What dog poo teaches us about drug policy

Why don't we let dogs crap on the street? Mostly because it's nasty.

Matt Yglesias makes the point that the intersection between rules and norms isn't always clear cut.

When you look at a public health problem like the fact that the streets of Buenos Aires are frequently smeared with dog crap, it is tempting for anyone who spends most of their time thinking about public policy to argue for a political – that is, legislative – solution. But most places where this particular problem has been solved don't need to resort to the law all that frequently at all. As Yglesias writes:

The fact that in major American cities people generally clean up after their dogs is clearly related to the laws on the books about this, but it's also clearly the case that in practice police departments are not dedicating vast resources to the issue. And in fact though the gains from not having dog shit on the sidewalk are meaningful, they're relatively small compared to the costs of a rigorous enforcement of pooper scooper laws. But what I recall from growing up in New York in the eighties is that the norms shifted to the point where enforcement costs are now very low simply because there's not that much violation.

Now, it is possible to change norms with legislation. But it's equally possible to change norms without legislation, or, for that matter, to enact legislation which does nothing to norms. For examples of all three, look to drugs policy. Heroin has been all but eliminated as a socially-acceptable drug, while the same has not happened to marijuana. Meanwhile, despite increasing control surrounding sales, cigarettes have been fundamentally legal for years, but the norms surrounding their use have changed completely.

Groups who want to change society often go straight to pushing for legislation which, they hope, will do the job for them. But the really effective organisations also skip the political aspect entirely, and try to directly change the norms which, on a day-to-day basis, guide our behaviour far more effectively than the intricacies of law.

Take, for example, the idea that one ought not waste water. Unlike recycling, there's no legal requirement there (in Britain at least – unless there's a hosepipe ban). And unlike reducing electricity usage, there's little financial motivation, since few people are on metered water yet.

There is a narrower point to be made too, which is that dog crap on the pavements is something which could be solved essentially overnight, but hasn't. Require dog licenses to own a dog; require DNA samples to obtain a dog license; match any pavement crap to DNA samples on file.

It's an idea which is perennially suggested, and rarely acted upon – except in a few gated communities, where it has been remarkably successful:

The PooPrints process required all current tenants to bring their pet(s) to our office where their mouths were swabbed for a DNA sample. Any new pets introduced to the property by current or new residents must have a DNA sample taken prior to the move in date.

We believe the PooPrints program has been a huge success for us. We no longer have dog waste complaints, our properties are clean and waste free, and our resident retention rate has increased.

Buenos Aires, take note.

A dog. The dog is adorable. But the dog poos. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Helen and Stephen are joined by author and editor-at-large for the Guardian, Gary Younge, to discuss the findings of his new book: Another Day in the Death of America.

Seven kids die every day from gun violence in the US yet very few make the national news. Is there any way to stop Americans becoming inured to the bloodshed? The enraging, incredibly sad and sometimes peculiarly funny stories of ten kids on one unremarkable Saturday attempt to change that trend.

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