Marijuana: The Most-Debated, Least-Important Illegal Drug

By most measures the majority of the drug problem in both the US and Mexico does not relate to marijuana, so nothing you’re going to do with marijuana is very likely to decisively change the character of the overall drug policy situation

So says Professor Jonathan Caulkins in Randolph Nogel’s unusually nuanced article on the potential impact of US marijuana policy on Mexico. What Jon is saying will surprise many people, but he’s quite correct. Marijuana gets outsized attention in US drug policy debates, yet it matters at most slightly for the security of Mexico (and not at all for Central and South America). Domestically, it does not contribute to overdose deaths nor account for even 1% of imprisonments. But its status as a culture war symbol — particularly for baby boomers — will keep it in the forefront of popular debate even as concern over cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin wanes.


  1. SamChevre says

    I think this view is a little short-sighted. What illegal marijuana does is to keep the market for illegal drugs large; it’s like the Kipling poem:

    Five and twenty ponies,
    Trotting through the dark –
    Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
    Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
    Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

    The mass market in marijuana (brandy and tobacco) keeps the infrastructure for everything else robust.

  2. Lars says

    “it matters at most slightly for the security of Mexico”
    How was this determined? Kleiman’s methodology seems to be to misrepresent a RAND study (in this blog post), and then decide that a loss of 20% of revenue (not profit) won’t effect an organization. What’s yours?

  3. jway says

    I *guess* he’s talking about marijuana itself rather than the prohibition of marijuana? And it’s true that marijuana doesn’t cause any deaths, but the prohibition on marijuana certainly does! Our country’s illegal marijuana suppliers kill more than 10,000 people every year in order to protect their profits and market shares. These are real people who are tortured, murdered and mutilated as a direct result of us keeping marijuana illegal. We need to legalize marijuana like wine and END this horrific killing!

  4. strayan says

    “it does not… account for even 1% of imprisonments.”

    Can you expand on this a little more? Are you saying that at any one time 1% of the prison population is solely incarcerated for a marijuana offence? Do you know how many people have ever spent time behind bars for a marijuana offence?

  5. says

    None of the current marijuana interest has anything to do with the ‘drugs problem’. The legislation and interest is in solving the ‘drug war’ problem. Just as Obama is enthusiastic about having forced Congress to raise taxes, just a little, because it represents a new state of being, I am enthusiastic about marijuana legalization because it changes this society from a reflexively ‘stupid on drugs’ position to one that has more nuance. That’s progress.

  6. says

    Keith: “…even as concern over cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin wanes.”
    What comparable legislative and policy changes are on the table regarding these drugs? I challenge the assumption that there’s a “lump of attention” so that more concern for X means less for Y. That’s true for academics, legislators and other policy professionals: you can only work really hard on one thing at a time. But that’s not so for the general public. Marijuana activists have placed pot legalization on the political agenda. Good. They haven’t moved other drugs off it because they weren’t there in the first place.

  7. Sebastian H says

    I don’t understand the logic of this post. It seems to be that pot isn’t particularly harmful, therefore we shouldn’t bother to make it legal. That seems weird.

  8. MarkARKleiman says

    And of course in terms of substance use disorder, cannabis remains small compared to alcohol.
    Still, those hundreds of thousands of arrests – even though few of them lead to prison time – and tens of billions in illicit revenues aren't small problems. Cannabis is one of those second-order issues well worth spending most of a career on.