Marijuana fancies and fallacies

De-bunking is good clean fun. But it’s advisable to stay as bunk-free as possible while doing it.

The premise of John H. Richardson’s Esquire blog post is that the opponents of marijuana legalization generally, and the Washington State and Colorado propositions specifically, ignore some facts, invent fact-substitutes, and generally make arguments that can’t withstand logical scrutiny. The structure of the piece is to quote two of those opponents and then have a supporter of legalization, presented as an expert, team up with the omniscient and infallible narrator to correct the errors of the foolish and wicked opponents and reveal The Truth to the – presumably grateful – reader.

The first half of the strategy works fine. Richardson finds two remarkably unintelligent and slippery opponents of legalization: the Republican consultant who ran part of the anti-Prop-19 campaign in California, who uses his personal authority as a recovering drug abuser to spout a bunch of drug-war slogans, and the flack for the Washington State medical marijuana industry now fighting full legalization there to protect itself from competition[*] See update below. Richardson has no problem showing the inadequacy of their arguments.

The problem is that the article features not two purveyors of pseudo-fact and false argument but four: the two targets, the purported expert, and the reporter himself.

For example, here’s the reporter criticizing the drug warrior:

Chabot does not believe that nearly 45,000 Americans are in prison for marijuana possession. “These are typically hard-core gangbangers who pled to a lesser charge to avoid a trial,” he says. “Only 0.7 percent of people are actually in prison for marijuana possession. It’s really a very, very finite small amount.”
(For the record, 0.7 percent of America’s 2,266,800 state and federal prisoners is 15,867 people.)

Just one thing: there aren’t 45,000 Americans in prison for marijuana possession. There might be 45,000 people in prison convicted of marijuana offenses (for some of them, along with other offenses) but at least 95% of them are in for production or sales, not mere possession. There’s a difference.

Richardson asserts: “Most experts say that alcohol causes 75,000 deaths a year while marijuana causes pretty much zero.” Zero is the correct number if counting acute overdoses only: none of the chemicals in cannabis smoke has known lethal dose. But using that counting rule, the number for alcohol is somewhere south of 1000. Most alcohol deaths are from chronic health effects, crimes, suicides, and accidents. Cannabis does some lung damage (though, despite the presence of “tar” in cannabis smoke, apparently it doesn’t cause lung cancer); we won’t know until the Boomers get a little bit older how much of that lung disease is fatal, especially in combination with cigarette smoking. But the Kaiser Permanente study suggested that heavy pot-smokers had about 1/3 more accidents than otherwise similar people who didn’t smoke, and there’s clearly a non-zero death toll from stoned driving (again, especially in combination with alcohol, but also with cannabis alone). It would be surprising if there were zero suicides or fights, though cannabis tends to be calming rather than agitating. So “pretty much zero” cannabis deaths is pretty much wrong.

Then Norm Stamper takes the floor. If Chabot is a recovering drug abuser, Stamper is a recovering drug law enforcer: former Seattle police chief now affiliated with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Stamper rolls out the usual arguments: “We have spent many billions of dollars enforcing marijuana prohibition to essentially no avail; all it does is increase crime.”

No avail”? None at all? Really? The fact that cannabis is much more expensive to get than it would be as a legal product, plus all the social stigma and risk of arrest, has zero impact on consumption? I suppose that might be true, in some alternative universe, but why should anyone believe that the Law of Demand has been repealed for this product alone?

More from Stamper: “There are 60,000 people dead in Mexico as a result of the drug war in the last five years, 50 to 70 percent of the cartels’ profits are derived from marijuana.”

The estimate of Mexican drug traffickers’ revenues from cannabis has always been a vagrant statistic, living with no visible means of support, ever since someone at the National Drug Intelligence Center dreamed it up sometime in 2006. No one ever produced any data or calculation supporting it. Finally, after Beau Kilmer and his team at RAND did an actual calculation that came in around 20%, the federal government officially disowned the number. But the anti-prohibitionists still love it.

Still more from Stamper, still without any hint of criticism from the reporter:

“I really do believe in my heart of hearts that we really will reduce access [to minors]. Regulation works. Kids know it’s easier to score marijuana than peach brandy at a liquor store.”

In Stamper’s heart of hearts, maybe. Back in consensus reality, no. Half of all teenagers report that they could get alcohol within a day; for cannabis, the number is 31%.

There’s more, but that sample should suffice. There are people making serious and responsible arguments on both sides of the debate over legalizing cannabis at the state level. But there are people making nonsense arguments on both sides, too. The b.s. isn’t one-sided.

* Update See Steve Sarich’s comment below. He denies being a flack for the medical-marijuana industry.