Those who fail to study history …

John Buntin at Governing looks to the development of alcohol policy after Prohibition for cautionary lessons about the future of the legal commercial cannabis industry, and some alternatives to that future. It’s the kind of solid, thoughtful reporting that is Buntin’s hallmark, and well worth a read.

 

America’s most criminogenic drug

Which intoxicating substance is associated with the most lethal violence? Devotees of the Wire might presume that cocaine or maybe heroin would top the list.

Of course the correct answer, by far, is alcohol. It’s involved in more homicides than pretty much every other substance, combined. Surveys of people incarcerated for violent crimes indicate that about 40% had been drinking at the time they committed these offenses. Among those who had been drinking, average blood-alcohol levels were estimated to exceed three times the legal limit.

Aside from its role among perpetrators of violence, alcohol use is widespread among victims, too, for some of the same reasons. Recent data from the Illinois Violent Death Reporting System (IVDRS) bear out these trends. At my request, researchers at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute analyzed 3,016 homicides occurring in five Illinois counties between 2005 and 2009. I find the below figures quite striking, particularly among young people. More here

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Alcohol as a panacea

Everyone “knows” that two glasses of red wine a day are good for your health. But, as Will Rogers said, it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you: it’s what you know that ain’t so. A paper by Hans Olav Fekjær and commentaries by Jurgen Rehm and Sven Andréasson, all in the latest issue of Addiction, review the evidence.

Yes, moderate drinkers have better health, on many dimensions, than non-drinkers and heavy drinkers. That’s the problem: too many dimensions, with too little biological mechanism. The logical thought is that people who drink in moderation probably have, on average, better health habits in other respects than those who don’t drink at all, since by definition they’ve avoided taking their alcohol use to excess while the abstainers either haven’t run that risk or have found that they can’t drink just a little. It’s also the case that, in Western cultures, drinking is normal while non-drinking is somewhat deviant. The fact that in India, where drinking isn’t a social norm, drinking isn’t associated with better cardiovascular health seems to me to seriously weaken the case for a causal connection in other societies.

Why the “Moderate drinking is good for what ails ya” theory has found such ready acceptance, while a comparable finding about moderate cannabis use and academic performance was ignored, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Logic and the marijuana war

A pro-pot group rented video-billboard space outside the Indianapolis Speedway for the weekend of a NASCAR event to run a video with the following voicetrack:

If you’re an adult who enjoys a good beer, there’s a similar product you might want to know about – one without all the calories and serious health problems, less toxic so it doesn’t cause hangovers or overdose deaths, and it’s not linked to violence or reckless behavior.

Marijuana: less harmful than alcohol and time to treat it that way.

A group that calls itself “anti-drug” objected.

This campaign falsely claims marijuana is safer than alcohol and promotes illicit drug use in a state where marijuana is illegal.

The billboard company chickened out, either out of cowardice or because it didn’t want to offend its beer-company advertisers.

The New York Daily News repeats as fact the claim that the objecting organization is “anti-drug.” “Anti-truth” would be closer to the mark.

The logical negation of “Marijuana is safer than alcohol” would be “Alcohol is no more dangerous than marijuana.” How could anyone concerned about drug abuse make such a recklessly false claim promoting use of the intoxicant that kills, injures, and addicts more people than all the illicit drugs combined? “Less harmful than alcohol” is a low bar, but cannabis clears it easily.

Cannabis and alcohol (reprise)

David Frum and I agree that “But something else is even worse than X!” is not a good reason to ignore the X problem: autos kill more people than guns, but we should still try to reduce the number of people killed with guns. And the fact that alcohol is a much nastier drug than cannabis, both physiologically and behaviorally, doesn’t make cannabis abuse either rare or benign.

But Point #13 in the post Frum links to wasn’t about the comparison between cannabis and alcohol; it was about the causal connection between cannabis policy and alcohol abuse. As Frum notes, alcohol use and cannabis use are now positively correlated. But that doesn’t tell you anything conclusive about whether making cannabis legally available would increase or decrease heavy drinking.

In my view, an increase of as little as 10% in heavy drinking would wipe out any benefits from cannabis legalization, including the benefit in the form of fewer arrests because of the additional crime that would go along with the additional heavy drinking. Frum is aware of that possibility.

But he ignores the opposite possibility, equally plausible in terms of both logic and evidence. Continue Reading…

The Boris Johnson Achievement That The Economist Will Not Mention

The Economist handicaps the coming London mayoral race, noting correctly that Boris Johnson currently leads Ken Livingstone in the polls but by no means has things sewn up. But the newspaper’s house politics skew the coverage badly as the article uses this gem of circumlocution to limn Johnson’s achievements as mayor:

Crime has continued to fall and minor improvements have been made to public transport, including a cycle-hire scheme and the end of the hated “bendy” bus.

As much as it may grate on them, the Economist should have acknowledged a key reason why crime is down and public transport quality is up under Johnson: He prohibited drinking on trains and buses. This was a political risk that did not endear him to libertarians. Indeed, some of the opposition went so far as to have a protest/party the night before the ban went into effect. The resulting alcohol-fueled violence and destruction was a vindication for Mayor Johnson.

The amazing drop in crime in New York City started with a change in how low-level antisocial/criminal behavior in the subways was policed. As has happened in London, crime first started to drop in what became a widely used zone of civility. Johnson clearly learned from the New York experience and London has benefited both in terms of fewer assaults on public transport riders and staff and in a greater sense of safety among those who rely on buses and the tube.

The Economist opposes prohibitions on psychoactive substances on principle, but that shouldn’t stop them from admitting when a well-reasoned ban has proved a success. Londoners know better: Three years on, a remarkable 87% of them support the policy.

Concerning replication

I’m in London for meetings on criminal justice organized by the Centre for Justice Innovation (the UK arm of the Center for Court Innovation) and Policy Exchange. A small meeting that ran for two hours today tried to figure out whether the coerced-sobriety approach of the South Dakota 24/7 project (the alcohol version of HOPE) could be used in Scotland, with social problems, customs, and institutional arrangements quite unlike South Dakota’s. (In particular, Scotland has no such thing as a two-day term of confinement.)

The answer seems to be that you could try to do something based on similar principles and with similar aims, but you couldn’t really do the program in its trademark style, and even if you’re convinced 24/7 works on drunk drivers in Sioux Falls you can’t be sure that the alternative version would work on drunken wife-beaters in Glasgow.

That suggests a more general reflection. Heraclitus said that no one can step twice into the same river. By the same token, it isn’t really possible to do the same program in two different places.