Perverse Incentives III: Alcohol, Tobacco and FUD

[ US & Them IUs & Them IIUs & Them IIIUs & Them IV ]

This is not, in fact, an essay about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; they fit neatly into the Beltway enforcement establishment I described two posts back. This is a post about the two of those things which do not provide evening news headlines for ATF bosses to make political hay out of. Representing industrial drug-merchants like Phillip Morris and AB Inbev, Big Booze and Big Tobacco lobbies are significant contributors to the propaganda campaign that underpins the War on Drugs, and just like Big Pharma, they’ve got skin in the game.

Profit Motive

Big Tobacco's 7 Dwarfs, 1994

Big Tobacco, 1994

I mentioned before that as early as 1972, the US Government’s own experts were reporting that were cannabis legal, alcohol use rates would fall by up to 25%. As far as the Big Booze lobby is concerned, I could end the article here: a 25% drop in market value would make even Inbev wince. Big Tobacco has a more complicated problem with marijuana; more or less every lie they told about tobacco back in the day is true of cannabis. The tobacco lobby used to claim tobacco was good for you, which it isn’t: but cannabis has well-understood health benefits. The tobacco lobby used to claim tobacco didn’t give you cancer; cannabis is believed to inhibit cancer formation. Basically, Big Tobacco have been pushing the wrong drug all this time, and the world has rolled on far enough that they’re getting called on it. But simultaneously, Big Tobacco care less, and spend less, than the beer brewers: if cannabis were widely legalised, no industrial superpowers are better placed to move into that market than tobacco companies. They already operate a vast industry based around a semi-tropical crop; and marijuana is much easier and cheaper to grow, harvest and package than tobacco, which is notoriously prone to horticultural misadventure and is tricky to store. To the beer giants, the competitive threat posed by the specter of cannabis legalisation is more direct, and it has kept the big booze concerns reaching for their cheque-books, year after year for decades.

Them and Us

bootleggersRemember the Iron Law of Prohibitions? It should have occurred to the astute reader by now that there are three glaring exceptions to the Puritan prohibitions on personal intoxicants. Caffeine, from its early prohibition by the Vatican to its ubiquitous nature in modern urban living, enjoys a huge industrial market which is in no way threatened by legal cannabis. Tobacco and alcohol are only still legal because, by the time the neo-Puritans got their hands on the levers of power in Washington, there was no longer a Them or an Us. Everyone of all classes and colours drank, and mostly they drank beer. A very high percentage of people of all classes enjoyed tobacco. The epic, and failed, experiment of Alcohol Prohibition provided an object lesson: the two main effects of the 18th Amendment were to create large-scale American organised crime, and to drive a nation of weak beer drinkers to become a nation of hard spirits drinkers.

Bootlegging beer involves moving very large volumes of very heavy liquid around quickly and quietly. Back then, you needed to move it in extremely recognisable vessels which were very difficult to hide. It was hard and expensive, so bootleggers stopped doing it. Whiskey provided a good deal more drunk for your dollar, and a much higher profit from each ton smuggled. Hard liquor was thus a better economic proposition for smugglers. An identical effect exists with cannabis; street prices are obscenely high compared to the prices for much more potent drugs, because cannabis is bulky and smelly. It’s the easy target for a glory-hunting customs officer.

Broadly speaking, Big Booze and Big Tobacco got to be legitimate, while producers of cannabis got to go to jail, because both alcohol and tobacco were in systemic use among European Protestants in the Early Modern era. Marijuana use didn’t become common among white European Protestants in the US until after its prohibition. With alcohol and cigarettes, Them were already Us before American culture turned to the revival tent. With cannabis they were not, which fact has been used by the white, European establishment in Washington to arrest eight hundred and fifty thousand non-violent, mostly coloured, citizens each year.

Lobbies of Misrule

beer-weedIn a post-Enlightenment society which takes pride in valuing reason, this established social order is patently absurd. It is simply irrational; it fails the basic test of internal consistency. Confronted by two naturally occurring plants, western Europe and her exported religious zealots in the New World institutionalised the consumption of the one that has minimal health benefits if any, tars your teeth black and gives you cancer. Those same people chose, over and again, to pursue with penalties harsher than those for murder or rape, innocent users of the other plant, which has considerable health benefits and is a lot more fun.

Bill Hicks had a famous spot comparing alcohol and cannabis: “If you’re at a ball-game and there’s a guy shouting and acting all aggressive, is that guy stoned? Or drunk?” Alcohol causes literally hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. It can be used responsibly, but it is very likely to significantly impair judgment in even quite small quantities. It heavily impairs physical capacity, and it is intensely chemically addictive. It gives you a nasty hangover. It is also very closely bound to a variety of social problems, starting from domestic violence. Alcohol is legendary for its ability to start fights, and is directly implicated in a very high percentage of common and aggravated assaults that go to trial. Set against which you have cannabis, which stops rather than starts fights, does not cause deaths (or criminality, or insanity, thank you Mr. Anslinger) and is at most habit-forming, rather than addictive. It does not give you a nasty hangover, does not impair rational faculties in the way alcohol does, and is implicated in precisely no systemic social failures. Marijuana is not a noted trigger for domestic abuse. I say this as a government-licensed alcohol vendor: that’s nuts!

Professor Nutt thought so too. He took real, empirical data and presented a viable, logically constructed regulation system for recreational drugs and presented it to the UK government. They sacked him.

[ Perverse Incentives IPerverse Incentives II – Perverse Incentives III – Perverse Incentives IV ]


March 2013
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith


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