in recent times the atlantic In the essay, physician Matthew Loftus argues that “America has gone too far in legalizing vice.” Because people don’t always make rational decisions and sometimes develop self-destructive habits, Loftus argues, governments should make it harder, not easier, to engage in pleasurable activities like gambling and marijuana use. “Just as there are guardrails on the highway for moments when a driver does not exercise perfect self-control,” he wrote, “so we need guards to help people from driving off the cliff of disaster.”
To his credit, Loftus does not draw arbitrary distinctions between potentially harmful practices based on their current legal status. He argues that alcohol prohibition was successful in reducing the harm caused by excessive drinking, for example, and suggests that any pleasurable or stress-relieving activity can be the focus of an addiction—a point that psychologists like Stanton Peele and Jeffrey Schaller have explored for years. Making it.
But Loftus exaggerates how often this happens, obfuscating the idea that government should impose restrictions on everyone based on the mistakes of a minority. He cherry-picks data to support his argument that liberalizing marijuana policy is harmful. And while he emphasizes human fallibility as it relates to “vice” itself, he ignores its dangers in enacting laws and regulations aimed at reducing “vice.”
The term Loftus uses to describe things people enjoy is telling. The label “vice” implies that even occasional or moderate gambling, drinking, or marijuana use is morally questionable and offers no value worth considering. This is convenient for the arguments for paternalistic principles that Loftus supports. But this ignores the fact that people usually engage in such activities no Develop life-disrupting habits they eventually regret. In general, these activities are life-enhancing rather than life-disrupting.
Loftus implies otherwise. “Our hearts and minds are shaped not only by reason, but also by our experiences, affections, and most importantly, our habits, which are often as inexplicably self-destructive as they are rational,” he wrote.
This is an empirical claim, suggesting that about half of people who gamble, drink, or use marijuana develop “self-destructive” habits. Evidence does not support this claim.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), about 60 percent of American adults gamble each year. By comparison, about 1 percent of American adults are “estimated to meet criteria for a serious gambling problem in a given year.” That amounts to about 2 million people, which is not a trivial problem. But if less than 2 percent of gamblers meet those criteria in a given year, it’s clearly not a very common problem.
The NCPG, which was founded in 1972, describes itself as “the oldest and largest problem gambling-specific conference in the world”. Loftus notes that the organization receives donations from the gambling industry, but he doesn’t question its statistics. He objects to its statement that “problem gambling is caused by the individual’s inability to control gambling.” He feels that the problem is mistakenly taken to focus on personal responsibility rather than the industry’s lure and profit from gamblers.
For example, Loftus alleges that “electronic slot machines are designed to make players addicted” and that “sports-betting companies have lured colleges and universities into allowing them to promote their products on their campuses, then offering free bets to lure customers. ” But if only a small number of gamblers have a “severe gambling problem,” the underlying addiction to that activity is clearly not a sufficient explanation for the problem. As with other addictions, the explanation must include individual tastes, preferences, and circumstances. The problem lies not in the activity but in the gambler’s relationship with it.
Likewise with alcoholism. According to survey data cited by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 70 percent of American adults consumed alcohol in 2019, while less than 6 percent met criteria for an “alcohol use disorder.” This 8 percent rate is substantially higher than the prevalence of gambling problems among gamblers but still far below the 50 percent rate Loftus implied.
Similar numbers for marijuana. According to the same survey, about 17 percent of Americans 18 and older used marijuana in 2019, while 1.7 percent met criteria for a “substance use disorder” involving marijuana.
These numbers are clearly relevant in evaluating Loftus’ claim that choices related to gambling, alcohol, and marijuana are “as often inexplicably self-destructive as they are rational.” They are also relevant in assessing the costs and benefits of the “judicial restrictions” he advocates, including restricting gambling to casinos and allowing the use of marijuana only for medical purposes. The distribution of those costs and benefits is also important, since these policies place the burden on all gamblers and cannabis users in the name of protecting a small minority whose excessive behavior causes serious problems.
These burdens include the threat of arrest and prosecution as well as all the dangers resulting from the black market. When Loftus tries to show that lifting these burdens is a mistake, however, he makes very misleading use of the available evidence.
For example, Loftus claims that “the best evidence” indicates that “more teens use marijuana when it is legalized in their state.” He linked to AA 2020 BMC Public Health Studies that actually looked at past-month marijuana use among 12- to 25-year-olds, not just “teens.” It doesn’t show what it claims.
Based on nationwide survey data from 1979 to 2016, the researchers report that “Estimated period effects indicate a decline in marijuana use in 1979-1992 and 2001-2006, and an increase in 1992-2001 and 2006-2016.” That “period effect” was “positively and significantly associated with the proportion of people covered by medical marijuana laws…but not significantly associated with recreational marijuana laws.” In summary, the study included adults as well as adolescents, did not look specifically at trends in states where marijuana has been legalized, and found no statistically significant relationship between recreational legalization and increased marijuana use among 12-to-25-year-olds.
Contrary to Loftus’ gloss, “the best evidence” indicates that, contrary to prohibitionists’ warnings, legalizing marijuana no Associated with an increase in younger age use. Last year, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, testified that “in the United States, the legalization of marijuana by some states has not been associated with an increase in adolescent marijuana use.”
Loftus is selective in a different way when he discusses alcohol prohibition. His claim that “prohibition was effective” in reducing “alcohol-related illnesses” has a stronger basis than his claim that marijuana legalization led to more teenage marijuana use. Although economists Jeffrey Miron and Angela K. Dills found that state alcohol prohibition had “a minimal effect” on liver cirrhosis, for example, they estimated that national prohibition reduced cirrhosis by 10 to 20 percent.
But that’s hardly the whole picture. “Increased drug and alcohol prohibition enforcement has been associated with increased homicide rates,” Miron noted in another study, “and supporting evidence suggests that this positive association reflects a causal effect of prohibition enforcement on homicide.” According to Loftus, “There is no evidence that the ban has increased the power of organized crime, only that it has become more visible.” But that increased visibility included an increase in deadly violence associated with the black market, which was one reason people who previously supported the ban were against it.
Prohibition was also associated with widespread corruption, injuries and deaths from tainted black market liquor, and invasion of privacy, along with the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Weighing those costs, such as the problems caused by the war on drugs, requires more than a comparison of the real or imagined benefits of prohibition. This requires a value judgment that Loftus rarely acknowledges. Is it reasonable to dismiss the pleasure people derive from using psychoactive substances? Is it just to punish the many for the excesses of a few?
Loftus can trust politicians, who are at least as fallible as the people they govern, to make those judgments and impose “judicial restrictions.” But in this case it is difficult to see why he often behaves irrationally.