April 17, 2014

Online illegal drug sales persist because they’re safer than other channels

Filed under: Britain, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:34

At the Adam Smith Institute blog, Daniel Pryor discusses the reasons for “Silk Road” continuing despite police crackdowns:

Growing up in Essex has made me appreciate why purchasing illegal drugs online is a far more attractive option. I have experienced the catastrophic effects of drug prohibition first-hand, and it is part of the reason that the issue means a great deal to me. Friends and acquaintances have had terrible experiences due to contamination from unscrupulous dealers with little incentive to raise their drugs’ quality, and every reason to lace their products with harmful additives. The violence associated with buying and selling drugs in person has affected the lives of people close to me.

As a current university student, I now live in an environment populated by many people who use Silk Road regularly, and for a variety of purchases. From prescription-only ‘study drugs’ like modafinil to recreational marijuana and cocaine, fellow students’ experiences with drugs ordered from Silk Road have reinforced my beliefs in the benefits of legalisation. They have no need to worry about aggressive dealers and are more likely to receive safer drugs: meaning chances of an overdose and other health risks are substantially reduced.

Their motivations for using Silk Road rather than street dealers correlate with the Global Drug Survey’s findings. Over 60% of participants cited the quality of Silk Road’s drugs as being a reason for ordering, whilst a significant proportion also used the site as a way to avoid the potential violence of purchasing from the street. Given that payments are made in the highly volatile Bitcoin, it was also surprising to learn that lower prices were a motivation for more than a third of respondents.

February 20, 2014

Anti-tobacco campaigners – “a great bunch of puritanical Cnuts”

Filed under: Britain, Business, Health, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:37

In sp!ked, Rob Lyons looks at the way e-cigarettes are being marketed in the UK and how it’s driving anti-tobacco campaigners absolutely insane:

For the tobacco-control lobby, an advert like Dorff’s is an absolute nightmare. It makes no health claims. It is clearly targeted at adults. It plays to the fact that even smokers dislike aspects of old-fashioned cigarettes, and are happy to compromise in order to get most of the pleasure of smoking without the hassle or the irritation to others. And then – God forbid – it even plays to the annoyance of smokers at the health fanatics. The last thing smoke dodgers want is for anyone to be able to take their freedom back. Even the existence of the sanitised offer from Vype’s say-nothing advert is anathema.

This was made abundantly clear in a report published by Cancer Research UK last year, The marketing of electronic cigarettes in the UK [PDF]. The authors are forced to admit that e-cigs ‘are accepted as being much safer than their conventional equivalents, so if smokers can be encouraged to switch there is the potential for significant public health gain’.

However, this message is quickly lost in a cloud of public-health cant. The threats, say the authors, include concerns that ‘hard-won tobacco-control policies (smokefree public places, the ad ban, age restricted sales, tobacco industry denormalisation, POS [point-of-sale] restrictions) are being undermined’ and that ‘there is evidence that young people, who have always been the key to the long-term viability of the tobacco industry, may be being pulled into the market’. The danger, say the authors, is that tobacco companies don’t want you to give up your addiction, just switch to a different delivery system. The problem with this argument is that the new delivery system is much, much safer. Why shouldn’t corporations try to sell us safe products?


In reality, what the anti-tobacco lobbyists (and their fans in Westminster and Whitehall) are really afraid of is the loss of their power and influence over our lives. They fear they will be helpless against the tide of e-cigs, like a great bunch of puritanical Cnuts. (Note to sub-editor: that’s definitely ‘Cnuts’, as in the Danish king who famously – probably apocryphally – tried to turn back the sea. Honest.)

E-cigs are a safe, practical alternative to smoking. For all the huffing and putting-a-stop-to-puffing, tobacco control has been an illiberal failure. E-cigs are encouraging smokers to switch, cut down or stop altogether far more successfully than all the bans, taxes, restrictions and useless nicotine-replacement therapies that have gone before. ‘Vaping’ is an unexpected but nonetheless happy success story.

February 6, 2014

E-cigarettes – growth industry or doomed by regulatory overstretch

Filed under: Business, Health, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:03

Megan McArdle discusses the past, present, and potential future for the e-cigarette industry:

In its simplest form, an e-cigarette is a cartridge filled with a nicotine solution and a battery powering a coil that heats the solution into vapor, which one sucks in and exhales like smoke. Typically, it looks like a regular cigarette, except the tip, embedded with an LED, often glows blue instead of red. The active ingredient in e-cigarettes is the same nicotine found in cigarettes and nicotine patches.

The effects of inhaling nicotine vapor are not totally understood, but there is no evidence to date that it causes cancer. Experts and logic seem to agree that it’s a lot better than setting chopped-up tobacco leaves on fire and inhaling the nicotine along with thousands of combustion byproducts, some of which are definitely carcinogenic. Because cancer is the main drawback of smoking for a lot of people, the delivery of nicotine without lighting a cigarette is very attractive. And because it produces a wispy vapor instead of acrid smoke, an e-cigarette lets you bring your smoking back indoors, where lighting up in an enclosed space is no longer socially, or legally, acceptable.


A primitive, battery-operated “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” was patented as early as 1963 and described in Popular Mechanics in 1965. Thomas Schelling, a Nobel prize-winning economist who helped start the Institute for the Study of Smoking Behavior and Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School in the 1980s, recalls that people in the 1960s were talking about a charcoal-based vaporizer that would heat some sort of nicotine solution. While those early versions might have been safer than a regular cigarette, they were too expensive and cumbersome to become a substitute for a pack of Camels in a country where, as Schelling notes, “you’re never more than 5 or 10 minutes away from a smoke.”

In a way, electronic cigarettes were made possible by cell phones. The drive to make phones smaller and lengthen their battery life led to the development of batteries and equipment small enough to fit in a container the size and shape of a cigarette. There’s some dispute over who invented the modern e-cigarette, but the first commercially marketed device was created by a Chinese pharmacist, Hon Lik, and introduced to the Chinese market as a smoking cessation device in 2004.

In the same way that alcohol comes in various guises (many carefully crafted to appeal to beginners: sweet as soda pop, for example), e-cigarettes are available in many different flavours:

E-cigarette cartridges come in classic tobacco and menthol flavors — Verleur’s company even offers V2 Red, Sahara, and Congress, clearly aimed at loyal smokers of Marlboros, Camels, and Parliaments. But most companies also have less conventional flavors. Blu offers Peach Schnapps, Java Jolt, Vivid Vanilla, Cherry Crush, and Piña Colada, presumably for people who don’t just like a drink with a cigarette, but in one.

January 22, 2014

Private prisons – crony capitalist palaces of injustice

Filed under: Business, Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The United States has seen a vast increase in the number of drug offenders (the majority of them non-violent) and a corresponding increase in the private prison industry. As Wendy McElroy explains, these are not free-market solutions to a government problem: they’re monuments to crony capitalism:

The United States leads the world, by a large margin, in the production of at least one thing: prisoners. We have 25 percent of the world’s inmates, but just 5 percent of the world’s population.

Where do they come from? Well, since the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the number of American inmates has risen from approximately 300,000 to a currently estimated 2.3 million. This statistic points to the role of drug-related victimless “crime” in creating prisoners.

There are other sources. The “private prison complex” is a creation of crony capitalism through which privileged corporations are paid well for the “care” of inmates and for leasing out prison labor to other businesses.

Ten percent of American prisons are now “privately” operated, for-profit businesses. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of for-profit prisons rose 1600 percent, far outpacing the growth of public ones or the population at large. The likelihood of being arrested is already higher in America than anywhere else in the world. That likelihood will rise if the financial incentives to imprison more people continue or increase.


“Private” prisons are run by corporations to which government outsources the care of inmates. The corporation receives X tax dollars for each prisoner, quite apart from the actual cost of care. This builds in an incentive to skimp on services such as food and medical care. And, indeed, most prison contracts include a “low-crime tax” or “lock-up quota.” This system means taxpayers compensate the corporation for empty cells if the number of prisoners falls below a set quota. A recent report, “Criminal: How Lockup Quotas and ‘Low-Crime Taxes’ Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations,” found the average “occupancy guarantee” to be 90 percent; in four states, it is between 95 percent and 100 percent. Thus the “private” prison is guaranteed a tax-funded profit.


The “private” prison industry is private in the same sense that crony capitalism is capitalist. Namely, not at all. It is the antithesis of a truly private industry that competes in the free market, does not accept tax funds, and cannot compel labor. By contrast, the “private” prisons enjoy a monopoly over a service that is created by laws and sentencing policies. They receive tax money and preferential treatment. They exploit captive labor through circumstances similar to plantation slavery.

December 10, 2013

Manufacturing crime

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:56

Charles Cooke on the ATF working hard to create new criminals through elaborate entrapment schemes:

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is probably best known these days for the failure of its disastrous Fast and Furious scheme — a botched initiative that aimed to give American guns to Mexican cartels first and to ask questions later. Under pressure, the administration was quick to imply that the mistake was an aberration. But a watchdog report, published last week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, suggests that the caprice, carelessness, and downright incompetence that marked the disaster was no accident. In fact, that it is endemic in the ATF.

After a bungled sting attracted the suspicion of the Milwaukee press earlier this year, reporters started to examine similar enterprises in the rest of the country. What they found astonished them. Among the tactics they discovered ATF agents employing were using mentally disabled Americans to help run unnecessary sting operations; establishing agency-run “fronts” in “safe zones” such as schools and churches; providing alcohol, drugs, and sexual invitations to minors; destroying property and then expecting the owners to pick up the tab; and hiring felons to sell guns to legal purchasers. Worse, perhaps, in a wide range of cases, undercover agents specifically instructed individuals to behave in a certain manner — and then arrested and imprisoned them for doing so. This is government at its worst. And it appears to be standard operating procedure.

As with Fast and Furious, the primary objective of the ATF’s stings seems not to be to fight a known threat but instead to manufacture crime. Across the country, the agency has set up shops in which it attempts to facilitate or to encourage illegal behavior, and it has drafted citizens into the scheme without telling them that they were involved. It is fishing — nonchalantly, haphazardly, even illegally. And the consequences can go hang.


At best the ATF’s new techniques constitute illegal entrapment. At worst, they are downright tyrannical. Entrapment is legally permitted if a suspect initiates a crime in the presence of an undercover agent or if he can reasonably be deemed to have been predisposed to commit the crime when offered an opportunity to do so. But it is difficult to see how either of these tests is being met in the Bruner case or in others. Indeed, cases using entrapment are often thrown out of court if the government is seen to have put too much pressure on a suspect or to have made breaking the law so easy or attractive as to render restraint impossible. Per the paper’s report, ATF tactics involved offering ridiculous prices for firearms to attract straw purchasers, requesting that suspects buy specific firearms that carry tougher sentences, or, as it did in one case, showing a known felon how to saw off a shotgun so that they could charge him with a more serious violation when he did it. Will anyone claim that these tactics are legal?

That they are immoral, too, needs less spelling out. Because no formal arrangements were made with the individuals whom the agency selected for involuntary cooperation, there were no means by which they could claim protection for their behavior after the fact. In other words: The federal government knowingly ruined their lives without telling them. And for what? Well, apparently to try to pick low-hanging fruit.

November 6, 2013

“Dear Mayor Ford: among our living national treasures”

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:41

David Warren explains why Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford had to exist:

… every left-thinking person in the Greater Parkdale Area had been teased to apoplexy by the contemplation of this gentleman. This because he was: 1. fat, 2. colourful, 3. rightwing &, 4. freely elected by a large margin over some gay leftwing establishment darling. (Some other reasons have accumulated since then.)

Turns out, the police have recovered some video in which — it is alleged — our peerless mayor is shown doing crack with local low-life. Whether smoking or snorting or otherwise ingesting, we do not know, & neither apparently does our splendid mayor, who now says he was actually too drunk to remember the occasion. Dear Mayor Ford: among our living national treasures.


Quite frankly, we tried mayors who were not crackheads. They didn’t work out. Also, the last one didn’t drink enough. That’s why we elected Ford. He’s doing great: slashing through the city bureaucracy & privatizing everything he can. He even holds the civic unions in subjection: not one has dared to strike. And ho, he’s trying to build subways. Anyone who has attempted to ride a trolley across this town will understand our need to tunnel. So what is the problem?

As our good, excellent mayor told his Police Chief: bring on your video! Ford says he’s curious to see it himself, & that the rest of Toronto would surely also like a chance to catch it on YouTube.

Gentle reader knows I am a traditionalist in most things, & a loyal Canadian. Our very first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was a magnificent drunkard, who managed to hold office for nearly twenty years. There is an Arabian Nights of anecdotes that our primly officious historians have been too shy to tell. Verily, half of Macdonald’s Cabinet were awash most evenings, & the debates in Parliament were enlivened thereby. Almost all the damage ever done to this country was by sobersides.

Update: Take it away, Taiwanese animators!

November 4, 2013

“…almost half of all firearms discharges by police officers involve the shooting of a dog”

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:33

Even if you’re not a dog lover, this story from Charles C.W. Cooke should get you upset:

A Google search for “dog shot by police officer” returns countless stories from across the United States. YouTube, too, is full of harrowing videos. There is even a website, the bluntly titled “Dogs That Cops Killed” blog, which seeks to “collect a few of the innumerable instances of police officers killing dogs” and to push back against the “wars on drugs, peace, and liberty.”

This unlovely trend has claimed the attention of Patrick Reasonover, a libertarian filmmaker in California who is currently raising money for a proposed documentary, Puppycide, through the crowdsourcing service Kickstarter. “We’re excited by this one,” Reasonover tells me, “because on so many issues — the War on Drugs, for example — it’s impossible to move the ball. You can feature the problems with the drug war, but there are so many embedded interests that one documentary isn’t really going to solve the problem. With this issue, however? We feel that it could.”

Around eight months ago, Reasonover began to notice the proliferation of online videos of police officers shooting dogs. “People were going nuts about it,” he recalls. “There were tons of views on these things. We had dogs and we were disturbed, so we thought we’d reach out and start contacting some of the victims.” In doing so, he quickly learned that the news reports and the published footage were only the beginning of the story. Because police departments don’t keep easily accessible records of dog shootings, it is hard to gauge the scale. A recent review of public records by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals concluded that almost half of all firearms discharges by police officers involve the shooting of a dog. But nobody really knows.

Indeed, even animal-rights activists aren’t fully aware of the numbers in their communities. “They would tell us that there were, say, five news stories on these dogs that got shot,” Reasonover says. “But through my digging and persistence I found out that actually, you know, 22 were shot and no one ever knew.” One thing led to another, and he discovered that “there is a set of people who are working across the nation, through lawsuits or legislation or appealing to the Justice Department.” As part of his project, Reasonover is hoping to file Freedom of Information Act requests in all major cities and jurisdictions in the U.S. and to get hold of all firearm-discharge records. From that, he hopes to assemble a better list.

It may make brutal reading. A recent lawsuit in Milwaukee filed by a woman whose dog was killed forced that city to compile its records. “They found that a dog was shot every seven days,” Reasonover says. “Just in Milwaukee.” And, unless something changes, the number will only continue to rise. “Over the course of the past forty or fifty years, dogs have moved from the barnyard to the back yard to the bedroom,” Ledy Vankavage, the senior legislative attorney at Best Friends Animal Society, has observed. In the meantime, the drug war has been ratcheted up, terrorism has become a pressing concern, and, as Radley Balko has so distressingly chronicled, the police have become increasingly militarized. “You have this recipe for these police entering our lives more and more and more,” Reasonover explains. “The dogs are there, and so they are killed.”

November 3, 2013

“More bombshells” in the police document on Mayor Rob Ford, says the Toronto Star

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:03

I’ll be honest: I haven’t been following the twists and turns of the crusade by the Toronto media to oust Mayor Rob Ford. That’s not to say there isn’t actually news on the situation:

More bombshells are contained in a weighty police document used to obtain a search warrant for Mayor Rob Ford’s friend and occasional driver, according to a Star analysis of court information already released.

“Project Traveller and the Rob Ford connection” is the bold heading atop one section of still-sealed information. The pages are blacked out pending an ongoing court challenge.

Project Traveller was the recent guns and gangs investigation that saw massive arrests in north Etobicoke. Police Chief Bill Blair has said information learned in that probe led to the creation of the Ford investigation, dubbed Project Brazen 2. (Brazen 1 was an unrelated Scarborough investigation.)

Nearly 500 pages of a document presented before a judge to obtain a warrant to search Alexander “Sandro” Lisi’s home were released Thursday. Half is censored pending a court challenge by the Star and other media lawyers.

In examining the document, the Star has learned that some remarkable information remains sealed.

Whether any of the censored pages relate to the mysterious second video the Star first learned about in early August, and Blair confirmed last week, is not known.

The Star has been told by two sources this second video also features the mayor. Blair has said the second video is “relevant to this investigation.”

In his dramatic Thursday news conference Blair answered a question about whether Ford was in the first video. The chief first said the mayor was in “those” videos, then caught himself and only spoke about the first video.

Update: It’s worth noting that Ford’s popularity actually increased after the latest news came out.

October 31, 2013

The drug-running submarine squadron

Filed under: Americas, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:25

Strategy Page reports that the set of almost-complete submarines built by a drug cartel in Colombia were much more sophisticated and capable than first thought:

The leader (Mauner Mahecha) of the project was a guy in his early 30s with no boat building experience but excellent organizational and leadership skills.

Mahecha had a huge budget and used it to find and hire men with the needed skills or experience with submarines. Mahecha also quickly recruited additional specialists as needed and obtained whatever materials the builders called for. His project built three submarines, and the project was shut down because one of the men recruited (an experienced engine mechanic working for the Colombian Navy) managed to tip off the Colombian Navy intelligence and then the U.S. about the project.


The Mahecha submarines, when closely examined by experts, turned out to be more sophisticated than first thought. The outer hull was made out of strong, lightweight, Kevlar/carbon fiber that was sturdy enough to keep the sub intact but very difficult to detect with most sensors. The hull could not survive deep dives but this boat didn’t have to go deep to get the job done. The diesel-electric power supply (up to two-hundred and forty-nine lead-acid batteries), diving and surfacing system, and navigational systems of captured subs were all in working order. Those who built these boats apparently borrowed much from recreational subs. The sub builders also had impressive knowledge of the latest materials used to build exotic boats.

The three fiberglass/Kevlar submarines were obviously built to transport cocaine to North America and the existence of a building effort had been detected by intel agencies. For several years before the submarine boat yard was discovered the U.S. Navy, in cooperation with some Central and South American navies, have been looking for these subs, at sea and on land. While these submarines didn’t run very deep (less than twenty meters/sixty-two feet), they are invisible to most sensors when completely submerged. These subs were designed to run on batteries for up to eighteen hours, before having to surface and recharge. When they are at sea, they usually operate their diesel engines. These are noisy. Sonar can pick up this noise over a long distance. By capturing these subs it was possible to run the engines and get a sound profile of this type of boat and equip American sonar systems with this data. These subs had a range (on internal fuel) of about twelve-thousand kilometers. Thus, the boat could get from Colombia to southern California and back. These drug gangs spent over two million on each of these subs.

The most potent weapon the U.S. Navy has against these tiny (less than thirty-four meters/one-hundred foot long) subs is heat sensors, but even that may have had limited effectiveness. That’s because one of the subs captured had a snorkel type device (a tall structure extending from the conning tower, which contained pipes allowing diesel exhaust to escape and fresh air to be brought into the submerged boat.) It’s this heat that airborne sensors can detect. All surface (or semi-submerged) ships at sea display this kind of “heat signature”, and capturing working examples of these cocaine smuggling subs makes it possible to get a better idea of what the airborne heat sensors should be looking for. A snorkel, however, puts out less heat that a sub running on the surface would and is harder to detect. When running on batteries there is no heat to detect.

October 26, 2013

The costs of drug prohibition – “Molly”

Filed under: Health, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:16

Jacob Sullum on Frank Owen and Lera Gavin’s search for “Molly” (MDMA powder in capsule form):

Last year in Playboy, Frank Owen skillfully dissected the Legend of the Causeway Cannibal, explaining how people around the world came to believe that the synthetic stimulants known as “bath salts” caused one man to eat another’s face, even though it turned out that the assailant had not actually consumed any of those drugs. In a new Playboy article, Owen and his wife, Lera Gavin, go “Chasing Molly,” searching high and low for some decent MDMA sold under its latest brand name. Spoiler alert: They fail.


It looks like many people who report MDMA-like experiences of openness and connectedness after consuming molly are providing further evidence of the powerful impact that “set and setting” (expectations and environment) have on a drug’s perceived effects. Yet this interesting experiment drug warriors have set up has a cost: not just disappointment but potentially deadly hazards for consumers who get something different from what they thought they were buying, as tends to happen in a black market.

Prohibition not only makes drugs more dangerous by creating a situation where people are swallowing iffy pills and snorting mystery powders; it blocks attempts to ameliorate those hazards. Owen and Gavin note that music festivals such as Electric Zoo, which this year was cut short after two drug-related deaths, “refuse to allow organizations such as Dance-Safe to test molly on-site because organizers fear they will be accused of condoning drug use.” Such accusations can trigger serious legal consequences, including forfeiture and criminal prosecution.

October 24, 2013

Balancing the scales of justice

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:45

Do you remember the name Annie Dookhan? She shows up in a post called “If you’re not getting enough convictions on drug charges, tamper with the evidence at the lab“. Her case came to court recently and she was sentenced to a three-year prison term. At Popehat, Clark does a bit of math to determine whether the scales of justice are in balance here:

Before she was caught Dookhan lied about 34,000 samples.

Over 4,000 cases were tainted with her corrupt evidence.

Over 1,100 people were jailed in cases where Dookhan was the primary or secondary chemist finding them “guilty” of drug crimes.

Without knowing the exact durations of their sentences, we can’t know how many person-years of confinement Dookhan was responsible for, but taking two years as a conservative guess per person, she was responsible for 2,200 person years of confinement.

Without knowing the exact torture and abuse these 1,100 men and women underwent, we can’t know exactly how much rape and degredation Dookhan was responsible for, but given that we do know that most rape victims in the US are men, specifically men in the custody and “protection” of the State, and looking at the multiple studies that show that 9-20% of inmates are raped, we can guess that Dookhan was responsible for over 100 men and women being raped. To hand-wave further, we can guess than because “once a punk, always a punk” in the prisoner’s code, she is responsible for thousands of actual rapes.

To recap:

Ariel Castro:

  • crime: 3 prisoners, 30 person years, hundreds of rapes.
  • sentence: life plus 1,000 years.

Annie Dookhan:

  • crime: 1,100+ prisoners, 2,200+ person years, thousands of rapes.
  • sentence: three years,

October 18, 2013

QotD: The hidden problem with regulating prescription drug prices

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government, Health, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

[W]hen negotiating with other governments, pharmaceutical companies operate at a severe disadvantage, not because the governments’ buying power is so vast (the national health-care systems of Canada and many European countries cover fewer people than Aetna), but because the people you’re negotiating with can change the rules under which your product gets sold. At any point they can say, like Lord Vader, “I am altering the deal. Pray that I do not alter it any further.”

But if Canada started paying more, that wouldn’t mean we’d pay less. Drug companies are charging what they think we will pay. The result of Canadians and Europeans paying less is not that we pay more for drugs; it’s that fewer drugs get developed. To the extent that they are harming us, it is in hindering the development of cures or better treatments that we are missing, and don’t even know about.

Unfortunately, this is a classic case of Bastiat’s dilemma. It is easy for each country’s government to see the high prices that people are paying and intervene to lower them. It is hard for each country’s government, much less its citizens, to envision the new medical treatments that they might get if they paid more for drugs. So their incentives are heavily skewed toward controlling the price here and now, even if that means losing future cures.

Drug development is essentially a giant international collective-action problem. The U.S. has kept it from being a total disaster because we don’t have good centralized control of our insurance market, and our political system is pretty disorganized and easy to lobby. If that changes — and maybe we just changed it! — we’ll knock down the prices of drugs to near the marginal cost using government fiat, and I expect that innovation in this sector will grind to a halt. Stuff will still be coming out of academic labs, but no one is going to take those promising targets and turn them into actual drugs.

Megan McArdle, “U.S. Consumers Foot the Bill for Cheap Drugs in Europe and Canada”, Bloomberg, 2013-10-14

October 16, 2013

Cocaine and heroin are less addictive than Oreos

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:51

in lab rats, anyway:

“Research Shows Oreos Are Just As Addictive As Drugs,” says the headline above a recent Connecticut College press release. “…in Lab Rats,” it adds, and I’ll get to that part later. But first note that the study’s findings could just as truthfully be summarized this way: “Drugs Are No More Addictive Than Oreos.” The specific drugs included in the study were cocaine and morphine, which is what heroin becomes immediately after injection. So the headline also could have been: “Research Shows That Heroin and Cocaine Are No More Addictive Than Oreos.” Putting it that way would have raised some interesting questions about the purportedly irresistible power of these drugs, which supposedly justifies using force to stop people from consuming them.


So what exactly did the rats do? They favored the side of a maze where they were given Oreos to the same extent that they favored that side of the maze when they were given an injection of cocaine or morphine there. Furthermore, when the researchers “used immunohistochemistry to measure the expression of a protein called c-Fos, a marker of neuronal activation, in the nucleus accumbens, or the brain’s ‘pleasure center,’” they found that “the Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine.” Given the latter finding, perhaps we should credit Connecticut College’s publicity department with restraint for not announcing that Oreos are in fact more addictive than cocaine or heroin. Or to put it another way: Cocaine and heroin are less addictive than Oreos. Which makes you wonder why people go to prison for selling the drugs but not for selling the cookies, especially since Oreos and similar foods “may present even more of a danger.”

The idea that people can take or leave cocaine or heroin in the same way they can take or leave Oreos seems inconsistent with research that supposedly shows how powerfully reinforcing these substances are. Studies published between 1969 and 1985, for instance, found that rats and rhesus monkeys “will prefer cocaine to food” and “will self-administer cocaine until death or near-death,” as Stanton Peele and Richard DeGrandpre note in a 1998 Addiction Research article. But the animals in these studies were isolated from other animals, deprived of interesting stimuli, and prevented from engaging in normal behavior while tethered to catheters providing “an unlimited, direct flow of high concentrations of cocaine at all times at little or no cost” (in terms of effort). Research conducted in more naturalistic settings finds that monkeys and rats are much more apt to consume cocaine and morphine in moderation.

Laboratory animals’ tendency to consume drugs to excess when they are bored and lonely has pretty clear parallels in human behavior. But unlike rats and monkeys, humans are capable of reason and foresight (even if they do not always exercise those faculties) as well as emotions such as guilt and regret. They also have considerable control over their own environments. If the reinforcing power of drugs is not the only factor in addiction among rats and monkeys, it surely is not a complete explanation for why some people get hooked on these substances while most do not.

September 25, 2013

QotD: “Liberaltarianism”

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Oh, so anyway, another peeve of mine is the way liberals — and many libertarians — act as if there’s a lot of common cause between liberals and libertarians. The thinking seems to be that since both liberals and libertarians are for drug legalization, gay marriage, etc., that liberals can be seduced to the libertarian cause or that libertarians and liberals should forge a new “liberaltarian” political alliance to replace the old right-leaning fusionism. This was my friend Brink Lindsey’s big cause for a while, and I never bought it. It’s also something you hear from a lot of liberal college kids who want a wee bit more plausibility when they pose as rebellious.

But the truth is that what we call liberals today — a.k.a. progressives — simply aren’t libertarian even on most of their “libertarian” issues. As I’ve written before, being a “social liberal” isn’t the same thing as being a libertarian:

Your typical liberal Democrat says she’s liberal on social issues but that doesn’t make her in any meaningful way a libertarian. For instance, the vast majority of the libertarians I know hate things like speech codes, smoking bans, racial quotas, and the vast swaths of political indoctrination that pass for “education” today. They tend to oppose gun control, think fondly of homeschooling (if not always homeschoolers) and are generally split on the question of abortion. They do not, however, think that the government should be steamrolling religious institutions with Obamacare or subsidizing birth control. Liberals tend to loathe federalism or states’ rights (though there’s been some movement there), libertarians usually love the idea. The liberals who don’t like it fear that states or local communities might use their autonomy to live in ways liberals don’t approve of. Libertarians couldn’t care less.

Sure, there’s overlap between liberalism and libertarianism on things like gay marriage. But the philosophical route libertarians and liberals take to get to that support is usually very different. Libertarians are disciples of thinkers like Hayek and von Mises. Liberals descend from thinkers like John Dewey. The former believed in negative liberty, the latter positive liberty. And therein lies all of the difference. As a gross generalization, libertarianism advocates freedom to do whatever you like (short of harming others). Liberalism supports freedom to do whatever liberals like; everything else is suspect.


That’s because libertarianism is about curbing state power to let people be and do what they want. Liberalism is about using state power to make people do and be what liberals want. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Jonah Goldberg, The Goldberg File, 2013-08-23

September 15, 2013

Why “Breaking Bad: Canada” is a ludicrous meme

Filed under: Government, Health, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:57

Megan McArdle is a fan of the TV show Breaking Bad, but she also is fairly well informed about the US healthcare system. This means that the idea that the TV show’s Canadian counterpart would look like this…

Breaking Bad Canada

…depends on the audience for the real TV show not actually knowing much about the US system.

The series starts with Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is diagnosed with lung cancer. His lousy health maintenance organization won’t cover a decent doctor, or treatment. So Walter is forced to turn to crime just to pay his medical bills and … whoa, wait a minute. You know who has excellent benefits, compared with basically everyone else in the country? Teachers, firefighters and cops. Maybe they’re overworked and underpaid, but the one thing that you cannot say about them is that they’re forced to endure shoestring health-care plans. According to the Internet, Albuquerque school district employees are eligible for

    Medical, Dental, Vision, Basic and Additional Life Insurance, Long Term Disability, Pre-tax Insurance Premium Plan (PIPP), Flexible Spending Accounts, Long Term Care Insurance, 403(b) and the 457(b) Deferred Compensation Plans.

That’s a generous package. Moreover, the Albuquerque school district self-insures, so any complaints about benefit levels should be directed at the city government, not your “lousy HMO.”

Later, after Walt’s actions accidentally result in the shooting of his brother-in-law, a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, Walt’s wife takes a bunch of the meth money to pay for Hank’s treatment. On his government salary, Hank can’t possibly afford the treatment he needs, because, of course, his lousy insurance policy won’t cover more than a few visits to the physical therapist … and whoa, we just went from “unrealistic” to “ludicrous.” You know who has even better benefits than employees enjoying a compensation package collectively bargained with a local government? Federal employees in a low-cost state such as New Mexico. Moreover, extra benefits are available to people injured in the line of duty.

In short, a number of key plot points hinge on the improbable assertion that people who actually enjoy some of the best health insurance in the country actually suffer some of the worst — so bad that we are expected to believe that Walt had no choice but to cook meth to cover the gaps. For an otherwise great show, this is incredibly silly.

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