to marijuana legalization than equivalent Americans. Here in New Hampshire, Democratic governor Maggie Hassan has not only opposed and promised to veto recreational marijuana legalization, she has also opposed and threatened to veto marijuana decriminalization and even allowing terminally ill patients to grow their own medical marijuana plants. Her spineless copartisans in the state senate have gone meekly along. And is anyone really surprised that government bootlicker David Brooks opposes legalization? It’s no accident that the only two states to legalize recreational marijuana so far have been states with the popular ballot initiative. It’s also no accident that medical marijuana started in states with the popular ballot initiative. The people have had to go around the controllers and neurotics in office.

Now the Brookings Institution has come out with a study of marijuana legalization in Colorado. Their quick synopsis? (more…)

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Early Friday morning, the House passed an important amendment to the  appropriations bill for Commerce, Science, Justice and Related Agencies. As Billy House reports (National Journal):

Using states’ rights as a bipartisan rallying cry, the House voted 219 to 189 early Friday to prohibit the Justice Department from using federal funds to conduct raids or otherwise interfere with medical marijuana activities that are legal in the states.

The amendment, which was sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), passed with the support of 49 Republicans and 170 Democrats.

“Despite overwhelming shift in public opinion, the federal government continues its hard line of oppression against medical marijuana,” Rohrabacher said. But he said the Drug Enforcement Administration would be blocked from using any money in this appropriations bill to conduct raids on state-legal medical marijuana operations or dispensaries, or otherwise interfere with state medical marijuana laws or doctors or patients abiding by them.

One might have hoped that more Republicans would have dusted off their support for the 10th amendment to cast a yea vote. But GOP support was far weaker when similar amendments were offered in the past (there have been six failed attempts since 2003). As the Marijuana Policy Project’s Dan Riffle (Reason) notes: “This measure passed because it received more support from Republicans than ever before…It is refreshing to see conservatives in Congress sticking to their conservative principles when it comes to marijuana policy. Republicans increasingly recognize that marijuana prohibition is a failed Big Government program that infringes on states’ rights.”

These days you take victories—even small ones—wherever you can find them. On to the dark hole of the Senate!

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The War on Drugs

The London School of Economics has released a new report entitled Ending the Drug Wars and it is available here. The report is collection of papers that might be of some help for those hoping to think through the issues. The forward takes the form of a statement signed by a long list of notables (including several recipients of the Nobel Prize in economics):

It is time to end the ‘war on drugs’ and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies underpinned by rigorous economic analysis.

The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage. These include mass incarceration in the US, highly repressive policies in Asia, vast corruption and political destabilisation in Afghanistan and West Africa, immense violence in Latin America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, an acute global shortage of pain medication and the propagation of systematic human rights abuses around the world.

The strategy has failed based on its own terms. Evidence shows that drug prices have been declining while purity has been increasing. This has been despite drastic increases in global enforcement spending. Continuing to spend vast resources on punitive enforcement-led policies, generally at the expense of proven public health policies, can no longer be justified.

The United Nations has for too long tried to enforce a repressive, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. It must now take the lead in advocating a new cooperative international framework based on the fundamental acceptance that different policies will work for different countries and regions.

This new global drug strategy should be based on principles of public health, harm reduction, illicit market impact reduction, expanded access to essential medicines, minimisation of problematic consumption, rigorously monitored regulatory experimentation and an unwavering commitment to principles of human rights.

The war on drugs has been used to justify any number of infringements on human rights and civil liberties and has been a failure on every imaginable dimension. While there may be little that is genuinely new to those who have been thinking about drug policy, one can only hope—perhaps beyond hope—that the report will generate some media attention and support for genuine reform.

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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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