Doing better than Decriminalisation

UNGASS2016 is rapidly approaching. On a more local level, an Australian Senate committee recently considered issues around recreational cannabis legalisation.

Discussion of the best way forward for drug policy is certainly in the minds of those advocating for reform this year. In an ideal world, it would on the agenda of political parties as they decide their policies for the next election.

A solution that does seem to crop up with some regularity, especially for cannabis, is decriminalisation. Essentially this would mean that for a given drug (or possibly all drugs), people caught using or possessing small amounts of drugs, and in the case of cannabis growing a small number of plants, would not face criminal charges. Rather, people would be subject to a range of civil sanctions including fines and/or community service, and are encouraged into counselling or treatment if appropriate. I have read here that many cases in the Portuguese decriminalised system are ‘suspended’, meaning that many people receive no penalty at all, but I’m not going to assume that this would happen in other contexts.

Decriminalisation is the official drug policy of the Australian Greens. Smaller parties such as the Australian Sex Party and Liberal Democrats have (in their own distinct ways) policies that tend to support legalisation, though in both cases, this seems only to extend to cannabis. Unsurprisingly, The Coalition and ALP are at the more conservative end of the spectrum, though I can’t speak for the individual views of party members & parliamentarians.

I want to talk about the idea of decriminalisation as it strikes me as a philosopher. What I’m going to argue is that decriminalisation, as an endpoint for drug policy, is based upon assumptions that are much less progressive than they seem (at best). Decriminalisation as an interim step on the way to legalisation, as argued by Julian Buchanan – that’s another matter.

What argument, in its simplest form, might support decriminalisation?

  1. Drug use is harmful
  2. Criminal sanction is harmful
  3. Harm should be minimised

Therefore drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible – i.e.: via decriminalisation.

This might seem reasonable. But parts of this argument are distinctly lacking in nuance. Namely, the first premise – that drug use is harmful. Without any further qualification, a philosopher would reads this as ‘drug use is always harmful’. This is very strong opinion. Depending on the drug in question, it would be very difficult to show that this is the case. So we are now back to ‘Some drug use is harmful’. The argument still works, but the conclusion seems weaker somehow.

With the strong version of premise 1, reduction of drug use is always justified because it always reduces harm. If only some drug use is harmful, then aiming to reduce all drug use means reducing the incidences of drug use that are not harmful as well as the ones that are. Why is this a problem? Take a look at premise 3: ‘Harm should be minimised’. This is where the argument moves from what ‘is’, to what we ‘ought’ to do. Implicit in that statement is that minimising harm is a good reason for doing something. This isn’t to say it’s the only reason to do something, though (I’ll come back to this shortly), but it certainly fills the role of justification in this argument.

If reduction of harm is the only justification for an action then only harmful drug use is the proper target of state intervention. The only way this would not be true is if targeting all drug use – including non-harmful – was an effective way to reduce harms associated with drug use, which seems unlikely. If there are reasons, other than reducing harm, for reducing drug use, then they need to be included too and not left unstated. This might be that drug use, even when not harmful, is somehow immoral or unethical. Such ideas require their own justifications and are likely to be controversial.

Alternatively, someone could argue that all drug use was always harmful. This would require the net of ‘harm’ to be cast exceedingly wide, to the extent that it moved into metaphysical, spiritual or religious territory. This is, in my opinion, not a good way to formulate policy in a modern pluralist democracy, and would face the more serious problem of dealing with multiple subjective and unverifiable judgments regarding non-physical & non-psychological harms.

In any case, pushing too hard with health interventions would seem pointless. To use a specific example, most people in Australia who use cannabis, do not so with enough regularity to be considered dependant. Nor do the bulk of people who use it seem to experience significant mental health issues that can be attributed to their use. If we assume that people caught in possession of cannabis are a representative cross-section of all users, then it follows that most (but not all) people caught will not have significant dependence or mental health issues. If this is true, then any scheme that aims to send everyone caught with a small amount of cannabis to a counsellor or other health intervention would be misguided.

In the Portuguese system, if the defendant is not an addict, and will not submit to treatment or community service, then they can be fined. Without belabouring the point too much, fines have the potential to be regressive in that they impact most heavily upon the least wealthy. The ability to avoid custodial sentences, or even being charged in the first place, is already heavily skewed in favour of those with more disposable income, and any regime that further adds to this should face scrutiny.

Considerations of the practicalities of decriminalisation aside, there is one more flaw in the argument I’ve put forward. Even if all the premises are true (and I’ve argued that they aren’t), I made a tricky, and illegitimate, move right at the end.

Even if you agree that ‘drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible’, it does not follow that the only (or even the best) way to do this is via decriminalisation. A regime of heavy taxes and regulation (such as we have for tobacco), while far from my preferred option, would be in line with that conclusion.

The largest flaw, for me, is still the problem of harm. I can summon no good reasons to think that all drug use is harmful. Nor can I find good reasons for reducing drug use that are not somehow based in the concept of reducing harm.

Base on that, I think a more plausible argument would be:

  1. Some drug use is harmful
  2. Criminal sanction is harmful
  3. Harm should be minimised

Therefore, harmful drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible – i.e: via legalisation, education and sensible regulation.

Let me be very clear, decriminalisation would be a vast improvement over the current state of drug policy in Australia. But to argue that it is the best solution – better than legalisation – is to rely upon at least one flawed idea, the worst of which is that drug use is always harmful.

photo credit: Great White Shark3 via photopin (license)

The real appeal of Loot Crate

When you buy Loot Crate, you aren’t buying stuff. You are buying intangible, subjective experiences. The most notable of these must be the experience of getting a pleasant surprise each month. What’s in the box is merely the vehicle used to deliver the surprise, delight, feelings of exclusivity, and all those other experiences. Amazingly clever when you consider that people could basically pay Loot Crate to include their book/game/pop-culture thing/whatever in the package. Add an element of gambling – random crates contain extra-valuable goodies – and you have a model that is almost irresistible.

There is research into relationships between dopamine in the brain and novel experiences (both having and seeking), gambling, and gaming. I can’t begin to asses these findings here – not lease because I’m not a cognitive neuroscientist or behavioral psychologist. (And before anyone starts an argument about dopamine and video-game addiction, I know that some of this research is considered to be controversial – I’m not endorsing it either way.) But imagine that there is a link. We have a business that sells novel experiences (with just a hint of gambling) to gamers – who may already have elevated levels of dopamine, which may make their  subjective experiences of novelty and gambling pay-off stronger than it would be otherwise. Viewed in this light, Loot Crate’s success is hardly a surprise.

In a time when consumers in parts of the developed world seem to be buying less stuff, this business model keeps the stuff going out to consumers by tying it to the experience of novelty – something missing from the more traditional forms of shopping.

This connection of a physical product to an intangible experience or feeling isn’t new. After all, Charles Revson, one of the founders of Revlon, is credited with saying: “In the factory, we make cosmetics. In the drug store, we sell hope.”

Is this method of marketing morally or ethically problematic? That depends how you look at it, and is a conversation for another day. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see if this business model can be sustained over time, especially if the novelty required by consumers escalates over time.

Technological disruption of the housing market

There has been no lack of talk in the past few years about the potentially disruptive effect of technology across a range of areas. The effect on the music industry, as well as the demise of the video store are well documented, as is the supposed risk of automation to various vocations and professions.

What there does not seem to have been so much of, is a discussion of how technology might disrupt the housing market. The kind of disruption that I am thinking of is not primarily captured by the rise of apps that facilitate transactions between vendor/landlord and buyer/tenant. This might disrupt the real-estate business. What they do not do, in my opinion, is disrupt the fundamental basis of supply and demand of housing.

What I am going to sketch, very vaguely and hastily, are two ways that technology could disrupt the housing market. One relies on changing the nature of the transaction, the other on a more profound disruption of how people relate to their homes. The likelihood of either of these occurring, as well as the potential ramifications, is as much a question of politics as technology.

Disrupting power relations in bargaining

Apps such as Uber and Airbnb function to take out the middle-man – exposing buyers (and sellers) to unmitigated (or less-mitigated) market forces and individual bargaining. The residential rental and real estate market is not dissimilar. Or that is how it can appear to people on the buyers’ side. If you want to buy a house, or rent it, you face the market forces that influence the price, and then you bargain with the seller. I say ‘bargain’ – in Australia, as a renter, the main bargaining that occurs is for potential tenants to offer to pay more for a property, such is the level of rental housing scarcity in some areas. In the end, you need somewhere to live, and it has to be close enough to your place of work/study etc. Your landlord, and the real-estate agent acting on their behalf, is much less likely to have this same problem. Hence, even if you have a long record of perfect tenancy, you are bargaining from a position of such weakness, that any concession is vanishingly unlikely. This situation contributes a range of undesirable outcomes – ranging from housing stress to pressure on animal shelters as people are forced to give up their pets in order to gain tenancy.

How could this power relation be disrupted?

What if there was the rental equivalent of an ‘anti-Uber’ app? I mean this in the sense that it allows buyers, i.e: renters, to somehow collectively bargain against individual sellers.

I haven’t figured out what the methods for collective buyer bargaining would be. But a few things spring to mind:

  • Buyer rating – buyers indicate the price they wished to pay for a service, and then report on the outcome.
  • Buyers collectively decide (through peer network or whatever) what they feel the acceptable market price is. Note that sellers can’t be part of this network, lest they artificially inflate the price.

Either way, the system has to allow for the power of the collective of buyers to be brought to bear against the individual sellers in some way, (as well as sellers’ collectives). Thus an Uber driver, landlord, or vendor who sets the price unreasonably high needs to expect a loss of business from the buyers’ collective. For example, the buyers’ collective has decided, by as yet undetermined means, that the price for a given good or service is $100, but an individual vendors sets their price at $110. What the seller can (somehow) expect is less business from the buyers’ collective. Thus they are encouraged to keep prices as low as possible, even if some buyers are not part of the collective.

Where this might not work is in the case of seller’s markets where the good or service is scarce, and that good or service is essential – i.e: housing in much of Australia

In one sense, the effectiveness a renters’ collective might be stymied in a situation where renal property vacancy rates are low and property prices are high – people need to live somewhere. But where geographic concentrations of collective members are high, landlords are stuck too – especially if they need someone to rent the house in order to maximise the tax benefits of negative gearing as occurs here in Australia.

So it might be that the renter’s collective would need to provide some benefit to landlords. If there were, for example, some reason why a landlord might choose a collective member for a rent of $300 per week, rather than a non-member for $310, then we might have something. Obviously, the renter’s collective can supply a ready source of tenants. Whether or not they would be good tenants is another question. The interests of most members of the tenancy collective would not be served by having members who were bad tenants – they have to be at least as good as the average tenant in the eyes of the landlords & property agents – probably better. Thus the renters’ collective needs some way of managing this that is not prone to being gamed by the rent-seeking property owners and those who profit from them.

As I said, I have not worked out the details, but the bones of the idea are there, and I think it would be worth exploring.

Disrupting experience

There is another way that we may disrupt the housing industry – by disrupting our experience of the reality of where we live. This will not change that people have to live somewhere, but it could change where they choose to live, which could alter the kind of real-estate that experiences relatively high demand.

I was thinking about disruption and evolution of the music industry. In the past, people bought vinyl LPs, then cassette tapes and then, more recently, compact discs. Now, we download information, and our programs turn that information into the music we hear. If the thing people really wanted was circular vinyl discs with grooves in them, then the aforementioned innovations would never have been commercially successful. (Though some people do still buy LPs). Rather, what people wanted to pay for was the experience of the music. The disruption occurred when we minimised the physical object or token that had to move in order for us to have that experience.

How does this relate to housing? Surely real estate must be immune to disruption? You can’t digitize reality. This thinking is still in the mode of ‘vinyl discs’. All, or at least many, of the things that people want from housing can be thought of as experiences they want to have. All, or most, of these experiences could be provided by a properly developed Augmented Reality (AR) technology, especially if it includes a haptic interface.  Want to see great water views when you look out the window? Done. Want a view of Winterfell, Minas Tirith or Corasant? All achievable. A bathroom of finest marble? No problem (so long as your AR interface is waterproof).

You could have the illusion of living in a palace, or even outdoors, so long as you don’t walk into your physical walls, and your AR interface is more or less permanently glued to your head. The problem of interaction with the physical location can be overcome with good programming, and the likelihood is that the AR interface will be as unobtrusive as is technologically and financially viable, so don’t scoff too soon.

You could even have the illusion of continuity, security and ownership. If you have to move to another physical location, your digital home can go with you, so long as you don’t fall so far into poverty that you can no longer pay for the access to it. (Perhaps the fee will be pegged to the universal basic income?)

This second scenario seems a long way off – and that might be the case. But it is certainly conceivable. What effect would such innovations have on the housing market? I find this hard to predict. For example, a view of the ocean must surely be worth less when it is no longer restricted to those lucky or wealthy enough to live in certain geographic locations. On the other hand, there are people who will always pay a premium for the ‘real’ thing – just like the people who still buy their music on vinyl. What proportion of the population will fall into this category remains to be seen. In theory though, with an excellent AR setup and some clever programming, any utilitarian box with air conditioning can appear, to its occupants at least, as the home of their dreams. I find it difficult to image that this would have no effect whatsoever on the housing market.

So there is it, two very different ways that I imagine technology could alter the housing market. Both have technological, social and political impediments. An app that enables an effective collective of tenants is technologically viable right now, but would be politically unpalatable in any country where landlords and rent-seekers are so well-connected to politicians, such as is the situation in Australia (where they are often one and the same). An augmented-reality system, capable of the feats I describe, is some way off – though it could be as soon as years, rather than decades. The point is that the bricks-and-mortar side of housing may not be as immune to disruption as people think.

Ice, Straw Men and Decriminalisation

A brief exchange that occurred yesterday (largely via the media) gives a good illustration of a fallacious and incomplete argument, and further demonstrates why the scrutiny of politicians’ words is important.

First published in the Geelong Advertiser, and then on News.com.au, Senior Sergeant Tony Francis was reported (though not directly quoted) as saying that: ‘decriminalising ice could be the best way to fight the deadly drug epidemic sweeping through Australia’. The concept of decriminalising ice was reported as being explored by the Our Town’s ICE Fight taskforce.

Rather than debate the merits of such an idea, I’d like to look at the somewhat curious response from Assistant Minister for Health, Senator Fiona Nash.

Senator Nash responded the same day, with a press release of her own. She reiterates the damaging nature of methamphetamine use, acknowledges that police officers have told her that ‘we cannot arrest our way out of this problem’ and emphasises the need for education. Nothing particularly weird or controversial so far. Then things take a sudden turn as she further states:

However, legalising the drug would send the message that ice is not dangerous. This is the wrong message to send. Legalising what is arguably the worst drug Australia has seen is madness. A Coalition Government will never legalise a drug that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.

This is clear example of a variation of ignoratio elenchi – irrelevant conclusion, known as the straw man argument. Snr Sgt Francis never said ice should be legalised – he said it should be decriminalised. These are two different things. As a side note, I would expect my current students (2nd year B Social Science and B Soc Sci/B Laws) to understand this distinction. So that an Assistant Minister for Health may not, does not strike me as plausible.

So there is Senator Nash’s first problem. Even if her argument against legalizing methamphetamine was sound, it is irrelevant to whether or not decriminalisation is a good idea to the extent that they are not the same thing. For her statement to actually address what Snr Sgt Francis said, she would have to have concluded that ‘A Coalition Government would never decriminalise a drug a drug that destroys relationships’ etc.

There are, usurpingly, further issues with the logic at work here.

Consider this Sen. Nash’s argument.

  1. Ice causes bad things to happen – it drug that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.
  2. Therefore, we should not legalise ice – that is to say, we should not change it from being illegal to legal.

Now, as things stand, it’s not actually a valid argument – this is quite independent from the fact that premise 1 may well be true. There is nothing in the premise about legalisation, so it can’t be in the conclusion – that’s a feature of deductive logic. You need to add or tease out the hidden premises required to make it work. This is easily achieved though.

  1. Ice has negative effect on individuals and communities– it destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.
  2. We should minimise the occurrence of these negative outcomes (including not doing things that increase them).
  3. Something being legal rather than illegal increases the negative outcomes associated with its use.
  4. Therefore, we should not legalise ice.

This argument, unlike the original, is logically valid at least. That is to say, the conclusion actually follows from the premises. The problem now is that we have a premise that might not be true – namely that something being legal rather than illegal increases the negative outcomes associated with its use. Where is the evidence for such a bold assertion? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Senator Nash could not back this up.

I did over-simplify this for the sake of clarity. But it remains that a premise linking legality with increased negative outcomes (or linking illegality with increased positive outcomes) is required to make this argument valid. Until Senator Nash (or one of her staffers) can provide one, no one should feel obliged to accept the correctness of her conclusion.

I can’t help but add an observation on the phrasing of Sen. Nash’s press release. Note that she did not say that the Coalition would never tolerate the availability or legality of a drug that causes such damage. Because that would be untrue – due to the legality and availability of alcohol.

Perhaps I should give her the benefit of the doubt in. This could be a deliberately deceptive dog-whistle to her conservative constituency. After all, if the Assistant Minister for Health did countenance decriminalisation of ice in the future, she would not technically have broken her promise to never legalise it.

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