Vincent Geloso Interviewed for his Work on the War on Drugs

Regular readers of NOL know that fellow notewriter Vincent Geloso has done a lot of great work on the war on drugs. Dr. Geloso was recently on Student for Liberty’s Podcast to discuss a paper he recently co-authored compiling data on the effects of the war on drugs on increased security costs, which he previewed a few months ago on NOL. He had a wide-ranging discussion on his findings, secondary effects of the war on drugs in terms of economic costs, the psychology of policing with the war on drugs, and comparing the drug war to prohibition. Check out the discussion.

P.S. If you’re not already listening to SFL On Air, you should and not just because I’m in charge of marketing for it.

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Laws regulating cannabis are laws regulating the body

In honor of 4/20, here is a paper I published a couple years ago in my school paper on the science of marijuana consumption. And here’s a few interesting facts about the drug:

  • sea squirts were the first organisms to develop cannabinoid receptors
  • when Tupac Shakur was cremated, members of his musical group Outlawz combined his ashes with marijuana and smoked him
  • the first ever sale on the internet was a small bag of marijuana
  • Carl Sagan, writing under a pseudonym, once wrote an article outlining what he saw as the beneficial effects of smoking it

Combing through the history of drug criminalization in America, it is clear that much of the law arose in response to national or state crises. It’s very obviously too simplistic to say, these drugs became illegal because they are dangerous; it’s also disingenuous to claim criminalization occurs simply to oppress or discriminate against certain groups of people (although, certainly, racism played a role in several criminalization campaigns, definitely including marijuana’s). The attitude has changed toward recreational weed: people think it should be legal because it’s safe and has legitimate medical benefits (instantly making its Schedule I status ridiculous). These things are true, but when progressives rest their drug legalization case on these mild criteria they weaken the case for more dramatic legislation which could produce effects far more progressive. Marijuana should be legal because laws which regulate it are laws which regulate the human body, in ways that only effect the user. The case for legalization is a case for freedom and autonomy, and from it follows the lifting of prohibitions on ketamine, opioids, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, methamphetamine, heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide, psilocybin, ecstasy,cocaine, etc. The economic argument for drug decriminalization is clear; the legal argument (like the iron law of prohibition) is clear; the moral argument is deontological and follows from much of the spirit of new political voices that wonder about government’s role in regulating the body.

The argument, often given by marijuana consumers, that it should be illegal because, were it to become legal, small businesses would get wiped out by larger conglomerates, and lower quality weed would get produced, is partially false and wholly single-minded. Most of the people that get jail time for weed are busted only for possession, not distribution; some people have been charged with life imprisonment for minor acts of growing — some of them retired veterans dealing with mental health issues. Focusing on how potent the weed would be if decriminalized is focusing only on how we, free individuals, will make out; it leaves these people in prison for a minor bump in hedonism. Further, cannabis’ potency has soared over the years since its initial popularity (in truth, a consequence of prohibition). It’s unlikely that it would start to de-escalate, as demand is so high. And weed is available in a multitude of forms now: the experimentation could only grow with laxer drug laws. Also, small businesses are often the ones hardest hit by regulation of products. The massive cartels will suffer most by drying up the black market, and then individuals who want relatively harmless drugs like marijuana can avoid entering a seedy underground (where they are exposed to far worse ails) to obtain it.

Prohibitionists also claim to be concerned about the children: with weed legal, won’t younger people start doing it? Again, the case for drug legalization is a case for autonomy, so this argument is misguided anyway, but to answer it — the best research from Colorado after recreational legalization (see Reason) suggests no statistically significant fluctuation in youth use. Marijuana is already immensely popular with young people; it can’t get much more in-fashion. Also, the recreational measures being introduced propose 21 as a purchase age: if kids are obtaining the drug from their neighborhood dealer now, the new laws would only direct them to buying from older, and probably more responsible people.

Most of the arguments point to decriminalizing weed, and not just because it’s safe and has medical benefits. These arguments also justify the extension of similar opinion to “hard drugs.”

For a more just criminal justice system, and a more free society … legalize it.

Happy 4/20. (And no, by the way, I don’t smoke.)

From Grass Valley to Chico: party culture and noise ordinances

A professor at Chico recently asked his critical thinking class about noise ordinances: “Why should a few people get to shut down a few hundred people having fun?” The question is about our intuitive response to questions of utility. However, it goes beyond that.

Recently, students at Chico State tried to organize support for shutting down noise ordinances (after the penalties became harsher), which would mean more loud parties. It’s unlikely to go anywhere since there are thousands of non-collegiate adults living in the immediate vicinity who have to put up with noise on a regular basis and need police power to shut down public disturbances.

Nevertheless, the college was established in 1887, and everyone who chooses to live in the city has been here a much shorter time than the campus. Its reputation precedes itself. Chico State came in 59th place out of 1,426 colleges for its party scene for 2017. In 1987, Chico came in first place in a Playboy ranking, and since then, its status has been for general excess.

With a population of 90,000 when school is in session, that’s a lot of partying hard. President Paul Zingg, who resided over Chico from 2004 to 2016, made a crack-down on partying central in his mission statement. Zingg, 70, entered Chico administration after a fraternity hazing death and sought to reduce the school’s notoriety for binge drinking. Since his arrival Chico dropped another twenty or so notches in partying prestige.

There are many programs on campus to discourage binge drinking and equip students with the knowledge of how to proceed if alcohol poisoning does occur. Further, the local fines for minor-in-possession charges are exceedingly costly. However, policing parties harder – both academically and politically – might have some unintended consequences. Driving out parties means young people will have to entertain themselves in other ways, and, barring 20 year olds spending their nights at the science museum, different drugs may show up to occupy them.

There are many Californian cities where there are no parties but recurrent drug abuse. My hometown is one such place. Nevada County, composed of Grass Valley, Nevada City, Penn Valley, Alta Sierra, and, sort of, Truckee, has a problem with homelessness, youth homelessness and youth drug abuse; all misdemeanor offenses, however, so Nevada County has a low felony rate per capita compared to neighboring counties and the state as a whole.

When I went to middle and high school in Nevada City and Grass Valley, there was an impressive issue with teen drug abuse and recidivism. I knew many students without stable living conditions. Many graduates lacked any occupational motivation, while the area offered an extensive and encompassing drug culture. Narcotics and experienced vagrants provided a rubric against which a hopeless mentality prospered. (The Nevada County Sheriff’s activity website boasts largely of public disorder or drug-related arrests.)

The city of Chico, meanwhile, is adjacent to methamphetamine giants like Oroville and Marysville. The city itself has eleven suspected clandestine drug laboratories as of 2014, compared to Oroville’s twenty. (Residents know there are more.) The governance of Chico, in terms of partisanship, is not unique; nor is its relative adolescent-adult ratio peculiar for a college town. Yet it manages to get by without excessive hardcore drug use or addiction rates like its neighbors. I think it’s plausible that, among other factors, Chico’s party scene helps keeps out the harder drugs.

Parties mean marijuana, alcohol and cocaine. These are staples in any festive town. However, without parties, there are less party drugs, and instead a window opens for more deadly drugs. People don’t party on deadly drugs, like those that slow heart rate, so when there’s parties, more designer drugs appear rather than lounge-around, do-nothing narcotics, like opioids or barbiturates. (I think this effect holds for towns of a certain population, but once that population and acreage is large enough, the effect may begin to work in the opposite direction.)

Grass Valley and Nevada City have a large proportion of young adults but a microscopic party scene. They are sister towns where the borders are relatively undefined, and have a combined population of about 16,000, made up of mostly middle-aged adults and a subsection of retired elderly folk. Nevada City came in eighth place for most dangerous city in California in a Telegraph Today poll. This is partially explainable in terms of population – the total amount of people is so small that any violence means, per 1,000 people, the likelihood of being a target of violence grows heavily. Like I said, violent crime appears relatively absent. Nonetheless there is an inordinate amount of drug use, from harmless depressants like marijuana to titans like methamphetamine.

Grass Valley teenagers don’t have many all-night ragers to shotgun cans of Pabst at. This means they don’t have an environment to learn how to party hard safely, and also that they become dependent on drugs that can fit any occasion.

There’s a reason why alcohol is the most popular drug for people under 21: it’s illegal until you turn 21. Similarly, I think crackdowns on drug use – common and relatively harmless drugs like alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and cocaine – may lead to backfires and encourage kids to move into more unexplored narcotic territory. (I also wrote a paper last year illustrating that several non-profit efforts to quell methamphetamine use across the nation had a negligible effect or the reverse effect.)

The drugs of today are a new type of foe. The lost war on drugs is getting the tar kicked out of it by Vicodin and OxyContin in the age of the highest recorded overdoses of all time. Smart drug policy would investigate the positive effects that parties have in the broader neighborhood, like tourism, promotion of social behavior, and promotion of drugs that are better understood by medical professionals and users alike.

The hazing overdose death that President Zingg came to office on was not from alcohol, nor any party drug, but from excessive water intake. The mistake is to infer a causal connection between dangerous partying and deaths like these, when there are causal events underlying both. Loud, boisterous parties are preferable, any day, to equally illicit, but infinitely more dangerous, covert drug use.

So, to answer the original question, “Why should a few people get to shut down a few hundred people having fun?” They shouldn’t. Screw them.

HARD Summer: autonomy within a prohibitive legal system

I want to elaborate on an earlier post of mine, that received some backlash on Reddit. I said “it is [not] an altogether correct judgment to blame drug consumers for their deaths.” I stated that I don’t believe drug users are entirely to blame for the occasionally-lethal consequences of their willful intoxication; a point I didn’t elaborate on sufficiently, and something that, at first glance, seems wholly incorrect or contrary to many principles espoused on this site. Not so. Illegal drugs (and to an extent, legalized drugs, and to a small extent, anything illegal) face a special status in the realm of human action.

Imagine if I, an undergrad who studies law and philosophy, took on a business venture. I haven’t studied finance or business. Not only have I avoided all theory, but I have no real-world knowledge about the stock market or fluctuating national trends. If I go out on a limb, and buy shares in a company doomed to fail, at that precise moment I exercise my will, make a poor judgment and the inevitable consequences fall on my own shoulders. The responsibility is on me, the same as it would if I were highly educated on the subject and took a promising gamble. Why? Clearly, because I could have easily educated myself – the information, and the means to obtain it, is out there.

Drugs, such as methamphetamine, are different. Legal authorities have specifically prevented me from obtaining information, which would have been collected and condensed naturally, that is requisite for forming a knowledgeable, and thereby autonomous, judgment. In the same way that a child cannot be blamed for removing a firearm from its safe and mistakenly pulling the trigger, I cannot be entirely blamed for making decisions the consequences for which I had an incomplete understanding. It’s part of the reason the crime of homicide is nowhere in law so general: it is divided into murder, manslaughter, voluntary and involuntary, and so on, based on degrees of competence. Now, in the case of a hard drug, I did go of my own accord into the black market to purchase the substance. To some degree, no matter what, I was aware of the risks attached to it. Regardless, the government has, through its force, removed sources of information which would be central to my evaluative performance: scientists cannot perform tests because of enforced ethical standards or threatened jail time for proximity to a drug; there is a lack in direct testimony from acquaintances because the ability to acquire the drug has been drastically altered (in some circumstances, removed; in others, just made more seedy); in addition, police officers often do not know how to handle someone on certain drugs (even when they are required to), they know only how to make the arrest: occasionally life-threatening situations are stalled medical care. State paternalism actually has an infantilizing effect, which shifts some of the responsibility from my hands into those of my helicopter caregiver.

This disruption of responsibility does not imply the government now has the right to make my decisions for me: making decisions for me is what led to the disruption, not any innate immaturity on my part or the part of any user. Disruption cannot justify itself. Instead of knowing why methamphetamine is dangerous for so and so reasons, what I really know and understand, is that the market I can purchase it in is dangerous. Genuine knowledge, wisdom about a substance and its chemical make-up, is less commonplace than wisdom about the dangers of obtaining it: knowledge for which its existence is utterly contingent on an extensive state apparatus.

So, authorities that pass laws criminalizing drug use directly make the market more dangerous (by creating cartels, etc.), and indirectly prevent consumers from discovering information appropriate to making an informed (and thereby blameworthy) decision. The weight of many acute drug overdoses rests on the heads of lawmakers, and in every future drug experimentation the government plays an inhibitory role in the autonomy of the experimenter.

Politically-minded people who don’t want the government (or other people) making decisions for them – whether that’s conservatives hoping to direct their income how they see fit, or liberals fighting for marriage equality – usually employ the argument that people can be responsible for themselves. What I think is obvious, is that when government attempts to prohibit any substance, they impact the ability to even potentially be responsible when making decisions about the substance, by coercively limiting the information that would naturally develop.

A hidden cost of the war on drugs

AI just completed another paper (this time with my longtime partner in crime Vadim Kufenko) where we question an hypothesis advanced by Samuel Bowles regarding the cost of inequality. In the process, we proposed an alternative explanation which has implications for the evaluation of the war on drugs.

In recent years, Samuel Bowles (2012) has advanced a theory (well-embedded within neoclassical theoretical elements while remaining elegantly simple) whereby inequality increases distrust which in turn magnifies agency problems. This forces firms to expend more resources on supervision and protection which means an expansion of the “guard labor force” (or supervisory labor force). Basically, he argues there is an over-provision of security and supervision. That is the cost of inequality which Bowles presents as a coordination failure. We propose an alternative explanation for the size of the guard and supervisory labor forces.

Our alternative is that there can be over-provision of security and supervision, but this could also be the result of a government failure. We argue that the war on drugs leads to institutional decay and lower levels of trust which, in turn, force private actors to deploy resources to supervise workers and protect themselves. Basically, efforts at prohibiting illicit substances require that limited policing resources be spread more thinly which may force private actors to expend more resources on security for themselves (thus creating an overprovision of security). This represents a form of state failure, especially if the attempts at policing these illicit substances increase the level of crime to which populations are vulnerable. To counteract this, private actors invest more in protection and supervision.

Using some of the work of Jeffrey Miron and Katherine Waldock, we show that increases in the intensity of prohibition enforcement efforts (measured in dollars per capita) have significant effects on the demand for guard labor. Given that guards represent roughly 1 million individuals in the US labor market, that is not a negligible outcome. We find that a one standard deviation increase in the level of drug enforcement efforts increases the ratio of guards to the population by somewhere between 12.92% and 13.91% (which is the equivalent of roughly 100,000 workers).

While our paper concentrated on proposing an alternative to the argument advanced by Bowles regarding the cost of inequality, we (more or less accidentally) measured a hidden cost from the war on drugs. The insecurity (increased crime rates and spillovers from illegal markets into formal markets) brought forth by drug prohibition  forces an over-provision of security and supervision (our supervision measure which includes workers that supervise other workers were smaller than with the security guard measure).

Basically, a hidden (private cost) of the war on drugs is that we must reallocate resources that we could have used otherwise. Its a little like when I say that it is meaningless to compare healthcare expenditures to GDP in Canada and the United States because Canadians assume costs in a hidden manner through rationing. Waiting lists in Canada are longer than in the US. The cost is lost wages and enduring pain and that cost will not appear in measures of expenditures to GDP. The war on drugs works the same way. There is a fiscal cost (expenditures dedicated to it and the taxes that we must impose), there is a crime cost (destruction of lives and property) and there is a reallocation cost of privately providing security which is hard to measure.

*The paper is available here. 

The Enforcement Costs of Immigration Laws are Greater than Alleged Welfare Costs

As I mentioned in my note yesterday, the common argument that immigration is significantly costly through welfare is mostly empirically falsified. The fact of the matter is immigrants usually aren’t qualified for such programs, illegal immigrants mostly cannot and do not receive them, and immigrants as a whole wind up contributing more to the government’s balance sheet through economic growth and tax receipts than they take through welfare transfer payments.

However, there is one fact I neglected to mention yesterday worthy of its own post: if those opposed to immigration on the grounds of welfare costs were really sincere in that argument, they also need to consider the fiscal costs of enforcing their beloved immigration laws. As the New York Times editorial board pointed out yesterday, these costs are not insignificant:

The Migration Policy Institute reported in 2013 that the federal government spends more each year on immigration enforcement–through Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol–then on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. The total has risen to more than $19 billion a year, and more than $306 billion in all since 1986, measured in 2016 dollars. This exceeds the sum of all spending for the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Secret Service; the Marshals Service; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

These fiscal costs get worse when you consider that Donald Trump wants to expand ICE’s budget even further and, of course, the $8-$12 billion dollar wall.

Further, if you are a civil liberties type concerned with the social and fiscal costs of mass incarceration, immigration enforcement looks even bleaker:

ICE and the Border Patrol already refer more cases for federal prosecution than the entire Justice Department, and the number of people they detain each year (more than 400,000) is greater than the number of inmates being held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for all other federal crimes.

The war on immigrants makes the war on drugs look tame.

Of course, these costs are pretty small when compared to the welfare state, but immigrants are not the ones driving up those welfare costs and they might even reduce it with more tax receipts. The truth is that furthering immigration restrictions and enforcement is truly fiscally irresponsible, not respecting the right to freedom of movement and contract.

So, something that makes me smile for a change.

It’s a fact that I feel pain in several parts of my body, including in parts I did not know I had. One of the sources of pain is permanent shingles. I only mention this in the hope that it will trigger some of you to get vaccinated or to get their aging parents vaccinated.

So, anyway, recently, someone who ought to know (if you know what I mean) convinced me to try cannabis for my pains. So, I went to the specialized doctor (at least, I think he is a doctor). I gave him $100 and I came out with a medical marijuana card.

I went straight to the dispensary and purchased some cookies, of the kind my adviser had previously let me taste. The effect on my pain was almost miraculous. I felt none from about five pm until I went to bed around 10 pm.

Several things sill trouble me. First, I can’t find a dose small enough to avoid getting a little high, which I would like to avoid. Second, it makes me hungry (surprise!). Third, what if frequent use re-ignites my passions, what then? Fourth, I am really, really pissed off about the $100 because it looks like Californians just passed a recreational cannabis law.

My sage adviser is an excellent auto mechanic in his spare time. You write me, I will give you his name. That would be for mechanical services, of course.