Thirteen theses on cannabis policy

Rather than getting into the cultural or media criticism of the Frum-Riggs-Frum-Sullivan fracas over cannabis policy, perhaps it makes more sense to try to separate out the knowns and identify the unknowns. Experts on the question see open questions where passionate amateurs are most dogmatic about the answers.

1. Cannabis dependency is rarely as bad as severe alcoholism, but it can be plenty bad enough, and it isn’t very rare, especially among those who start – as most users now do – in their middle teens. (A sixteeen-year-old who goes beyond experimentation has about one chance in six of winding up a heavy daily user for a period of months or years.)

2. Most users – and even many frequent users – don’t go on to diagnosable abuse or dependency. There is little evidence of lasting damage from use that isn’t both heavy and chronic. It would be a mistake to attribute all of the suffering of even the heavy, chronic users to cannabis, as opposed to the social circumstances and personal traits that lead them to acquire and maintain the habit. But it would be equally a mistake to ignore their self-reports that cannabis is a source of trouble in their lives.

3. For the non-abusing majority of users, cannabis is a fairly harmless pleasure. For some of them, cannabis use lastingly enhances their lives by broadening their range of experience, deepening their appreciation of the arts, and enhancing their creativity by teaching them a new way of thinking. Very little is known about these phenomena in any systematic way, partly because the science is hard and partly because of the constraints and incentives that influence research.

4. Making marijuana cheaper, more available, and less risky to use will tend to increase both the prevalence of use and the average quantity per user, thus increasing the number of problem users.

5. Legalization will make marijuana cheaper – under most designs, very much cheaper – as well as more available and less risky to use.

6. Under contemporary social conditions, it is virtually impossible to make a commodity simultaneously easy for adults to get and hard for minors to get. No non-hand-waving argument exists to show that legalization will somehow reduce prevalence among the young; the mass of evidence and logic points the other way.

7. Among the consequences of cannabis use under current conditions among poor minority youth, being arrested is more common than developing a chronic substance abuse disorder.

8. The consequences of arrest – especially a first arrest for a young black male – can also be quite bad.

9. The cannabis market is an important element of illicit drug dealing generally in dollar terms – about $15 billion a year in criminal revenues in the U.S., or perhaps a quarter of total drug revenues – but only a modest contributor (less than 10%) to drug-related incarceration. Legalization would be expected to diminish the earnings of Mexican drug traffickers noticeably, but would hardly put them out of business. Violence in Mexico would probably go down some, but not much; the error band around that estimate is wide.

10. Cannabis is an increasingly downscale drug. A majority of the days of cannabis use involves people with less than a high-school education. But most of the discourse about cannabis involves upscale speakers and is addressed to an upscale audience, and speakers and audience alike tend to assume falsely that their experience, and that of their peers, is typical. Yes, pot has been intimately linked to jazz culture, but the high-school dropout who spends every day stoned is very unlikely to know, or care, what Thelonious Monk did for a living, and may be more in need of learning how to reason clearly than of lessons in going beyond linear thought.

11. The United States is among the world leaders in cannabis use and abuse. That is not the case for alcohol; most prosperous countries drink more than we do.

12. Even if legalization greatly increased cannabis abuse, alcohol would almost certainly remain the #1 intoxicant in terms of hours under the influence, numbers of abusers, personal and health damage from abuse, and social damage, especially violent crime, from intoxicated behavior. So those concerned about drug abuse, and especially drug abuse among the young and the poor, should keep their eyes on the main chance.

13. The interactions between alcohol and cannabis consumption, if both were legal, are unknown. Cannabis legalization could decrease the prevalence of heavy drinking and the damage it does, or increase it. This is not question that can be convincingly answered by abstract reasoning, or by information collected under prohibition. It’s an open empirical question, and – since the effects, for good or ill, of cannabis legalization on alcohol abuse could easily swamp the gains or losses with respect to cannabis use, abuse, and trafficking – the answer ought to matter. [UPDATE: David Frum picks up on this point, but seems to me to miss a logical step.]

Comments

  1. says

    The interactions between alcohol and cannabis consumption, if both were legal, are unknown. Cannabis legalization could decrease the prevalence of heavy drinking and the damage it does, or increase it. This is not question that can be convincingly answered by abstract reasoning, or by information collected under prohibition.

    Maybe not in a aggregate sense, but surely qualitative studies or ecological assessments could be carried out among a reasonably sized sample to provide a good preliminary guide.

    • Matt C says

      perhaps it makes more sense to try to separate out the knowns and identify the unknowns. Experts on the question see open questions where passionate amateurs are most dogmatic about the answers

      Then Kleiman writes:

      the high-school dropout who spends every day stoned is very unlikely to know, or care, what Thelonious Monk did for a living

      Who is the passionate amateur?

  2. Igloo says

    This was a great and balanced post. I have dropped my old libertarian views on legalization for some of the reasons you articulately describe.

    Marijuana and alcohol are generally substitutes rather than compliments, both falling vaguely into the category of depressants. Caffeine and alcohol seems like a much worse but perfectly legal combination of drugs. I think you can predict with fair confidance that cheap and legal marijuana will decrease alcohol sales and consumption.

    • says

      I think it’s very likely but I’m not terribly confident that I’m right.

      One of the great missed chances was to legalize marijuana back during the hippie days, when the cultural ethos among most users was that alcohol was a bad drug and marijuana was better. If the change had been made then–but it wasn’t.

      • Short-NorCal-Bus says

        John; Me thinks you are wrong. In the 60′s & 70′s we were drinking heavy along with the smoke. The media liked to report the distain for alcohol to help the image of the progressive new world.

      • rachelrachel says

        People would say that alcohol was a bad drug and marijuana was better, but that didn’t stop most of them from drinking.

      • SB says

        One frequently overlooked aspect of alcohol consumption is that moderate drinking has quite dramatic health benefits. In this meta-study of 34 studies, moderate drinking (4/day for men and 2/day for women) decreased risk of death by any cause by 18%. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16173568/ns/health-aging/t/want-live-longer-toss-back-few-cocktails/#.UNTT_nexkls That’s pretty big. And yet of course the social and health costs of binge drinking are even more dramatic.

        What really matters is how marijuana legalization would alter the way we drink, rather than the net amount.

  3. dave schutz says

    “5. Legalization will make marijuana cheaper – under most designs, very much cheaper – as well as more available and less risky to use.

    6. Under contemporary social conditions, it is virtually impossible to make a commodity simultaneously easy for adults to get and hard for minors to get. No non-hand-waving argument exists to show that legalization will somehow reduce prevalence among the young; the mass of evidence and logic points the other way.”

    I guess I’m a hand-waver, but when I was a lad at Berkeley High School, it was easier for me to get pot than booze: booze was sold to adults by people who would lose their valuable business licenses if they sold to kids, pot was sold by people who had no license to lose. If you wanted to make it hard for kids to get, I think I would start with the Sudafed model – sell it to adults out of the pharmacy in the back of the store, you have to sign a register. If you wanted to get really fancy, put a bar code on it, and if you find kids with it you can trace back to the adult who bought it for them.

    • BrianH says

      My experience in the midwest, very far from Berkeley both geographically and culturally, was much different. Alcohol was easy to get, pot was harder. But neither one took all that much effort.

      Not to say that restrictions can’t or shouldn’t be put in place, or that they won’t be more effective than what was around when I was in high school, or that “what about the kids?” is sufficient reason to block legalization. But the change in the amount that makes it to minors will almost certainly be positive nonzero.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      but when I was a lad at Berkeley High School, it was easier for me to get pot than booze

      This is exactly the sort of over-generalization from one population subgroups’ experience against which Mark appropriately warns.

      • MN says

        Having been in the military, undergrad, and grad school in different places all over the USA (I’m 28), I have NEVER met anyone who has said that alcohol was just as easy (or easier to obtain) than marijuana. I remember alcohol being one of the hardest-to-obtain substances there was in high school. Anywhere in our town that sold to minors was routinely busted. Without an older sibling or something, we often had to resort to giving someone drinking outside of a liquor store to buy us some booze if they could keep the change, and that rarely worked. Pot, on the other hand, I could get every single day at school, at my part time job, or with a mere phone call. I have never heard anyone in my age group say anything to the contrary.

        I’m not saying you should legislate based on my experience or the gent from Berkeley’s experience, but I think that surveys I’ve read have concluded the same. Apologies for being unable to link/refer to them, but I know that I have read surveys that have reached this conclusion — I think government surveys.

    • Andrew Laurence says

      Why wouldn’t the purchaser take it out of the barcoded package before redistributing it?

    • grey treed says

      Absolutely correct! It wasn’t even close when i was a kid! Pot was a thousand times easier to come across solely because of the ‘retail operation’ (drug dealers) that was constructed due to the criminality of the substance. No drug dealer is going to unilaterally institute any sort of regulatory control at all let alone the intense regulation a legalized structure for pot sale would mandate!

  4. Freeman says

    Willie Nelson wants to know what you’re talking about. So do some of your audience. Care to elaborate on the scope and nature of “self-reports that cannabis is a source of trouble in their lives”?

    • Nick says

      “Willie Nelson wants to know what you’re talking about.”

      This has to be one of the worst anecdotal arguments I’ve ever heard.

        • Nick says

          Anecdotal arguments are bad because any randomly chosen person will probably be a poor stand-in for the vast majority of people.

          Willie Nelson is obviously a really fucking terrible stand-in for the vast majority of people. That’s why he’s Willie Nelson.

          • Freeman says

            Thanks for your view. I think Willie’s a good example because he’s well-known as a talented, successful, and healthy long-term cannabis consumer who, at 80 years of age, self-reports no problems stemming from what must be a half-century or more of what I’m assuming Dr. Kleiman would classify “heavy and chronic” cannabis consumption. Don’t like Willie, probably won’t like Tommy Chong either but he’s a similarly well-known example of a healthy long-term cannabis consumer who is content to continue consuming well into his senior years. To those famous examples, I think we can add some significant number of aging hippies who have experienced long-term use without more “trouble in their lives” attributable to cannabis consumption than one might attribute to long-term caffeine consumption. Either that or I’ve somehow missed all the horror stories I would expect the prohibitionists to be reminding us about as quasi-relegalization spreads across the nation, assuming such stories are as common as I’ve seen asserted in these pages.

            I have known many people in my life who’ve suffered serious problems with alcohol and other drugs, some with horribly tragic consequences. I’ve known a great deal more cannabis consumers and I can’t think of one example of any of them having problems more serious than mildly unpleasant effects, nor any who have had trouble quitting at will or easing off if they find their level of consumption unpleasant. I’ve known a lot of people who have tried it and did not enjoy it, who would likely self-report all sorts of problems if you forced them to consume it, but not one who says he cannot quit and wishes he’d never started, as is common with long-term cigarette consumption.

            You’re absolutely right — this is all anecdotal, but it’s all I’ve got to go on, and if there’s more to know about it I’m curious to learn it. I was hoping Dr. Kleiman would elaborate on what he knows about the scope and nature of the self-reported troubles of cannabis consumers precisely because my own personal experience offers me very little in the way of example.

  5. says

    It’s a fair list, although I’d like to see more discussion of the negative effects of cannabis prohibition with respect to law enforcement and civil liberties.

  6. paul says

    One question: how does the current illicit nature of marijuana consumption contribute (or not) to heavy chronic use? I know that for alcohol there are some plausible claims that widely-flouted age restriction can encourage binge drinking; are there similar issues for potheads such that unwillingness to risk legal trouble keeps some chronic users out of the official economy/culture?

    • says

      There are so many factors in that. Two that I can think of off-hand: Buying more than one might plan to quickly consume because it’s not reliably available can lead to excess consumption. Stigma against users can lead to secretive usage.

      • paul says

        At the same time that one might buy more than one would reasonably plan to consume (and in fact, sale amounts are typically sized for the risk and profit concerns of dealers rather than users), once the stuff is on hand, it makes sense (!) to consume it relatively quickly lest one’s stash come under the scrutiny of either authorities or fellow consumers.

  7. Kutab says

    Of all the points in your very informative exposition, none concern the medical uses of cannabis. How do those benefits enter intro the legalization calculus, and what are the likely consequences for medical marijuana of making recreational use legal? I’d think that a minimum we’d see an increase in medical research and a regularized (empirically verified, reliable) incorporation of cannabis into the pharmacopeia.

  8. says

    How do the observations in 2 and 3 compare to the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco nicotine?
    My priors – informed by no more than Mark’s and Keith’s posts here – would be these.
    2 covers two distinct issues, dependency and harm.
    2a, dependency risk: alcohol similar (?); nicotine more – most smokers are addicted;
    2b, harm: alcohol generally worse (but strongly culture-dependent: contrast Mediterranean wine with meals, and Northern and Eastern European binge drinking); tobacco nicotine less short-term, but considerably worse long-term.
    3 – alcohol and nicotine both similar, except that a light alcohol high makes people more sociable, while nicotine just relieves the smoker’s individual stress at the cost of raising the stress of others; neither change perception, except for complete drunkenness, when it’s unpleasant.
    What’s the science on these?

    • Keith Humphreys says

      James: Dependency risk is also culture and policy dependent. The tobacco industry’s scientists and marketers have greatly increased the risk of dependence (on purpose of course). But in a part of the world, if one exists, where the industry is absent and people roll up tobacco and smoke it, I suspect dependence is far less common.

    • rachelrachel says

      A couple of observations (with no attempt to be rigorously scientific about it):

      If everybody else in your group is smoking cigarettes, you are not likely to raise the stress of others if you yourself light one up. Similarly, a “light alcohol high” might be conducive to sociability. , but only if those people with whom you are socializing are also drinking. Same thing with smoking pot. If everybody else is smoking pot, then smoking pot might help you fit in.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      You mean you are not familiar with “The Origin of the Theses”?

      Sorry, couldn’t pass that one up…

      • David says

        That’s a misleading statistic. Many adults of higher educational attainment would smoke, except that the price of getting caught is effectively higher. The cost is depressed for those who are poorest, and the relative cost of various drugs shift as well – for an employed, middle class individual, the majority of cost may be not the cost of the drug, but the risk of legal consequences.

        Given this, comparing use during prohibition to the possible norms post-prohibition is misleading.

        • snoey says

          For most reasonably discreet adults, the risk of arrest is low. An employment related drug test is a more realistic fear.

          No data, but I’d guess that blue collar jobs are more likely to be tested, if only because of more frequent job changes.

        • Keith Humphreys says

          David: Your theory doesn’t hold up in light of history. Marijuana was once an upper-middle class drug that low income people rarely used, and it was just as illegal then as now.

          • says

            One would have to factor in the relative sizes of these classes. Just what proportion of the adult population is upscale and what downscale, to use the terms that Prof Kleiman used? It’s entirely possible that pot first established itself amongst the upscale and its prevalence vector had nowhere to go than towards the more numerous downscale population.

  9. Sebastian H says

    ” But it would be equally a mistake to ignore their self-reports that cannabis is a source of trouble in their lives.”

    Are you including legal consequences here in “a source of trouble”. If so, legalization fixes that problem.

  10. misa says

    Another thought to add to the list: having a drug offense on your record makes it more difficult to get student loans. Therefore, it is more difficult for young adults who have a cannabis conviction to go to school, particularly for those who are economically disadvantaged, thus potentially leading to the thought that cannabis is a “downmarket” drug.

    Personally, I think the “downmarket” aspect you mention is false. As another commenter pointed out, “upmarket” people have more to lose, thus tend to be more secretive about it but are also less likely to get arrested for cannabis.

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