The LA Times story about the marijuana-legalization briefing Jon Caulkins, Beau Kilmer, and I presented at AEI gave the impression that we were opposed to state-level legalization as proposed, for example, in Colorado. Part of the problem was the headline, but a subsequent exchange with the reporter revealed that we had in fact conveyed to him an anti-legalization message.
Much of the discussion at the briefing concerned the likely effects on prices outside of Colorado if the Colorado proposition were to pass. We predicted a very large drop nationwide, since dealers from the rest of the country could buy at retail in Colorado for way less than they now pay growers for bulk marijuana.
That would create some bad effects in the form of increased drug abuse and some policy problems for the federal government. It would also create some good effects, such as displacing Mexican imports and thereby somewhat reducing the revenue flows of violent Mexican drug gangs. We made no claim about whether the price drop would be good or bad on balance; we just wanted people to notice that it would very likely happen.
So why did this seem to the reporter like an argument against the Colorado proposition? Here’s my hypothesis:
The first principle of policy analysis is that virtually any action has both advantages and disadvantages, compared with the status quo or with some alternative action. So an analyst is always looking for the disadvantages, especially the disadvantages of ideas he supports.
Many advocates, on the other hand, live in a world in which no one concedes anything. To mention or acknowledge that some course of action has a disadvantage is to oppose that course of action. So supporters of marijuana legalization deny that legalization would increase marijuana abuse, while supporters of continued prohibition deny that prohibition causes non-drug crime. Of course this isn’t true of all advocates; some prefer a more analytic approach and hope that frankly acknowledging the downside of whatever they’re proposing will help their credibility. But the journalistic reflex is to treat every such acknowledgement as a concession of ground. And the journalistic convention of even-handedness prevents reporters from stating, accurately, that one side is being honest and the other is lying. That tends to thin the ranks of honest advocates
These are two utterly different ways of looking at the world, and the mutual incomprehension is profound. Analysts often hold advocates in contempt; “Are these people really stupid enough to believe the crap they put out, or are they just a bunch of liars?” And many advocates deeply disbelieve in the possibility of analysis, and assume that every statement made in a policy debate is simply a move in a game. Because I point out the disadvantages of both legalization and prohibition, there are legalizers who quite sincerely believe that I’m a closet drug warrior and warriors who equally sincerely believe that I’m a closet legalizer.
The facts on both their houses!