A blanket ban on psychoactive substances makes UK drugs policy even worse

It is a truth under-acknowledged that a drug user denied possession of their poison is in want of an alternative. The current ‘explosion‘ in varied and easily-accessible ‘legal highs’ (also know as ‘new psychoactive substances’) are a clear example of this.

In June 2008 33 tonnes of sassafras oil - a key ingredient in the production of MDMA – were seized in Cambodia; enough to produce an estimated 245 million ecstasy tablets. The following year real ecstasy pills ‘almost vanished‘ from Britain’s clubs. At the same time the purity of street cocaine had also been steadily falling, from over 60% in 2002 to 22% in 2009.

Enter mephedrone: a legal high with similar effects to MDMA but readily available and for less than a quarter of the price. As the quality of ecstasy plummeted (as shown by the blue line on this graph) and substituted with things like piperazines, (the orange line) mephedrone usage soared (purple line). The 2010 (self-selecting, online) Global Drug Survey found that 51% of regular clubbers had used mephedrone that year, and official figures from the 2010/11 British Crime Survey estimate that around 4.4% 16 to 24 year olds had tried it in the past year.

Similarly, law changes and clampdowns in India resulted in a UK ketamine drought, leading to dabblers (both knowingly and unknowingly) taking things like (the once legal, now Class B) methoxetamine. And indeed, the majority of legal highs on offer are ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ which claim to mimic the effect of cannabis. In all, it’s fairly safe to claim that were recreational drugs like ecstasy, cannabis and cocaine not so stringently prohibited, these ‘legal highs’ (about which we know very little) probably wouldn’t be knocking about.

Still, governments tend to be of the view that any use of drugs is simply objectively bad, so the above is rather a moot point. But what anxious states can do, of course, is ban new legal highs as they crop up. However, even this apparently obvious solution has a few problems— the first being that there seems to be a near-limitless supply of cheap, experimental compounds to bring to market. When mephedrone was made a Class B controlled substance in 2010, alternative legal highs such NRG-1 and ‘Benzo Fury’ started to appear. In fact, over 550 NPS have been controlled since 2009. Generally less is known about each concoction than the last, presenting potentially far greater health risks to users.

At the same time, restricting a drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 requires evidence of the harm they cause (not that harm levels always bear much relation to a drug’s legality), demanding actual research as opposed to sensationalist headlines. Even though temporary class drug orders were introduced in 2011 to speed up the process, a full-out ban still requires study, time and resources. Many have claimed the battle with the chemists in China  is one lawmakers are unlikely to win.

And so with all of this in mind, the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday confirmed that Conservatives will take the next rational step in drug enforcement, namely, to simply ban ALL OF THE THINGS.

In order to automatically outlaw anything which can make people’s heads go a bit funny, their proposed blanket ban (modelled on a similar Irish policy) will prohibit the trade of ‘any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect’, and will carry up to a 7-year prison sentence.

Somewhat ironically for a party so concerned with preserving the UK’s legal identity it wants to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, this represents a break from centuries of British common law, under which we are free to do something unless the law expressly forbids it. This law enshrines the opposite. In fact, so heavy-handed and far-reaching is the definition of what it is prohibited to supply that special exemptions have to be granted for those everyday psychoactive drugs like caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. Whilst on first glance the ban might sound like sensible-enough tinkering at the edges of our already nonsensical drug policy, it really is rather sinister, setting a worrying precedent for the state to bestow upon citizens permission to behave in certain ways.

This law will probably (at least initially) wipe out the high street ‘head shops’ which the Daily Mail and Centre for Social Justice  are so concerned about. However, banning something has never yet simply made a drug disappear. An expert panel commissioned by the government to investigate legal highs acknowledged that a 50% increase in seizures of Class B drugs between 2011/12 and 2013/14 was driven by the continued sale of mephedrone and other once-legal highs like it. Usage has fallen from pre-ban levels, but so has its purity whilst the street price has doubled. Perhaps the most damning evidence, however, comes from the Home Office’s own report into different national drug control strategies, which failed to find “any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country”.

The best that can be hoped for with this ridiculous plan is that with the banning of absolutely everything, dealers stick to pushing the tried and tested (and what seems to be safer) stuff. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case – mephedrone and and other legal and once-legal highs have been turning up in batches of drugs like MDMA and cocaine as adulterants, and even being passed off as the real things.  Funnily enough, the best chance of new psychoactive substances disappearing from use comes from a resurgence of super-strong ecstasy, thanks to the discovery of a way to make MDMA using less heavily-controlled ingredients.

The ASI has pointed out somanytimes. that the best way to reduce the harms associated with drug use is to decriminalise, license and tax recreational drugs. Sadly, it doesn’t look like the Conservatives will see sense in the course of this parliament.  However, at least the mischievous can entertain themselves with the prospect that home-grown opiates could soon be on the horizon thanks to genetically modified wheat. And what a moral panic-cum-legislative nightmare that will be…

Another sign of the looming apocalypse

That Guardian opinion columns will have only a marginal relationship to economics, maths or even reality is well known. But it is possible to find signs of the looming apocalypse even there, knowing that point.

Are you paid what you are worth? What is the relationship between the actual work you do and the remuneration you receive?

The revelation that London dog walkers are paid considerably higher (£32,356) than the national wage average (£22,044) tells us much about how employment functions today. Not only are dog walkers paid more, but they work only half the hours of the average employee.

It is clear that the relationship between jobs and pay is now governed by a new principle. The old days in which your pay was linked to the number of hours you clocked up, the skill required and the societal worth of the job are long over.

There’s never been a time when pay was determined by societal worth. Cleaning toilets is highly valuable societally: as the absence of piles of bodies killed off by effluent carried diseases shows. It’s also always been a badly paid job. Because wages are not and never have been determined by societal worth. Rather, by the number of people willing and able to do a job at what price versus the demand for people to do said job at that price. You know, this oddity we call a market.

That a Guardian opinion column might opine that jobs should pay their social worth is one thing, to claim that the world used to work that way is an error of a different and larger kind.

We are surrounded by examples of this increasing disparity between jobs and pay. For example, average wages in western countries have stagnated since the 1980s,

And there’s the maths error. For that’s not true either. Yes, as we know, wages have been falling in recent years but according to both Danny Blanchflower and the ONS real wages are still, after that fall, 30% or so higher than in the 80s (median wages). 30% over three decades isn’t great but it’s also not to be sniffed at: and it’s also not stagnation.

But we expect such errors from the innumerates who fight for social justice or whatever they’re calling it this week. At which point we come to the signs of the apocalypse:

Peter Fleming is Professor of Business and Society at City University, London.

Actually, he’s in the Business School:

Peter Fleming
Professor of Business and Society

That long march through the institutions has left us with professors at business schools believing, and presumably teaching, things that are simply manifestly untrue.

Woes, society to the dogs, apres moi la deluge etc.

It’s not a happy thought that this sort of stuff is being taught these days, rather than just scribbled in The Guardian, is it?

Torts and tortes

It’s pretty hard to lose weight. A lot evidence suggests that waist circumference is heritable, with as much as half the differences between individuals down to genes.

But this genetic explanation probably doesn’t explain social trends towards obesity; surely there haven’t been enough generations of heavier people having more kids than less heavy people (do they even have more kids?)

The issue gets weirder when we discover that animals living in human environments are also getting fatter, even lab rodents eating controlled diets!

Whatever the explanation for the macro issue, it’s refreshing to note that on the micro level, people are still responding to incentives. After a big 2002 anti-McDonald’s judgement 26 US states passed rules making it much harder to sue fast food companies for causing your weight gain. After this, people seemed to take more responsibility for their own weight and health.

This finding comes from a new paper, “Do ‘Cheeseburger Bills’ Work? Effects of Tort Reform for Fast Food” (latest gated, earlier pdf) by Christopher S. Carpenter,  and D. Sebastian Tello-Trillo. Here is the abstract:

After highly publicized lawsuits against McDonald’s in 2002, 26 states adopted Commonsense Consumption Acts (CCAs) – aka ‘Cheeseburger Bills’ – that greatly limit fast food companies’ liability for weight-related harms.

We provide the first evidence of the effects of CCAs using plausibly exogenous variation in the timing of CCA adoption across states. In two-way fixed effects models, we find that CCAs significantly increased stated attempts to lose weight and consumption of fruits and vegetables among heavy individuals.

We also find that CCAs significantly increased employment in fast food. Finally, we find that CCAs significantly increased the number of company-owned McDonald’s restaurants and decreased the number of franchise-owned McDonald’s restaurants in a state.

Overall our results provide novel evidence supporting a key prediction of tort reform – that it should induce individuals to take more care – and show that industry-specific tort reforms can have meaningful effects on market outcomes.

I’m not saying individual responsibility always works but maybe some of the blame for obesity is down to individual choice.

Well, yes and no Professor Krugman, yes and no

The economics of this is of course correct For Paul Krugman is indeed an extremely fine economist:

We may live in a market sea, but most of us live on pretty big command-and-control islands, some of them very big indeed. Some of us may spend our workdays like yeoman farmers or self-employed artisans, but most of us are living in the world of Dilbert.

And there are reasons for this situation: in many areas bureaucracy works better than laissez-faire. That’s not a political judgment, it’s the implicit conclusion of the profit-maximizing private sector. And people who try to carry their Ayn Rand fantasies into the real world soon get a rude awakening.

The political implications of this are less so, given that Paul Krugman the columnist is somewhat partisan.

And of course that implication is that since that private sector (as Coase pointed out a long time ago) uses bureaucracy at times then we should all shut up and simply accept whatever it is that the government bureaucracy decides to shove our way.

Which is to slightly miss the point: yup there’s command and control islands in that sea. Bit it’s that sea that srots through those islands, sinking some and raising others up into mountains. Which is something that doesn’t happen with the monopoly of government bureaucracy: they don’t allow themselves to get wet in that salty ocean of competition.

That planning and bureaucracy can be the most efficient manner of doing something? Sure. That sometimes it’s not? Sure, that’s implicit, explicit even in the entire theory. How do we decide? Allow that competition. It’s the monopoly of the government bureaucracy that’s the problem, not that we somtimes require pencil pushers to push pencils.

RIP John Nash

In a Think Piece for the Adam Smith Institute, Vuk Vukovic pays tribute to the endlessly influential theorist John Nash:

It is with great sorrow we hear that one of the greatest minds in human history died this weekend in a car crash with his wife while they were returning home from an airport. John Forbes Nash Jr., was widely known as one of the founders of cooperative game theory whose life story was captured by the 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind”, is truly one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. His contributions in the field of game theory revolutionized the way we think about economics today, in addition to a whole number of fields – from evolutionary biology to mathematics, computer science to political science.

You can read the whole piece here