Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Verdict Is In: Legalizing Weed Does Not Increase Crime Rates

The latest studies on the matter have confirmed what the TSAP and Twenty-One Debunked have kinda always known.  Legalizing weed does NOT seem to increase crime rates like the prohibitionists often claimed it would, and if anything, appears to decrease violent and property crimes a bit, as well as improve their clearance rates by police.  But we could've told you that years ago, for those actually willing to listen.

The theory for how legalization of cannabis would reduce crime is fairly simple.  First, it frees up relatively scarce police and other resources that would otherwise be used to bust people for weed, and allows such resources to be put to more productive uses (i.e. targeting real crime rather than victimless crime).  Secondly, cannabis is basically a non-violent drug, and can often substitute for alcohol, which is often (rightly or wrongly) linked to violence to one degree or another.  Thirdly, there is the systemic aspect, the violence linked to the illicit drug trade itself, which would self-evidently decrease if not disappear upon legalization, at least with regard to the substance being legalized. And finally, victimless crime laws, especially widely unpopular ones like cannabis prohibition (and, of course, the 21 drinking age) erode respect for the law in general and also erode cooperation and cohesion between the police and the community.  Thus, it really doesn't take a rocket scientist to see how removing such illiberal and pharisaical laws from the books would tend to decrease crime in general.

What about the opposite theory?  Not the long-debunked one that cannabis per se actually causes violent and property crime (which is rather silly on its face, mind you), but the one that claims that cannabis prohibition is a useful crime-fighting tool for police?  Well, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, and we really don't see any credible evidence of that on balance.  Any utility that such an abomination would have in that regard appears to be more than outweighed by its very real downsides, and thus we can consider that theory debunked as well.

(Cue the Law and Order DUN DUN sound effect.)

We need to legalize cannabis in all 50 states and all territories as well, yesterday, and lower the age limit to 18 as well, just like our neighbor to the north.  It is LONG overdue.  So what are we waiting for?

Sunday, July 22, 2018

You May Not Like It, But Here's the Answer to (At Least Greatly Reducing) College Rape and Sexual Assault

As we had noted in a previous post four years ago, rape and sexual assault is a persistent epidemic in the USA, including (but not limited to) college campuses nationwide.  Lately, the chattering classes have been endlessly wringing their hands about it for years, but little real progress has been made in recent years, and since the Trump administration began we seem to have even regressed a bit in that regard, the #MeToo movement notwithstanding.

Most rapes and sexual assaults, especially those involving college students on or near campus, are committed by people known to the victim, and many if not most of those involve alcohol to one degree or another, whether by the perpetrator, the victim, or both.  We should first and foremost note that the only thing that actually causes rape is the rapists themselves, period.   While alcohol (among other substances) can indeed fuel it and is often used as a weapon to incapacitate victims, rape would simply not happen without rapists, period.  And the onus should always fall on men not to rape in the first place, instead of falling on women not to "get themselves raped".  The fact that so many people still deny such an obvious truth in 2018 shows just how far we have yet to go towards eliminating or even reducing this epidemic, and those who blame or otherwise put the onus on potential or actual victims are in fact part of the problem.

We seriously need to drain the proverbial swamp of rape culture, yesterday, and thus revoke the rapists' social license to operate.  Culturally, we need to tackle the root causes of sexual violence by rejecting the highly toxic "commodity model" of sexuality and replacing it with the "performance model" (while also avoiding the negative connotations and pitfalls of the word "performance"), and more generally rejecting the "dominator model" of society and replacing it with the "partnership model".  And for alcohol, we need to recognize that while adopting a "Prohibition-Lite" approach of any sort is most likely to backfire and would throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, its link with sexual violence still needs to be dealt with in the meantime as cultural changes can take much time to occur.

So what measures can be taken in the very near term to quickly reduce or at least take the dangerous edge off of this seemingly intractable epidemic?  The reader may or may not like the answer, but here goes:
  1. Lower the legal drinking age to 18, yesterday, full stop.  The 21 drinking age makes drinking that much more dangerous than it has to be by forcing it underground, which can put young drinkers in more dangerous situations that increase the risk of sexual assault, and the law itself can be used as a cudgel to silence victims.
  2. Raise the tax on alcoholic beverages, both federally as well as at the state and local level (especially in college towns), with extra levies on bulk alcohol such as kegs, cases, and handles. Studies have shown a significant inverse correlation between alcohol prices and rape in general.
  3. Legalize cannabis for everyone 18 and older, yesterday.  Cannabis is clearly the safer choice in that regard, as it is highly unlikely to fuel violence or be used as a date-rape drug the way that alcohol all too often is.
  4. Pass "Yes Means Yes" laws (aka affirmative consent laws) similar to California's.  If properly written, these laws will essentially eliminate the concept of so-called "gray area rape" by putting the onus on the initiator of sexual activity to be sure that they actually have consent before proceeding further.
  5. Last but not least, hold the perpetrators accountable for a change, no matter how powerful or privileged they happen to be.  That includes enforcing both criminal laws as well as campus conduct policies to the fullest extent of the law.  No more Brock Turners.
As for the idea of colleges trying to influence upward the prices of cheap alcohol at parties (particularly Greek parties) that are typically $5 or so at the door for all-you-can-drink, that would be rather difficult to enforce in practice.  But if the drinking age was lowered to 18, most frats would likely end up having a "going out of business party" since their modern-day speakeasy services would no longer be necessary.  And those that remain would, in practice, throw less frequent parties and/or  ones with less beer (or liquor) to go around if the tax on such beverages is also hiked as well.

Doing these things will go a long way towards reducing the rape and sexual assault epidemic in the near term.  Anything less would be uncivilized. So what are we waiting for?

Do Alcohol Taxes Still Work to Save Lives?

Avid readers of our blog would note that Twenty-One Debunked supports raising the tax on alcoholic beverages almost as wholeheartedly as we support lowering the drinking age to 18.  And there are reams and reams of research evidence over many decades--locally, nationally, and internationally--that find that higher alcohol prices (and thus taxes) save lives both on and off the highways as well as reduce crime, violence, and other alcohol-related problems.   In contrast, the ageist abomination that is the 21 drinking age has not consistently demonstrated similar effectiveness in that regard, no matter what sort of pseudo-consensus exists in the minds of its most ardent supporters, and the best evidence thus far has exposed the specious claim of saving lives as little more than a mere statistical mirage all along.

That said, for the specific endpoint of alcohol-related traffic fatalities, among the reams of evidence there have been a few outlier studies that seem to cast doubt on the lifesaving effect of alcohol prices/taxes as well.  The most recent one in 2017 by McClelland and Iselin of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center studied the effects of the Illinois alcohol tax hikes in both 1999 and 2009, and found no long-term lifesaving effect from either one in terms of drunk driving deaths.  In contrast, a previous 2015 study by Wagenaar et al. had found a fairly large drop in alcohol-related traffic deaths following the 2009 Illinois tax hike, even after controlling for the effects of the Great Recession.  The biggest difference between the two studies was that McClelland and Iselin used the Synthetic Control Method (SCM) while Wagenaar et al. did not, and while a good method, like all methods it too can have its own share of pitfalls.

As for the other outlier studies, most of those are dissected and discussed in a 2015 replication review by David Roodman, which still concludes that a true lifesaving effect is likely.  One such outlier study is by Dee (1999), whose control for state-specific time trends apparently removed too much useful variation in state-level beer taxes.  And while Roodman did not discuss our all-time favorite study by Miron and Tetelbaum (2009), we should note that this study in fact began by replicating Dee (1999) using more years of data and including Alaska, Hawaii, and DC, and in contrast to Dee they did apparently find a fairly strong inverse correlation between beer taxes and 18-20 year old traffic deaths even after adjusting for state-specific time trends.

Granted, it is true that for the specific endpoint of DUI deaths, the price of alcohol may not be quite as important as it once was.  Drunk driving is far less common and far less socially acceptable than it was a generation ago, and legal sanctions against it are much stiffer now as well.  And with alcohol prices currently at a record low in relative terms, and alcohol taxes generally being a small portion of the overall price, the link between the two may not be as salient or noticeable as it once was due to being swamped or masked by other factors.  But that does not mean that it is ineffective, given the fact that several more recent studies continue to find such effects, and the numerous studies that continue find fairly large benefits in terms of reducing non-traffic deaths and harms as well (cirrhosis, unintentional injuries, cancer, crime, violence, STDs, etc.).

Thus, the overwhelming weight of the evidence still continues to support the idea that raising alcohol taxes/prices is an effective (and especially cost-effective) public health policy in terms of saving lives both on and off the highways as well as reducing alcohol-related problems in general.  And if it is high enough, it is also justified on Pigouvian grounds as well.  So what are we waiting for?

Friday, July 20, 2018

Is Alcoholism on the Rise for Women?

A recent article in Prevention discusses a recent study by NIAAA, that finds that alcoholism (or clinically speaking, "alcohol use disorder") among women has apparently been on the rise lately, having nearly doubled since 2002.  And while at least some of what the NIAAA has to say (especially their rather low definition of "binge" drinking) should be taken with at least a grain of salt (if not a whole pound), there does unfortunately seem to be at least some truth here.

So why is this happening now?  The article does speculate that deteriorating work-life balance, increased stress and anxiety, and increasingly aggressive alcohol marketing towards women should take at least some of the blame.  And all of that is certainly true to one degree or another.  But truly the pinkest elephant in the room is that excessive drinking (and related consequences) has been increasing overall for both women and men during that timeframe, and while the gender gap has indeed narrowed, men continue to greatly exceed women in terms of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems, as they always have (despite some improvement in decades past until very recently).

Americans of all ages and genders are literally drinking themselves to death as we speak.  About 88,000 per year, in fact, die from alcohol-related causes (vs. 65,000 per year for opioid and all other drug overdoses combined), a number that has 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 unfortunately--no, shamefully, responding to this epidemic with a collective shrug for the most part.

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 recent Republican tax bill.  This at a time when the relative price of alcohol is at an all-time record low already and still falling, while alcohol-related casualties continue to rise.

Also, we really need to legalize the safer choice, yesterday.  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 of course.  Cannabis may even take a major bite out our nation's deadly and devastating opioid epidemic as well, according to some studies.  There's really no good reason to keep it illegal.  Zip. Zilch. Nada.

One thing is for sure.  Raising the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s, and increasing enforcement from the 1990s onward, appears to have done NOTHING to stem this tide, at least not for this most recent increase in alcohol-related problems, particularly among women.  Yet you can bet that the powers that be will predictably double down on this very ageist abomination and greatest alcohol policy failure since Prohibition.  Because reasons.  Or something.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Update on Guam

Eight years ago this month, we at Twenty-One Debunked were chagrined when Guam unfortunately raised the drinking age from 18 to 21.  We have enough data to give some sort of an update on Guam since the drinking age was raised, and we see that the results were at best a mixed bag overall.

At least one Guam news website since then has trumpeted the July 2010 law change as a success.  For example, they note (correctly) that according to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), 13.6% of Guam's high school students engaged in "binge" drinking, compared to 19.2% in 2007, the last available year in the survey before the law change.  This drop by nearly a third sounds impressive until you consider the following facts:
  1. The decline in high school "binge" drinking actually began in 2001, from a high of 24.9%.  The drop from 2001 to 2007 was almost as large as the drop from 2007 to 2011.
  2. The figures also declined in the nation as a whole, from 29.9% in 2001 to 26.0% in 2011 to 21.9% in 2011.
  3. Due to the fact that the surveys were not done every year, we have no idea when the decline in Guam began to accelerate.
  4. For grades 9 and 10, the differences in "binge" drinking rates between the years 2007 and 2011 were not statstically significant, despite the fact that the differences were significant for the nation as a whole. 
  5. In fact, 9th and 10th graders in Guam actually saw increases in self-reported riding with a drinking driver, while the mainland saw decreases.  So much for the trickle-down theory.
  6. Guam's teen drinking and "binge" drinking rates have been consistently below the national average, even when their drinking age was 18.
  7. Compared with 2007, high school students in Guam saw increases in boozy sex as well as unprotected sex in 2011.
  8. While the overall decline in teen drinking did continue in recent years in Guam, we must keep in mind that Puerto Rico (drinking age 18 unchanged) and Northern Mariana Islands (drinking age 21 unchanged) also saw similar declines as well.
As for whether there were any effects on drunk driving arrests or crashes, at first it was too soon to tell since 2011 and 2012 data were not yet available right away.  Even the 2010 data were problematic since the drinking age changed in midyear and there were not enough age-specific data yet for alcohol-related crashes and deaths.   But several years later, we now have enough data to conclude that raising the drinking age in Guam did NOT save lives, since the number of DUI deaths (in total and among people under 21) did not decrease, and in fact even increased a bit since the law change.

We had previously noted the Uniform Crime Report for 2010.  In it we see that total DUI arrests dropped significantly from 2009 but nonetheless remain higher than 2008.  DUI arrests for 18-19 year olds were 42 in 2008, 52 in 2009, and 35 in 2010, which was a slight decrease from 2008.  (Data for 20 year olds in 2010 was lumped in with 21-24 year olds, so it could not be used.)  Juvenile crime (i.e. under 18) saw zero progress overall in 2010, and in fact nearly doubled from 2009.  Specific crimes that rose in 2010 among juveniles included not just DUI but also murder, rape, assault, robbery, vandalism, liquor law, and drug abuse violations among others.

One must also remember that in 2010 Guam had a major crackdown on drunk driving with tougher new penalties (after many years of a very lax policy), and also increased education and awareness about the alcohol problems on the island.  Also, the new drinking age of 21 appears to be more heavily enforced that the previous drinking age of 18, which was poorly enforced.  That's a lot of variables to consider.

The most recent Uniform Crime Report for Guam was for 2016, and the data show that there were 17 DUI arrests for 18-19 in 2015, about half the number there were in 2010. Apparently, data were rather spotty for the years in between.  That said, the number of DUI deaths nonetheless went up from 2010-2013 before dropping again through 2015, so it would be facile and fatuous to link this longer term trend to the drinking age hike.  More likely it was due to increasing crackdowns on DUI in general.

Finally, we should note that if Miron and Tetelbaum's groundbreaking study of the 21 drinking age is any guide, any apparent benefits of Guam raising the drinking age to 21 should disappear beyond the first year or two of adoption.  And while tourism actually went up in 2011 (except for Japanese tourists after the tsunami) contrary to our predictions, and reached a record high in 2017, one could argue that Guam was simply lucky due to a confluence of other factors.  For example, the US military buildup on the island generated increased economic growth that could have potentially masked (or delayed) any declines in tourism that would have otherwise occurred.  The Fijian experience is instructive in that it took fully three years for Fiji to see that tourism was suffering due to the 2006 drinking age hike to 21, and then it was lowered back to 18 in 2009.  And now that Guam has raised the smoking age to 21 as well in 2018, they are really pushing their luck in that regard now.

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Simple, Yet Overlooked Solution to College (Town) Drinking Problems

With all of the perennial hand-wringing about binge drinking and related problems on college campuses and in college towns, one would think that actual solutions would have been implemented long ago.  But it appears that not only are the chattering classes NOT naming and defining the actual problem correctly (spoiler alert:  it is NOT peculiar to college students or limited to a specific age group), but they do NOT seem to be interested in solutions that really work.  They just keep on repeating the same tired, old nostrums that are either feel-good pseudo-solutions or worse, neoprohibitionist measures (usually involving propping up the ageist abomination that is the 21 drinking age) that tend to do more harm than good overall.  Or they jump on the anti-student bandwagon and vilify college students as a group that is somehow unworthy of full adult rights and/or somehow parasitic to the surrounding community.

But there is in fact a very simple solution to reduce such alcohol-related problems, improve town and gown relations, correct for Pigouvian externalities, and raise revenue at the same time:  raise alcohol taxes locally in college towns.  The town of State College, PA, home to my own alma mater, Penn State University, is the latest to float the idea of levying their own local alcohol taxes (though the state would have to grant them permission to do so).  We have known for decades that alcohol taxes work well in general to significantly reduce alcohol-related harms without actually violating anyone's rights, discriminating against students or young people in general, or forcing non-drinkers to foot the bill for the externalities of excessive drinking.  And the state of Pennsylvania (and any other state, for that matter), would do well to grant local governments the right to levy their own alcohol taxes as they see fit, for both on- and off-premise sales.

If the price of alcohol were to go up significantly, even if only modestly, excessive drinking and related consequences (such as traffic casualties, violence, vandalism, overdoses, and public nuisances) would go down, all else being equal.  Moderate drinkers would barely even notice the price difference.  And the revenue it would raise could be used to further reduce (or at least deal with) whatever problems that remain in the community.  A win-win-win situation for everyone but the alcohol industry, basically.

So what are we waiting for?

Monday, July 9, 2018

Have We Got the "Teen Brain" All Wrong? (Part Deux)

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 socioeconomic or 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.

These findings also dovetail rather nicely with a 2015 study by renowned sociologist and youth-rights activist Mike Males.  Using crime data from California, he found that while the typical Western age-crime pattern for homicide (peaking at age 19) held true at first without controlling for poverty, once poverty was controlled for, that pattern basically vanished for all but the poorest communities, a group in which young people just so happen to be grossly overrepresented (and not just in California either).  And while some other studies have disagreed with such findings, those previous studies have generally failed to disentangle age, period, and cohort effects, greatly confounding the results.  Thus, especially in light of the Taiwan study, we can conclude that the traditional Western age-crime pattern is largely (if not entirely) a function of poverty, not age.  Which is actually good news, given that poverty is a much easier problem to solve (at least for a wealthy and Monetarily Sovereign nation like the USA) than any neurological issues or deeply-ingrained cultural factors could ever be.

It is very rare that a single study (or two) 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.