Knowledge and dogmatism on pot policy: an inverse relationship

American policy discourse is marked by the clash between cautious knowledge and dogmatic ignorance. For example:

Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy provide a number of mostly data-free, hand-waving, Micawberish arguments for complete marijuana legalization (on the way to legalizing everything). Patrick Kennedy is equally passionate, and even less fact-based, on the other side of the question. On the other hand, The marijuana legalization research team at RAND, knowing much more, is much less confident.

Here’s the marijuana situation right now:

*A few million problem users, many of them minors. Substance abuse disorder related to cannabis isn’t, on average, nearly as bad as substance abuse disorder related to alcohol, but it’s plenty bad enough. (Of course some people get in trouble with both at once.)
*An illicit market around $15b/yr., some of it related to violent drug gangs in Mexico.
*800,000 arrests a year for simple possession.
*About 40,000 dealers behind bars.

Legalization would reduce arrests, incarceration, and the illicit markets. It would also reduce price and increase availability, thus increasing use, including problem use. Higher taxes and tighter regulations (or the equivalent via a state monopoly) would moderate the increase in problem use. But the higher the taxes and the tighter the regulations (e.g, on sales to minors) the more illegal activity, and the more need for enforcement, somewhat reducing the benefits of legalization in reduced illicit enterprise and enforcement. (There are more arrests every year for breaking alcohol laws than for breaking marijuana laws.)

Legalization would also increase consumer choice and free marijuana users from the stigma of illegality and the risk of arrest.

The effects of legal cannabis on heavy alcohol use are unknown.

You might want to add some other results to this list, but, roughly speaking, that’s the situation: the status quo has some very undesirable features; legalization would moderate some of them while aggravating others; and the details of the post-legalization regime would be important in determining the size of those changes. Even if you knew those details, the quantitative results are not easy to predict, and there’s no obvious way to assign benefit-cost weights to, e.g., increased substance abuse against increased consumers’ surplus and reduced arrest counts.

But a TV booker asked to put together a show on marijuana legalization is likely to take the easy way out: find a legalizer to assure you that legality reduces addictive risk and a drug warrior to warn you that “marijuana destroys the brain” and invite them to go at the question. There’s no room nuance, or for expertise.


  1. Igloo says

    I don’t think the de facto legalization we have in most California cities really reduced the stigma of cannabis use. I still would not discuss my use in public or polite company.

    Now the stigma was fairly small here to begin with, but legalization may have greater effects on attitude in Oklahoma.

    • Mark Kleiman says

      Right! Details matter, and many of them are unknown. That’s why dogmatism is unjustified.

  2. Gus diZerega says

    I really don’t quite get this line of argument insofar as it refers to policy rather than social science. We are not talking policies to bring us to utopia.

    Innocent people have been killed in botched drug raids. Lives have been ruined by incarceration for things our President did as a young man- and had he been apprehended he would most likely not be President today – or a Senator, or even possibly a law professor. We saw what happened with Doug Ginsburg and the Supreme Court. Prices are artificially high, bringing in gang activity and the violence that follows. Innocents are often caught in this violence. In the 60s it was a common joke that stoned hippies did not get involved in fights whereas drunk frat boys often did. I haven’t read the literature, but to my experience marijuana does not encourage people to become more violent, from all I’ve seen for 50 years it makes them less so.

    Marijuana users use it by their own choice. The damage it causes, if it causes any, is focused on the user. I smoked plenty in the 60s and hardly touch the stuff today. The same holds for most I know of my generation. Some abuse it I guess, though the regular users I know include retired scientists, engineers, and other highly successful professionals. But to my mind abusing it is better than innocent deaths by far.

    I am 100% sympathetic with your take on keeping corporations out of marketing it. Decriminalization with no advertizing allowed and no suppliers larger than a small outfit would be ideal to my mind. But when I think of the lives ruined by the drug war the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.

    To refer to even harder stuff, many years ago I tried heroin twice. I sat in a corner and spun a little shiny chain. I came away from those experiences thinking- if there is NOTHING to look forward to in your life, this is pretty nice. The solution for many potential addicts it seemed to me, and still does, is improve the prospects for their lives – most likely will make the same choice I did. Yes, some may have a biological predillection to addiction, but if it happens, they can get treatment without fear.

    I really do not get how humane people can still prefer the status quo over even a measure as flawed as simple legalization and letting the ‘miracle of the market’ decide what happens. The libertarians are wrong in my opinion, but not nearly so wrong as those who in their opposition to them prefer the status quo.

    • Igloo says

      How many people die from botched police raids of marijuana operations relative to lung disease from chronic marijuana use, or compared to accidents caused by cannaboid inebriation?

      It it is possible for high IQ, unimpulsive people like you, myself and your retired scientist friend to enjoy recreational chemicals prudently and in controlled moderation. I think you strongly underestimate though the frequency and the harm of heavy daily use of more vulnerable groups.

      • JMG says

        I would rather your vulnerable groups fall prey to their intrinsic vulnerability while pursuing pleasure than to the police for it. Arrow’s Theorem applies here … There is no way to perfectly translate a ranking of policy preferences for each of us into one list for the country. So let’s choose the one that doesn’t involve shredding the constitution, epic widespread corruption, and frequent police violence and widespread race-based policing.

      • Gus diZerega says

        How many innocent people should die before you regard their death total as too high to justify protecting a number of other people from possible death from their own foolishness? Give me wither a number or a principle please.

  3. Frank says

    Wouldn’t the decriminalization in Portugal and The Netherlands provides one guidance on the mix of alcohol and cannabis?
    You would find out the ground-level effects…

  4. RMerriam says

    No personal experience to speak from. It does seem to me that the number of lives ruined through criminal prosecution outweighs the alternative societal costs that legalization might cause.

  5. Conspiracy theory says

    Everyone dances around the main point that, in my view, destroys professor Kleiman’s argument. Which is: it is not reasonable to balance the harms caused by legalization vs. criminalization because they are fundamentally different in nature. Under criminalization, the harms are almost entirely imposed on individuals by others acting against the will of the person being harmed. Under legalization, the harms are almost entirely incurred voluntarily by the person experiencing the harm. I realize the exceptions and the subtleties to these general rules, so you need not go into it. No one is ever going to convince me that they do not hold as a general matter. The vast majority of damage caused by marijuana use is to the user, who was not forced to smoke it. Pot smokers don’t want to go to jail. We force them to. Therefore, unless the harms caused by the voluntary acts vastly and decisively outweigh the harms caused by the involuntary acts, (which even Dr. Kleiman would agree they do not), then we should always favor the voluntary harms of legalization to the involuntary harms of prohibition.

  6. pfroehlich2004 says

    Since 1996, California, home to 12% of the country’s population, has moved from total prohibition of marijuana to effective legalization for any adult willing to pay $50 for a physician’s recommendation. There is now a retail marijuana industry in which competing businesses employ advertising and reduced pricing in order to increase market share. However, I’ve yet to see any documentation of net harm to public health arising from marijuana’s changed legal status.

    According to data from SAMHSA, California saw 172,000 substance abuse treatment admissions in 1996, of which just under 40,000 listed either “alcohol” or “alcohol with secondary drug” as their primary substance of abuse. In 2011, the total number of admissions was 158,000, with “alcohol” or “alcohol with secondary drug” accounting for roughly 35,0000. So, despite an 18% increase in the state’s population during this period, California experienced decreases in both substance abuse treatment admissions in general, and in admissions for alcohol abuse in particular. While these figures may not perfectly reflect reality, it’s fairly clear that substance abuse in California has not surged over the last sixteen years.

    In what sense is it dogmatic to use fifteen years of data on the effects of quasi-legalization and extrapolate on the likely results of removing the $50 medical fig leag?

    Data sources:

    • Gus diZerega says

      This data seems to me a pretty powerful case against Prof. Kleiman’s position. Yet I doubt he will change for the following reason:

      Liberalism has fractured from its initial coherence into three broad strands today, the classical type that libertarians claim to be, the egalitarian types that push for more substantive equality in our society (I tend in that direction), and the managerial types who think people can be aided by experts who help them live their lives better than they could on their own.

      It seems to me in this essay Kleiman is captivated by the third – that wise wonks and scholars design society for everyone’s good, with a check at the polls if they get out of line. It is this attachment to direction by experts that seems to immunize him against appreciating the hideous human costs of not ending the drug war except on his own ideal terms.

      Maybe I am wrong, but that sure seems the tone of this piece he has written.

  7. Sebastian H says

    I’m a little confused about how we are talking about the negative effects of marijuana. Aren’t we including negative effects like “risks jail time” and “will interfere with ability to get a job due to criminal record” that can go away with legalization? I’m of course not saying that marijuana use is completely benign, but most of the truly life crushing bits have to do with criminalization, not with innate properties of the drug. Yes legalization will probably increase use, but if you aren’t going to jail over it, or losing your job over non addicted home use, the negative effects don’t look so bad, right?

    • J. Michael Neal says

      Note that, with legalization, all 4th Amendment concerns about work place drug testing would disappear. It would increase the ability of employers to conduct drug tests of their workers. So the employment based negative effects of marijuana use may well increase.

      • Gus diZerega says

        You seem to be bending yourself into a pretzel to find negativities to ending the drug war. Most employers would not care. If being stoned makes one seriously incapable of doing a job, and with such bad effects that firing after discovering their incompetence is not adequate, employers would still test. As they should.

        Or do you have a problem with that?

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