andreas baumann, numbers guy.

statistics, religion, game theory, sociology.

Month: January, 2013

Accept no substitutes?

Tonight, I saw a BBC programme, broadcast through Danish National Television on cannabis consumption. The programme must be applauded for it’s open-mindedness and fairness to the facts – with regards to both the benefits and hazards of cannabis use. However, one thing about it annoyed me: the host ended the programme with a remark about the hazards of cannabis use, and was keen to emphasise that cannabis (or rather, THC, the main psycho-active component of cannabis) has no place in a developing brain.
Of course I agree. No euphoriant is appropriate for developing brains or minds. But what does that really tell us about cannabis, per se? Not very much, I think.

One interesting thing about the debate on cannabis is that people tend to emphasise additional consumption, both in terms of consumer groups and consumptive behaviour and to de-emphasise substitution. If we are to have a real idea of the health effects of legalizing cannabis, we need to consider that people might drink a smaller amount of alcohol, because they’re supplementing with a joint. Or – similarly – kids shouldn’t smoke marijuana, just as they shouldn’t drink. But is cannabis a good or bad substitute for alcohol, when considering the impact on a developing brain?

There is some empirical evidence that people substitute cannabis for alcohol under liberalization, based on American data (Anderson, Hansen & Rees, hattip: Marginal Revolution). There is at least one positive health effect directly from this substitution, directly adressed in the paper through reduction of DUIs.

The total health effects of alcohol is the well known J-shape: moderate consumption (1-2 glasses of wine a day) is associated with lower risk than abstention, while consumption in excess of this amount leads to higher risk than either abstention or moderate consumption. Additionally, several clusters of adverse results from alcohol consumption is primarily associated with excessive intake – this goes primarily for accidents, etc.

What is interesting about the Hansen, Andersen & Rees paper is that they show that people substitute most heavily in these circumstances, i.e. by reducing binge drinking. In other words, they smoke cannabis when they would otherwise have gotten pissed, not (to the same extent) when they would have had a glass of Cabernet with the missus. This should inform our decision about legalisation in important ways.

Differential effects of doping.

Recently, Danish cyclist Michael Rasmussen admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) for more than ten years (nb: link in Danish).

Naturally, this led to public debate about the use of PEDs. However, I think one point needs to be adressed: the fact that the use of PEDs have different effects for elite sportsmen and ordinary people. Since one of the arguments against the use of PEDs within elite sports are the negative consequences for ordinary people, I believe that one should ponder this point.

Performance-enhancing drugs, when used by elite sportsmen, have very few to zero negative effects. Think about it: when did you last hear about a cyclist who died from the negative health effects of, say, EPO? There was a “massacre period” from the late 80s, culminating in the Affaire Festina (1998), but for the last 10-15 years we haven’t really seen any negative effects of the doping practices. On the other hand, we see theĀ positive effects of the use of PEDs in every sporting competition: no man, driven alone by his spirits and desire to conquer, could race the Tour in a style similar to that of the great cyclists. Their cycling gives us pleasure, it allows us to marvel at the great performances. Those are the positive effects (externalities) of professional use of PEDs.

However, there are large negative effects of PED use outside professional sports: adverse health effects, due to the lack of qualified doctors treating complications relating to use of PEDs. In a system of socialised medicine (as most industrialised countries employ) this is an externality, since the people paying for the eventual treatment cost will not be the ones who have benefitted from the use of doping. Another negative externality from non-professional use of PEDs is the altered behaviour of users, particularly evident in users of anabolic steroids, who are prone to bouts of aggression and violence (CNS Drugs 2005).

Summing up, doping in professional sports mostly has positive externalities, while doping outside the realm of professional sports has negative externalities. Clearly, the logical conclusion should be that while the use of PEDs should be legalised (or at least decriminalised) within professional sports, it should still be illegal outside this field. But how do we reconcile this with our respect for the universality of law?
Many things, which are illegal outside of sports, are legal within this realm: boxing, to take one example. Maybe we ought to recognize that some of the regulations of drugs is subject to the same discretion.