NIDA Director Has Misguided Views on Marijuana Legalization

Today’s Washington Post contains a Ruth Marcus interview of Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Volkow opposes marijuana legalization; she believies it will generate a large increase in use, which will (allegedly) harm users and society.

No one knows how much use might increase under legalization; existing evidence suggests a modest change, but since few countries have fully repealed their drug (or alcohol) prohibitions, we do not have decisive evidence.

The fact Volkow ignores, however, is that if use increases substantially, this means many people perceive a significant benefit from increasing their use or from initiating use; that is a positive of legalization, not a negative!

Marijuana use can, of course, generate unwanted side effects, but Volkow exaggerates these enormously. And other goods, like alcohol, also generate negative spillovers; yet we keep them legal (in part) because they generate substantial benefits.

Volkow further ignores the fact that prohibition generates its own negatives, such as violence, corruption, poor quality control, civil liberties infringements, medical restrictions, enforcement costs, and foregone tax revenue (which forces other tax rates to be higher).

So even if legalization means far greater use, and even if this generates undesirable consequences, the sum of benefits for current and prospective users, combined with elimination of prohibition’s costs, makes legalization the right choice.

Unanimous Supreme Court Correctly Stops Police from Searching Peoples’ Entire Lives Willy-Nilly

In its ruling today in Riley v. California, the Supreme Court unanimously established a clear new rule for police-citizen interaction: The police can’t, without a warrant, search the digital information on cell phones they seize from people they arrest. This is a big deal because it means that being arrested for, say, not paying a speeding ticket, will no longer open you up to having your entire life examined by law enforcement. Unlike the satchels and billfolds of yore, people now carry essentially all their private documents with them at all times: address books, financial and medical records, photo albums, diaries, correspondence, and more. To allow police to review all of that information just because they happen to have arrested someone would violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection of personal papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

If the police have independent probable cause to access someone’s digital information, they can get a warrant. If they don’t, making an arrest shouldn’t give them license to go on a fishing expedition.

What’s really surprising about this ruling is that it’s both broad and unanimous. Sweeping rulings on high-profile subjects tend to split the Court, whether ideologically or, in criminal procedure cases like this one, between formalists and pragmatists. Unanimous rulings, meanwhile, tend to be cautious, splitting the baby in a way that doesn’t significantly change the law. Yet here we have a loud and unified “bright-line rule” that sets a major standard for the digital age. Kudos to the Court—and raspberries to the federal government, which has now had its expansive arguments rejected unanimously 11 times since January 2012.

Are Driverless Cars Fool-Proof? Not Quite

Randal O’Toole discussed the idea of safe, efficient, driverless cars in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It and in this full-page Wall Street Journal essay in 2010. It wasn’t exactly a new idea – Norman Bel Geddes first imagined the idea 75 years ago at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – but O’Toole was on the cutting edge of bringing it to more popular attention. And as he noted, one of the important benefits of driverless, or “self-driving,” cars is safety. As a driving-test site, citing British studies, says: “By far the biggest cause of road accidents is driver/rider error or reaction, which causes 68% of all crashes.” The loss of control, the reliance on mysterious computers, scares many of us. But there’s good evidence that computers can guide both airplanes and automobiles more reliably than human operators.

But maybe not all human operators.

Meredith Shiner of Yahoo! News reports:

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday brought a prototype of a driverless car to Washington in an attempt to show Congress that it could embrace a future devoid of man-made errors. 

And then Congress broke that car.

It was not immediately clear whether the mere proximity to the Capitol created the series of events that led to an emergency switch being flipped, causing the car to shut down, or if an actual member of Congress did it….

In true Washington fashion, no one would take immediate responsibility for the developing car situation.

Okay, not entirely fool-proof. But getting there.

Update: NBC News reports: “D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hit the kill switch on the car before she was supposed to take a ride, and they couldn’t get it running again.”

Are Beef Prices at An All-Time High?

The press is reporting record prices for beef. According to a June 18 story in the New York Post,

“It’s a barbecue-season bummer! Meat, poultry and fish prices have spiked an average of 8 percent since last year — soaring to an all-time high, national data show. The cost of ground beef has gone up 11 percent… ‘Everything is going through the roof,’ said Jim Hopkins, 52, a supervisor at Associated Supermarket in the West Village, who has worked in the grocery business for 30 years. ‘I’ve never seen increases like this — where they jump as much as this.’”

 

 

Yet the World Bank data shows remarkable stability in the inflation-adjusted price of ground beef over the last half century. That is all the more remarkable considering that:

  1. There were 3 billion people in the world in 1960. Today there are 7 billion of us.
  2. In 1960, the average income per person was $3,000 (in inflation adjusted 2000 dollars). Today it is $7,500.
  3. More people earning more money = higher demand for meat, especially beef.
  4. Yet, beef prices are, roughly where they were in 1960.

So, cheer up and don’t let those pessimists spoil your barbecue-season.

When Does Defense Aid Work?

The debate over an appropriate American response to Iraq’s resurgent violence and the threat of radical rebels has highlighted the challenges and risks of even limited U.S. assistance.

As I argue in a post at The National Interest, Iraq is emblematic of a larger challenge in U.S. foreign policy. President Obama’s West Point address last month emphasized the role of “partner nations” who may leverage US assistance to counter security threats within their own borders and regions. But the president’s speech and subsequent debate about it have largely failed to provide criteria for selecting these partners.

Both the threats (insurgency, instability, radical rebels) and the possible solutions (military advisers and training, direct intervention, pushing for better governance) have cropped up in discussion of numerous other events: Boko Haram’s kidnappings in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab’s siege of Westgate Mall in Kenya, unrest in northern Mali, continuing instability in Libya, and so on.

All of these policy suggestions constitute calls for foreign internal defense (FID) assistance. FID, or “Helping others defend themselves,” sounds like an attractive option while facing a fiscal and domestic political reality that limits prospects for direct intervention. However, the Iraq debate highlights a crucial question: how do we tell the difference between states we can “partner” into effective and self-sufficient stability, versus those that risk pulling the US into local quagmires or exacerbating security problems?

Policymakers, media, and the American public are asking these questions about Iraq, in part because we have a lot of information about Iraq’s internal dynamics. But we should ask these questions about other potential partners too.

Join us to discuss the challenges and opportunities of Foreign Internal Defense aid next month at our Cato Policy Forum on the topic. Register here.

23andMe Closer to FDA Approval

 23andMe, the Google-backed personal genomics company ordered by the Food and Drug Administration to stop marketing its health-related services in November last year, is closer to a reconciliation with the government agency. The FDA did not object to the ancestry information 23andMe provides, but rather the information on inherited risks it released to customers.

Before halting the release of health information 23andMe had provided its customers with information on their ancestry and health. 23andMe gathered genetic information from customers by having them send saliva in a $99 kit.

What had the FDA concerned was the possibility that a false result from a 23andMe test could lead to customers undergoing drastic procedures such as “prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions.” Reason magazine’s Ron Bailey pointed out such a fear is misplaced because not only is the biochip used by 23andMe and researchers around the word very accurate, anyone who received worrying health news from a 23andMe test would almost certainly consult a doctor and/or get a more comprehensive screening done before undergoing any surgery or procedure.

Last week 23andMe’s Chief Legal and Regulatory Officer, Kathy Hibbs, wrote on the company’s blog that the FDA had “accepted for review 23andMe’s submission for a new 510 (k) application,” which Reuters describes as “a regulatory process that applies to most medical devices sold in the United States.” The FDA considers the 23andMe saliva collection kit a device.

Although 23andMe’s submission focuses on one condition — Bloom Syndrome — Hibbs wrote the following:

Once cleared, it will help 23andMe, and the FDA, establish the parameters for future submissions. More importantly, for our customers, it marks a baseline on the accuracy and validity of the information we report back to them. The submission includes robust validation data covering major components of our product such as the genotyping chip, software and saliva kit.

While it is good news that 23andMe seems to be on its way to being in good standing with federal regulators, Stephanie M. Lee of SFGate.com notes that 23andMe could potentially face months of questions and data requests before being granted FDA approval.

 

Senseless in Seattle: The Minimum-Wage Follies

Meet the Marxist behind Seattle’s wage hike,” read the headline of the lead item at CNN Money late this morning. It seems that one Kshama Sawant, an immigrant from India who earned a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University before taking a teaching position at Seattle Central Community College, is credited by the local press with being the political force behind the city council’s recent vote to raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour, phased in for large businesses by 2017 and all businesses by 2021.

A self-described Marxist, Ms. Sawant went from Occupy Wall Street to occupying Seattle City Council, the story says, adding that she was “radicalized politically by the gaping inequality she observed upon arriving in the world’s richest country.” Thus, she ran for city council last year “under the banner of Socialist Alternative, an organization that calls for ‘international struggle’ against global capitalism.”

Say this for Ms. Sawant: Whatever she learned about economics in the course of getting her degree, at least she’s not hiding her views. But what can we say about the Seattle City Council, which passed her proposal unanimously? Perhaps there’s something in the coffee out there. Or perhaps they really believe, as Ms. Sawant does, that this measure will “transfer $3 billion from businesses to low-wage workers over the next decade.”

Well it turns out that you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand that economies are not static. That elementary insight from Econ 101 was captured, in fact, in an earlier lead item at CNN Money, “Seattle $15 wage plan is unfair to me.” Quoting several small business owners on what’s in store for them—and their employees—here we find Subway franchise owner Matthew Hollek lamenting that, although he has only eight employees, he’ll have to start paying them 60 percent more by 2017—while the sandwich shop next door will be immune from the law for another four years. The reason? The law counts him as a large employer because he’s part of a national chain. It looks like these “gaping inequalities” are more difficult to close than Ms. Sawant seems to have realized.

Indeed, not only are economies dynamic and is Seattle not an island, but if the benefits of a minimum wage were as good as its advocates believe, then why stop at $15? Why not $20, or $30, or more? You never hear an answer to that because there is none. For a sampling from Cato of a more serious approach to the subject, see here, here, and here.