A hack writes

by Matt_Bishop on August 8, 2006

Thanks for that generous intro, Maria. Wiping my drool from my chin, I will see if I can get into this blogging thing. I’ve noticed one or two provocative comments on this site about the rag where I ply my trade, so I’d better make it clear that I’m blogging in a personal capacity, and in the best Falstaffian traditions, I will use my discretion and not engage in any debates about The Economist position on this or that.

The Daily Mail is another matter. I’ve just flown back to NY from London, and BA kindly gave me the chance for free to read about Britain through the strangely coloured lens of that venerable tabloid. Various staples leap out: a hatred of the soon to be ex-Lady McCartney; stories of feeble pensioners confronting teenage yobs who harass them – only for the parents of the yobs to complain to the police, who arrest the pensioners; unflattering pictures of Cherie Blair on the beach. But two stories seemed worth drawing to the attention of Crooked Timberers (if that is the collective term? maybe Crooks for short?).

First, apparently Mr Blair’s policy advisors reckon that downgrading the criminality of using cannabis in Britain has led to an increase in the use both of cannabis and of other harder drugs, thus seeming to confirm the controversial theory that cannabis is a gateway drug.

I believe that legalisation is the only workable solution to the horrendous problems associated with such drugs, ranging from the wrecked lives of abusers to the wrecked economies of the suppliers. So, what to make of these findings from Britain? First, assuming the Mail has accurately reported the conclusions, I suppose that supporters of legalisation should not be all that surprised that reducing criminal penalties increases drug use. That is clearly a risk. The case for legalisation is that the benefits of that policy change outweigh the downside of greater use.

First, users should suffer less harm, because the quality of drugs is likely to be more consistent and better in a legal market and because users should be better informed about the risks they run when they use the drug (which of course, as with booze, will not stop some taking excessive risks). Second, the supply side should be removed from the criminal underworld into the glorious light of transparent modern capitalism, where the twin effects of brand and legal liability (among other things) will work their magic. (Compare the modern booze industry with the prohibition era speakeasies, or consider the product info provided by your local drug dealer with the amount and quality of information now provided by cigarette firms to their customers.)

The problem in Britain, from my perspective, is that its policy has been so feeble – driven I suspect more by the fact that the police hated getting involved with the middle-class families whose kids now routinely use cannabis than by any more serious intent to tackle the global problems of illegal drugs. What is needed is the sort of full scale legalisation which allows customers to buy cannabis in Tesco or WalMart, from respectable purveyors like Philip Morris. Not sure the Mail will buy that, though.

The second interesting Mail story was a report that injections of stem cells are the new hot beauty therapy for the super-wealthy, apparently helping ageing organs and skin to regrow, and generally rejuvenating the bod all over. A few weeks ago, I was talking to some friends from Moscow, who told me that the oligarchs are regularly getting their stem cell shot at $10,000 a go, and that Boris Yeltsin is rumoured to be a big fan, now dancing the night away on a regular basis and looking a couple of decades younger. What this news will do for the stem cell debate in the US, one can only wonder. But can the crude use of stem cells really be such a powerful elixir of youth – or is it the latest snake oil for the rich? Is there a scientist out there who can tell me, before, in search of a full head of hair and the fresh face of youth, I hop on a plane for Moscow and one of the 50 clinics that the Mail tells me have opened there in the past three years to offer this wonder cure?

{ 23 comments }

1

pdf23ds 08.08.06 at 12:00 pm

I believe the common term is “Timberite”. I could be mistaken.

2

agm 08.08.06 at 12:05 pm

Plus, there’s always the pleasure of letting a multinational drug company take up effective law enforcement to “crowd out” “the competition” since regulated pharma is such big business.

3

foolishmortal 08.08.06 at 12:10 pm

Please, it’s crooked lumberjacks (or should be).

4

Sebastian holsclaw 08.08.06 at 12:12 pm

“First, apparently Mr Blair’s policy advisors reckon that downgrading the criminality of using cannabis in Britain has led to an increase in the use both of cannabis and of other harder drugs, thus seeming to confirm the controversial theory that cannabis is a gateway drug.”

I know you aren’t making the mistake, but Blair’s policy advisors clearly are. Isn’t it obvious that if cannabis is acting as a gateway, it is largely because you have to know a drug dealer to get it?

5

serial catowner 08.08.06 at 1:58 pm

The Daily Mail- devoted to making the WSJ look almost sane.

The gateway theory always was bosh and is thoroughly discredited (in spite of the Daily Mail).

The stem cell theory reminds me of Goatgland Brinkly, who at one time had his own airline flying customers to his clinics for goat gland transplants. Stem cells are even better though- grow a new head in your arm pit.

Because, God knows, some of our ‘leaders’ could sure use new heads.

6

Steve 08.08.06 at 2:27 pm

I disagree with you, but that doesn’t absolve you from the prohibition against making terrible arguments.

“First, users should suffer less harm, because the quality of drugs is likely to be more consistent and better in a legal market and because users should be better informed about the risks they run when they use the drug (which of course, as with booze, will not stop some taking excessive risks).”

Is the harm of cannabis (and hard drugs) that the illegally purchased drugs are of poor quality? By your own argument (or, by the argument from the Blairites that you accept in this discussion), no. The harm is that cannabis is a gateway drug that leads to abuse of harder drugs, themselves harmful in and of themselves. In other words, the harm from being a heroin addict is not that the heroin on the street is bad; its that its heroin.

Furthermore, is the addiction problem with heroin/crack/cocaine/meth that users don’t know that they are bad for the health? No, and not according to the same argument you depend on. Again, the problem is that marijauna is a gateway drug to more dangerous, more addictive drugs (again, not that drug users don’t know that heroin is addictive).

So you have presented a problem that you apparently accept (at least for the sake of this argument): pot is a gateway drug to worse drugs. You have presented a solution: legalize drugs. But your solution doesn’t solve the problem (“pot is a gateway drug to worse drugs”); your solution solves two other problems*: drugs will be safer than street bought, and users will know that heroin is bad for you. Remember, the original problem (“pot is a gateway drug to worse drugs”) hasn’t even been addressed (will clean heroin reduce the gateway problem of pot? Will informing people that heroin is bad for you reduce the gateway problem of pot?).

*I say ‘your solution solves two other problems’ only for the sake of argument as well. I think these assertions are preposterous. I think the most effective way to remind people that heroin is bad for you is to make it illegal to take. I also think the most effective way to fight heroin addiction is to make it illegal-not to make it cleaner and legally purchaseable. How is our society fighting smoking? By making it more convenient to smoke, or less? When do more people smoke-when they can do so in only limited circumstances, or when they can do so anywhere-in airplanes, elevators, inside workplaces, etc? Its basically a non sequiter.

Steve

7

Uncle Kvetch 08.08.06 at 2:42 pm

How is our society fighting smoking?

In various ways, Steve–none of which involves putting people in jail.

Talk about a non-sequitur.

8

John 08.08.06 at 3:01 pm

Stem Cells – snake oil. To do any good according to the, you know, actual studies, they need to be specifically harvested, developed, and injected into specific organs in specific ways in response to specific problems to have the desired effect. Just injecting regular stem cells in any which old way would be useless at best, and at worst give you a teratoma.

9

joe 08.08.06 at 3:14 pm

What is needed is the sort of full scale legalisation which allows customers to buy cannabis in Tesco or WalMart, from respectable purveyors like Philip Morris.

Is this sarcasm? I can’t tell. But I trust my pot dealer far far more than I trust Philip Morris Corporation.

What is need is full scale legalization which allows “customers” to grow cannabis in their own gardens.

10

Matt_Bishop 08.08.06 at 3:34 pm

Clearly, a legalised drugs market would involve consumers facing an array of choices that may disturb non-drug users among us, much as the liquor store disturbs the Methodist.

Companies supplying drugs would presumably innovate, after a great deal of research, to provide a range of products that deliver various experiences to the customer, some associated with much harder drugs on the market today than cannabis. Presumably this research would focus on how to minimise the extreme negative effects of these hard drugs (which, in so far as these effects are inseparable from the chemical process that generates the desired effect, might leave space for an illegal market, presumably far more marginalised than today’s).

The corporates supplying the products might end up playing a gateway function, but their legal exposure, transparency and longer-term focus would be a powerful discipline upon them to do it in a much less dangerous way than illegal drug dealers, who, as Freakonomics showed, have an extremely short-termist approach to their business.

All of this is an uncomfortable prospect, for sure, but much less so than the reality that is today’s illegal drugs business.

11

Uncle Kvetch 08.08.06 at 4:30 pm

What is need is full scale legalization which allows “customers” to grow cannabis in their own gardens.

I have to agree with this…I’d much rather buy a “Grow Your Own” kit from the local big-box store than whatever shit they choose to sell.

12

jim 08.08.06 at 4:49 pm

I see you travelled in _a step above steerage_ ~TM~. In steerage, of course, no free paper can be offered. In business class, there is a choice of serious papers. But in _a step above steerage_ ~TM~ only one paper is offered, The Daily Mail.

A British specialty: making finely graded distinctions between classes since god knows when.

13

Brett Bellmore 08.08.06 at 6:36 pm

The best that can be said of these stem cell treatments, (The concept isn’t absurd, the execution is.) is that they’re probably taken out by the subject’s immune response too fast to cause any damage. At least, they will be if the patients are lucky; There’s at least some risk of generating auto-immune diseases when unmatched human tissue is transplanted without immune suppression.

14

armando 08.08.06 at 9:23 pm

The harm is that cannabis is a gateway drug that leads to abuse of harder drugs, themselves harmful in and of themselves. In other words, the harm from being a heroin addict is not that the heroin on the street is bad; its that its heroin. – steve

You’ve jumped from cannibis to heroin as if they are the same thing. Cannibis isn’t harmful in its illegal form – though you need to know a drug dealer to get it, and hence it acts as a “gateway” – but heroin from a drug dealer is often harmful. If I recall correctly, there have been positive results in giving heroin addicts prescribed herion, which lets them lead normal lives, with a sharply decreased risk of poisoning and overdose. (Some info here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroin )

Of course, that suggests some obvious measures for dealing with drug problems, none of which will happen any time soon since the war on drugs is not really about helping people in any meaningful sense.

15

nick s 08.09.06 at 2:43 am

We need to define ‘gateway’ here.

Consider the practice in many US states, where beer can be sold in, say, petrol stations, and wine in supermarkets, but anything stronger than 20% a.b.v. is the sole purview of somewhat grotty state-regulated booze emporia. That appears to be done, at least to some extent, because of the assumption that Bud Light is a gateway drug to 18-year-old Macallan, in the sense that if the two were sold in the same place, the drinker of Anheuser-Busch pisswater might gravitate to a mellow Speyside malt. Which would be a bad thing.

Then there is ‘gateway’ in the sense that simply drinking Anheuser-Busch pisswater would naturally lead the drinker to seek out 18-y-o Macallan. Would that it were so, but I suspect otherwise.

16

Alex Fradera 08.09.06 at 5:34 am

Cannibis isn’t harmful in its illegal form

Actually, it is harmful. It harms your lungs, and although there is an ongoing debate about the degree and severity of this, it is implicated in the emergence of psychotic illness. See e.g. here

17

Ray 08.09.06 at 7:30 am

(serious question) does the cannabis itself harm the lungs, or is it damage due to joints which combine cannabis and tobacco?

18

SamChevre 08.09.06 at 7:40 am

Ray,

An opinion without specific knowledge, but I would expect that (smoked) cannabis harms the lungs, in much the same way that most other substances, smoked, harm the lungs. I make this guess because tobacco’s harm to the lungs is not unique; people who work in heavy, direct smoke frequently have lung damage very similar to that of smokers.

19

Alex Fradera 08.09.06 at 7:50 am

As I understand, cannabis itself does so. I’m finding it difficult to get a clear link, but here goes:
This abstract (I can’t get to the article) implies as such: “Several substances besides tobacco are inhaled….Regular marijuana use can lead to extensive airway injury and alterations in the structure and function of alveolar macrophages, potentially predisposing to pulmonary infection and respiratory cancer”.

This abstract says it more clearly, but is older.

Here’s a study that deals more explicitly with the with/without tobacco issue. the MS and MTS (marijuana only and marijuana-tobacco groups) both show more DNA damage to lung cells than the Non-smokers (whereas, perhaps interestingly, smoking cocaine in the absence of tobacco does not have the effect).

20

glenn 08.09.06 at 8:59 am

Matt – for the record, I know of know self-respecting Methodist disturbed by liquor stores, especially those that have periodic 2 for 1 specials. I speak as a lapsed and recovering Methodist.

21

glenn 08.09.06 at 8:59 am

Matt – Sorry. I just lapsed again.

22

Steve LaBonne 08.09.06 at 1:35 pm

There don’t seem to be many drug users who don’t drink,and I have the distinct impression that many of them started getting drunk at around the same age when they began smoking pot, if not younger. So by the “logic” of the “gateway” argument keeping pot illegal isn’t enough; we need to return to the days of Prohibition.

23

Nicholas Weininger 08.09.06 at 7:52 pm

one should point out, wrt the whole “hard drugs are inherently harmful so we should make them maximally inconvenient to get” thing, that:

1. Matt’s post referred to the wrecked lives of *abusers* of these drugs. That doesn’t imply that an increase in use must per se translate to an increase in abuse. It is often tacitly assumed that for heroin etc. using implies abusing, but this is disputed by e.g. Jacob Sullum in _Saying Yes_.

2. the various regulations that make smoking more inconvenient may well be intended by their proponents to achieve the paternalistic purpose of reducing the harm to smokers themselves, but they are rarely justified by that alone. Even quite obvious and noxious paternalists of the Stanton Glantz type find it necessary to lean heavily on the externality argument, i.e. the claim that the key benefit involved is the reduction of the alleged harm done by secondhand smoke to innocent, unconsenting nonsmokers. No such argument can be advanced in favor of jailing hard drug users.

Comments on this entry are closed.