Saturday, December 30, 2017

The One Thing That Philip J. Cook and Wayland Ellis Both Agree On

Sometimes an idea comes along that is so compelling that even polar opposites of a particular ideological or public policy spectrum are willing to at least grudgingly embrace.  And sometimes that idea is not only not a new one, but has existed since practically forever yet has been largely underutilized all the same despite all the evidence in its favor.

Take the following two authors and researchers:  Philip J. Cook (author of Paying the Tab:  The Costs And Benefits of Alcohol Control) and Wayland Ellis (author of Abolish the Drinking Age:  The Conservative Case Against Alcohol Regulation).  The two can be considered to be each other's foil in many ways in regards to alcohol.  Cook is American, pro-21, pro-regulation, leans a bit more liberal than conservative, and leans more communitarian than libertarian.  In contrast, Ellis is British, anti-21, anti-regulation, conservative by British standards, and leans quite libertarian even by American standards.   

And yet, there is one thing that they both agree on:  the single most effective public policy measure to reduce alcohol-related harms is higher alcohol prices, such as through higher alcohol taxes.  Cook arrives at that conclusion enthusiastically while Ellis arrives at it perhaps a bit grudgingly, but the conclusion is the same regardless despite their otherwise polar opposite views on the drinking age and alcohol regulation in general.  Now that really says something!

And it pans out, given the reams upon reams of research evidence that arrive at that same conclusion in a wide variety of times, places, demographics, and functional forms.  Twenty-One Debunked generally agrees more with Cook than Ellis on most of the topics under discussion with the notable exception of the drinking age of course.  Especially since Cook's own 1984 study with Tauchen was one of the now-outdated studies that convinced the feds to force states to raise the drinking age to 21 in the first place.  We agree with Cook on some things, Ellis on others, and clearly agree with both on the issue of alcohol taxes.  Alcohol prices relative to inflation and income are currently at a record low in the USA, in no small part because taxes are at at a record low as well.  And there really is no overarching benefit to society for alcohol to be that cheap, while there is plenty of proven and serious harm from the excessive drinking (among all ages) that such cheap alcohol encourages.

Twenty-One Debunked supports lowering the drinking age to 18, while also raising and equalizing the federal alcohol taxes across the board to $24/proof-gallon, equal to the inflation-adjusted 1991 level for distilled spirits.  That would be a little more than an extra dollar for a six-pack of beer or an extra dollar on a fifth of liquor.  That could be done more gradually by first raising it to $16/proof-gallon and then to $24 a year later. Additionally, we would also be fine with (though not necessarily wedded to) the idea of setting a minimum price of $0.50-0.75 per standard drink or at least banning the practice of retailers selling alcohol below cost (already banned in many states).   Cook would support the latter idea of a price floor while Ellis would most likely not, but both would at least support higher alcohol taxes.

So what are we waiting for?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Would A Price Floor for Alcohol Be A Good Idea?

With the issue of alcohol taxes now coming to the forefront lately, there is also another policy measure designed to reduce the problems and externalities associated with excessive consumption of alcohol:  minimum unit pricing.  That is, a setting a minimum price per standard unit* of alcohol, which like excise taxes would increase the price of the cheap stuff (that is favored by heavy drinkers) but unlike taxes would have no effect on beverages whose price is already higher than the new minimum.  After all, the effect of taxes operates through the mechanism of higher prices, so the public health benefits should be similar for both taxes and a price floor, or some combination of the two.  The biggest differences would be in efficiency (who bears the costs) versus revenue (who gets it)--though even for taxes alone, the largest effect size, at the margins, would be on the heaviest drinkers as well, for obvious reasons.

One can see the effects of a price floor on both cheap alcohol in general as well as in bulk quantities.  Take a 40 oz. bottle of 8% ABV malt liquor that now costs $2.99.  That contains a whopping 5.3 standard American drinks*.  If the price floor was then set at $0.75 per standard drink, for example, the price would go up to $3.99, a small but significant jump that really would add up for a heavy (and/or very young) drinker.  A six-pack of 12 oz. cans of say, Budweiser (5% ABV) that sells for $5.99 per six-pack, already above that hypothetical price floor at $1.00 per standard drink--and that is a low-ball price for a six-pack in the USA--would be unaffected.  A 12-pack of the same product selling for $9.99 would still be unaffected, and an 18-pack could be sold for as little as $13.50.  But that 30-pack now on sale for $14.99?  Well, the price for that would go up to $22.50.  And that 15.5 gallon keg that currently sells for $100 or less, excluding deposit?  Well, that contains about 168 standard drinks, so the minimum price for that would jump to $126 per keg.  And those prices for bulk quantities would really add up for anyone who frequently throws or attends keggers or other large drinking parties--leading to somewhat fewer such occasions and/or less beer to go around at such parties.  And now combine that with even a modest tax hike and you get a marginal effect size that is greater than either measure alone.

What about the hard stuff?  Well, we see that while most of it would remain unafffected by a price floor, the cheaper end of the scale would be nonetheless be affected as well in a similar manner to beer.  Take a "handle" (i.e. a 1.75 L bottle) of the cheapest vodka, whiskey, or whatever that currently costs $12.99 in some places.  That contains about 40 shots of 1.5 oz each, so at 80 proof that would equal roughly 40 standard drinks per bottle.  If the minimum price were set at $0.75 per standard drink drink, that bottle would now cost about $30.  Even a mere $0.50 per drink floor price would raise the price of the cheap booze to around $20 or so.  So while distilled spirits would be the least affected category overall, they would in fact be even more affected than beer at the lower end.   And this would also lesssen the yawning disparity between on- and off-premise prices, thus reducing the urge to "pre-load" or "front-load" with cheap booze before going out to the bar, pub, or club.

So yes, Twenty-One Debunked would be fine with a price floor of $0.75 per standard drink, just as we would be fine with raising alcohol taxes across the board to as high as $24/proof-gallon for all beverage types.   A combination of both would also be good as well.  Given how moderate and responsible drinkers would barely be affected at all by either measure as noted (as long as the thresholds are not set much higher than the ones above), they hardly qualify as blunt instruments and are in fact highly efficient in practice.  That's a small price to pay for liberty.

* One "standard American drink" or "standard unit" of alcohol is equal to one measure of the following:  one 12 ounce can/mug/glass of beer at 5% ABV, one 5 ounce glass of wine at 12% ABV, or one 1.5 ounce shot of distilled spirits at 80 proof (40% ABV).  This is known as alcohol equivalence.  Contrary to popular opinion, these all contain the same amount of alcohol.  So keep this in mind if or when you drink.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Of Death And Taxes, Part Deux

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 have actually moved to lower such taxes as a lesser-known part of the new Republican tax bill.  

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.

Of course, those figures are now effectively even lower now that the Republican tax bill has lowered such rates even further for roughly the first 100,000 proof-gallons of all alcoholic beverage categories across the board.  But the aforementioned rates still remain the top rates above the respective thresholds in the now-tiered system.  Beer was always tiered with a reduced rate for the first 60,000 barrels, but now that reduced rate is even lower still, and for the first time ever distilled spirits now enjoy a reduced rate for the first 100,000 proof-gallons.  The rate structure is not inherently bad in itself, of course, but both the new and old rates are simply too low.

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 proof-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?

Friday, December 22, 2017

Have a Safe and Happy Holiday Season

(This is a public service announcement)

It is that time of year again when the holidays are upon us, and many of us Americans (and around the world) will be celebrating with alcohol and/or other substances.  We at Twenty-One Debunked would like to remind everyone to be safe and celebrate responsibly.  There is absolutely no excuse for drunk driving at any age, period.  We cannot stress this enough.  It's very simple--if you plan to drive, don't drink, and if you plan to drink, don't drive.  It's really not rocket science, folks.  And there are numerous ways to avoid mixing the two.  Designate a sober driver, take a cab, use public transportation, crash on the couch, or even walk if you have to.  Or stay home and celebrate there.  Or don't drink--nobody's got a gun to your head.  Seriously.  And the same goes for other psychoactive substances as well, and a fortiori when combined with alcohol. 

ARRIVE ALIVE, DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE!!!   If you plan to drink, don't forget to think!  The life you save may very well be your own.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Latest 2017 MTF Survey Results

The results of the annual Monitoring the Future survey for 2017 are in.  And here is a brief summary of the results:
  • Alcohol use in general as well as "binge" drinking among all three grades (8, 10, 12) remains at the same record-low levels as 2016.  
  • Tobacco use overall in all grades continued its long decline to a new record low in 2017, particularly for cigarettes, though vaping (e-cigarettes) did increase slightly in 2017 after decreasing a bit in 2016.
  • Cannabis use went up slightly in 2017 from 2016 after declining for several years, though generally still remains below 2012 levels, and of course far below the peaks in both 1979 and 1997.  This dovetails with another recent study of legalization states which found no significant increase in teen use post-legalization.
  • Opioids, including heroin, remain at very low levels among teens, while the opioid epidemic continues largely unabated among adults.
  • Inhalant use went up slightly among 8th graders after a long decline, though still remains at low levels.
  • All other substances decreased or saw no significant change either way in 2017.
So what can we conclude from all of this?  First, we can conclude that cannabis legalization did not increase teen cannabis use as the fearmongers claimed it would. Nor did the use of other substances increase as the "gateway" theory would have predicted--in fact, most other substances decreased.   So much for that theory.  Second, it would appear that e-cigarette vaping is to some extent displacing cigarette smoking, rather than exerting a "gateway" effect as was often feared--smoking would have increased along with vaping if those fears were true, and in fact the opposite has occured instead.  Which any way you slice it, is ultimately a net win for public health even if vaping is not completely harmless.  In fact, the drop in cigarette smoking was much faster from 2013-2015 than it was in the years before or since, coinciding with the period of greatest increase in e-cigarette use.   And finally, we can conclude that the kids are (mostly) alright, at least compared to the many adults around them who continue to drink themselves to death and/or rot and rust in opioids.

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 typically just 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.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Reflections on the Penn State Tragedy

In the wake of the Penn State tragedy which led to the untimely death of 19 year old sophomore Timothy Piazza, Twenty-One Debunked was initially quiet about it lest we be accused of cynically exploiting this tragedy.  But as time goes on, I have decided that as an activist and a Penn State alum myself, I cannot remain silent about it any longer.

First, I must say that the fraternity brothers who were present at the event in which Piazza was fatally injured should not be in any way absolved of responsibility for what happened.  It was bad enough that they gave (or more accurately, force-fed) him ludicrous amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time, enough to reach a BAC of 0.40 (!), apparently as a hazing ritual.   But when he fell down the stairs and sustained a nasty head injury and was barely responsive, they could have very likely saved his life by calling 911 or otherwise getting medical attention for him, but chose not to.  Instead, they basically treated him like a rag doll and subsequently let him "sleep it off".   Regardless of the drinking age and the age of the people involved, what the brothers did, and failed to do, was nothing less than reckless, selfish, and cowardly, and they should certainly never be allowed to get away with it.  So don't even think about putting any sort of words in our mouths.

But then a very ageist article was wrtitten to try to explain this tragedy away as a result of brain development or lack thereof.  And that's when we at Twenty-One Debunked really saw nothing but red.  The article was not only blatantly ageist, but completely missed the point by a long shot.  If the drinking age was 18, for example, this tragedy would have been far less likely to have happened.  There would be less reason for frats to even exist begin with, since 18-20 year old students would readily have more reliable alternative sources for alcohol and parties, and most of all drinking would occur in safer environments in which people would be more far likely to call 911 or otherwise get help for injuries or overdoses without fear of legal reprisals.  Even medical amnesty policies, which are good, are still no substitute for full legalization or at least decriminalization of "underage" drinking in general.  While lowering the drinking age is not a magic bullet, it will nonetheless go a long way towards reducing the problem of extreme and dangerous drinking on college campuses and towns, particularly among Greek organizations and athletes.  Additionally, we need to hold rogue individuals and organizations accountable for their behavior regardless of how powerful or privileged they are.

How many more must die or otherwise have their lives ruined for such an ignoble experiment as the 21 drinking age?   Are we as a society really so pharisaical that we don't even follow our own advice when we selectively say "if it saves one life, it's worth it"?   Because the logical conclusion of that line of reasoning is that the pro-21 crowd has some serious blood on their hands.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Teen Drinking Drops in Germany Despite Low Drinking Age

The pro-21 crowd often likes to claim that the recent and secular trends towards less drinking among young people in the USA was largely a result of raising the drinking age to 21 and tightening up its enforcement. But the drinking age hike was at most a minor contributor to such trends, since similar trends can also be seen in several other countries that did NOT raise the drinking age to 21.

One such notable example of this is Germany, whose drinking age is 16 for beer and wine, and 18 for distilled spirits.  In fact, one can even drink at 14 in public when accompanied by a parent or guardian, and there is no age limit for drinking in private residences.   Such laws have essentially been in effect for as long as anyone can remember (with the notable exception of the Nazi era), so what were the results of maintaining them in recent decades?  From 1979 to 2016, the percentage of 12-17 year old Germans who drink at least weekly dropped from 25.4% to 10.0%, a relative drop of more than 60%.  For 18-25 year olds, the percentage dropped by nearly half during the same timeframe, and from 1973-2016 dropped from from two out of three (67.1%) to less than one out of three (30.7%).  These trends are comparable to if not faster than the corresponding figures for American youth.

In other words, consider this the final nail in the coffin for the specious claim that the 21 drinking age had anything more than a minor impact on overall teen or young adult drinking.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Dark Side of the Icelandic Model

Recently, we posted an article about the seemingly successful Youth in Iceland strategy for reducing teen substance abuse. To wit, since 1997, the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and other substances among 15-16 year olds has plummeted theremore 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.

This was done through a combination of things: 1) laws were changed to raise the age of majority from 16 to 18, raise the smoking age for tobacco to 18 and the drinking age to 20, and set a 10 pm curfew law for people under 16, 2) most parents pledging to basically close ranks and keep their kids on a fairly tight leash overall, at least by European standards, and 3) the government investing in providing sports and other recreational activities for young people to give them something to do as a healthy alternative to drugs or alcohol.   And while not explicitly considered a part of the strategy, Iceland's very high alcohol taxes no doubt played a role as well.  We at Twenty-One Debunked noted how this strategy was a mixed bag and would support it if (and only if) it could be done without the ageism/adultism, like Kaunas, Lithuania (and some other cities) supposedly was able to do.

But one thing we did not look at right away was what happens when Icelandic youth finally do come of age.  The surveys used to support the Icelandic Prevention Model are of 15-16 year olds, but curiously the model's supporters don't even mention any data for people just a few years older.  Surely there should be a positive spillover or at least a cohort effect that follows youth exposed to the strategy if the ageists' theories are correct, so such a glaring omission is very curious indeed.

We think we know why.  For adults, Iceland is in fact one of the drunkest and druggiest countries in the world.  This is particularly true for prescription pills:  they seem to lead the world (or at least Europe) in the use/abuse of opioid painkillers, sedatives, tranquilizers, and stimulants.  And such drugs, particularly opioids, have been on the rise lately even as they have fallen in many other countries.  And despite fairly strict drug laws, the use of illicit drugs, both cannabis as well as hard drugs, have also increased significantly recent years as well. Iceland also notably leads the world in antidepressant use, and is also on the increase, which can be true for a number of reasons.   Though their overall per-capita alcohol consumption is below the OECD average, it has nonetheless risen 35% since 1992 despite recent alcohol tax hikes, and when they do drink, they really drink themselves into oblivion--kinda like stereotypical American college freshmen.  Of course, Iceland was already kind of like that before the Youth in Iceland strategy began in 1998, as well as for cohorts that came of age before that, but the fact that such widespread substance use/abuse has held steady or increased for the cohorts of adults that were affected by the law changes shows just how hollow the whole thing really was.

Oh, and for those who think that America's so-called "hook-up culture" among young people is out of control, well, let's just say that you've never been to Iceland.  And not just for young people either.  Over there it seems that "f**k first, names later" is the norm, often literally, and they are usually under the influence of alcohol when they do it.  Not to knock casual sex per se, or to shame anyone for it, but it is nonetheless sobering to note that Iceland leads Europe in terms of STD's, or at least chlamydia in particular, a disease that has even been nicknamed the "Reykjavik Handshake".  So apparently many Icelanders are getting so wasted that they fail to use condoms as directed, if at all, when they hook up.

In other words, the otherwise-progressive Iceland has basically become Little America in that regard, and not necessarily in a good way either.  That is what happens when ageists in power focus only on young people while ignoring the pink elephant in the room--the behavior of their elders.  The contrast between "abstain from everything" adolescence and "anything goes" adulthood couldn't be any more stark, and simply raising age limits or revoking civil rights from young people merely kicks the proverbial can down the road.  It's the Law of Eristic Escalation in action:  imposition of order leads to escalation of chaos/disorder, particularly if the order in question imposed is arbitrary and/or coercive. Renowned sociologist and youth-rights activist Mike Males would surely have a field day with Iceland!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Have a Safe and Happy Memorial Day!

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.

Friday, May 12, 2017

What We Can Learn from the Latest Monitoring the Future Survey

The 2016 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey results are in, and they may be a bit surprising to ageists as well as prohibitionists of all stripes:

  • The use of alcohol and tobacco are both at record lows for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.
  • "Binge" drinking (5+ drinks in one session) is also at a record low, and even "extreme binge drinking" (10+ drinks in one session) is the lowest it has been since 2005 when participants were first asked this question.
  • The use of any illicit drug other than cannabis has also reached a historic low.
  • The use of most specific illicit drugs have dropped significantly in recent years, many of which to record lows.
  • The notorious opioid epidemic, while currently out of control among adults, does NOT appear to be much of a problem for teenagers, as the use of both heroin and prescription opioids have actually dropped dramatically in the past several years among all grades surveyed.
  • In fact, past-year use of heroin in particular reached an all-time record low in 2016 for all grades surveyed.
  • Use of designer drugs such as "bath salts" and synthetic cannabis are also at their lowest point since they first came on the radar of researchers.
  • And in spite of cannabis being legalized in several states recently, its use has nonetheless dropped significantly among 8th and 10th graders since the most recent peak in 2011, and stabilized (in fact dropped slightly) among 12th graders since then as well.  Note that there is also no evidence of a "gateway" effect of legalization either, as some had feared.
But don't expect the fearmongering mainstream media to tell you any of that, of course.  Certainly no one in the "teen panic" industry or the anti-legalization lobby would tout such statistics no matter how true, as that would contradict their agendas.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Another thing that can be gleaned from the MTF surveys is a different sort of natural experiment for what full legalization of cannabis would look like in practice, using synthetic cannabis (Spice, K2, etc.) as a sort of counterfactual.  In 2011, when natural cannabis was illegal for recreational use in all 50 states (Alaska was then in legal limbo in regards to possession), it was also the first year that synthetic cannabis was asked about in the survey.  At the time, synthetic cannabis was readily available at head shops and even gas stations and convenience stores across the nation, and if there was even any age limit at all it was generally no higher than 18 and was generally not vigorously enforced.  And one of its biggest selling points was that not only was it legal, but it would also not show up in drug tests.  And it was widely regarded to be safe at the time, before its very real dangers became more obvious later on (and was later banned or restricted).  So one would think that, at least briefly, it would have become more popular than the real thing, right?

Wrong.  According to the 2011 MTF survey, young people apparently still preferred the real thing, legal niceties aside.   Fully three times as many 12th graders reported using natural cannabis at least once in the past year in 2011 as used the synthetic knockoffs that year.  And while 8th and 10th graders were not asked about synthetic cannabis until the following year, the 2012 results also show a similar two to threefold difference in favor of natural cannabis.  Thus, on balance, it strongly suggests that natural cannabis use among young people would not increase significantly even if it was legal and readily available at the local 7-Eleven for anyone over 18, right next to the cigarettes and beer, a policy which Twenty-One Debunked currently advocates.  And it also strongly suggests that young people who are so inclined can largely be trusted to make the safer choice as well in that regard.

So what are we waiting for?

Saturday, May 6, 2017

180/180: How to Clean Up Chicago (Or Any Other 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.