Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher "Rice" via flickr CC.
Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher “Rice” via flickr CC.

As far as the London School of Economics is concerned, it is time to end the global War on Drugs. According to LSE’s new report, the “War” is a “billion-dollar failure.” The report was signed by five Nobel-Prize winning economists (Kenneth Arrow, Christopher Pissarides, Thomas Schelling, Vernon Smith, and Oliver Williamson), as well as former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, British Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and former NATO and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Al Jazeera explains:

“The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.” Citing mass drug-related incarceration in the US, corruption and violence in developing countries and an HIV epidemic in Russia, the group urged the UN to drop its “repressive, one-size-fits-all approach” to tackling drugs, which, according to the report, has created a $300bn black market.”

The LSE report urges a shift toward evidence-based approaches to illicit drug use: the tremendous resources devoted to the drug war could be diverted to more rigorous analysis and effective policy with “a focus on public health, minimising the impact of the illegal drug trade.”

drugs $5
Dr. Hart was surprised that the subjects in his experiment often chose a $5 reward over a free high. Photo by David Hilowitz via flickr.com

Drugs are a necessary but not sufficient condition for addiction. Social scientists have long been interested in examining the social and environmental aspects of drug addiction.

A recent New York Times article discusses Columbia University Professor Carl Hart’s research on crack cocaine and methamphetamine addiction from his book “High Price.” When he started his research in the 1990s, Dr. Hart believed in the irresistibility of drugs, but findings from his experimental research to find a cure for drug dependency made him reevaluate his stance on addiction as purely a neurological phenomenon.

“Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. “And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.”

Both popular research and societal conceptions about drug addiction are missing a significant explanation for the cause of drug addiction. Dr. Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, supports Dr. Hart’s results:

Addiction always has a social element, and this is magnified in societies with little in the way of work or other ways to find fulfillment.

This “social element” could help explain why some people fall prey to drug addiction while others inexplicably escape its grasp. The idea of a social or structural element to addiction would cause a significant shift in the rhetoric of many substance abuse programs and wider societal discussions about drug use. The next step is to evaluate how large an effect environmental factors can have on addiction.

The reaction from other scientists has been mixed. No word yet on Dr. Hart’s next experiment, but I’m hoping it involves chocolate.

western unionAccording to the Jamaica Gleaner, University of West Indies sociologist Claudette Crawford-Brown has identified a new phenomenon: Western Union children.  She said this is replacing “barrel children” in Jamaica:

Barrel children in the past were identified as those who did not have the physical presence of their parents, but were sent goodies through shipments from overseas.  The sociologist, however, said that the barrel-children phenomenon has been surpassed by parents who give their children remittances. The difference between the two is the amount of care involved.

“You don’t have the barrel children as I highlighted seven years ago, where you had parents sending children things in a barrel. We now have what you call ‘Western Union’ children, and these are children who are parented by cellphones and they are sent the money. However, when you have a barrel child, that mother goes into K-Mart or Wal-Mart and I see them and watch them and they say: ‘I wonder if this going fit Sasha’, and she takes out the shoes with the mark out on the paper and match it with the shoes, and say this will fit her, this will fit her. You know what that shows? Some amount of care,” she said.

There are consequences of these changes in long-distance care:

Crawford-Brown pointed out even with remittances and barrels, the absence of mother in a child’s life has the same impact on youths as the absence of fathers. She noted that the absence of parental guidance leaves these children vulnerable to negative influences, where many turn to violence and drugs to cope.

According to her, many of these children who receive money through remittances are not given proper guidance, thus the money they have access to can be used to purchase drugs or facilitate their participation in illicit activities.

The noted child advocate and sociologist said many behavioural problems shown among some children are as a result of the breakdown in the family and exposure to violence. Crawford-Brown also said that Jamaica needs to tackle apathy towards murder in the society, which has trickled down to children she has worked with.

Crawford-Brown’s research on “Western Union children” was also recently featured in a column in the Jamaica Observer.

Can't VoteAccording to the Seattle Times, evidence gathered by University of Washington sociologists Katherine Beckett and Robert Crutchfield overturned the state of Washington’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting.  The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, was decided on January 5, 2010:

The surprising ruling, by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, said the law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters.  The decision is the first in the country’s federal appeals courts to equate a prohibition against voting by incarcerated felons with practices outlawed under the federal Voting Rights Act, such as poll taxes or literacy tests.

The two-judge majority apparently was persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that reams of social-science data filed in the case showed minorities in Washington are stopped, arrested and convicted in such disproportionate rates that the ban on voting by incarcerated felons is inherently discriminatory.

The article details the sociological research in question:

[The case] was built on research by University of Washington sociologists who found that blacks are 70 percent more likely — and Latinos and Native Americans 50 percent more likely — than whites to be searched in traffic stops.

The research also showed that blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, despite the fact that the ratio of arrests for violent crime among blacks and whites is less than four-to-one. One result of that: 25 percent of black men in Washington are disenfranchised from voting.

The decision, written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, said the studies “speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington’s criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by ‘factors independent of race.’ “

The state of Washington is appealing this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.  To read a somewhat sociological editorial on this decision, you may also want to check out an editorial by Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large.

Voter Disenfranchisement Statistics:


s p l i f f # o n e h u n d r e d f o r t y n i n eIn light of increasing media coverage about the drug trade in Mexico, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story yesterday about how the U.S. appetite for illegal drugs appears to be insatiable, fueling drug trafficking from Mexico to the United States.

The Chronicle reports:

The Mexican drug cartels battling viciously to expand and survive have a powerful financial incentive: Across the border to the north is a market for illegal drugs unsurpassed for its wealth, diversity and voraciousness.

Homeless heroin addicts in big cities, “meth heads” in Midwest trailer parks, pop culture and sports stars, teens smoking marijuana with their Baby Boomer parents in Vermont – in all, 46 percent of Americans 12 and older have indulged in the often destructive national pastime of illicit drug use.

This array of consumers is providing a vast, recession-proof, apparently unending market for the Mexican gangs locked in a drug war that has killed more than 10,780 people since December 2006. No matter how much law enforcement or financial help the U.S. government provides Mexico, the basics of supply and demand prevent it from doing much good.

The sociological commentary…

The Mexican cartels are eager to feed this ravenous appetite. Once used mostly to transship drugs from South America, Mexico is now a major producer and distributor; its gangs control cocaine networks in many U.S. cities and covertly grow marijuana on U.S. public lands.

For now, the Mexican government is fighting the cartels and working with U.S. authorities who have promised to stop the southbound flow of weapons and cash – but all parties are aware of the role played by the U.S. market.

“When the U.S. government turns up the pressure a lot, then is when you see a return to the old formula of saying (to Americans), ‘You also have corruption, you consume the drugs, you’re the biggest drug consumer in the world,’ ” said Jose Luis Pineyro, a sociologist at Mexico’s Autonomous Metropolitan University.

Another sociologist weighs in…

Studies of youth drug use in Western Europe show a few countries with serious problems, but overall a far lower portion of young people there are abusing drugs than in America. Elsewhere around the world, drug use also is widespread, though data is generally not as thorough as in the United States.

“There’s no escaping the fact that we have the highest drug rates in the world,” said Craig Reinarman, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Read more.

The BeanForbes Magazine is running a story this week about peripheral effects of the economic meltdown, and for this they turn to the work of famous sociologist and criminologist Sudhir Venkatesh.

Elizabeth Eaves, for Forbes.com writes,

You may think the economic meltdown is hitting bankers and Realtors hard, but spare a thought for members of the underground economy–prostitutes, drug dealers and purveyors of stolen goods, to name just a few participants. That’s what sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh does, having spent much of the last 15 years studying, and sometimes living within, the underground economies of New York and Chicago.

“The recession is engendering more violence,” says Venkatesh, a professor at Columbia University. “There’s far greater competition for whatever meager resources there are. The folks down on Wall Street peddling drugs, they’re fighting. The sex workers are trying as hard as they can to retain their clients,” he says, sitting in a Mediterranean restaurant a short walk from the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, where he’s on jury duty. Considering his well-documented friendship with a gang leader–the subject of his bestseller, Gang Leader for a Day–one might have expected the court to disqualify Venkatesh, but no such luck.

About today’s economic situation…

Today Venkatesh is watching black market workers slip into despair along with the rest of the population affected by the economy. Lest legal workers consider this a distant problem, one conclusion of Venkatesh’s work is that the underground and mainstream economies are intimately entwined. “The boundaries are fluid, particularly in the global city where the black market has become instrumental–one might even say vital–to the overall economy,” he says. In New York City illegal workers serve sex, drugs and takeout to the wealthiest members of society–or at least they did until financial sector layoffs began in 2008.

The underground economy includes a vast array of people providing services that are off the books but otherwise legal. Venkatesh enumerates those having a harder time in the face of the recession: office cleaners, squeegee men, informal security guards, “canners” who scavenge for recyclables (there’s less consumption now, so less to recycle) and nannies whose employers have been laid off. And as business contracts, underground workers face certain problems unique to their status. They have no unemployment insurance or other benefits, and, with little protection from law enforcement, they tend to resolve disputes by physical means.

Venkatesh prefers to leave detailed prescriptions to policymakers but nevertheless ventures a few. Microcredit loans, as well as education on risk management and planning, could help shift some black market entrepreneurial zeal above ground. He heartily approves of the proposal by Barack Obama–a fellow pickup basketball player at the University of Chicago when Venkatesh studied there–to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to give a bigger break to low-income parents. Sales taxes also hit the poor hard, he says; one way to help would be to let them use prepaid cards to buy goods tax free.

Venkatesh is struck by how much the black market resembles the wider society in which it is enmeshed. In the same Parisian banlieues that erupted in riots in 2005, he observed an “almost aristocratic,” highly centralized criminal operation. In the ghettos of Chicago, by contrast, he observed underground workers convene an ad hoc court to solve a dispute. His dismisses the “culture of poverty” theory, which suggests that poor blacks in America don’t work because they don’t value employment. “People in America want to work,” he says. They do so ever so industriously, even when they’re breaking the law.

Read more.

Taking a dragThe Washington Post ran a story this morning on a new bill that would put tobacco under FDA control. The article provides a thorough look at the positions of both advocates and critics on the issue and benefits from the sociological commentary included in the reporting.

Post reporter Lyndsey Layton writes:

Legislation that the House Energy and Commerce Committee will take up today would place tobacco under the control of the Food and Drug Administration. Among other things, the bill would restrict the ways tobacco companies market cigarettes, require them to disclose the ingredients in their products and place larger warning labels on packages, and give the FDA the authority to require the removal of harmful chemicals and additives from cigarettes.

The legislation also seeks to crack down on techniques tobacco companies have used to attract children and teenagers, making it illegal to produce cigarettes infused with strawberry, grape, cloves and other sweet flavors. And it would prohibit tobacco makers from using the terms “low tar” and “light” when describing their products, suggesting a health benefit that scientists say does not exist.

Bring in the sociologist… Patricia McDaniel…

“It’s crazy — here’s this product that kills half of its longtime users, and there are very few restrictions on how it’s made and marketed,” said Patricia McDaniel, a sociologist at the University of California at San Francisco who has studied the history behind the bill.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for the FDA to do some pretty remarkable things: adding more visible warning labels, banning misleading descriptors, some authority over ingredients and allowing the FDA to prohibit certain types of marketing,” she said. “But there are a lot of unknowns. And there are questions about whether the FDA is the agency to regulate tobacco, especially now with the trouble it’s having regulating food and drugs.”

Read more.

IMG_4022Chicago-Tribune reporter Rick Morrissey presented a theory about Michael Phelps’ documented experimentation with marijuana – he did it because he actually wanted to get caught…

In order to see whether or not this theory had any validity, he consulted a sociologist, and writes,

I brought [my theory] to sociologist Jay Coakley, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who has spent much of his career studying the sociology of sport. He agreed Phelps could be trying to escape something but wouldn’t go so far as to say the swimming star might have been making a conscious or subconscious effort to get caught partaking of the pot.

“I would say there was a desperate desire on his part to get out of this tunnel in which he has been living,” he said.

That tunnel is chlorinated. Phelps spends a good number of his waking hours underwater, and he has been doing it for a long, long time. Swimming is not generally a social sport. It’s hard to grow as a person when you’re basically in an isolation tank.

“After living in this training tunnel for eight to 10 years, he would have to at least fantasize about being outside of it,” Coakley said. “I don’t know whether this is a cry for help, ‘Please stop this train, get me out of this tunnel, I never want to go back,’ or whether it’s, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get out of this tunnel for my own sanity for at least awhile before I go back in.’ ”

But you can understand why Phelps might crave some modicum of normalcy. Most 23-year-olds don’t spend a large part of their free time in watery solitude. So as stunning as that photo of Phelps in a British tabloid was, maybe the idea of him partying hearty at the University of South Carolina isn’t.

“You really don’t have time to be normal with the kind of training he did,” Coakley said. “In terms of development, I’d say he’s probably developmentally delayed. He hasn’t had a chance to have the kinds of experiences that lead to normal adulthood.

“We just assume that, if you win a medal for some reason, it builds your character. That’s a crock. So he actually is facing this as a 23-year-old who is probably less mature than any average 23-year-old on the street.”

Read more.

3 days of secondary fermentation (close up)The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story this week about a new study from sociologist Chadwick Menning. The study surveys 300 Midwestern college students and suggests that ‘dirty dancing’ and an abundance of male guests are better indicators of danger at a party than whether or not partygoers are drunk, according to the students. 

Chadwick Menning, an associate professor of sociology at Ball State University, asked respondents to name signals that make women feel unsafe at a party. They cited such things as suggestive dancing and and a disproportionately high number of men. But they did not mention alcohol, Mr. Menning said.

“Drinking is considered normal at college parties, and that hasn’t changed in decades,” he said in a Ball State news release. “Students expect to drink lots of alcohol at both Greek and non-Greek parties. Yet they do look for secondary traits that may signal that there could be danger.” The study, “Unsafe at Any House?” is to be published in the October issue of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Mr. Menning pointed out that women who attend parties centered on drinking put themselves at risk of sexual assault, which he said ranks as “their biggest fear, even bigger than death.” So the students’ lack of concern about alcohol is noteworthy, he said, particularly given the efforts by college administrators to educate young people about the dangers of binge drinking.

Read more.

IMG_1813The folks over at the Freakonomics blog (housed by the New York Times) recently posed the question: ‘Who are the modern-day outlaws? Do we still have outlaws or did they die off with the last of the frontier towns — or maybe later, with the Hell’s Angels?’

Stephen Dubner, the post’s author, approached a number of experts on the issue, including well-known sociologist Chris Uggen. Dubner presented each expert with the following set of questions:  Does America still have an outlaw group? If so, why do you consider them outlaws?Does society need outlaws?

Check out this sociologist’s response…

Chris Uggen, Distinguished McKnight Professor and chair of sociology at the University of Minnesota, executive secretary of the American Society of Criminology, co-author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, and co-editor of Contexts Magazine.

Oh, hell yes, there are outlaws in America — and everywhere else, for that matter. Anyone who breaks rules is in some sense an outlaw, subject to social or legal sanctions if their outlawry is detected. These penalties operate on a sliding scale, depending on whether the outlaw smokes cigarettes or meth, pirates DVD’s or ships, or violates college hate-speech codes or state hate-crime laws.

But our standards for outlaws are relative, not absolute; they change over time and social space.

Societies are constantly raising or lowering the bar, outlawing formerly accepted behaviors — like smoking — and legalizing former crimes, like lotteries.

In any group, those with greater power tend to control the rule-making process. And they sometimes go to great lengths to make outlaws out of those who might threaten their power, by restricting their ability to vote or work or have children. Regardless of who holds power, societies operate with a basic set of rules that necessarily beget a basic set of rule violators.

Just imagine, as sociologist Emile Durkheim did, a society of saints made up of exemplary citizens. Would there be no outlaws in such a group? No! They’d pick at each other for minor peccadilloes and trivial misdeeds. In that crowd, even a burp or blemish could mark one as a real bada–.

Nobody is arguing that contemporary America is a society of saints. To the contrary, it often seems as though we’re “defining deviancy down,” as senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it.

Cultural critics of the hell-in-a-handbasket school worry that our blasé attitudes toward once-shocking behavior –- network telecasts of ultimate fighters beating the bloody snot out of one another, for example — diminish us all. But don’t forget that we’re simultaneously outlawing other nasty conduct that shocks our collective conscience, such as date rape or sexual harassment.

Whether you view our culture’s current constellation of outlaws as ennobling or diminishing is largely a matter of value preferences.

And remember that outlaws put in some important work for a society. When they expose their bodies at the Super Bowl, our reactions — the extent to which we freak out — tell us something about the current boundaries between proper and improper public conduct. When outlaws are arrested at a political convention, we get a heads-up that change is in the wind. When outlaws sell sex or drugs, we get a safety valve to release pent-up frustrations.

Even when outlaws commit consensus crimes like murder, we get a needed opportunity to publicly condemn them and reaffirm our shared values with our fellow citizens.

While society needs outlaws, it doesn’t need a permanent outlaw class. We’d do well to remember that today’s outlaws are tomorrow’s good citizens; and there’s no citizen more zealous than an outlaw redeemed.

Read the full story, here.