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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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood