Wednesday, September 29, 2010

[MJ] 19 vs 215 - Which Proposition Should You Support?

Propositions 19 & 215

In just over a month, on the 2nd of November 2010, California will go to vote on Proposition 19. Proposition 19 is the proposition to legalise the consumption and sale of cannabis with a few small provisos:
1.    It is not permitted to take cannabis anywhere near a minor
2.        The government retains the right to penalise drivers who are caught driving under the influence of cannabis.
3.        The government permits employers to retain the right to reprimand or fire employees who show up to work under the influence of cannabis.
4.       Sale of cannabis to and possession of cannabis by minors is prohibited.
5.       Licences will be issued to a select few firms every year that permit these firms to grow and sell cannabis on an industrial scale.
6.       Individuals will be permitted to grow their own cannabis, provided that the patch in which they are growing it does not exceed an area of five feet by five feet.
7.       Individuals are not permitted to possess more than one ounce of cannabis at any time.

The impacts of this bill are very clear – the fact that people can grow their own cannabis and the fact that there are firms that can mass-produce cannabis for sale mean that the price of cannabis will go through the floor. Prices of cannabis in California are currently around US$375 per ounce (though this value as variable, as it is a parallel market and not controlled by the government). Economists have predicted that the price for an ounce of cannabis may drop as low as US$40 per ounce, a significant reduction. This will almost completely shut out the black market for cannabis as there will be a massive loss of available revenue.

So will this massive price drop lead to an equally massive increase in cannabis smokers? That’s hard to tell. Data is scarce with regards to the effects of legalising cannabis on its market. We can take lessons from the Prohibition of Alcohol Act of 1920 in the United States, which showed that illegalising alcohol did not significantly reduce its consumption, but the same conclusion may not be valid for cannabis as alcohol is a more addicting drug. Furthermore, the data from Prohibition show only what happens when a previously legal good becomes illegal – it is unclear of the same effects occur when the process is in reverse.

Alternatively, it is possible to look at what happened in the Netherlands. Possession and sale of cannabis is still illegal in the Netherlands, but both have been decriminalised offences. The government even went further and announced that although it would not be legalising cannabis, their law enforcement would be instructed to “tolerate” sales of cannabis from coffee shops and consumption of cannabis in Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands. For all intents and purpose, we are able to treat Amsterdam as a city that has legalised cannabis. So what effects has Amsterdam suffered? Surveys have shown no statistically significant increase in the number of cannabis smokers, despite the decriminalisation. Again, however, the validity of this comparison to the legalisation of cannabis in California is not completely valid. Firstly, there is still some aspect of illegality; those who hold the law in high regard will avoid cannabis because it is still illegal. Secondly, Amsterdam only tolerates small-scale sale of cannabis and therefore there is no mass-production. The reason cannabis prices are predicted to drop so low after legalisation in California is that there will be mass-production by the firms which are licensed to sell cannabis, meaning that these firms will become more efficient as they produce more, an economic concept known as “economies of scale”. Since the coffee shops in Amsterdam do not benefit from the same economies of scale, the prices in Amsterdam for cannabis have not dropped as drastically as the prices for cannabis in California are expected to do. This smaller decrease in price may not be enough to invite larger consumption, whereas California’s larger decrease in price may well cause an increase in cannabis consumption.

The Proposition has had varying support over the last six months, but recently a problem has arisen. There exists a small group of people who, despite being advocates of cannabis being legalised, are planning to oppose the bill in the polls. The reason for this is that they claim it restricts freedoms already granted by an existing Proposition: Proposition 215. 

Proposition 215 grants doctors the power to issue cannabis prescriptions in the form of medical marijuana cards. These cards give the holder the right to possess, smoke and buy cannabis from special dispensaries which are already widespread across California. Under Proposition 215, there are far fewer restrictions on what an individual with a medical marijuana card can do. Patients with medical marijuana cards can currently possess and grow as much cannabis as they want and smoke it wherever they want. The argument made is that Proposition 19 will come as a reduction of freedoms to those who already use cannabis legally for medical purposes and that people should vote ‘no’ accordingly. Unless a bill is passed without these restrictions, they say, then it is a reduction of rights.

The problems with this argument are manyfold. Firstly, the restrictions put in place by Proposition 19 are not, by any means, harsh. Medical users should have no problem growing enough cannabis to use medically in a 5’x5’ growing area. Furthermore, they should have no need of any more than an ounce of cannabis to treat themselves. Again, a medicinal user should not have a problem keeping their use to private locations like at home. These are not restrictions that are particularly damaging to the health and wellbeing of medical cannabis users. Secondly, less than 1% of California’s population currently possess medical marijuana cards. Saying that it is ‘unfair’ to enact Proposition 19 to cause a significant increase in the majority of the population’s freedoms at the cost of a very small degree of 1% of the population’s freedoms is completely untrue.

So there we have it. For those of you who are undecided, or who are having second thoughts about voting yes due to concerns over Proposition 215, make sure you do the right thing. Go to the polls on the 2nd of November and vote yes on Proposition 19!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

[MJ] Cannabis

The biggest problem with any law is where to draw the line. Take abortion - where does one draw the line on when it is morally acceptable to terminate a foetus? Some say that it is never OK, some say that it is acceptable in cases of rape, some state that it is alright under any circumstances provided the foetus is not in the third trimester. Some take it even further and suggest that using contraceptives in the first place is immoral. Drawing a line is never easy.

But there are some situations where the line seems to be all over the place. Let's look at a few facts about cannabis:

Safety Ratios
 - Most drugs are assigned a safety ratio by medical practitioners, a ratio that is a measure of how much of the drug you need to get 'high' versus how much of the drug you need to take in order to die of an overdose. Low safety ratios mean that an overdose is incredibly likely, and these can be found in more dangerous drugs. Heroin has a safety ratio of 1:6, meaning that taking 6 times the dosage required to get the average person high will be lethal. Alcohol has a safety ratio of 1:10. Ecstasy and Cocaine both have safety ratios in the 1:10 to 1:20 range, depending on which study you cite.

"And cannabis' safety ratio?", I hear you ask.

Well, no one's really sure. No one has ever actually died from a cannabis overdose. Using some biological and mathematical guesswork, various studies have placed it at anywhere from 1:2000 to 1:40000. But it may as well be 1 to a billion. No one will ever consume that much cannabis in a short amount of time.

 -   This is where the line gets a bit fuzzy. Surely for cannabis to be illegal, if we know it isn't responsible for thousands of deaths like other dangerous drugs, then it must be particularly addictive.

Game time!

Below are six different drugs. Rank them from most addictive to least addictive. Award yourself a point for every drug you get in the correct rank.

Cocaine (not crack cocaine)

Think it through...then scroll down when you've arranged them all.

Ok, ready? Here we go!

#1 - Nicotine

So there we are. The winner of this contest is a drug that is sold legally and responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. Similarly to cannabis, it is rare that people overdose on nicotine, but nicotine has a way of killing people with its secondary effects.

#2 - Alcohol

Clocking in at second place, we have another legal drug! Alcohol is known to be intensely physically and psychologically addictive. Alcohol dependency frequently goes unnoticed due to the fact that it is a legal drug and is more societally accepted as a result. Unlike nicotine, however, alcohol has a whole host of side effects which can occur both in the short term and long-term. It is known to cause brain damage and liver problems, as well as making the user more easily aggravated and violent. This effect combined with lower inhibitions mean that in addition to the effects of the drug itself, many users find themselves in vicious fights, injuring themselves and others around them. Interestingly, alcohol is so addictive that withdrawing from it cold turkey for those who are more severely addicted can outright kill an addict.

#3 - Heroin

The bronze medal goes to heroin. Heroin is an interesting drug for many reasons: it was ironically first synthesised as a non-addictive form of morphine (a textbook case of irony, given its status as one of the most addictive drugs in existence). It is sold as a prescription painkiller for the terminally ill in the UK under the brand name 'diamorphine'. Anecdotally, it is said by those who have tried it that there is no feeling of euphoria that even compares to the feeling of heroin when it is injected directly into the veins. Heroin is also known for its horrible physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms, though withdrawal is typically non-lethal.

#4 - Cocaine

Cocaine is a drug that, when taken, has been shown to have destructive effects on the user's pleasure receptors in the brain. Though this is not always the case, it is likely that users will experience a rush from snorting cocaine, then discover that they need more of it to feel as good again, destroying more pleasure receptors in the process. If this process is repeated with increasing amounts of cocaine, the user will find themselves addicted. However, cocaine is not as difficult to quit as nicotine or alcohol.

#5 - Caffeine

The wonder-drug of programmers, university students, computer gamers and night-shift workers alike, caffeine is used primarily for its stimulant properties in keeping people awake. Caffeine addiction typically goes unnoticed as it does not have particularly many damaging effects on the body and is easy to obtain. Caffeine withdrawal is not particularly serious either, and consists primarily of fatigue (which is usually interpreted by users as a sign to drink more coffee).

#6 - Cannabis

And in last place, we have cannabis - shown by studies to be psychologically habit-forming, but hardly addictive at all in a physical sense.

So just what is wrong with cannabis after all?

To say that cannabis is without side-effects would be a blatant lie. Smoking cannabis has been shown to have negative effects on the short-term memory while using and for brief periods afterwards. In addition, studies have linked cannabis use with psychosis in later life in those who are genetically predisposed to mental illness, particularly among those who started using from a young age. But cannabis has its upside, too. It can be used in the treatment of up to 200 illnesses. It is particularly effective in treating the sickness caused by chemotherapy, and has shown to impact favourably on the overall health of cancer patients in particular. For these reasons and others, 14 states in the US have legalised programs that allow doctors to, when they believe it appropriate, prescribe patients medical marijuana.

When one compares the effects of cannabis against those of alcohol, it should become clear that something is wrong with where the line has been drawn.

So why legalise?

There are a number of benefits to society associated with legalising cannabis.

 1 - Reduce organised crime

When the US enacted laws enforcing the Prohibition of Alcohol in 1920, it didn't work well for them. Gangs took over the distribution of alcohol so that the demand could be properly met with supply. However, things like beer and wine weren't very space-efficient when it came to transportation. Harder spirits which contained more alcohol and which were therefore more expensive became far more viable. As a result, public drunkenness was said to increase as people were drinking spirits for their alcohol instead of their usual beer/wine. The side effect of the sale of alcohol was that violent gangs now had a source of income.

Violence is rife in Columbia (Cocaine) and Mexico (Cannabis) because different gangs are doing their best to control their turf. They can afford to buy corrupt policemen and politicians, hired mercenaries to protect their crops and weapons to further increase their control over the country. Their money comes primarily from selling drugs. If drugs (cannabis in this case) are made legal, then the price drops dramatically. Many economists have said that the price of cannabis in the US would drop from $400 per ounce to $40 per ounce, even with tax. This drop in price represents a significant loss of income to gangs.

2 - More government income

This was a clincher for California. California currently has a proposition which is due to be voted on on the 2nd of November this year known as Proposition 19, which aims to legalise, tax and regulate the sale and consumption of cannabis. California is a state that is quite deeply in debt. The tax from cannabis being sold represents USD$1 billion per year to the state of California - money that they (and others) will be able to put to good use, especially in the aftermath(?) of the global financial crisis.

3 - Less government expenditure

There are a lot of people in jail for crimes as small as possession of cannabis. This is due to what is known as 'mandatory minimum sentencing' - basically, if you are guilty of a crime, then regardless of the circumstances the judge must sentence you to at least the mandatory minimum sentence. Legalising cannabis would lead to less people in jail for cannabis related offences, which means less money spent on both law enforcement and prison upkeep since less prisons are needed. A further financial gain for governments!

So there you have it,
Let's draw a proper line.


  Filesharing - one important change

Filesharing is the act of using programs like BitTorrent, uTorrent or Limewire to access files that other people have chosen to upload. Filesharing rocked the online world when it first came out because it was a revolutionary legal loophole - the Internet was still reeling from the loss of Napster, which had been shutdown for blatantly assisting people to infringe thousands of copyrights. The BitTorrent protocol and the websites set up to support it basically had one thing different: these websites hosted torrent files, which were essentially directories of where to find the pieces of an illegal file. Importantly, they did not host illegal files themselves!

Common Carriers

Common carrier status is a legal status that is afforded to some companies which acknowledges the fact that they cannot be held responsible for material they host because they accept material non-discriminatorily. Imagine a post office. Two hypothetical people, Alice and Bob, are communicating via correspondence and sending each other pictures of child pornography. Eventually the police catch on to their organisation and arrest the two of them. In this hypothetical, the post office suffers no legal consequences because it has common carrier status. The same status applies to YouTube and is the reason that it hasn't been sued into oblivion; the only proviso is that if the copyright holder contacts the common carrier and requests the content be taken down, the common carrier must either dispute the claim within 14 days or take the material down.

The Empire Strikes Back

These days, copyright infringement, with regards to music especially, is rife. The younger generation have embraced torrenting technologies due to the fact that they are easy to use and they provide fast, free and primarily convenient access to music. Music labels, movie producers, software programmers and computer game programmers have all reacted negatively to this change in consumer channels, albeit to differing degrees. "Fair enough," you may say. "Let them rant and rave." But they have started to go further than simple tantrum-throwing. The solutions being employed by each sector have ranged from technical to legislative to moralistic. The music industry has taken to using "Digital Rights Management" (DRM) technologies. These are inserted into digital song files and are designed to prevent the propagation of music through illegal music channels that bring no profit to the music labels. The methods used to do this vary though; iTunes, for example, will not let you play songs bought through the iTunes Store unless you can access the Internet and prove that you bought those songs legally (as I discovered when I went on a holiday with a friend and found that the majority of his music on his laptop no longer worked). The other downside of DRM is well illustrated by this comic:

Taken from

That's right. Your collection is lost if the slightest thing goes wrong. Furthermore, the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) prevents circumventing DRM. Even if you legally bought the music in question, and something goes wrong and the DRM doesn't let it work, removing the DRM makes you just as much of a pirate as if you'd stolen the songs in the first place.

There have been other attempts, such as Ubisoft's attempt at making Assassin's Creed 2 uncrackable. Their idea was to make the game stop functioning unless the player is connected to the Internet at all times. I won't deny that it's a logical solution, it just didn't work so well for them: First the game servers crashed for an entire weekend, meaning no one could play during that time. Shortly after someone cracked the game anyway. Bad luck, Ubisoft! The problems with a solution like this is that it tends to hurts consumers. I live in a backwater suburb of Australia where Internet access is somewhat...intermittent. Had I been a fan of such a game, I would have been reduced to tears as disconnect after disconnect rendered my game just about unplayable.

So who's getting shafted?

Where I live, there's recently been a new ad campaign against piracy that I thought I'd share:

But wherever you live, there's always a stream of advertisements telling us about who piracy hurts. Piracy hurts musicians. Piracy hurts moviemakers. Piracy hurts hardworking Australians (or whatever your nationality is) in the entertainment industry.

To this, I would like to say two things.
Firstly, there have been a lot of studies done into illegal filesharing and its effect on both the movie and music industries. The general gist is that there is no strong correlation between the level of filesharing of a certain film/album and the number of copies that are sold (obviously higher selling albums/films result in more downloads due to the fact that they are more popular). This is because there are a number of external effects. The fact that I’m downloading something could mean many things. It could mean:
-          I’m too poor to afford this game. You won’t get my money anyway, whether I download it or not.
-          My friend recommended this album to me. Rather than spend $20 on an album I may well think is absolute shit, I’m going to download it and listen to it a few times, then buy it if it’s good. If it’s really good, I may buy the other albums by the band as well!
-          I bought a copy of this DVD legally overseas but, being the idiot I am, I didn’t check to see if it worked on my DVD recorded back home. You got your sale, I don’t think this justifies purchasing a second copy now that I’m back at home, so I’m downloading it instead.
Secondly, everyone knows somewhat anecdotally that the music industry in particular has a shocking track record of paying those who are actually the cornerstone: the musicians themselves. For those of you who haven’t read this, I strongly suggest reading it now:
The long and short of it is that For every $1000 that a band actually earns in record sales, it receives...$23. Except it doesn’t actually receive that money. Any new band signing a deal with a record label will typically require a $1,000,000 loan. For music videos, recording, etc etc. So instead of repaying the loan with the $977 of every $1000 that the record label is taking for itself, the band must repay it with the measly $23 out of every $1000 that is theirs. A quick calculation reveals that my band must make in excess of $43 million before I start earning any money at all. So I ask you: who’s getting shafted?

Friday, September 24, 2010

2 Great Injustices

These days, there are two particularly widespread injustices in the legal systems of the Western world. The first of these is the debate surrounding cannabis, the second is the debate surrounding illegal filesharing of music, movies, games and software.