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Drug Policy – Part 2

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/05/16

The Gateway Effect

Now, if one skims through the Wikipedia page on the Gateway Drug Theory you’ll note that there seems to be more evidence against the theory. Now, that somewhat is and isn’t correct. The strong version of the Gateway Drug Theory is that substance abuse is like a trail of candies, with the closest one next in the chain allures you into trying the next. That theory does seem to have been disproved. The weak version, however, would be like if you were to remove all spicy dishes on the planet except those that were equivalent to a 5-star rating at the spiciest restaurant in the world. In that case, there would probably be very few people who ate spicy food because there is no first step to take that isn’t 100%. That is to say, a gateway drug doesn’t draw you in, rather it lets you take baby steps instead of having to jump past your comfort level all at once. Rather, the pressure to advance up the ladder comes from bravado, peer pressure, or whatever else, but the existence of intermediate challenge levels makes you more likely to find something you are willing to try. Even with the complete array of steps that one can take in terms of spiciness in modern day, you’ll note that most people still peek at say 30-50%.

Using the weak version of the theory, the RAND “Mathematical Model” would be moved to be in favor of the theory, neither of the rat studies are applicable, and the “Study of American Adolescents” doesn’t appear to be testing anything beyond that if you find cases where people didn’t do as the theory states, then the theory is wrong — which I can only say seems to be about as intellectually dishonest a test as one could fashion.

Given that we have seen that when the social stigma of prostitution is removed, the demand for prostitution rises, I think we can add that in as another item of evidence in favor of the weak theory.

Market Factors

But then there is the Amsterdam example from the gateway drug theory tests. While it seems likely that a stepping-stone effect does exist, it doesn’t necessarily mean that legalizing a lower drug, like marijuana, will lead to greater use of heavier greater drugs. If all drugs were legal, then it might; but they aren’t.

A factor to what you do is how much money is in your wallet. Another factor is the sort of effect that you are trying to achieve.

Say that there are 10 flavors of ice cream. I arrange those in order from least tasty (#1) to most tasty (#10) and add 10¢ to the price for each level higher in the chain of taste. A person will test the cheapest and decide whether to continue on or if he’s satisfied with that taste at that price. If he continues on, he tries the next most delicious and the next most delicious.

If, on the other hand, I price the least delicious ice cream at 10¢ and then price the others starting at $5, increasing at 10¢ after that point, it’s possible that after trying #1, that next ice cream that they try is any one of the remaining 9 types. Once you’re resigned to the $5 hit, the difference in price between everything that remains isn’t all that large a factor.

But then say that I take the first 3 types, sell them each at 10¢, and the rest starting at $5. While I’ll still see people trying the more expensive ice creams in a random fashion, it’s quite possible that only very few people will try any of those. With the selection of the three ice creams, the variety on offer is wide enough to satisfy almost everyone’s tastes, and the leap from there to the next level (pricewise) isn’t seen as being worthwhile.

Presuming this model to work in the real world, it has two implications. Firstly, is that if you are overly prohibitive, it may backfire and cause greater use of harder drugs. Secondly, is that you can control which drugs are used more often by adjusting the relative costs. That is to say, you can decide where the $5 hit (illegalization) comes, and the relative price (taxes, prison sentences, and fines) of the individual items.

Another form of displacement is that a person’s budget is limited. If he has $5 in his wallet and a 6 pack of beer costs $5 and a pack of marijuana cigarettes costs $5, he has to choose between them. When marijuana is legalized, for example, it’s quite possible that the number of people who get drunk and go out and crash their car into a pedestrian will shrink as the number of marijuana smokers increases. On the other hand, the number of cases of cancer will increase, which cost will fall on the taxpayer. Though it’s to be admitted that it doesn’t appear that usage of marijuana changes (and subsequently, the usage of alcohol or tobacco) with legalization/decriminalization because most people are ignoring the criminal penalties for possession already and hence it doesn’t factor into cost.

The Teen, College Student, and Party Goer

It may seem odd that the criminalization of marijuana doesn’t appear to inhibit usage, but the thing to notice is that outside of those living in poverty, the mass users of drugs are students between perhaps ages 14 and 22 (i.e. high school and college). And more importantly is to note that for all of those under the age of 21, purchasing alcohol is a crime, and all those under the age of 18, purchasing cigarettes is a crime. For the grand majority of the group who we are interested in, the principal price barrier — legality — is already rendered moot; once you have already started on that path, continuing on it seems a non-issue even when cigarettes and alcohol become legal for you. The only remaining price difference is the question of perceived danger and the amount of pressure that others place on you to try something. Very few kids are going to try heroin because, simply, it’s viewed as too dangerous and the purpose of the drugs are to be social and/or to diminish inhibitions, not so much to get high. Getting high on heroin makes you largely useless so far as socializing goes.

Smoking is a good drug for socializing because it gives you something to do with your motor controls section of your brain while you stand around talking. Drinking is a better one because it accomplishes that same purpose while also diminishing your inhibitions and hence making you feel more free to dance, make jokes, and break the ice.

The addictive qualities of alcohol and cigarettes don’t make kids drink alcohol and smoke, rather they keep the kid from being able to drop the habit when he becomes an adult or when he starts to realize the dangers.

The major dangers for a partier, is that he will OD, that he will be taken advantage of, that he will do something stupid like driving while intoxicated, or that he will become addicted — which is really a crap shoot, dependent on the addictive properties of the drug. There’s no knowing beforehand whether you will or won’t be the type to become addicted.

But whereas most drug usage is for partying purposes, and this is where the greatest impetus to push through the barrier of illegality comes from, there is also the small groups where two or three people might get together to be mellow and high. They smoke marijuana, or perhaps try some other form of opiate (like heroin). Generally, this is going to be a fringe group as sitting around staring at the roof isn’t something that appeals to most, whereas dancing and socializing does. And generally, they probably won’t try harder drugs because while they don’t want to party, they do still want to socialize at least a bit. And as middle-classed kids, they have a future to look forward to and don’t want to risk it by trying something dangerous.

The Poor

On the other hand, when it comes to the poor, the goal is more to relieve stress, zone out, or otherwise to self-medicate. The danger here isn’t so much drunk driving, but rather domestic violence, heightened probability of committing a violent crime, and the willingness to go for the harder drugs. Overwhelmingly, though, alcohol is still the winner. It is cheap, legal, and gives enough of a buzz and a dulled mind to satisfactorily accomplish the desired ends. But it is at the same time a drug that, unlike marijuana, makes one more likely to act stupidly due to heightened emotions and lowered rationality — rather than to mellow out and be at peace with the universe.

Heroin, while in the same class of drugs as marijuana (opiates), is however of sufficient addictiveness that when the person isn’t placid and at ease, they’re liable to commit a crime to finance their urge.

The Poor – Needle Park

For those addicted to heavier drugs, the idea was introduced to create a region for legalized drug trafficking and use. The theory was that prices would lower, meaning that there was less need to rob convenience stores and so on, gang confrontations would happen separate from where law-abiding citizens lived, and charity and medical organizations would be able to hand out fresh needles and other supplies to help prevent the transmission of HIV and other illnesses.

The problems with this model is that, 1) it draws drug addicts from surrounding regions. In Europe, that might be from countries which still had drug prohibitions, whereas in the US it would probably be from states which maintained restrictions. 2) NIMBYism seems to get the parks shut down. Everyone around the bad region is affected by those going in-and-out, especially when confrontations spill over. A zone of legalized anarchy is, for obvious reasons, liable to impact its surroundings. And overall the cynicism of “let them go and kill themselves over there” is too great for most to accept.

Personally, I’m fine with cynicism, but if such locations are consistently shut down or are perceived as a failure by most of the population, then the point is moot.

The Poor – Heroin Centers

The original idea of heroin prescription was that you are treating an addict with a particular regimen that is controlled, and hence can be gradually diminished so that the person is free of the addiction. I don’t believe that this has met with a particularly large amount of success. The sort of person who is on heroin is on it because he feels his life sucks. He’s happiest on the drug, and that’s a heck of an impetus even without the addictive qualities of the drug itself.

The idea that followed this, then, is simply to let them have it. There is no prescription, you simply register into a program and show up once a day. If the government sells heroin, it can underbid an illegal seller — with the lowered price equating to less crime. There is no needle sharing, there are no gang confrontations, and the quality of the drug is purer and less harmful. Daily contact with a trained medic increases overall health and happiness of those who enroll in the program. Overall, this doesn’t seem to decrease heroin use nor lessen the number of people who start the habit, but it does lessen the secondary impacts on society. Overall, it does seem to be a successful system:

Potentially, similar systems could be set up for other drugs — though due to the nature of how a drug works, it may be that a person can’t be stabilized on a particular dosage, that they wouldn’t want to stay at the facility while under the effects of the drug, or otherwise the system would be non-applicable. Certainly, it is worth testing. I don’t believe that one would need to worry about regular teens showing up at a medical clinic full of addicts to get high, nor anyone being naturally attracted to such a thing except for those who would have been willing to purchase those same drugs legally. I don’t see any reason to think that the existence of such clinics would increase demand as time went on.

Drugs are Drugs

Now, while a heroin clinic may decrease the downsides of heroin usage among the poor, we are still failing to impact the drug usage of teens, and the much larger issue of alcohol use among the poor.

The problem I see is that there is a disconnect for most people between caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. What if I was to tell you that a new drug called Woozle had the same qualities as alcohol but without dampening motor reflexes and with a lower level of addictiveness? What if I was to then tell you that Woozle has already existed for 20 years, is used by teens regularly at parties, and if you’re found using it you’ll be stuck in jail for 20 years?

Personally, I don’t know if Woozle exists, but I do know that with the way the US currently functions, if we found better alternatives to drugs like alcohol and tobacco, they would be prohibited and people would continue to use alcohol and tobacco and they would be ever-so-hesitantly scared of Woozle because they know it’s a “drug”. Yet, it would be perfectly easy if the true effects (positive and negative) of Woozle and other improved drugs were known to adjust the market place such that they became the drugs of choice. Teens may be idiots, overall, but they still understand that if they can get the same effect without as great a risk of a car accident, they’ll probably go for it. For all I know, if one could make a beverage out of Ecstasy, it would completely replace the market for alcohol among teens, and make the world a better and safer place:

While I do appreciate that self-medication with a narcotic is something to be frowned upon, at the same time it’s clear that it’s going to happen, be it with alcohol or Ecstasy. Ultimately, you would rather have people using the drugs with the fewest downsides for the rest society, if nothing else. A history of thousands of years of alcohol might give us an emotional bond to that particular drug, but frankly it’s possibly one of the worst drugs you could have be legal compared to equivalent alternatives due to its effects on driving and violent crime. Tobacco and marijuana are poor choices because even if you reduce second hand smoke they lead to an increase in cancer, and the bill for chemotherapy falls on the rest of us. A rational reappraisal of all known compounds that might be used for social or stress-relieving purposes and a marketing push to move people to those drugs and then prohibiting alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana (or more likely price-adjusting them to be luxury items) could very well be the greatest thing that we could do to reduce addiction and crime.

There may well be place to out-and-out prohibit certain things, but that should be based on something greater than tradition.

General Remarks

Prohibiting alcohol and cigarettes to younger teens is ultimately futile due to the shared interaction with college students at clubs and parties. Raising the legal age to 24 may succeed in letting the price barrier start to kick in, particularly if the difficulty of counterfeiting drivers licenses was raised at the same time. But on the other hand, I don’t see young adults who want to party and who’ve had a history of alcohol and drug use within living memory deciding to go ahead with clean and wholesome partying. Those who were willing to buy illegally would buy for everyone and the illegal market would grow. The heightened down-cost might make such parties less common, but I don’t know that I’d want to trust that, and I’d certainly not like to give strength to organized crime.

If marijuana is legalized, actively pushing it as a preferable alternative to alcohol among the poor could very well result in lower crime rates. It seems like a drug that would fit their desires well enough and so a targeted push would likely be effective. With cost reductions in criminal proceedings (which can cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per case) due to lessened violent crime and removal of possession crimes from marijuana, the raised cost of treating cancer patients may well be equivalent or even net to a benefit.

With drugs like Rohypnol (the date rape drug), cyanide, or other drugs for malevolent purposes, maintain prohibition seems entirely reasonable.

With drugs like steroids, I believe that a sort of peer pressure is in action (the race to the bottom effect), that there aren’t better alternatives to be switched to, and that both the public and the competitors themselves would probably prefer that steroid use go away. In light of that, I don’t see any particular argument to legalize their use.


Overall, I would recommend prohibiting as many drugs as can be prohibited. But the prohibition of drugs should be based on the real world effects, not tradition. There should be enough legal narcotics to provide a well-rounded and generally safe menu, and the rest illegal or priced out of feasibility for most. Ultimately, that gives the police more time and money to dedicate to worrying about tracking down and destroying the stuff that matters.

There is the worry that people would be popping twenty types of pills at the same time, but that’s why I would further suggest that these drugs be included as part of drinks or food — something that takes time to partake, takes up physical space, and gives you something to do while you socialize. If that’s done and people were educated about the dangers of mixing pharmaceuticals (which I think they are), I don’t think you would see that much mixing.


2 Responses to “Drug Policy – Part 2”

  1. Roberta said

    Very interesting research. Overall, I agree with a lot of your assessments. However, I believe that the best way to ‘solve’ addiction problems with any substance (and ‘solve’ is in quotes because no matter what we do, there will always be something to be addicted to or someone to get addicted to something). I believe that by understanding that we can never completely rid ourselves of addictions, the best way to at least cut down addiciton rates on ‘whatever’ is to employ peer pressure and have a culture-wide ‘stigma’ placed opon those who do those things. Also, I think that having many ways of helping people ‘get over’ their addictions — whatever those means are: support groups, methods of overcoming an addiction like ‘nicotine gum’ or prescription medications to help, doctors or clinics to help, support for families of addicts, etc. The best, though, is through a systematic use of, you might say, the ‘Scarlet Letter’ approach of society looking down on such behavior. Below is an interesting assessment of how Prohibition worked, but then didn’t work: According to this, alcohol usage and alcoholism was decreasing even BEFORE Prohibition went into effect, which means that there must have been some sort of country-wide cultural rebuke of drinking alcohol in general before Prohibition was actually passed (otherwise it wouldn’t have been able to come to be as a law). However, once drinking was made illegal, drinking came back, and then came back with a vengance, which tells me that when the culture was ‘down’ on drinking, drinking reduced. But then Prohibition seemed to add a vitality to drinking and a sort of rebelliousness set in and people started drinking again — not, it seems to me, because of ease of getting the stuff or the cost of it, but because it started be ‘cool’ again to drink and so…it was okay. But when the discussion of alcoholism and drinking was being discussed as a ‘bad thing’ before Prohibition actually came into being, people reduced their consumption because of cultural peer pressure.

    The same thing can be seen with smoking. Back in the early and mid-part of the 20th century, smoking was a big deal. Many people smoked — many more than today — and it was pervasive. It was totally acceptable and it was ‘cool’ to smoke. But starting in the 70’s, and getting stronger from then on out — up to today — smoking has begun to be ‘uncool,’ even with younger people, and people who smoke really feel that ‘Scarlet Letter’ phenomena on them. There is nothing more ‘uncool’ than to have to be one of those people ostracized by the rest of the population and having to stand outside your workplace in the rain and cold and with people giving you dirty looks to make you feel like some sort of ‘untouchable.’

    It seems to me that the best way to control drug use (or addictive behaviors) is, rather than embrace, condone, or ‘understand’ addictive behaviors is to engage in ostracizing the behavior, and then offering various supports to help overcome them. I think the national stand on smoking is a very good example of how this type of ‘ostracism’ works — all you need to do is to look at the percentage of people who smoked 30/40 years ago vs. today.

    Today, marijuana is seen as ‘cool,’ which means that it is seen as ‘cool’ by seemingly a majority of people. Therefore, there will be a natural increase in it. And — a law to make it legal will only make it more desirable. We won’t really know for sure the cultural impact of this until it is made legal and many more people are using it. My guess is that it ultimately won’t be good. The best way to control any drug use of any sort — maybe even coffee! — is to ostracize it, not make it ‘cool.’

    On Prohibition:

    1) “First, use of alcohol decreased significantly during Prohibition.104 This decrease in turn lead to a marked decrease in the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver.105 Finally, the suicide rate also decreased by 50%.107”

    That statement is, at best, misleading. In truth, nobody really knows exactly how much alcohol consumption increased or decreased during Prohibition. The reason was simple enough — people like Al Capone didn’t pay taxes on their product and thereby report their production to the government. Licensed saloons became illegal speakeasies, and many common citizens took advantage of the high sales price of illegal booze by secretly manufacturing booze in their own bathtubs. That’s one of the major problems with all drug prohibitions — they greatly reduce the ability to make accurate judgments about the problem. There is no good way to count the number of illegal dealers, or the people who are secretly making gin in their own bathroom. Therefore, to make such a judgment, we have to rely on a number of indirect indicators.

    By the greatest majority of indicators, the biggest drops in alcohol consumption and alcohol problems actually came before national prohibition went into effect. Those drops continued for about the first two years of Prohibition and then alcohol consumption began to rise. By 1926, most of the problems were worse than they had been before Prohibition went into effect and there were a number of new problems — such as a drinking epidemic among children — that had not been there before.

    The statement of Andrew Furuseth before Congress in 1926 describes what happened in the opening years of Prohibition:

    When the prohibition amendment was passed and the Volstead Act was enacted, about three months after that I came through Portland, Oreg. Now there is a certain district in Portland Oreg. where there is the so-called employment district— it is usually amongst the working people, called the “slave market”— and I was the most astonished man you ever saw. Before that I had seen drunkenness there, dilapidated men, helpless, and in any condition that you do not want to see human beings. This time, three months after this act was passed there was an entire change. The men walked around from one place to another looking for employment, seamen and others. And they were sober. And they looked at the conditions, and they said, “No, we will wait a little.” There was more independence amongst them than I had ever seen before. That very class which is the worst and lowest class that we know of amongst the seamen and workingmen. And I became an ardent advocate of the Volstead Act.

    Two years afterwards I came through the same identical place, staying in Portland for about three days, and went to the very same place for the purpose of looking at the situation, and the condition was worse than it had been prior to the passage of the law. As long as the prohibition legislation was enforced, could be enforced, as long as the bootlegging element had not been organized, and not get the stuff, everything looked well. But the moment that they could get it they got it. And they will find it when nobody else can. They will find it somewhere. If it is to be bought in the vicinity any where they will find it. And the condition is worse than it ever was, because the stuff that they drink is worse than ever.

    Testimony of Andrew Furuseth, President of the International Seamen’s Union of America, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926″

    • Yes, I forgot to comment on the “coolness” angle. Ultimately though, you can only make something unfashionable for a time. There’s no guarantee that it will last. Smoking may still rebound, for example.

      I don’t think there’s any argument against working to make people realize that doing stupid things is risky, but even then you’re still better off to pair it with a move to safer alternatives, and that’s a point that I don’t think anyone is making.

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