Friday, June 15, 2018

What Really Happened After Raising the Smoking Age to 21? (Updated)

In 2014, New York City became the first major city in the USA to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21.  Prior to that, it was 18, much like the rest of the country.   The law was passed by Mayor Bloomberg at the end of 2013, and it went into effect in May 2014.

Since then, five states (California and Hawaii in 2016, New Jersey in 2017, and Maine and Oregon in 2018) have also raised it to 21 and numerous counties and towns/cities did so as well from 2013-2018, though a few localities had also done so earlier as well.  When Needham, MA did so in 2005-2008, there was much praise from the pro-21 crowd when surveys showed that teen smoking rates had dropped much faster in Needham than in its surrounding communities (which were 18) from 2006-2010.  So it is very curious indeed that no one seems to be talking about what happened anywhere else since they raised their own smoking ages to 21.

We think we know why.  At first glance, it does appear to have had some effect.  According to the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), teen smoking rates did in fact drop from 2013 to 2015 in NYC:

2005   11.2%
2007   8.5%
2009   8.4%
2011   8.5%
2013   8.2%
2015   5.8%
2017   5.0%

Those are the percentages of combined 9-12 grade students who reported any current cigarette smoking in the past 30 days.  Looks impressive at first:  a relative 29% drop from 2013 to 2015.  But take a look at the same data for the nation as a whole, for comparison:

2005   23.0%
2007   20.0%
2009   19.5%
2011   18.1%
2013   15.7%
2015   10.8%
2017     8.8%

As you can see, the nation as a whole also saw a similar (if even faster) drop in teen smoking at the same time, with a relative 31% decrease from 2013 to 2015, despite no change in the smoking age in most places.  And the teen smoking rate in NYC was already much lower before the law change, having dropped more dramatically than the rest of the USA prior to 2007 and then remaining at a low level since.

How about San Francisco, another major city that raised its age limit to 21?

2005   10.9%
2007   8.0%
2009   10.4%
2011   10.7%
2013   7.5%
2015   5.4%
2017   4.7%

They also saw a similar size drop from 2013-2015, to the tune of 28% (vs. 29% in NYC and 31% in the USA overall).  Just one problem though.  San Francisco did not raise their smoking age until 2016, so these data show that the drop in the smoking rate happened while it was still 18, before the age limit was raised.  Thus, it would actually be part of the no-change control group, not the experimental group.  And if you include the decrease since 2011, San Francisco in fact saw more progress than NYC.  In fact, when we look at the 2017 data, we see that while the smoking rate continued to drop after San Francisco's age hike to 21 (and California's a month later), it seems to have dropped at a slower rate afterwards.

What about state-level data?  California's data from 2015 and 2017 show the following (the YRBSS has no state-level data for California before 2015 for this question):

2015  7.7%
2017  5.4%

That is a 29.9% drop, compared with an 18.6% drop for the nation as a whole for that two-year period.  But keep in mind that California also raised their cigarette tax by a whopping $2 per pack, effective April 1, 2017.  The YRBSS was taken after that, since the survey was done in the fall semester.  And cigarette taxes are well-known to reduce smoking, especially among young people who are more price-sensitive.  Thus, California's smoking rate would have likely dropped just as fast without the age hike.

New Jersey has no post age-hike data yet.  But what about Hawaii, who raised their smoking age to 21 in early 2016 (but with no tax hike at all since 2011)?

2005   16.4%
2007   12.8%
2009   15.2%
2011   10.1%
2013   10.4%
2015   9.7%
2017   8.1%

Here we see a drop of 16.5% from 2015 to 2017, slower than the 18.6% drop for the nation as a whole.  Not very impressive.

And what about Pennsylvania, with no change in the age limit (18) but a $1 per pack cigarette tax hike in 2016, now just slightly below California's tax rate?

2009   18.4%
2015   12.9%
2017     8.7%

Here we see a drop of 32.6% (nearly a third) from 2015 to 2017, faster than the national drop of 18.6%, despite no change in the age limit and a tax hike only half the size of California's a year later.  In Philadelphia particularly it dropped by more than half, from 7.2% to 3.5% in those two years.  And the statewide drop from 2009 was likely at least partly a result of the federal cigarette tax hike that year as well.

Game. Set. Match.

Thus, we can conclude that the decrease in teen smoking in NYC and elsewhere following the hike in the purchase age was most likely NOT causally linked to it, and would most likely have occurred regardless given the above counterfactual data.  Kinda like we at Twenty-One Debunked initially predicted back in 2013 after first learning of the law change being proposed.  So if that wasn't the cause, what was?  Well, we know that nationwide, as well as in NYC, the secular trend for the past four decades (except a brief increase from 1992-1997) has been downward for both teen and adult smoking.  This was due to a general combination of education/awareness, taxation, regulation, and advertising restrictions, and the resulting cultural changes.  And in very recent years, electronic cigarettes have gained popularity as an alternative to combustible cigarettes, and in fact overtaking the latter and becoming at least twice as popular among high-schoolers by 2015.  Note that this was also true in NYC despite the 21 age limit applying to e-cigarettes as well.  And according to another CDC survey, the National Youth Tobacco Survey, the massive increase in vaping from 2011-2016 was in fact slightly outweighed by the decrease in combustible cigarette and cigar smoking, indicating a net displacement and substitution effect.

Interestingly, while the YRBSS did not ask about vaping until 2015, the data for 2015-2017 are quite instructive.  While the nation as a whole saw a modest but significant decrease in vaping from 2015 to 2017, California saw a smaller decrease than average and NYC saw a slight increase, as did Hawaii.  Likewise, Pennsylvania saw a larger than average decrease, which is not surprising given that they also significantly hiked their vape tax as well in 2016.  Though there are only two years of data, for 2017 these data are more reliable than the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey since unlike MTF, there was no change in the question for the YRBSS.

Bottom line:  it looks like the supposed benefits of raising the smoking/vaping age to 21 were, shall we say, all smoke and mirrors.  The supposed success of Needham, MA was likely a statistical fluke and/or a result of endogeneity, much like the "early adopter" effects of the first few states to raise the drinking age to 21 creating that particular mirage in the 1980s.  Or perhaps increased enforcement in general relative to neighboring towns did the trick regardless of the age limit, like it did in Woodridge, IL and several other communities the 1990s with an age limit of 18.  Studies show that whenever vendor compliance exceeds 90-95%, there is indeed a dramatic drop in teen smoking regardless, by as much as 50% compared with previously weak enforcement and low compliance rates, especially for the youngest teens.

This all should be food for thought for policymakers debating not just the age limit for tobacco, but also for alcohol, cannabis, or anything else for that matter.  And even if such benefits of the 21 age limit were real, we at Twenty-One Debunked would still not support an age limit any higher than 18, on principle alone.  Old enough to fight and vote = old enough to drink and smoke.  'Nuff said.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Why the STATES Act Doesn't Go Far Enough

As far as the prospect of cannabis legalization at the federal level in the USA is concerned, there seems to be both good news and bad news.

The good news is that there is a bill in Congress with strong bipartisan support, known as the STATES Act, that would effectively make it so the federal Controlled Substances Act would no longer apply to cannabis when used, possessed, produced, transported, distributed, or sold in compliance with state laws.  This will be a real game-changer and would essentially put an end to the legal limbo that state-level legalization has been in with respect to federal law (as cannabis has heretofore remained illegal at the federal level as a Schedule I controlled substance).   Cannabusinesses would no longer be in danger of the feds, and would be able to use the banking system just like any other legitimate business. And Trump has said that he is likely to sign it into law. (Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.)

The bad news is that the STATES Act does not go far enough.  First of all, it does not actually remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, or even remove it from the most restrictive category of Schedule I.  Also, the bill leaves some federal restrictions of the CSA intact, most notably the section prohibiting selling or distributing cannabis to people under 21, even if it did comply with state law (except for medical use, which the bill interestingly does not actually define).  While no legalization state currently has an age limit below 21 for recreational use, if any state did lower it below 21 for recreational use, any vendor who sells to people under 21 would thus still technically be breaking federal law.  Ditto for anyone who hires anyone under 18 to work with cannabis in any capacity, sells at truck stops or rest areas, and a few other things as well. 

There are indeed better bills that have been introduced in Congress that do not have these flaws, most notably the Marijuana Justice Act.   That bill removes cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely, expunges federal cannabis convictions, sets up a community reinvestment fund, and would also help to tackle racial and class disparities in state-level cannabis arrests.  Another bill by Senator Chuck Schumer would simply remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances and otherwise leave it up to the states.   Twenty-One Debunked would clearly much rather those kinds of bills get passed, especially the first one.  But in the interim, we will grudgingly support the STATES Act until we can get the Marijuana Justice Act or a similar bill passed, as federal legalization is LONG overdue.

Friday, June 8, 2018

O Cannabis! Canada Moves to Legalize It

On June 7, 2018, the Canadian Senate voted 56-30 to approve Bill C-45, which will legalize recreational cannabis at the federal level.  The House of Commons had alread passed it, and while the House must now decide whether to approve or reject the several amendments added on by the Senate, it is basically a done deal at this point, and will soon be heading to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's desk.  And he will almosy certainly sign it into law, as after all the basic tenets of this bill were largely his very own brainchild.  Thus, it is now virtually certain at this point that Canada will become the world's first highly developed nation (and second nation overall after Uruguay in 2014) to fully legalize cannabis for all uses at the national level.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

And Canada's model for legalization would in fact be superior to those of several US States in several ways:
  • The age limit at the federal level will be 18, and at the provincial level will be 18 or 19, depending on the province, just like the drinking age. (In contrast, all US States that have legalized it set the age limit at 21.)
  • Penalties for underage possession would likely be just a modest civil citation/ticket (though that will be up to the provinces).  (Unfortunately, in some US States it is still a criminal offense if "underage")
  • Penalties for sharing small amounts (such as passing a joint) with someone below the age limit but close in age would also likely be a modest civil citation/ticket rather than a criminal offense.  (Unlike the USA)
  • Taxes would start out quite low, to avoid perversely incentivizing the black market to linger around after legalization. (The opposite is true in many US States.)
  • The threat of excessively strict "local option" resulting in vast swaths of territory where cannabis cannot be bought and sold legally at all would essentially not exist in Canada.  (Unlike some US States)
  • And they added an amendment that would provide better safeguards against organized crime as well.
That said, their model is not completely flawless.  For example, the federal limit for home growing is a mere four plants per dwelling at any given time, with a height restriction, and provinces would have the right to ban home growing entirely if they so choose.  We think a limit of six plants per person and twelve plants per dwelling would be better, and that only densely populated areas with dispensaries fairly close by should be allowed to ban home growing if they so choose (though hopefully no such bans).  Also, First Nations (Indigenous) reserves, though currently allowed to locally ban or heavily restrict alcohol, appear to have no such latitude when it comes to cannabis (though we feel they should on their own land), and the issue of tax-sharing with the tribes needs to be ironed out as well--though the First Nations lobby ultimately dropped the initial opposition to the bill.  But these flaws, along with some more trivial ones, can be resolved later.  Otherwise, this is a good bill overall, and one major step closer to Reefer Sanity for a change.

We here in the USA can certainly learn a lot from our friendly neighbor to the north.  And that is true for both alcohol and cannabis.  They certainly don't seem to be too keen on repeating our mistakes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

California Dreaming? More Like Disappointing

While Twenty-One Debunked is pleased that the fifth largest economy in the world, California, has fully legalized cannabis for recreational use and even finally has legal weed stores, nearly half a year later the promise of booming tax revenue seems to have been a letdown thus far.  While any cannabis legalization is better than prohibition, and any tax revenue is better than zero, of course, it still seems to have fallen a bit short of the promises.

How so, you ask?  Let us count the ways:
  1. Taxes are too high.  When all of the several different taxes are added in, it adds up to as much as 45% of the before-tax price in some municipalities. 
  2. That is, of course, if you can even GET any legal weed at all in one's municipality of choice.  Local option means that many towns and cities have chosen to locally ban (or delay indefinitely) the implementation of full retail legalization.
  3. And last but not least, the age limit is 21.
Add all these factors up and you have a recipe for a thriving, if smaller, black market for cannabis.  Especially since the original pre-legalization black market was not yet eradicated.  Had the Golden State started out with significantly lower taxes, more municipalities allowing retail cannabis stores, and an age limit of 18 (though the first two factors seem to be the most important), they could have easily eradicated the black market within a few years and then been able to raise the taxes on cannabis to even a much higher level than they are now without the black market coming back anytime soon.  That is basically what Rear Admiral Luther E. Gregory found out after the repeal of alcohol Prohibition in Washington State.  And it worked.

So, in a nutshell, here is how California can solve this problem:
  1. Lower the combined taxes on cannabis to no more than $10/ounce (or 10%, whichever is lower) for the first year or two.  And make cannabis retail licenses cheaper than liquor and tobacco licenses.
  2. Remove excessively strict levels of local option or at least provide incentives for municipalities to allow retail weed stores.
  3. Lower the age limit to 18.  Yesterday.
  4. Crack down on any vendors who are caught flouting any of the new laws, and blacklist violators from getting any retail licenses in the future.
  5. After the first year or two (or three), jack up the taxes on cannabis to as much as $50/ounce at the cultivation level and additionally 10-15% at the retail level.  Or make the tax proportional to THC content.
Problem solved.  Next.  But of course, that would make far too much sense, right?

Oh, and as long as we are talking about taxes, keep in mind that California's alcohol taxes are below the national average.  Raising those taxes would be a good place to start if they want more revenue quickly.

At least America's friendly neighbor to the north will not be repeating our mistakes.  Taxes in Canada will start out quite low, and the age limit will be 18 or 19 depending on the province.  Watch their economy boom faster than you can say, "O Cannabis!"

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

New York's Backyard Will Have a Smoking Age of 21

Well, its official now.  Effective just 60 days after it was signed today, Westchester County, NY (aka my own neck of the woods!) will now have a tobacco purchase age of 21, joining NYC as well as Orange, Rockland, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties and all of New Jersey.  It applies to both combustible tobacco products as well as e-cigarettes / vaping devices.  Thus, all of "New York's Backyard" except Putnam County (and Connecticut) will have an age limit of 21.

SHAME, SHAME, SHAME!

The only silver lining is that, just like the rest of New York State (where most other counties are still 18), the so called "smoking age" is only for purchase (not possession or consumption) and is more accurately called a "sale age" in that only the vendor would actually be breaking the law (and thus punishable) in such a case.  Thus, it is a relatively "non-violent" type of age restriction law (albeit still very ageist and repugnant nonetheless) since it is a very different kind of onus.  That is not true in some other parts of the country, unfortunately, and is certainly not true with the 21 drinking age except maybe in Louisiana.  So thank God (or Nature) for such small mercies.  But still, we say to those who voted for the age limit hike:

SHAME, SHAME, SHAME!

And speaking of NYC, it is very curious indeed that no one seems to be talking about what happened in NYC since they raised their smoking age.

We think we know why.  At first glance, it does appear to have had some effect.  According to the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), teen smoking rates did in fact drop from 2013 to 2015 in NYC:

2005   11.2%
2007   8.5%
2009   8.4%
2011   8.5%
2013   8.2%
2015   5.8%

Those are the percentages of combined 9-12 grade students who reported any current cigarette smoking in the past 30 days.  Looks impressive at first:  a relative 29% drop from 2013 to 2015.  But take a look at the same data for the nation as a whole, for comparison:

2005   23.0%
2007   20.0%
2009   19.5%
2011   18.1%
2013   15.7%
2015   10.8%

As you can see, the nation as a whole also saw a similar (if even faster) drop in teen smoking at the same time, with a relative 31% decrease from 2013 to 2015, despite no change in the smoking age in most places.  And the teen smoking rate in NYC was already much lower before the law change, having dropped more dramatically than the rest of the USA prior to 2007 and then remaining at a low level since.

How about San Francisco, another major city that raised its age limit to 21?

2005   10.9%
2007   8.0%
2009   10.4%
2011   10.7%
2013   7.5%
2015   5.4%

They also saw a similar size drop from 2013-2015, to the tune of 28% (vs. 29% in NYC and 31% in the USA overall).  Just one problem though.  San Francisco did not raise their smoking age until 2016, so these data show that the drop in the smoking rate happened while it was still 18, before the age limit was raised.  Thus, it would actually be part of the no-change control group, not the experimental group.  And if you include the decrease since 2011, San Francisco in fact saw more progress than NYC.

Thus, we can conclude that the decrease in teen smoking in NYC following the hike in the purchase age was most likely NOT causally linked to it, and would most likely have occurred regardless given the above counterfactual data.  Kinda like we at Twenty-One Debunked initially predicted back in 2013 after first learning of the law change being proposed.  So if that wasn't the cause, what was?  Well, we know that nationwide, as well as in NYC, the secular trend for the past four decades (except a brief increase from 1992-1997) has been downward for both teen and adult smoking.  This was due to a general combination of education/awareness, taxation, regulation, and advertising restrictions, and the resulting cultural changes.  And in very recent years, electronic cigarettes have gained popularity as an alternative to combustible cigarettes, and in fact overtaking the latter and becoming at least twice as popular among high-schoolers by 2015.  Note that this was also true in NYC despite the 21 age limit applying to e-cigarettes as well.

Bottom line:  it looks like the supposed benefits of raising the smoking age to 21 were, shall we say, all smoke and mirrors.  The supposed success of Needham, MA was likely a statistical fluke and/or a result of endogeneity, much like the "early adopter" effects of the first few states to raise the drinking age to 21 creating that particular mirage in the 1980s.  Or perhaps increased enforcement in general relative to neighboring towns did the trick regardless of the age limit, like it did in Woodridge, IL and several other communities the 1990s.  We doubt there would be any real benefits for Westchester County or anywhere else that adopts such a law.  And even if such benefits of the 21 age limit were real, we at Twenty-One Debunked would still never support any age limit any higher than 18, on principle alone.

Old enough to fight and vote = old enough to drink and smoke.  'Nuff said.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Have a Safe and Happy Memorial Day Weekend

Today is Memorial Day, often known as the unofficial first day of summer and National BBQ Day.  But let's remember what it really is--a day to honor all of the men and women of our armed forces who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.  And that of course includes all of those who died serving our country before they were legally old enough to drink.  Let us all take a moment of silence to honor them.

As for Candy Lightner, the ageist turncoat founder of MADD who had the chutzpah and hubris to go on national TV in 2008 and publicly insult our troops, may her name and memory be forever blotted out. 

And as always, arrive alive, don't drink and drive.  It's just not worth it, period.  And it's very simple to prevent.   If you plan to drive, don't drink, and if you plan to drink, don't drive.  It's not rocket science.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

18 in '18

Reminder: It is now 2018, and this year may be the very best chance we have had in a long time to lower the legal drinking age to 18.  With the Amethyst Initiative and Choose Responsibility already now over a decade old and ultimately a flash in the pan, and the relative dormancy of our movement since about 2012 or so, it's time to start the "third wave" of our movement now.  We need to be re-invigorated like never before.  And that is an understatement!

Thus, we need to start getting "18 in '18" initiatives on the ballot in as many states as possible, in addition to pressuring our legislators to lower the drinking age to 18.  With the mid-term elections likely to be "on fire" in terms of more voter turnout than usual, especially for young people, it seems that at least some such initiatives may have a chance.

Let America be America Again, and lower the drinking age to 18.  If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.  'Nuff said.

What better time than now?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

What About Guns?

Normally, the gun politics debate in general is beyond the scope of Twenty-One Debunked.  But in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in Florida on February 14, 2018, in which the 19 year old killer bought the AR-15 legally, the gun debate has taken on some rather ageist overtones lately, particularly among those who generally pro-gun in general.  Both Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Rick Scott have recently revealed themselves as ageist hypocrites by pushing for raising the age limit for all guns to 21, at both the federal and state levels, respectively.   Under current federal law, the age limit for purchase is 18 for long guns and 21 for handguns, and 18 for simple possession of either type, unless the state sets a higher age limit.  (But heaven forbid these ageists even question the idea that the "right" to own weapons of war like the AR-15 is somehow sacrosanct.)

Twenty-One Debunked fundamentally opposes raising any age limit higher than 18, including but not limited to for guns.  Not only is it ageist, but it also doesn't really solve anything, since most mass shooters are over 21 and those under 21 would simply get a "straw purchaser" over 21 to buy the weapons for them, as the Columbine killers so infamously did.  If we really are serious about solving or even taking the dangerous edge off of America's practically unique gun violence epidemic, we need to get to the root of the problem rather than scapegoat young people for adult problems.

Both Twenty-One Debunked and the TSAP recommends the following measures be taken:
  1. Bring back a new and improved 1994 assault-weapons ban yesterday, this time with more teeth.  This time, include all rapid-fire devices and all magazines with more than ten rounds in the ban as well as the previously-banned types of semi-automatic rifles and their knockoffs.
  2. Remove the 20-year ban on gun violence research, yesterday. 
  3. End the gun-show loophole and implement universal background checks, yesterday.
  4. Put a significant excise tax on all bullets/ammo, like Chris Rock recommended. (Seriously)
  5. Treat ammo sales the same as gun sales.  Or better yet, treat bullets like Sudafed:  must show ID, limit on the number that one can buy, the number bought would be recorded, and if you do buy too many, you will be investigated.
  6. Pass a "one gun a month" law at the federal level.  And consider perhaps putting a limit on the number of guns that an individual can own at a given time, except for antiques/relics/curios.
  7. Require reporting of lost or stolen guns.
  8. Regulate firearms like other consumer products in terms of health and safety standards--currently such standards are nonexistent.
  9. Improve enforcement of existing gun laws, which tend not to be enforced very well these days, and improve state reporting of prohibited persons to NICS.  Also, prohibit anyone on the terrorism watch list from buying any guns, period. 
  10. Consider a massive gun buyback program, one that pays significantly more than what the guns are worth on the street.  Voluntary for any still-legal weapons, mandatory for any newly-banned ones. 
  11. And last but not least, improve our woefully-inadequate mental healthcare system.
Of course, to truly solve our gun violence problem would require a fundamental overhaul and transformation of our society, which the TSAP clearly supports.  We need to go from being what Riane Eisler calls a "dominator" society to more of a "partnership" society, as the latter kind is far less violent overall.   But in the meantime, the aforementioned recommendations would go a long way towards taking the dangerous edge off of the problem. 

While we don't know why this particular mass murderer did what he did, it was most likely due to a combination of toxic masculinity, easy access to weapons of war (including the obligatory AR-15), and some sort of grudge with the school that kicked him out.  He was also known to do reckless stuff, wanted to join the military (most likely for the wrong reasons), and apparently enjoyed hunting.  Regardless of the motive, the first two factors are absolutely essential for virtually all mass shootings, whether in schools or otherwise.

And before anyone else starts getting on their anti-youth high horse about this, keep in mind that the zero-tolerance school policies put in place in the wake of Columbine, along with the increasingly prison-like atmosphere in schools these days, have done absolutely nothing to stop school shootings from increasing dramatically since then.  Such tragic events went from occurring an average of once or twice a year in the 1990s and early 2000s to nearly once a WEEK this year so far as well as the past few years.  If anything, one can argue that the "powder keg" atmosphere made things worse in the long run.  And of course, most mass shooters in general are over 21 and the vast, vast majority are over 18.  

I don't know about you, but my favorite part of the Second Amendment is where it says "well-regulated".  Too bad so many Republican Congresscritters who are bought and paid for by the NRA can't seem to read the first half of the freaking sentence.  Oh, and nevermind that when it was written, guns at that time fired at most one round per minute, not 600+ per minute like so many of today's killing machines.  Not like the gun lobby and their lackeys really do nuance.

UPDATE:  Looks like while Trump is backing off of the idea of raising the age limit for guns to 21, Governor Scott nonetheless went ahead with it in Florida.  And the NRA is suing the state of Florida over that.

180/180: How to Clean Up Chicago (Or Any Other Major City) In 180 Days Or Less

With all of the talk about Chicago's crime wave (despite most crime being at or close to the lowest in decades nationwide), the national opioid epidemic, and the corresponding calls (mostly from the right-wing) to get "tough on crime" as well as to further reinvigorate the War on (people who use a few particular) Drugs, we at Twenty-One Debunked have decided to discuss an idea that our webmaster has been working on for almost a year now, that may one day become a full-length book.  In a similar vein as When Brute Force Fails:  How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment by UCLA researcher Mark Kleiman, we have put together an evidence-based strategy called "180/180" (i.e. turning the crime and drug problem around 180 degrees in 180 days) that we feel jibes better with our movement.   While we borrow many ideas from Kleiman, we also reject a few of his ideas and have added several of our own as well, drawing from the vast experience of various cities, towns, and countries around the world.

Twenty-One Debunked believes that 1) the drinking age should be lowered to 18, 2) cannabis should be fully legalized for everyone 18 and older and treated no more stringently than alcohol or tobacco, and 3) all other currently illegal substances should be treated for the most part according to the Portuguese model of decriminalization of users, since full legalization of such substances (while we don't necessarily oppose doing so) is unlikely to be politically feasible at this time and could have unforseen consequences if not implemented properly.  Additionally, the True Spirit of America Party also supports abolishing (or at least greatly reducing) material poverty (which is, along with structural racism and economic inequality, one of the major root causes of both crime and substance abuse) via a Universal Basic Income Guarantee as well as a Humprey-Hawkins style Job Guarantee program.  In the long run, all of these things are likely to reduce crime and/or substance abuse overall.  But in the meantime, with or without the aforementioned measures in place, enter the 180/180 strategy to really take a bite out of crime in the near-term:

  • Implement an all-ages curfew law for the first 90 days, albeit with exceptions for people traveling to or from work or school.  Similar to what Iceland did, except for all ages and for a limited period of time.  Set it at 9 pm Sunday-Thursday and 10 pm on Friday and Saturday in general (10 pm and midnight, respectively, in the summer when days are longer).  
  • Implement a "dry law" (no alcohol can be sold, period) for the first 30 days of the strategy.
  • Increase the number of police and the number of patrols conducted, while also being careful to maintain good relations overall between the police and the community.
  • Raise the taxes significantly on all alcoholic beverages and/or set a price floor on such drinks. 
  • Put a "sinking lid" on the number and density of alcohol outlets, especially liquor stores.
  • Make simple possession of cannabis (and perhaps other drugs) and "underage" drinking the lowest law-enforcement priority (LLEP), similar to the San Francisco Miracle of the 1990s.
  • Do a "low-arrest crackdown" on any hard-drug markets, as was done in High Point, NC.  Instead of the usual catch-as-catch-can, build a case against every drug dealer in town, with enough evidence to put them away for a long time.  Then call them all in for a meeting and give them an ultimatum: stop dealing now or go to prison.  The market will dry up very quickly, and likely remain as such for years.
  • Implement Hawaii's HOPE program (for hard drugs) and South Dakota's 24/7 program (for alcohol) for probationers and parolees. 
  • Implement the strategies of Operation Ceasefire, aka the Boston Miracle, as a proven way to defuse gang violence.
  • Conduct an evaluation of the effectiveness after 180 days.  If serious crime has not dropped by at least half during that time, re-start both the curfew and dry law again, repeating as needed.  Otherwise, do not bring either one back, but maintain the other components of the strategy.
If the reader found the first two components to be a bit jarring, that was in fact the goal.  It SHOULD be very jarring to anyone who believes in individual rights.  Only by applying them to all ages would such measures really have any significant benefit, and should be short-term since they basically function like a tourniquet--good for stopping the bleeding, but once the bleeding has stopped, leaving them in place would do more harm than good on balance.  And doing them frivolously would also do more harm than good, so reserve the curfew and dry law for places with exceptionally high levels of crime and/or hardcore drug abuse.  Otherwise, the other components of the strategy can stand alone, which we like to call "180/180 Lite".

Other, medium- to longer-term measures that ought to be included in a comprehensive strategy are:

  • Get the Lead Out, and Take a Bite Out of Crime.  Numerous studies have shown a strong relationship between preschool lead exposure and later involvement in crime and other social ills during adolescence and adulthood.  (And take fluoride out of our drinking water as well, which worsens the leaching and effect of lead and is also neurotoxic in its own right.)
  • Provide free birth control to anyone who wants it, and end the current assault on women's reproductive rights, yesterday.  (Fewer unwanted children will lead to fewer criminals in the long run, according to Freakonomics)
  • Send nurses to visit the homes of first-time mothers who are poor and/or young.  According to Kleiman, this may be the most cost-effective crime-fighting program ever devised.
  • Implement sensible gun control laws (while still respecting the Second Amendment), as well as putting a tax on bullets.
  • For cities with very high crime rates, consider combining the controversial Project Exile (i.e. tougher enforcement of federal gun laws) with the aforementioned Operation Ceasefire, as was the case in the strategy known as Project Safe Neighborhoods
  • Shift the school day (for middle and high school) to both start and end later.
  • Raise the minimum wage.  (Yes, studies do show a correlation)
  • Implement a "Housing First" approach to solving homelessness.
  • Invest more in education in general, from pre-K through post-grad.
  • Invest more in both mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, as well as substitution therapy (methadone, buprenorphine) for opioid addicts.
  • Provide more opportunities for alternative forms of recreation, like Iceland did.
  • If we find we must follow the "broken windows" theory, think James Q. Wilson (who invented it), NOT Rudy Giuliani.  Do NOT use racial profiling or police brutality, or anything else that violates anyone's civil or human rights, period.
  • And for crime in general, we must always keep in mind that swiftness and certainty of punishment works better than random severity.  Punishment is a cost, not a benefit.
And of course, all of these things have social benefits that go way beyond simply fighting crime as well.  The evidence is overwhelming, so what are we waiting for?

We have been trying to get "tough on crime" for decades now.  It's time to get SMART on crime instead.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

National Academies' Drunk Driving Study Is A Mixed Bag

The latest NHTSA-commissioned study done by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has just been released.  The 489-page report came up with the following recommendations based on a review of the literature:
  • Lower the BAC limit for DUI to 0.05 (currently 0.08 in all 50 states* and DC)
  • Increase alcohol taxes
  • Reduce the hours and days during which alcohol can be sold
  • Crack down on sales of alcohol to people under 21 and people who are already intoxicated
  • Put limits on alcohol marketing and fund anti-alcohol campaigns similar to what is currently done with smoking.
As we can see, this list of recommendations is a mixed bag overall.  Let's go through each of these ideas, one by one:

Lower the BAC limit to 0.05.  Twenty-One debunked supports this one, albeit with the reservation that driving with a BAC of 0.050-0.079 ought to be a traffic violation rather than a criminal offense, with criminal penalties reserved for those above 0.08.  The models used in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, or even the one currently used in New York, should be used in all states and territories.  And all penalties for DUI should be steeply graduated based on BAC in general.

Increase alcohol taxes.  Twenty-One Debunked fully supports this one, and it is in fact a key component of our proposal.  And it is probably the single best way to reduce alcohol-related harms, including drunk driving casualties.  We recommend raising and equalizing the federal tax on all alcoholic beverages to the 1991 inflation-adjusted level for distilled spirits, namely $24 per proof-gallon.

Reduce the hours and days during which alcohol can be sold.  Twenty-One Debunked does not take an official position on this one, but would be fine with a modest reduction depending on the details (days?).  It would seem that there is an optimum time for "last call" which is overall better than anything much earlier or later.   We need more information to make a sound judgment about this recommendation.

Crack down on alcohol sales to people under 21.   Well, you should know by now how we stand on that one.  In a word, NO.  Twenty-One Debunked believes in lowering the drinking age to 18, full stop.  That said, we would be fine with cracking down on vendors who sell to people under 18 all the same.

Crack down on sales to people who are already (noticeably) intoxicated.  Twenty-One Debunked would be okay with that, as long it is not done in an ageist or overly heavy-handed fashion.

Put limits on alcohol marketing and fund anti-alcohol campaigns similar to smoking.  Twenty-One Debunked supports this one, albeit with some reservations.  Clearly, alcohol and tobacco are quite different from one another in terms of both harm and addictiveness, and that undeniable fact should figure into any such campaigns.  Alcohol is not all bad per se, unlike tobacco.  As a wise man once said, smoking is not like drinking, it is more like being an alcoholic.

Also, some ideas were noticeably absent or at best downplayed from the list of recommendations.  These include:
All of which we support, and are either proven or at least promising.  And of course we support lowering the drinking age to 18.  Yet they supported tougher enforcement of the 21 drinking age.  Why, given how it has been so thoroughly debunked by Miron and Tetelbaum (2009) and several other studies?  Well, no one wants to admit that their crown jewel is somehow tainted--and NHTSA et al. clearly considers the 21 drinking age to be their crown jewel of sorts.

But back to the controversial 0.05 limit proposal, as we have noted above, it should be administrative rather than criminal.  Even for BACs above 0.08 it should also carry such administrative sanctions in addition to (and separate from) any criminal penalies.  And the Canadian experience with such has shown that swift and certain (but modest) punishment works wonders, much more so than lowering the boom rarely and haphazardly.  As for the fear that bars and restaurants will lose business as a result?  Well, let us play the world's smallest violin for them.  They may want to think ahead and invest in "safe rider" programs then.  Problem solved.

So what are we waiting for?

* The criminal BAC limit is 0.08 in all states except Utah, whose new 0.05 law goes into effect on December 30, 2018.  Some states, such as New York, actually already set the limit at 0.05 for a lesser offense that is just a traffic violation and not a criminal offense, albeit with license suspension.