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July 20, 2008

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Surely you could rationalize things like cocaine use by pointing out that if it weren't illegal it wouldn't be associated with inner-city violence (or violence in the forests of Colombia for that matter).

Likewise, if ecstasy weren't illegal, would it be easier to get pure sassafras oil without depleting an endangered species? I would imagine so.

Tom: you could, if you took "X would not have bad effects in the counterfactual world in which it is legal" to justify "I will use X in this world, in which it is not." ;P

And about the sassafras: I am not, um, a sassafras expert, but the article made it sound as though Cambodia just has really great sassafras trees.

Of course you can also get safrole from synthesizable http://health.indianetzone.com/aromatherapy/1/camphor.htm>brown camphor oil so if it weren't illegal you could get it without exterminating the Mreah Prew Phnom tree. As with most drug problems, the problems arise from making it illegal rather than the drug itself.

And here I thought sassafras had something to do with root beer.

Bernard: sasparilla (properly sarsaparilla).

Hilzoy, I take your point about the counterfactual world. However, you could also frame it as an issue of where to properly place blame. The underground cocaine economy is likely to continue to exist and to give rise to violence for as long as cocaine is illegal. One person's choice whether or not to buy some cocaine for personal use has a pretty tiny effect on that overall picture. There's a very indirect chain of causation between one person buying some coke, and someone getting shot on the street for drug-distribution-related reasons. So arguably if you want to make the world a better place by giving up something you like, there are better choices than cocaine. And the blame for the violence related to the cocaine industry can better be laid at the feet of the U.S. government, and of the criminals who order and carry out the killings of their rivals.

As for sassafras, I would imagine that if ecstasy were legal, it might be easier to openly grow the relevant plants -- or make a synthetic substitute -- whereas the fact that it's illegal means it makes more sense to harvest it unsustainably in a relatively lawless part of the world.

Larger point: Many of the social and economic effects of drug use are really effects of drug prohibition. While we should be aware of the effects of the choices we make, it seems to me that giving up cocaine or ecstasy might be a relatively inefficient way to ameliorate social and environmental conditions, compared to the choices we can make about e.g. our food, our cars, our houses.

"and supported organizations that helped to destroy inner-city neighborhoods by night"

You may have a reason for not elaborating, in which case never mind, but I'm curious what you have in mind here, as it's not obvious to me, at least.

"I suspect that that has changed. I hope so."

I'm sure some people are now more thoughtful, and that innumerable people haven't learned a thing, and that more people are coming along all the time, some more aware of these things, and plenty not.

I don't think -- and I say this as someone who just might -- purely hypothetically, you understand -- might have had some experience -- many years in the past, long past the statute of limitations -- had some experience with some substances -- that people who use various substances tend to get particularly more thoughtful about the implications of their use on the environment, as a rule.

But I have no cites, to be sure.

Personally, I'd like to try this.

Same is true for people who work for good causes by day and by night eat meat, or use air conditioning, or buy sneakers/clothes made by sweatshop labor, or pay taxes to a gov't that tortures people, or ...

Tom: I support legalizing marijuana. I do not support the drug war at all. That said, I think that it's wrong to elide or disregard the consequences of one's consumer choices as you suggest. There is exactly the same connection between taking cocaine and what happens in inner cities as there is between eating meat and factory farming, or panelling your house with exotic non-farmed hardwoods and decimating old-growth forests.

Moreover, while I do what I can to oppose the drug war politically, I am in a much better position to affect my choices than I am to affect government policy. This is the bit I can do myself; the fact that I could get even better results if I were dictator and could change drug laws is, I think, irrelevant to that choice.

Gary: cocaine, supporting drug gangs.

"Gary: cocaine, supporting drug gangs."

Ah. Not "support[ing] organizations" through, say, charitable donations, or volunteer work, then, but via free enterprise. Thanks, gotcha, whereas I didn't know at all what you meant at first.

My own crime is to not plan to give up air conditioning any time soon. I'm working on trying to get across the idea of simple recycling to some folks, though. And energy conservation. Small steps.

I eat meat, too. I'm very imperfect.

But I don't buy (or ingest) cocaine, so it all balances out.

Never even tried Ecstasy. Might have if it had been around when I was 19, but that was then, and this is now. Caffeine has long been my most exciting drug.

Gary: I'm with you on AC. It's been miserable here of late. But the heat wave seems to be breaking, and a little rain is falling.

Hilzoy: That said, I think that it's wrong to elide or disregard the consequences of one's consumer choices as you suggest. There is exactly the same connection between taking cocaine and what happens in inner cities as there is between eating meat and factory farming, or panelling your house with exotic non-farmed hardwoods and decimating old-growth forests.

Or between going on holiday by plane (or going everywhere by car) and the developed world's massive waste of natural oil: or between drinking coffee that isn't Fair Trade and the financial exploitation of coffee farmers: or between eating bananas that weren't farmed organically and the deaths from pesticide use on banana plantations.

It helps, however, to have government support on your side, and the support of bigger extra-governmental organisations like supermarkets.

This does seem like a fairly persuasive ecological argument for legalization....

Absolutely. If people are going to buy marijuana or heroin or cocaine or Ecstasy, let it be Fair Trade, organically and sustainably farmed.

And to have that happen, it really helps to have government regulation of the product, and supermarkets able to sell it.

Marijuana, I'm told, does very well in the swampier parts of Florida. Without fertilizer, even. I know a guy who was somewhat of an amateur (but very successful) farmer of naturally-grown marijuana, and he grew some nearly tree-sized plants in the wild.

This was all a few decades back, if anyone cares.

Although I'm in general agreeable with Jesurgislac's latest comment, being able to buy heroin at the supermarket is a bit of a jarring notion. Maybe at the pharmacy, but what doctor would prescribe it?

"Maybe at the pharmacy, but what doctor would prescribe it?"

Why do you socialistliberals hate the free market, and always want Big Government restricting our choices and telling us what to do, Mr. Socialistman?

Why do you hate free enterprise, which made America great?

:-)

BTW, isn't this is the same kind of argument the right likes to make regarding Al Gore: work for cause by day, fly around and live in big house by night?

I have never flown around in a big house, just to clear up that little detail.

I have never flown around in a big house,

but have you ever flown around a big house?

To the best of my ability, I cannot recall.

I knew plenty of people who worked for various good causes by day, and supported organizations that helped to destroy inner-city neighborhoods by night, for instance, without noticing the conflict between their principles and their use of cocaine.

As a-train points out, there are numerous upstream consequences to our consumer choices, both legal and illegal. Quite frankly, it's not always easy to know what they are. And I remember a time in the 1970s when it was damned near impossible to keep track of all the things that we responsible lefties were supposed to be boycotting, let alone why.

But putting aside the complexity issue, and focusing simply on illegal drugs: at what point should people have known that their drug use was helping to destroy inner cities, and why? And which drugs?

Obviously, if you go down to the bad part of town to buy your drugs, it's hard to avoid the reality that you're supporting people who will kill to defend their turf.

OTOH, since my sole illegal drug was marijuana, and there was, back in the 1970s, a pretty solidly established supply route of hippie-types bringing dope home by car and plane from points south, it's hard to see what any of that had to do with the inner cities at all. Maybe that's changed.

And with respect to points in between: if you don't go downtown to buy your cocaine, how do you know you're harming inner-city neighborhoods? Does nearly all U.S. cocaine traffic go through our ghettos? I'd assume a good deal of it does, but if I were to buy some cocaine from a fellow suburbanite, is there ample reason to assume that he bought it from someone else who bought it from a gangbanger on a street corner in Anacostia? And where and when should I have picked up this knowledge?

Anybody know a dependable, online pharmacy?

I want some Viagra for the brain.

Bernard: sasparilla (properly sarsaparilla).

OK. Thanks.

low-tech cyclist: And I remember a time in the 1970s when it was damned near impossible to keep track of all the things that we responsible lefties were supposed to be boycotting, let alone why.

Heh, not just the 1970s. Right now, I'm:

1. Boycotting Nestle, because they push baby milk formula on to nursing mothers in Third World countries, knowing that their sales will kill a proportion of the babies no longer being breastfed.

2. Boycotting McDonalds, because they engage in vicious anti-union activities, treat their workers badly, and target children as a market for their unhealthy food.

3. Boycotting Heinz, because when a cute funny ad for Heinz Mayo was broadcast on UK tv that had two men kissing, it got withdrawn within a week by Heinz under pressure from the AFA, and Heinz fell over itself apologizing for showing such an offensive ad.

Now I'm told the American Family Association is targetting McDonalds for "pro-gay" activities, and I've been asked to buy McDonalds to show support for them about the AFA thing... but I've thought about it and decided I'm still going to go on boycotting them on account of the unhealthy food and the anti-union stuff.

There's also the tangled up issue of Disney and of Microsoft, both of which suck in so many ways but which do treat their LGBT employees with a fairness that makes the homophobic Christian right gnash their teeth.

I did ecstacy a few times in the late '80s. I always thought it was a purely synthetic drug, not that it matters much now. My lifestyle is no longer such that I can afford to dedicate several consecutive hours to fairly serious psychic distortion. But I'm actually not entirely sure that what we were calling ecstacy then is the same thing "the kids" are calling ecstacy now. My understanding, based on either reading or word of mouth (don't remember which), was that what we were doing was an amphetamine developed to treat "Battle Fatigue" during WWII. My experience was such that I could see how that might work, 'cause it sure made me happy. I suppose that, were it the case, would not preclude the use of sassafras oil in its production, but, like I said, I assumed it was purely synthetic, given what I had read or been told. The long and short of it is that I never would have guessed there was a serious environmental impact on the other side of the world from doing ecstacy, so thanks for the heads up, Hilzoy.

Same drug, hsh. Wikipedia entry here.

Thanks, Slarti. I actually went to Wikipedia just after posting my comment. I don't know why I do that. It's like doing ecstasy (with an s before the y this time) when you should be doing your EM Fields homework.

Engineering? Physics?

EE. I thought you knew.

I might have, once, but my memory isn't what I remember it once was.

Which text are you using?

Emag was one of my favorites, even if it wasn't a subject I did all that well in. I loved the math, but the multiple-choice exams didn't love me back.

I don't recall which text we used. It was almost 20 years ago that I was doing ecstasy while avoiding my fields homework. Fields was the supposed boogie-man class for EEs at Rutgers, the one that would wreck your cume. I liked it and found it pretty intuitive, but I ended up getting complacent with my surprising early success in the class and slacked off toward the end, so I ended up doing just okay.

Ah.

I was at Purdue doing EMag about 25 years ago; we used Hayt's Engineering Electromagnetics, which is a pretty decent text. Hayt was my prof, which mitigated my problem with multiple-choice exams a bit. He was a great teacher, but he could give you a fiendishly difficult problem posed in 20 words or so.

And of course I haven't used any of it since. Which I regret, somewhat.

You know, I may well have used the same text. This is from the current Rutgers course description, and the prof listed is the same prof I had. The book had a red cover, if that helps.

Textbook & Materials: W.H. Hayt, Jr and J. A. Buck, Engineering Electromagnetics, 7th
edition, McGraw-Hill, 2006
Supplemental: J. A. Edminister, Electromagnetics, 2nd edition, McGraw-Hill,
1993

Yep, that's it. Except back in 1982, the book was written by Hayt alone. The 1989 version of the book that I currently own was Hayt by himself, but he did acknowledge Buck in the Preface.

It is amazing how a little bit of misplaced knowledge and bad reasoning can lead you way off course.

The quoted story is correct in identifying the source of sassafras oil, root bark. The story is correct that the named party drugs are manufactured from a component of this oil.

But the missing piece of information is that this is a tiny percentage of the end uses. It has to be a tiny fraction, and the reason why is that sassafras oil is sold by the semi-load to legitimate users here in the US and around the world.

It is also a watched precursor chemical, you can't buy it without getting reported to the feds, who will visit your business to verify you really need it.

This means that the only illicit consumption of sassafras oil takes place via "diversion", and isn't driving the economics behind the destruction of these trees.

Party on (but maybe with sassafras tea instead, the cops could ruin your day/life real fast)!

Cool:

The dried and ground leaves are used to make filé powder, a spice used in the making of some types of gumbo.

I'd completely forgotten about that. But not about root beer.

I think the broader point Hilzoy makes, about blaming illicit substance consumers for the violence associated with illicit substance distributors operating in black markets, is way off base.

An illicit substance consumer's responsibility starts and ends with my not hurting any other people through the effects of one's illicit substance consumption. That includes any violent acts committed in an intoxicated state, as well as effects any potential addiction could have on one's loved ones.

That an independent actor may take the small profit gleaned from one illicit transaction and pool it together with small profits from other people's illicit transactions, and use that money to purchase a weapon to protect their corner (literally!) of the market, is not my responsibility as a consumer, and it is only my concern insomuch as I'm a decent person who cares about others.

There is no conflict between the principles of DC-based do-gooders by day, and their illicit substance use at night, as their illicit transactions have as many positive outcomes (cash flowing to an economy underserved by the traditional market, resulting in families, including many small children being fed, clothed and housed as a result) as it does negative ones, such as the unforunate death of innocent bystanders who live in or near open air drug markets, including the aforementioned young children.

Nevertheless, as others pointed out above, the fault for this lies with those that prohibit substances from being consumed legally, not those who purchase their substances in the illicit market.

Let's place the blame for this where it belongs, with the regulators, not the consumers, producers or distributors!

Hilzoy: I suspect that that has changed. I hope so.

Sorry. ;(


Jes: Absolutely. If people are going to buy marijuana or heroin or cocaine or Ecstasy, let it be Fair Trade, organically and sustainably farmed.
And to have that happen, it really helps to have government regulation of the product, and supermarkets able to sell it.

This has been another episode of OCSteve agrees 100% with Jes…

Boycotting McDonalds, because they engage in vicious anti-union activities, treat their workers badly…

Crap. Now I want a Big Mac…

"Maybe at the pharmacy, but what doctor would prescribe it?"

As a matter of interest, doctors in the UK used to be able to prescribe heroin to addicts courtesy of the national health and I gather routinely did so. Although I generally support legalisation, I'm not sure this is sensible policy (as it would seem to create incentives for intermittent users to become addicts to get free heroin) but it does show this is not an impossible outcome.

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