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 significanly 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.