Sunday, December 10, 2017

For Alcohol, Tobacco, or Cannabis, 18 Is High Enough

Having established that cannabis legalization was not a disaster after all, and that the 21 drinking age has been the greatest alcohol policy failure since Prohibition, it may seem a bit odd that Twenty-One Debunked has grudgingly supported cannabis legalization with a 21 age limit thus far.  The reason for this was, of course, pure pragmatism, as the odds of legalization actually passing with an age limit of 18 would have been almost nil in the critical early years of 2012-2016.  It was, after all, the lesser evil compared with continued prohibition.  But five years and eight states later after the first initiatives passed (albeit narrowly) in November 2012, we feel it is now time to really tackle the issue of cannabis age limits.

To put it bluntly, there is absolutely no legitimate scientific or public health reason why the age limit for cannabis should be any higher than 18.  Zip, zilch, nada.  And while cannabis (though safer than alcohol and tobacco) is not completely harmless, and there is of course some evidence that it can be more harmful before age 18 and especially before 15, there is still no hard scientific evidence that it is any more harmful at 18 than it is at 21, 25, or even 30 for that matter.  Any claims of such are merely glib conjecture rather than real science.  In fact, a recent study by the American Psychological Association on the long term physical and mental health effects of teen and young adult cannabis use should be seen as the final nail in the coffin in that regard.  One possible reason for the null results (i.e. no significant differences between groups regardless of cannabis use trajectory) not always echoed by other studies may be the relative lack of participants who began before age 15 and the relative lack of ultra-heavy users at any age in this study, but overall it should greatly alleviate the worst fears about both legalization itself as well as late adolescent and young adult cannabis use in general.

And after reviewing the most major studies of drugs and drug policy (with cannabis being the most heavily studied of all) throughout history, the results of this recent study should really not come as much of a surprise.  Unless, of course, you have a vested interest in maintaining prohibition and/or are simply a bigoted, intolerant, ageist jerk.  But in that case, you probably wouldn't be caught dead reading this blog.

Additionally, the issue of the black market comes to mind as well.  Given the fact that cannabis use tends to peak around age 18-20 or so, an age limit of 21 would be more likely to encourage at least some persistence of the black market compared with an age limit of 18, particularly if taxes are high.  After all, dealers don't ask for ID, and such an issue for cannabis would be more likely than alcohol or tobacco since the former has had decades of black market history and is less bulky per dose than the other two.   And such dealers would probably continue to sell to people under 18 as well, including in schools, as they currently do under prohibition.  So any concerns about "trickle-down effects" of an age limit of 18 need to be put in such perspective.  Besides, any such "trickle-down" can be greatly curbed by simply capping how much 18-20 year olds can buy in the stores (say, no more than an eighth of an ounce per transaction, and no more than one transaction per day).  You know, kinda like Twenty-One Debunked has long advocated for alcohol sales.

And let's not forget the issue of social cohesion as well.  Few things are more inherently communal than sharing a joint, blunt, bowl, bong, or whatever sort of cannabis smoking implement--in fact, that is literally the origin of the term "joint".  And if the 21 age limit is to be taken seriously to its logical conclusion, it would mean that every time someone over 21 passes it around to someone under 21, a crime has technically been committed.   At least during prohibition, everyone is in the same illegal boat in that regard, but a 21 age limit would divide the 18-24 year old demographic in that regard, potentially inhibiting social cohesion.  Not to mention it gives people over 21 one more thing to "lord it over" people under 21.  At a time in history where social cohesion appears to be at a record low overall, we need that kind of additional division like we need a hole in the head!

But truly the strongest argument of all for an age limit no higher than 18 is one of civil rights.  The age of majority (i.e. legal adulthood) is 18 in nearly all states, and denying legal adults the right to decide what they put into their own bodies has no place in a free society.  Old enough to fight and vote = old enough to drink and toke.  'Nuff said.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Who's Afraid of Cheap, Legal Weed?

Aside from the usual suspects (Big Alcohol, Big Pharma, and of course the illegal drug cartels), who stand to lose the most from cannabis legalization and/or falling cannabis prices, as well as those who simply oppose cannabis in general, there have also been some legitimate public health researchers such as Mark Kleiman who also seem to fear it--specifically the "cheap" part, not the "legal" part.  The fear here is that, while legalization per se may be a non-problem, a large price drop may lead to a significant increase in heavy cannabis use and related problems, at least in theory. But we don't really see much reason to worry.  

Of course, prior to Colorado and Washington's cannabis legalization, there had been a widespread belief that before-tax prices would plummet by at least half, and perhaps even 80% or more, upon legalization or very shortly after.  And yet, that did not happen--yet.  If anything, prices went up at first due to higher demand in the short term, and with or without taxes the prices three years later still have not dropped nearly as much as predicted compared with the status quo ante, at least not at the retail level.

And while the price elasticity of demand for cannabis remains controversial to this day, it is generally thought to be relatively inelastic overall, though estimates vary dramatically.   Note that all estimates were calculated during the time of prohibition and do not always adjust for potency.  There may very well be a relatively "elastic zone" above a certain price point, such as the average price during the 1980s and early 1990s when usage rates dropped, but any further decreases from current levels are squarely in the "inelastic zone".  In fact, even before legalization, the typical cost per buzz-hour was already cheaper than beer.

Still, the long-term trend in cannabis prices does seem to be downward, both in legalization states and nationwide.  And contrary to what the fearmongers like to claim, that is not necessarily a bad thing, given how cannabis is overall safer than alcohol, angenerally tends to substitute for it.  Many studies strongly suggest that when one advances, the other retreats, albeit with some nuance.  Cannabis may even take a major bite out our nation's deadly and devastating opioid epidemic as well, according to some studies.  Thus, cheaper weed, especially if it is legal, may very well be a net public health and safety benefit on balance.   And there is also no hard evidence that teen cannabis use has increased as a result of legalization--on the contrary, the latest NSDUH data find that cannabis use among 12-17 year olds nationally has dropped to a 22-year low, even as it has risen significantly among both 18-25 year olds and those 26 and over since 2008.

As for heavy use, the definition of that term varies, but for argument's sake let's use Mark Kleiman's "daily or near-daily" (DND) use definition of 20+ times per month.  He notes how the rate of past-month use among adults is roughly the same as it was in the early 1990s, but within that group the proportion of DND users has apparently increased fourfold by 2014.  And yes, heavy users would be the most sensitive to price as a rule, since they spend a more significant chunk of their incomes on weed than non-heavy users.   But this increase occured almost entirely during prohibition, and now it seems like the market for heavy use is quite saturated even with legalization and falling prices.  So heavy use is unlikely to increase much more (if at all) going forward, regardless of price or legal status.

So how far will the price ultimately fall?  Well, consider this.  Take a look at the price by weight of various products in your local grocery store.  For example, think "parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" (like the song), and of course oregano and tea bags--all of which are at most a few dollars per ounce (which works out to mere pennies per gram), compared to cannabis at $100/oz. for low-grade and $300+/oz. for high-grade (i.e. $1600-5000/lb.) despite it being roughly as easy to grow as basil.  That's a roughly 100-fold difference!  The notable exception to this rule is saffron, which is about $1000-5000/lb. but that is because it is made from just the pistils of the crocus flower and thus requires a LOT of flowers, and a little bit goes a very long way.  But for cannabis, once the industry becomes fully developed, the current artificial scarcity caused by tight regulation and licensing will dissipate, and the inevitable (albeit delayed) drop in price will happen, sooner or later.   Exactly how much is anyone's guess, and depends on supply and demand as well as taxation, but down it will go, most likely by a lot.  Perhaps even so low that a "dime bag" would literally cost a dime (before taxes), though demand would most likely buoy the price at least somewhat higher than that.  

Thus, an 80-90% price crash at some point in the not-too-distant future is really not too farfetched.  If that happens, then the average potency would also likely drop from its currently high levels.  What would be the point of using energy-intensive indoor growing methods to force the THC percentage levels well into the double-digits and even into the twenties, when decent bud can be produced much more cheaply and efficently via outdoor growing or in literal greenhouses?  After all, the whole point of high-potency weed is more "bang for the buck", as well as making it easier to conceal.  At the same time, bunk weed would be, well, weeded out.  And specialty products such as edibles and vape products will likely increase in production, as the cost of producing them will go down due to cheaper crude cannabis prices.

And for those who are concerned about a hypothetical Big Tobacco-style supervillain cannabis industry somehow endangering public health?   Well, if the price really does plummet as much as researchers predict, it would really take the profit out of it at the same time, so this hypothetical "Big Pot" would not get very far.   Thus, Twenty-One Debunked believes "don't fear the reefer", no matter how cheap and readily avaliable it may eventually become.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Cannabis Taxes: Start Low, Go Slow

With several states having legalized cannabis now, and taxing it, what lessons have we learned thus far?  It would seem that the biggest one of all is, "start low, go slow" when it comes to taxes.

As Rear Admiral Luther E. Gregory found out after the repeal of alcohol Prohibition, the black market does not vanish right away, and setting the tax rate too high at first will keep the black market in place, while setting it low to start with will undercut it.  And once the black market is gone, it will not return easily, so then one can raise the tax rate quite high without worrying about the black market making a comeback.  Of course, there is still such a thing as "too high" in that regard, but the threshold for significant black market formation and persistence is much higher afterwards than it is in the very first year or two post-prohibition.

Fast-forward to cannabis legalization in 2014, Colorado and Washington found out the hard way what happens when cannabis excise taxes are too high.  Though otherwise successful, their legalization success was hampered by a fairly persistent black market, albeit smaller than the pre-legalization one.  So they both ended up having to cut their tax rates as a result.  

So why did they start out with such high taxes?  Well, the promise of much-needed revenue certainly helped sweeten the deal for the fence-sitters.   But also, there was a widespread belief that before-tax prices would plummet by at least half, and perhaps even 80% or more, upon legalization or very shortly after.  And yet, that did not happen.  If anything, prices went up at first due to higher demand in the short term, and with or without the taxes the prices three years later still have not dropped very much compared with the status quo ante.  And while the price elasticity of demand for cannabis remains controversial to this day, it is generally thought to be relatively inelastic overall, though estimates vary dramatically.

Still, the long-term trend in cannabis prices does seem to be downward, both in legalization states and nationwide.  And contrary to what the fearmongers claim, that is not necessarily a bad thing, given how cannabis is overall safer than alcohol and generally tends to substitute for it.  Many studies strongly suggest that when one advances, the other retreats, albeit with some nuance.  Cannabis may even take a bite out our nation's deadly and devastating opioid epidemic as well, according to some studies.  Thus, cheaper weed, especially if it is legal, may very well be a net public health and safety benefit on balance.   And there is also no hard evidence that teen cannabis use has increased as a result of legalization--on the contrary, the latest NSDUH data find that cannabis use among 12-17 year olds nationally has dropped to a 22-year low, even as it has risen among both 18-25 year olds and those 26 and over since 2008.

As for specifics as to what the the tax on cannabis should be, it seems that an initial rate of 30% or more on final retail sales like Colorado and Washington originally had is too high to eliminate the black/gray market, and 10-25% is now what most legalization states are aiming for.  Alaska chose a flat $50/oz., which based on the average price of $250/oz. would be about 20%.  There are pros and cons to either method, ad valorem or by weight, and California is apparently combining both types of taxes.  And once the black market is gone after a year or two, then jack the rate up to a level just shy of what would cause a significant black market to return.   But to start with, Twenty-One Debunked recommends a rate of 10% and/or $10-20/oz. for the first year or two before raising it any higher, and perhaps even a "tax holiday" for the first three months of legalization like Oregon did.

Also, once the kinks are worked out, we think it would be a good idea to have the tax rate be at least somewhat proportional to THC levels and perhaps even inversely proportional to CBD levels as well.  For now, though, a simple single rate (whether ad valorem or by weight) will likely be the most workable starting point for any states that are new to legalization.  And if they wish to incentivize THC not being too high or CBD too low, the regulators are free to cap THC levels and/or set a floor for CBD levels.

As for California's idea of having a combination of different taxes (a $9.25/oz. cultivation for flowers, $2.75/oz. for leaves, and a 15% ad valorem tax on retail sales, plus any additional taxes levied by municipalities if they so choose), that's fine.  But both the state and municipalities really might want to consider reducing their rates for the time being, as the combined rates  may be as high as 45% in some parts of California by the time it reaches the consumer.  Ouch.  And unlike in Colorado and Washington, medical cannabis will soon be taxable in California as well, so that's a double ouch.   Best advice?  Municipal taxes shouldn't be too much of an issue, since one can just go to the next town.  But the state should aim for a retail excise tax of 10% and $10/oz. for flowers at the cultivation level.  Ten and ten.  The lower rate for leaves makes sense too, given their generally far lower THC content.  "Start low, go slow."

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Of Death And Taxes

While the opioid epidemic has recently been declared a public health emergency, what if we were to tell you that there is another drug epidemic that kills even more people (a whopping 88,000 per year vs. 65,000 per year for opioid and all other drug overdoses combined), a number that has actually been increasing in recent years?  And that number, though staggering in itself, is merely the tip of a very large iceberg of injury, illness, crime, violence, motor vehicle crashes, family breakdown, addiction, and other social costs linked to this deadly yet ubiquitous substance.  Meanwhile, the powers that be are responding to this epidemic with a collective shrug for the most part.  I think the reader would figure out by now that we are talking about alcohol.

And aside from its overall banality, what is particularly notable about the alcohol epidemic is how ageist our response has been.  While the epidemic clearly affects all ages, the powers that be have been focusing in laser-like fashion on people under 21 while largely ignoring people over 21, despite the fact that people over 21 make up the vast majority of this epidemic.  Not only does this scapegoat young people for largely adult problems, but it also hinders any real solutions to such problems as well.  It's basically the "pink elephant in the room".

Fortunately, we know now after decades of reams of research evidence that there is in fact a very simple solution for reducing the death rates and other harms of excessive drinking.  And that solution is raising alcohol taxes.   The higher the price of alcoholic beverages, the fewer deaths and other alcohol-related problems occur, all else being equal.  Even modest increases seem to have a significant impact.   We know this, yet not only have the powers that be generally let the alcohol taxes lag behind inflation, but are currently trying to lower such taxes.  

So what should the ideal alcohol tax be?  According to researchers, the externality costs of alcohol are estimated to be around $45-58 per proof-gallon, yet the federal tax on distilled spirits is $13.50 per proof-gallon, and for wine and beer it varies but tends to hover between $4 and $5 per proof-gallon.   And while state and local alcohol taxes vary, they are also generally very modest in most states, especially for beer.  So there is a very wide range by which such taxes can be raised while still being socially efficient.

Twenty-One Debunked believes that, along with lowering the drinking age to 18, that alcohol taxes should be raised significantly.  Specifically, we support raising and equalizing the federal tax on all alcoholic beverages to the inflation-adjusted 1991 level for distilled spirits, which would be $24 per proof-gallon in 2016 dollars.  It should also be simplified by getting rid of all credits and lower tax rates, with perhaps the exception of ones for the first X number of gallons produced by very small domestic producers.  At the state level, it would also be good to equalize alcohol taxes across all beverage types, while allowing localities to levy their own alcohol taxes (including sales and gross excise taxes) as they see fit.  The latter is especially important for college towns.

Even a smaller hike, such as to $16 per proof-gallon across the board, would likely save thousands of lives per year according to researchers.  And of course it would also raise more revenue.  As for job losses, the best research suggests that the net effect is actually neutral or even positive with respect to jobs overall.  So it should be a no-brainer.  A win-win-win situation for everyone but the alcohol industry, basically.

Oh, and by the way:  craft breweries (both macro and micro) not only exist in high-tax Canada, but actually appear to be thriving over there.  Keep in mind that the tax hikes we propose would still leave American beverages cheaper than Canadian beverages.  So even if we raise such taxes dramatically without reduced rates or credits for small producers, they will likely continue to thrive here as well (at least if such tax hikes are phased in somewhat gradually).

Don't get us wrong, Twenty-One Debunked does not believe that alcohol is inherently evil or anything like that.   We are certainly not in league with the neo-dry lobby.   But when we as a society fail to appreciate that alcohol has a very real dark side for all ages, there are very serious consequences to doing so.  History speaks for itself.  So what are we waiting for?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

O Cannabis!

The Government of Canada under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still plans to legalize cannabis nationwide.  Though not finalized yet, it is tentatively set to go into effect sometime in July 2018.  And various provinces are already preparing for it.

As for what the age limits will be, that will be up to the provinces to decide.  The federal age limit will likely be 18, and most provinces have tentatively decided that their own cannabis smoking ages will match their drinking ages (currently 18 in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec, 19 elsewhere).  Thus, the age limit for cannabis in Canada will most likely end up being 18 or 19, depending on the province.

For the record, Twenty-One Debunked believes that the age limits for alcohol, tobacco and cannabis should be 18, or at least no higher than that.  We in the USA (where in the growing number of states in which cannabis is legal, the age limit is 21) can really learn a lot from our friendly neighbor to the north!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How to Quash a Black Market in Five Easy Steps

A black market (or underground economy) typically occurs when the legitimate market for a particular good or service is either nonexistent, out of reach, or otherwise far too insufficient to meet the demand for that good or service.  Black markets are by definition illegal to one degree or another, while informal markets that are technically legal or quasi-legal are known as gray markets.   While the usual proximal cause for a black market is prohibition of a good or service (and thus no legitimate market existing), a black market can also occur (albeit to a much lesser extent) when the taxes and/or other government fees on or surrounding the product or activity are excessively high relative to what consumers are willing to pay (and relative to the informal economy).  Sometimes taxes can be so high so as to be considered "prohibition by price", though the relative price difference is typically far more important than the absolute price.

Twenty-One Debunked believes in raising alcohol taxes significantly in conjunction with lowering the drinking age to 18.  The level we suggest ($24/proof-gallon, equalized for all alcoholic beverages), though significantly higher than now, would still be too low to encourage a significant amount of moonshining and bootlegging.  But what about cannabis, which is currently being legalized in more and more states, many of which started out with fairly high taxes and/or licensing fees?  Though a positive development overall, in some of such places, the black market still exists to one degree or another, albeit much less so than when cannabis was illegal.  And of course we all know that places like NYC with extremely high cigarette taxes have their share of black markets in untaxed, out of state, counterfeit, and/or stolen cigarettes as well.  So how does one solve such a problem?

Enter Rear Admiral Luther E. Gregory.  In the 1930s, Prohibition was repealed, and Washington State along with other states were now faced with the task of shutting down the well-established bootleggers and speakeasies that persisted even after Repeal.   Admiral Gregory was asked to head the state's Liquor Control Board, and given carte blanche to come up with a solution, one which worked surprisingly well in fact:

  1. End Prohibition, first of all.
  2. Give amnesty and issue licenses to anyone willing to play by the state's rules, whether former bootleggers or otherwise.
  3. Set the alcohol taxes as low as possible at first, the lowest in the country in fact.
  4. Punish sellers who don't play by the rules, with an iron fist--i.e. blacklisting scofflaws from ever selling liquor in the state again.
  5. After holding down alcohol taxes for three years, abruptly raise taxes to the point where they're now the highest in the nation.

Problem solved.  The legal market proved to be competitive with what was left of the black market, and drinkers preferred the former over the latter, driving the latter out of business.  And the black market never came back even after raising taxes dramatically.  Looking back, it should have been so obvious indeed.

Substitute "cannabis" for "alcohol", and there is no reason why this strategy would not work in this day and age.  And instead of holding down taxes for three years, merely one year should be sufficient to get the same results, even if the hike is automatically scheduled.  Doing so would minimize the greatest risk of the strategy, namely, that the fledgling legal cannabis industry would then become so powerful that they would resist and successfully quash any attempt to raise taxes in the future.  They would not become that powerful in just one year, and probably not for several years, but the black market could be easily quashed in that timeframe all the same.

As for cigarette taxes, both NYC and NYS should implement this strategy as well.  And of course, the low-tax states such as Virginia should also raise their cigarette taxes (within reason) so as to not be such a source state for cigarette smuggling to other states.  And of course, lower NYC's age limit back to 18 as well.  Same for cannabis in legalized states as well.

In fact, this strategy would work for just about any type of black market.  That's because it is based on the hard facts of economics, not half-baked wishful thinking.  Unlike prohibition or unrealistically high age limits, taxes are not a "blunt" policy instrument, but rather a razor-sharp, double-edged sword.

So what are we waiting for?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Legalization of Cannabis Not A Disaster After All

Five years after cannabis was first legalized for recreational use in Colorado and Washington in late 2012, over three years after full implementation of such legalization in 2014, and several more states since then, what can we conclude from the data so far?  The best evidence shows that such legalization was NOT a disaster after all, the fears were ridiculously overblown, and if anything legalization turned out to be a win-win-win situation for everyone but the crooks, creeps, cops, and cronies.  It saved a ton of money on law enforcement and related costs, brought in major tax revenue, and the supposedly large social costs of legalization that the naysayers feared still have not panned out even several years later.  And thus, no good reason for cannabis to remain illegal anywhere else at this point.

And now that California Dreaming has finally become a reality in a critical number of states, Twenty-One Debunked will become that much more aggressive in advocating that the age limits for cannabis in legaliztion jurisdictions be lowered to 18 going forward.  While we very grudgingly supported legalization initiatives with an age limit of 21 while they were being debated and voted on in the name of pragmatism, now that the proverbial dam has broke it is time to take on the age limit issue with at least the same tenacity that we have shown with alcohol.

To all of those who still support cannabis prohibition:  how does it feel to be on the wrong side of history?  Because we wouldn't know anything about that.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The 21 Drinking Age Is An Inherently Violent Law

Let's put this as bluntly as possible.  The 21 drinking age is an inherently violent law, at least the way it is typically implemented.  And insofar as it is violent, it its also therefore a hate crime against young people.

Except perhaps for those shrinkingly few jurisdictions in this country where it is not vigorously enforced or only enforced on vendors, enforcing such an illiberal law against a victimless crime is inherently violent.   In fact, it is literally impossible for police to enforce against young people themselves without violence or the threat of violence.  And if you resist such efforts, that is "resisting arrest".   Try to imagine a non-violent version of such an abomination--you literally can't!

One yardstick we like to compare it to is the smoking age for tobacco in still many parts of the country.  New York State, for example, has a legal minimum sale age of 18 for all tobacco products and e-cigarettes.  NYC and Suffolk County set it at 21, and a few other counties such as Nassau set it at 19.  But in all of the state, the age limit only pertains to who can buy it, and only vendors are penalized for it.  Purchase, use, and possession (PUP) under the legal age are not actually illegal in NY.  I believe that even furnishing cigarettes to people under the legal age in private is not a punishable offense either.  That is an example of a (relatively) non-violent smoking age, if one can argue that there is such a thing.

Yet we can't seem to recall anywhere in the country, except maybe Louisiana, that has a 21 drinking age that follows such a model in theory or practice.  And unfortunately many parts of the country are increasingly following the typical drinking age model (or worse) for cigarettes and now cannabis as well.

That said, we would still vehemently oppose the age limit for alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis set any higher than the general age of majority regardless, as it is still an unduly paternalistic violation of civil rights and liberties.  That means no higher than 18, period.  As for people under 18, ideally there should be no penalties for simple possession or private consumption per se, but if there must be, they should be no worse than a traffic ticket and there should be no jail time or criminal record involved.  We would grudgingly support such a thing only to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good (and thus ending up with neither).  But otherwise, any age limit should be enforced only on vendors (with violations punishable by liquor licence suspensions/revocations) and perhaps people over 18 who otherwise knowingly furnish such substances to people under 18 (for example, by fining and "blacklisting" such scofflaws from buying alcohol for a period of time).  The criminal law is far too harsh a tool to apply to such things per se, except perhaps in truly egregious cases.

But as for drunk driving, drunk violence, and other alcohol-related crimes with victims, we say, NO MERCY!  Do the crime, do the time.

Oh, and by the way, during Prohibition (1920-1933) when alcohol was banned for all ages, it was actually NOT illegal to possess or consume alcohol per se.  It was of course illegal to sell, manufacture, transport, or give away such beverages, but drinking itself was not a crime.  Thus, the current ignoble experiment that is the 21 drinking age is in fact more violent than 1920s Prohibition for people under 21.

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.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Kudos to Puerto Rico (and the U.S. Virgin Islands)!

With all the monumental and unprecedented devastation to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands due to Hurricane Maria, we at Twenty-One Debunked have been thinking about just how much integrity they have shown over the past three decades.  As you probably already know, since 1988 they have continually chosen to keep their drinking ages at 18 instead of raise it to 21, even at the cost of 10% of their federal highway funding being withheld from them.  Even Guam eventually sold out in 2010, yet Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands still show no signs whatsoever of selling out anytime soon, despite how battered they are by the hurricane.  Now that REALLY says something!  So thank you, and kudos to both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  You are excellent role models for the sort of integrity that one can only wish that the mainland states had shown.

Of course, there have repeatedly been fleeting movements to raise the drinking age to 21 in Puerto Rico over the years, but every single one of them failed due to lack of public support.  But keeping the drinking age at 18 did not stop them from harm reduction.  In fact, even the temperance-oriented Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concedes that Puerto Rico was able to reduce both alcohol-related traffic fatalities and underage (under 18) drinking since the 1990s without raising the drinking age at all.  Rather, they simply started enforcing the existing drinking age of 18, passed tougher DUI laws (and enforced them), and also raised the excise tax on alcoholic beverages.  From 1982 to 2009, Puerto Rico saw a whopping 84% decline in teenage (16-20) drunk driving fatalities, while the nation as a whole saw a 74% drop, in both cases to record-low levels.  Now that's a great American success story!

In other words, it appears that Miron and Tetelbaum (2009) were spot on when they said that the drinking age appears to have "only a minor impact on teen drinking," just like they were right about its lack of a lifesaving effect on the highways.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Have We Got the "Teen Brain" All Wrong?

One thing that is commonly accepted as a truism in the USA is that crime, especially violent crime, is a young person's (and especially a young man's) vice.  It typically rises rapidly in the mid-teens and peaks around the late teens and very early twenties before rapidly and then gradually declining from then on, and it is often said that "the best cure for crime is a 30th birthday."  The statistics do indeed bear this out, but it is often accepted without question that the causes of this phenomenon are biological (particularly neurological and/or hormonal) as opposed to cultural ones.

Well, a new study by researchers at Penn State seems to put the lie to the biological determinist theory.    While previous studies tended to look only at Western cultures (which all show a similar age pattern for crime), this one compared the USA to Taiwan instead.  If brain development (or lack thereof) is the cause, then the age pattern for crime should be pretty much the same worldwide, but it turns out that this was not the case for Taiwan.  Over there, crime peaked in the late twenties and early thirties, roughly a decade later than in the USA.  Thus, the researchers concluded, that cultural factors, not biological/neurological ones, are primarly responsible for the crime patterns by age.   Notably, this is true even though the drinking age in Taiwan is 18, compared to 21 in the USA.

It is rare that a single study can overturn such an apparent mountain of evidence.  Unless, of course, that "mountain" turned out to be a molehill all along--and a rather shaky one at that.