Friday, March 30, 2007

Of Victimless Crimes, Shallow Inferences & Toxins

Amit Varma writes about the concept of victimless crimes, and describes how the decriminalization of certain acts that are commonly perceived to be immoral(whatever that may mean) but have no victims is necessary for a truly free and functional society. He makes his point well, and tackles the issue using three examples that are extremely relevant and lead to considerable debate and grey areas - betting, prostitution, and drug usage. He says legalize, legalize and legalize. I say yes, yes and no. For the yes and yes, go read his article. For the no, read on.

Amit argues that commonly accepted notions of relative harm of these drugs is misplaced and quotes a study from the Lancet, rather a newspaper report of a study by the Lancet, to make his point. He also refutes the common argument against legalizing drugs in this manner -
You might argue that people commit crimes under the influence of drugs, but then, punishing those crimes should be deterrent enough.
He makes another point by saying that
In contrast, consider the Netherlands, where drugs are legal and cannabis is purchased mainly in coffee shops. They have the lowest rate of drug-related-deaths-per-million in Europe.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.

The Lancet study ranked Alcohol at no. 5, Tobacco at no. 9 and the others(Ecstasy, Marijuana, and LSD) somewhere between 10 and 20. There were various factors considered for this ranking, and the 'effects of long term addiction on family and society' were also considered. With reference to this factor, the scientists who conducted the study mentioned that alcohol figured very high in the list as a result of the fact that the number of people who imbibed alcohol was far greater than those who used the other drugs. Which is to say, that alcohol ranked higher than say, ecstasy, because if about 90% of Brits drank, only 10% took ecstasy. (The numbers are my own, used to illustrate the larger point, and are quite inexact). Had ecstasy been used by 90% people, which may very well happen if it is freely available, it may rank significantly higher than alcohol, because its psychotropic effect is greater and addiction to ecstasy develops far more easily than addiction to alcohol.

To quote the Lancet study, taken from this TOI article
Tobacco and alcohol were included because their extensive use has provided reliable data on their risks and harms, providing familiar benchmarks against which the absolute harms of other adjudged. However, direct comparison of the scores for tobacco and alcohol with those of the other drugs is not possible since the fact that they are legal could affect their harms in various ways, especially through easier availability.

This is clearly an argument for stricter regulation(though not banning), not more lax laws. Digressive moral of the story - please don't trust/use abridged versions of news reports of scientific studies. You are likely to miss some fine point which can entirely change the inferences from the study. Also, ToI is not THAT bad - their headlines are a sham but they gloss over fewer details and are slightly more accurate.

The second point that Amit raises is wrong, because the argument of punishing those crimes should be deterrent enough presupposes a rational disposition. Most libertarian viewpoints have an underlying assumption, which is - the consenting adult is rational and the best judge of his/her own decision and an act by consensus should not be a matter of the state. In principle, I agree with this assumption. However, in the case of behaviour under the influence of drug consumption, and more importantly, behaviour under the influence of drug addiction(the state of addiction itself, not of the psychotropic high), this assumption is no longer true. To quite a few drug addicts then, punishing the crime is NOT deterrent enough. A heroin addict is more likely to commit a crime, not under the high induced by heroin use, but by the physiologically and psychologically compulsive desire to obtain more heroin, which may require money beyond the means of the addict. The state's job should not end with catching and punishing the criminal. It should also involve some pre-emptive policy decision that prevents the crime from happening in the first place.

The third point is factually incorrect and is a classic case of a socio-economic inference that may be wrong because its multivariate nature has not been considered adequately. 'Drugs are legal in Netherlands' is a grossly misleading generalization. Yes, coffee shops retail cannabis, so buying and selling for personal use are legal. Large-scale cultivation and wholesaling, however, are banned. All narcotics, opiates, etc (hard drugs) are banned and offenders are severely prosecuted. The Dutch drug policy explicitly recognises the difference between 'hard drugs' and 'soft drugs', and even the sale of soft drugs (cannabis) is quite regulated. Secondly, the fact that the Dutch have the lowest drug deaths per million may not necessarily be due to availibility of pure, unadulterated drugs. It can very well be because the restrictions on hard drugs are more strictly and more efficiently enforced in Netherlands than in other European countries

So, what is my solution? I support the drug policy of Netherlands - it's just that this policy is not what Amit thinks it is. In fact, I'd go one up and decriminalize the growth and wholesaling of cannabis. But narcotics and opium-derived alkaloids are a strict no-no. It has been a long-standing conviction of mine that in an issue of legality, if science can be brought in to simplify the grey areas presented by the combination of ideology and utility, it must be brought in. To be more specific, use/trade of substances that are not toxins according to the medico-legal definition of the word must be decriminalized, and those that are toxins should remain illegal. This immediately makes marijuana/cannabis legal and perhaps LSD too. The alleged reason for the illegal status of cannabis is one of the most believable and best documented conspiracy theory of our times (I tried searching for the article on Wikipedia, unfortunately all references to DuPont's role have been removed from all articles). This causes a new problem - both alcohol and tobacco should be illegal by this definition.

Alcohol has been shown to have various medical benefits when drunk in moderate amounts, including protection against heart disease and protection against renal failure. So it should be retained as legal, but regulated - no alcohol advertisements in electronic media. Tobacco, though, would be illegal in my scheme of things. This is logistically impossible given the current situation. Even a ban on public smoking is supremely difficult to enforce, a blanket ban on tobacco is quite unthinkable. Hence, it should not (can not) be illegalized, but tobacco companies should be taxed until they bleed. I'm sure that the economic benefits derived out of a generation of a lower number of smokers will far outweigh the loss in productivity and revenue resultant from this heavy taxation. Tobacco companies that face losses will have to branch out. (In fact, the continued increase of tax on tobacco products is one of the few heartening things of our budget every year)

So, the final proposal - narcotics and amphetamines illegal, cannabis legal, alcohol legal but unadvertised, tobacco legal but unadvertised and heavily taxed, all others to be judged on similiar grounds after scientific evidence. A most perfect marriage of ideology, science, utility and freedom. What do you say?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Individuals and Categories - 2

Jai Arjun Singh had once written about Identity and Violence, and reproduced an excerpt from its prologue, which I re-reproduce, corny as that sounds.

Civilisational or religious partitioning of the world population yields a ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group…This can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world. In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups – we belong to all of them. The same person can be, without any contradiction: an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theatre lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk (preferably in English). Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity. None of them can be taken to be the person’s only identity or singular membership category.

Amartya Sen has summarily destroyed all of my rhetorical '22, male, engineer' posturing. I stand corrected. Indeed, a definition of individual identity as the intersection of all the sets that the individual belongs to takes care of the individual vs category debate in my mind.

It is still fascinating to explore why we let the classifications of various categories overshadow our perception of others as individuals. Nation, religion, caste, race and gender are the bases of division that spring to the mind immediately, but it can be extremely interesting to explore this phenomenon in a more localised manner. In school and college, fights that break out between individuals often transform into group vs group slugfests. Hostelites vs Day-scholars. Localites vs Outsiders. Seniors vs Juniors. Hostel X vs Hostel Y. Even Wing A vs Wing B. There is perhaps a distinction though. It is highly unlikely that violence at the micro-level will affect individuals who were not directly involved. Those people from hostel X who were not part of the slugfest will probably be spared by the warring battalion of hostel Y. On the broader issues too, for some reason, violence that envelopes even unwilling individuals is common only in the case of religion and caste. I may have had to include nation into this list but the modern concept of armed nation states largely prevents that (leaving aside bombings on civilian areas - but those are anyway termed 'mistakes' and are not part of acknowledged strategy). Is this the reason why a majority of educated 'liberal' individuals consider patriotism a virtue but casteism and communalism to be evil?

Though, I still stand by my argument that the opportunities available to most individuals are the products of not just their abilities and choices as individuals, but also of their unchosen allegiance to certain categories.