Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug Warrior Statistics

One of the reasons why I love to debate online - but hate to do so in person - is because, online, I have access to the ultimate weapon: Google.

Google is like a nuclear missile: it can decisively win the battle for you in one fell-swoop. But be careful: your opponent may have it too, and may use it against you if you're not careful.

I'll get to why Google is the cat's meow in just a moment; first, some background.

As Randall mentioned, both of us just got back from listening to Robert Stutman, "the most famous narc in America" (and proud of it, too!), as he delivered a tirade against both ecstasy and (prompted by your humble correspondent) drug legalization.

As Randall already mentioned, Stutman repeatedly claimed that the greatest danger associated with ecstasy use is not the ecstasy itself, but the harmful chemicals it is often laced with. He said that unlike the medicine you purchase from a drug store, ecstasy is unregulated, passes through many untraceable hands, and there is a huge financial incentive to dilute it with cheaper chemicals. Why a drug dealer or distributor would lace it with deadly or highly dangerous chemicals, rather than just cheap and harmless ones, I do not know. It doesn't seem like the best business strategy or a good way to attract return customers. Perhaps most drug dealers failed Marketing 101, which is why they turned to less-mainstream employment options. I doubt many drug dealers are asked to show their college transcripts prior to employment.

Let's get back to Stutman's claim that the greatest danger associated with ecstasy use is not the ecstasy itself, but the harmful chemicals it is often laced with.

Well, duh. This argument is so silly it shouldn't even need a rebuttal. Of course a product sold solely through the black-market, by those who make their living violating the law, will be much more dangerous than a product sold through legitimate channels. All the more reason to legalize it!

And what was Stutman's response? He had none. Instead, he changed the subject, and fell back to the tried and true tactic of Argumentum ad populum (a logical fallacy, I might add).

"Well," I responded, "I don't care what the majority thinks. The majority is simply wrong. Just like the majority was wrong about slavery." (Appeals to slavery are second only to appeals to Hitler.)

Later on in the heated exchanged between Stutman and I, I mentioned that even when the people did get together and vote for partial drug legalization, as did a few states with regard to medicinal marijuana, the federal government ignored the will of the people and overruled them through bureaucratic and judicial fiat. So much for your precious democratic values, Mr. Stutman.

Stutman also claimed that the courts have always sided with the federal government on this issue, and have repeatedly denied the states' rights and individual rights claims of medicinal marijuana users.

"Not so," I responded. "Randy Barnett, in a recent case in which he successfully defended the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, convinced the court that the principles of federalism do not permit the federal government to intervene with either the cultivation, possession, or use of medical cannabis, even if Congress is willing to stretch the Commerce Clause far beyond its breaking point." (Okay, I didn't say it quite that succinctly, but I got the basic point across.)

Stutman claimed that this isn't much of a victory, because the court upheld other parts of the federal Controlled Substance Act, so long as they involved actual commerce. Very well, but this is a step in the right direction.

When Geoff Feld (he puts the "vice" back in "Vice-Chairman of the College Libertarians"!) asked why non-violent ecstasy users should be legally prohibited from harming themselves, Stutman claimed that no where in the Constitution are people granted the right to harm themselves.

"That's not true," I responded. "Take a look at the 9th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution. Under the enumerated powers doctrine, it is not the people who must point to the Constitution before they may act; but rather, the government. And isn't it strange that the federal government felt the need to pass the 18th Amendment as a prerequisite to prohibiting alcohol? Why did they bother going through the amendment process, if Congress could have simply passed a law, as it does now?" Stutman recommended that I pursue my studies of alcohol prohibition further, as apparently, Congress needed no additional constitutional authority to prohibit alcohol. Strange.

But the absolute worst came at the very end, and this brings me back to my previous fawning over Google. Stutman trotted out the classic puritan argument against legalization: do it for the children. If we legalize drugs, we should expect drug use to increase (a possibility I granted, but of which I remain skeptical), and this includes increased use among children.

"But Stutman," I interjected, "Isn't it easier for children to get access to illegal drugs like marijuana and ecstasy than it is for those same children to purchase cigarettes and alcohol from a convenience store? After all, legitimate business owners don't want to risk losing their business licenses. But drug dealers are already breaking the law by selling drugs; what do they care if they break another law by selling to children?"

I then asked Stutman point-blank: "Shouldn't we expect underage drug use to decrease, not increase, if drugs were legalized?" After all, drugs would still be illegal to sell to children, but the black-market distribution channels would be cut off through competition with legitimate sellers. We don't see too many black-market cough-drop dealers or spatula purveyors.

Stutman's answer blew me away: "Underage drug use will increase if drugs are legalized." What was his reasoning? He claimed that teenage cigarette use has increased over the past 30 years, even though it has been illegal to sell to minors, to the point where tobacco use among teens is higher now than it was in 1970.

I was speechless. This claim went against every piece of anti-smoking government propaganda I could recall hearing, and I knew it just had to be wrong.

"That is simply not true," I said. Stutman's response: "The great thing about this country is that everyone is entitled to their opinion. But not everyone is entitled to their own set of facts." A few members of the audience tittered, and Stutman moved on.

Had I easy access to Google, I would have fact-checked his ass faster than you can say "this is your brain on narc propaganda." Instead, I had to wait until I got home.

Not only was Stutman wrong - he was dead wrong. He was extraordinarily wrong. He was supercalifragilisticly wrong. He could not have been more wrong.

When I got home from the event, I immediately searched for underage smoking rates on Google. This was the first result I checked: a National Institute on Drug Abuse press release, showing that for all age-groups measured (8th, 10th, and 12th grade) and all categories of smokers (lifetime, current, and daily), underage smoking has declined in every single category since 1991. Close, but not quite enough to refute Stutman's claim.

I then followed these government statistics to their source: the Monitoring the Future survey, conducted by the University of Michigan. This survey measures tobacco use by teenage Americans since 1975, but only in the 12th grade category.

Here are the results (all figures are percentages):

12th Grade Use 1975 2003
Lifetime 73.6 53.7
Thirty-Day 36.7 24.4
Daily 26.9 15.8
1/2 pack+ per day 17.9 8.4

I am a professional student. I wish I had access to this kind of data off the top of my head. Alas, I do not. But Stutman is a professional drug-war nanny. He should know this stuff cold. And yet he is either dishonest or inept. What does that say, in general, about the bureaucrats who rule over us?

Update: After receiving comments from a few people, I realize that I may have been unclear about my characterization of Stutman's argument. I did not intend to misrepresent his position. When I said that "Stutman repeatedly claimed that the greatest danger associated with ecstasy use is not the ecstasy itself, but the harmful chemicals it is often laced with," I did not mean to imply that pure ecstasy is safe. Stutman did spend a large portion of his talk discussing the harmful side-effects associated with ecstasy use. But what I found interesting was that the danger he claimed to be the greatest is a direct result of prohibition, and not the drug itself.

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That bit about the teenage

That bit about the teenage cigarette smoking is SUCH A VALID POINT it's almost incredible. I don't see how anyone, especially someone as involved in the business as Stutman, could think legalization would increase use! For a 13 year old to get some pot would be much easier than for that same 13 year old to get alcohol. He/she is either going to need a fake ID (which is a federal offense), or a hookup who is cool with giving them alcohol, or just steal it. Neither the ID or the hookup is going to work, and the kid is just going to buy weed from one of his friends. It's 2004 after all.

I loved these write-ups, and will be attending the presentation on Tuesday.

Micha, Get those figures

Micha,

Get those figures into the school newspaper. Fast -- before people forget about the debate!

Cap'n Arbyte, I'm two steps

Cap'n Arbyte,

I'm two steps ahead of you. I just emailed a slightly modified version of this post to the school newspaper. However, I doubt they will print it, and if they do, it will be edited down by more than half. Still, it would be nice to get it in print.

Hi Micha, I'm not so sure.

Hi Micha,

I'm not so sure. If drug use were legalized, there would be more (legal) avenues of supply, and this would lead to greater ease of procurement. Any kid who wanted to try drugs would simply buy it through a middleman, who would in turn get his stash easily and legally from licensed drug sellers. Would not this greater ease of procurement mean that the risk-potential for underage drug use would be higher than it is now?

Contrast the present. A kid has to go through a lot more trouble to procure drugs. By squeezing the supply and restricting sources of illicit drugs (assuming drug enforcement actually works), procurement becomes less convenient and more expensive. This would plausibly deter the potential underaged drug user.

The disanalogy with underage smoking stems from the fact that smoking is and has been legal for adults all this while. So from the get-go (taking your stats - from 1970) there was _already_ widespread use of cigarettes amongst minors, given ease of procurement and all that. The decline of underage smoking rates amongst the young is therefore irrelevant to the plausible impact that legalizing drug use for adults would have on underaged drug use. The correct analogy would be (assuming cigarettes were illegal for everyone) the legalization of cigarettes for adults and the impact that this would have on underage smoking.

It seems to me that if drugs were as easily available as alcohol, or cigarettes, then underage drug use would likely be on the scale of underage drinking, or underage smoking. At present, is underage drug use occurent on a similar scale? If not, I would think that the legalization of drugs would push the rates of underage drug use _upwards_ to rates similar to that for underage drinking or smoking - or thereabouts. This would entail a greater problem with underage drug use than at present.

Enthymeme, I'm not 100% sure

Enthymeme,

I'm not 100% sure either, although I think the argument against an increase in underage drug use as a result of legalization is quite strong.

While it is true that those under legal drinking or smoking age can purchase through a middleman, this is more difficult than it may seem. Unless you have an older sibling, a very open-minded parent, or some other acquaintance who is willing to violate the law and risk the consequences simply to help some delinquent kids have a good time, finding a middleman is easier said than done. I certainly had great difficulty finding one when I was younger.

At present, is underage drug use occurent on a similar scale?

Yes. Lifetime underage smoking is just slightly higher (i.e. by a very small margin) than lifetime underage illicit drug use.

But this is just lifetime use, which means used only once. It is pretty easy to bum a cigarette here and there, or even find a willing middleman purchaser. Doing so on a regular basis is much more difficult.

According to this table, daily marijuana use among high-school students is about double daily alcohol use, but less than half daily cigarette use. This might have more to do with the substance than anything else. (Daily cigarette use is relatively normal among smokers; daily alcohol use is not.)

Regardless, if our major concern with legalization is that it will lead to increased illicit drug use by teenagers, there is a simple solution: simply devote some of the enormous amount of money saved from prosecuting non-violent adult drug offenders and direct it towards prosecuting those who would sell to or purchase for minors.

I suppose if the US

I suppose if the US government adopted policies congruent to those in Singapore, they could comprehensively and resoundingly win the drug war. I think the point here is that perhaps desirable results can be achieved without implementing a police state.

enthymeme: You have to also

enthymeme:

You have to also take into account *why* kids use drugs. The reason drugs are so readily available in schools is because how else is a kid going to earn that much money?

The drug trade is irresistable to children. Easy money and instant bad-assitude. If you sell drugs in school you're rich and popular.

Legalize drugs and much of the cool-outlaw image disappears. Legalize drugs and the profit disappears. Legalize drugs and the only reason to be involved with drugs is for the high (as opposed to money and popularity), which is weighed against the health risks.

Hey again Micha, Thanks for

Hey again Micha,

Thanks for your well-sourced and very thoughtful response. Given that underage drug use is occurent on a similar scale as say, underage smoking, it would seem that my argument has been largely rendered moot. So on that point, I'm convinced (for now).

I also agree for the most part that finding a middleman is easier said than done. However, we should note that the potential class of middlemen is greatly enlarged given that just about _any_ adult is a potential middleman. If the (adult) sale and possession of drugs is not an offence, it would mean that the opportunity to persecute someone selling drugs to the underaged is narrowed down to the window of transaction. This presents something of an enforcement problem as the tracking and prosecution of an indeterminate class of adults over 21 would be a far greater logistical nightmare than tracking a (comparatively) more easily monitorable class of drug-pushers (presumably, the class of people willing to sell or procure drugs for minors is smaller if adult sale and possession is illegal).

Anyway, the reason why I was unsure is because the drug war seems to have been comprehensively and resoundingly won in Singapore. Now, it may be that the enforcement regime there is simply far more effective than in America. This could be down to several factors - size (Singapore is teeny), the relative harshness of the laws, and/or a very competent CNB (the equivalent of the American DEA). So banning drugs could work if the regime were effectively enforceable (as in Singapore). But it is now apparent to me that the circumstances in America (its size, a respect for civil rights, a comparatively less draconian legal culture, and so on) preclude that.

My intuitions on the matter aren't completely settled as yet though, so I guess I'll have to think about it a little more. Cheers!

Regarding the availability

Regarding the availability of drugs versus alcohol/cigarettes, I'd just point out that, when I was in high school, pot was significantly more accessible than alcohol and about as accessible as cigarettes (which Micha's figures back up). Certainly the amount of marijuana actually on campus at any given time far, far exceeded the amount of alcohol on campus. I never remember walking into a bathroom and overhearing an "alcohol deal" being made, but overhearing drug deals in the bathroom was relatively common: pot, LSD and shrooms were all favorites.

Utilizing alcohol, as a

Utilizing alcohol, as a separate talking point, in arguments about drug legalization/use/availability, is misleading. Alcohol is as pernicious, if not more so, a drug than any considered here. If individuals are going to argue for state control of one, they must argue for state control of the other. It is at this juncture, the argument falls to pieces.

the cigarette thing is like

the cigarette thing is like the SUV thing. its all an invention planted in the media to villify something so as its safe to implement gross taxation on its sales, as its 'bad' therefore we can morally tax it. you could see it coming with the left wing hysterics about SUV's et al. its all an excuse to keep raising fees and taxes and keep the goverment gravy train of control rolling.