Monday, April 24, 2017

Lowering the Drinking Age: It's Not Just for the Left Anymore

Twenty-One Debunked, a subsidiary of the True Spirit of America Party, is generally on the political left, or more accurately, at the intersection of progressivism and libertarianism.  Or as we prefer to call ourselves, "progressive libertarian".  Thus, we are certainly not a right-wing organization.

But did you know that one can easily make a conservative case as well for lowering the drinking age, or even abolishing it entirely?  That is what British author Wayland Ellis argues in his new provocatively-titled book:  Abolish the Drinking Age:  The Conservative Case Against Alcohol Regulation.   His old-school conservative argument centers on the idea that the 21 drinking age is in fact a form of paternalism, as is alcohol regulation more generally as well.  And that paternalism is actually not right-wing, but rather left-wing or even socialist.  (Progressivism and even socialism need not be paternalistic, of course, but I digress.)  He certainly does not believe that the federal government has any business dictating to the states what the drinking age should be, and indeed his position does in fact jibe with old-school Republicans (not to be confused with the radical right, neocons, theocons, etc. that now control the party).  As for letting the states decide, he realizes the political infeasibility of abolishing the drinking age overnight, and would be fine with first lowering the drinking age to 18, then 16, and so on as pragmatism shall dictate.  As for other alcohol regulations, he is generally against them, with the notable exception of taxation--like us, he believes alcohol taxes should in fact be raised significantly.  But otherwise, he feels regulation does more harm than good for the most part.

Twenty-One Debunked, on the other hand, argues from a progressive libertarian and youth-rights perspective, that the 21 drinking age violates the guarantee of equal protection of the law.  There is no good reason for the legal drinking to be any higher than the age of majority, period. And while we are not actually opposed to lowering the drinking age further (say, to 16, or abolishing it entirely) after it has been successfully lowered to 18, we no longer consider such a goal to be worthwhile at least for the near-term.  It would be a LONG time before it would be politically possible to do, and doing it too quickly could indeed have unintended consequences.  But lower it to 18 we must, yesterday.  As for other alcohol regulations, we (unlike Ellis) generally do not oppose them as long as they are reasonable and not ageist or otherwise discriminatory.

Anyone reading this needs to show this to their conservative friends and family.   As unpalatable as it may be to form a "big-tent" coalition with conservatives over the issue of lowering the drinking age, it will most likely be our only hope in succeeding.   Even if we have to hold our noses.  For the same reason, we need to rely not just on libertarian or individualistic arguments for lowering the drinking age, but also on communitarian arguments as well.  Even "law and order" arguments can work in our favor as well, in fact.

So what are we waiting for?

What's Up With Iceland?

Iceland, a country that Americans don't hear much about in the news is now the talk of the town, apparently.   At least among those who are interested in reducing youth substance abuse.  Since 1997, the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and other substances among 15-16 year olds has plummeted there, more so than any other nation, according to surveys.  And in fact, by 2016, Iceland was able to boast having the cleanest-living teens in the industrialized world, in contrast from being home to Europe's heaviest-drinking teens twenty years ago.  So how did they do it?

For starters, laws were changed.  The general age of majority was raised from 16 to 18, the smoking age was raised to 18, and the drinking age was raised to 20.  While possession and consumption are not illegal below that age over there, selling or furnishing alcohol or tobacco to people below that age is prohibited.  Advertising for both substances was banned, and the prices for both substances are very high due to taxation (e.g. alcohol in Iceland costs about double what it does in the USA on average). Also, a 10 pm curfew was implemented for 13-16 year olds, albeit relaxed to midnight in the summer.  (Of course, it should go without saying that we at Twenty-One Debunked would NOT support a drinking age any higher than 18, period, and from a youth-rights perspective we would NOT support age-based curfew laws either).

More importantly, though, were the other components of the Youth in Iceland strategy.  From the Mosaic article:

"Links between parents and school were strengthened through parental organisations which by law had to be established in every school, along with school councils with parent representatives. Parents were encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending a quantity of time with their children rather than occasional “quality time”, on talking to their kids about their lives, on knowing who their kids were friends with, and on keeping their children home in the evenings."
Home and School, the national umbrella body for parental organisations, introduced agreements for parents to sign. The content varies depending on the age group, and individual organisations can decide what they want to include. For kids aged 13 and up, parents can pledge to follow all the recommendations, and also, for example, not to allow their kids to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors, and to keep an eye on the wellbeing of other children.
These agreements educate parents but also help to strengthen their authority in the home, argues Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir, director of Home and School. “Then it becomes harder to use the oldest excuse in the book: ‘But everybody else can!’”
State funding was increased for organised sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs, and kids from low-income families received help to take part. In Reykjavik, for instance, where more than a third of the country’s population lives, a Leisure Card gives families 35,000 krona (£250) per year per child to pay for recreational activities."
So they seem to have an overall mixed bag from a youth-rights perspective, perhaps.  But that last bit about increasing state funding for recreational activities is what really seems to be the clincher for Iceland's success story.  Twenty-One Debunked certainly supports that aspect of the Youth in Iceland strategy.  And indeed that is precisely what one would predict from the famous yet underrated "Rat Park" studies.  To wit, boredom, stress, and especially lack of connection are the root causes of substance abuse and addiction.  Whether rats or people, give them fun stuff to do and opportunities to interact socially with one another, and they are less likely to want to numb themselves with alcohol or other drugs.  And that is true for all ages.

Note as well that Iceland, like all Nordic countries, has a very robust and generous social welfare state and social safety net. That clearly contributes to their relatively low level of poverty and desperation compared to the USA.  And they are generally one of the most progressive countries in the world in that regard.   And more so now than they were before the 2008 financial crisis.  So that might also have something to do with it as well.

Another gem from the same article, about when the less-controverisal aspects of the Icelandic model have been tried in some other places with a drinking age of 18 and no curfew laws, as Kaunas, Lithuania:

"Across Europe, rates of teen alcohol and drug use have generally improved over the past 20 years, though nowhere as dramatically as in Iceland, and the reasons for improvements are not necessarily linked to strategies that foster teen wellbeing. In the UK, for example, the fact that teens are now spending more time at home interacting online rather than in person could be one of the major reasons for the drop in alcohol consumption.
But Kaunas, in Lithuania, is one example of what can happen through active intervention. Since 2006, the city has administered the questionnaires five times, and schools, parents, healthcare organisations, churches, the police and social services have come together to try to improve kids’ wellbeing and curb substance use. For instance, parents get eight or nine free parenting sessions each year, and a new programme provides extra funding for public institutions and NGOs working in mental health promotion and stress management. In 2015, the city started offering free sports activities on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and there are plans to introduce a free ride service for low-income families, to help kids who don’t live close to the facilities to attend.
Between 2006 and 2014, the number of 15- and 16-year-olds in Kaunas who reported getting drunk in the past 30 days fell by about a quarter, and daily smoking fell by more than 30 per cent."

Thus, when viewed through a more nuanced lens than the mainstream media does, it becomes clear that Iceland's apparently miracle can indeed be achieved without raising the drinking age (or smoking age) any higher than 18, and without implementing youth curfew laws either.  Or any other forms of "social cleansing" for that matter, something the USA has a rather dark history of doing.

 It's time for the USA to stop "chasing the dragon" of failed drug and alcohol policies, pun intended, because try as we may, we all know that we're never gonna catch it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

What Happened in NYC After Raising the Smoking Age to 21?

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, two states (California and Hawaii) have also raised it to 21 (both in 2016) and several counties and towns/cities as well from 2013-2017, 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 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.  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, February 12, 2017

What Should the Blood Limits for THC Be?

Now that cannabis is legal in eight states for recreational use, and numerous other states for medical use, the issue of how to handle driving under the influence of cannabis (DUIC) is currently being hotly and heavily debated.  Many states, both where cannabis is legal and where it is illegal, currently set an arbitrary non-zero number for their blood-THC limit, while others set the limit at zero (i.e. zero-tolerance), while still others do not set any specific per se limit despite driving while impaired being illegal.  And as of 2017, there remains zero evidence that any of these laws actually save any lives on the highways or otherwise.

Recently, the state of Oregon, where cannabis is legal, has effectively stopped enforcing their legal per se limit for THC, citing a lack of scientific evidence to justify such a policy.  To wit, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s report on the matter also supports the idea that cannabis is far less impairing than alcohol:

The rate of drivers tested by Drug Recognition Experts who are positive for THC intoxication rose between 2013 and 2014, but did not increase following legalization [in 2015]. Fatal accidents data is highly variable year-to-year, making trend analysis difficult. But in Oregon in 2015 there were only three more traffic fatalities involving a driver testing positive for THC compared to 2004. Moreover, the rate of THC-related fatal accidents is also considerably lower than such accidents involving alcohol intoxication. Finally, while overall traffic fatalities and alcohol-related fatalities spiked in 2015, THC-related fatalities did not."

Even the AAA now concedes that, while being high on weed can cause driving impairment, it is significantly less impairing than alcohol and is in fact comparable to driving with a “noisy child in the back of the car,” and only half as dangerous as talking on a hands-free cellphone (which is legal in all states).  That said, we should also note that different drivers may be affected differently, and novice users and/or novice drivers may be a lot more impaired than more experienced users and/or drivers.  And combining cannabis with alcohol is known to be significantly more dangerous in terms of driving impairment than either one alone as well.  But there is currently no scientific evidence strong enough to justify a zero-tolerance or per se limit for THC, as its pharmacokinetics are far too complex to correlate blood THC levels with actual driving impairment.  For example, frequent users (including medical users) can test positive several days after the last time they used it, even if they are not impaired in the least, and thus get unjustly snared in the same dragnet as those who are actually impaired from toking up an hour or two ago.

Twenty-One Debunked does not recommend that anyone drive under the influence of cannabis.  But our laws must reflect reality nonetheless.  Thus, we make the following recommendations:

  • Follow Colorado's lead and set a prima facie limit for THC instead of a per se limit.  That distinction is crucial, as that would not mean automatic guilt, but a rebuttable presumption of guilt for going over the limit, which can still be challenged in court to prove non-impairment.
  • Set the limit at no lower than Colorado's 5 ng/mL, as that level, though imperfect, provides the clearest separation between impaired and non-impaired driving according to the best research.  Zero tolerance = zero intelligence.
  • Do not test for inactive metabolites, except perhaps to confirm recency of use.
  • Increase the use of field sobriety tests and drug-recognition experts, and use saliva tests to check for recent cannabis use before drawing any blood.
  • Work on developing better methods of determining actual impairment, but do NOT use that as an excuse or delaying tactic for keeping cannabis illegal.
  • Consider allowing a "medical necessity" defense for medical users.
  • Make the penalties for DUIC alone significantly lower than for alcohol and other drugs, but in combination with other substances, or if anyone is injured or killed, throw the book at 'em!
  • For illicit drugs other than cannabis, a per se limit would in fact be appropriate.
  • Get much tougher on bad and reckless drivers in general, as well as distracted driving.
  • And in keeping with the overall mission of Twenty-One Debunked, set the age limit for cannabis at 18 and do not treat drivers aged 18-20 any differently than drivers over 21 with respect to cannabis.
In other words, facts > feelings, even in the "post-truth" era.

We should also note that the rather modest increase in traffic deaths in 2015 and 2016 nationwide, and in 2014 in some states as well, does NOT seem to be caused by recent cannabis legalization in several states.  Increases occurred in both legalized and non-legalized states, as did some decreases, and there was no clear pattern in that regard.  A much more plausible explanation is the massive drop in gas prices from late 2014 to 2016, which is known to increase traffic fatalities (all else being equal), along with the improving economy as well as "reversion to the mean" following an all-time record low per VMT in 2013-2014.  Ergo, QED.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Trump Is The Ultimate Wildcard

In terms of alcohol and drug policy, Donald Trump remains somewhat of a mystery.  On the one hand, he went on the record in the early 1990s calling for the legalization of all drugs, period.  Since then, however, he has flip-flopped several times on the issue of cannabis legalization, most recently seeming to oppose legalization for recreational use while supporting legalization for medical use, and even on recreational use contradicting himself by saying that we should "leave it up to the states" (which really means supporting federal legalization without actually saying the "L-word").  And if that does not result in result in enough head-scratching on the part of the reader, he has nonetheless nominated the racist, uber-conservative drug-warrior Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, who "joked" that he thought that the KKK was fine until he found out that they smoked pot.  Yes, he actually said that. And Mike Pence would likely be no friend of legalization either, at least from what we gather so far. 

As for Trump's position on the drinking age, he does not seem to have a clear position either way.   On the one hand, he himself is a teetotaller because he lost his older brother at an early age to alcoholism.  On the other hand, despite his right-wing authoritarian and proto-fascist tendencies he seems to be one of the least likely to adhere to conventions or traditions compared to any of the other candidates he ran against in any political party.  Thus, on both the drinking age and the War on (people who use a few particular) Drugs, he remains a wildcard.  Like a cross between a joker and a jack(ass), basically.  We at Twenty-One Debunked do NOT support him by any stretch of the imagination, and Ajax the Great voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election.  But if he does somehow manage to budge in our direction on those particular issues, we will effectively stand with him on those issues while still opposing him nonetheless on practically all of the other issues.  And we are indeed prepared for him to flip-flop numerous times while in office as well, as we see that he is clearly quite fond of doing.