Annals of commerce: Beerkeley

Mark says alcohol creates more social cost than all other drugs combined.  I work for a university that has a persistent alcohol problem among its students.

It also has a sideline in big-time athletics, but that operation has made some very bad decisions in recent years and is genuinely desperate for money.  Three years ago, we apparently made a three-year deal to let Coors use our name to sell beer.  No, really; there was an enormous billboard on the local interstate, but no-one on campus noticed. Last year such a billboard went up again, and the 15-year-old son of a public health [sic] prof noticed, producing some faculty outrage and this 21/XI/13 assurance from Claire Holmes, our Associate Vice Chancellor for PR:

… I am working on this issue with Vice Chancellor Wilton and have a meeting to discuss this with him Tuesday next week.  As you know,  contracts are binding agreements, so there is a process involved to change any agreements.  What I can assure you though is that there are no more beer ads planned for the foreseeable future.

billboard 14a

It appears the “process” didn’t work, or AVC Holmes was misled, or the folks who could sign a three year contract couldn’t foresee a year ahead…or everyone at our higher financial levels missed the MBA class where they explained that any contract can be abrogated for a price (which would be pretty small while Coors had a whole year to figure out how to use the billboard without us).  Or maybe our campus leadership just decided $200,000 was an appropriate price at which to sell our students’ welfare and our principles, and endure public humiliation in the eyes of every driver and Chron reader.   You might think the 200 large at least went to the health center for alcohol emergencies, or the police and fire departments who have to deal with the alcohol poisonings and sexual assaults on Saturday night, or the undergraduate dean’s office for student alcohol education and safety programs, but as far as I can tell, you would be wrong.  The money is Intercollegiate Athletics’ to use as they wish.

This year’s poster has a couple of little logos in the corner saying “Party safe”and “21 means 21″, so it’s fine! Cigarettes are OK with a little health warning on the pack, right? OK, I’m ready to get with the program…but we can do a lot better.  At the least, we need to start selling beer at games again.  Several years ago, I offered what I thought was a surefire scheme, but so far haven’t been able to sell it.  Never mind: how about we partner with these guys, so they can put our logo right on their page as long as they also have a little box that says “Don’t plagiarize!” But the payoff from that deal pales in comparison to what we can get for adjusting research results, from companies who would kill to have a UC study finding their products safe/effective/whatever.  A notice on our web home page, and on the title page of each such lucrative report, to the effect that “UC Berkeley does not support compromising academic standards” would surely sanitize such deals.

 

Cannabis legalization in Oregon: Why Measure 91 is close enough for government work

Ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make policy changes when the technical details matter. Despite the simple-minded sloganeering on both sides, the question of creating a legal cannabis market is about as technical as they come, with equally valid public goals in sharp conflict, many unknowns, a variety of tricky design issues, and some big risks.

But sometimes initiatives are the only way to go, because legislators simply won’t do what a majority of voters want.

Cannabis legalization is that sort of issue, too: legislators are scared of cops and prosecutors, and most cops and prosecutors really hate legalization.

In Oregon, advocates went to the legislature and said, “We can and will put legalization on the ballot unless you handle the issue.” The legislature didn’t move. So the advocates acted on their threat, giving us Measure 91.

What they produced is noticeably less crazy than the measure that failed in 2012: for example, the quotation from the Book of Genesis about “herb bearing seed” is missing.  It seems to reflect a good-faith effort to craft a law that will allow adults to get cannabis, wipe out the illicit market, provide some revenue, and prevent a big increase in use by minors.

But Measure 91 does not reflect a sophisticated understanding of the problems of illicit markets or a nuanced view about substance use disorder. Focusing on the goal of eradicating the illicit cannabis market in Oregon, it doesn’t pay enough attention to the risk that Oregon might become a source of illicit supply to neighboring states. Focusing exclusively on preventing use by minors, it neglects the risk of increasing dependency among adults.

The basic fact about a legal cannabis market is that the product will be remarkably cheap to grow; once competition and industrial-style production have taken effect,  a legal joint would cost (before tax) about what a tea-bag costs, rather than the illegal or medical-dispensary price, which is 100 times as high. And the tax provided for in Measure 91 would add only about 50 cents to the price of a joint: not a high price to pay for two hours or more of being stoned.

Lower prices won’t much change the behavior of adult casual users; even at today’s illegal prices getting stoned is a bargain compared to getting drunk.  But lower prices would matter a lot to frequent users, and most of all to frequent underage users, simply because what they spend on pot represents significant element in their personal budgets: at current prices, the cost of a heavy cannabis habit can exceed $5000 per year.

Of course the claim that barring minors from buying in cannabis stores will keep them from having access to diverted supplies doesn’t pass the giggle test: just consider how easy it is for a minor to get alcohol from an older friend or relative or from the poor heavy drinker hanging around the liquor store, willing to buy a case for a teenager as long as he gets to keep a couple of bottles for himself. Cheap cannabis for grown-ups inevitably means cheap cannabis for kids.

Unless the legislature decided to raise it, the $35-per-ounce tax in Measure 91 would lead, within a couple of years, to prices way below current illicit prices and way below legal prices in Washington State. That in turn would mean big increases in use by minors and in the number of Oregonians with diagnosable cannabis problems. It would also mean substantial diversion of cannabis products legally sold under Oregon’s low taxes to Washington, where taxes are much higher. (Currently the flow goes the other way, with the two biggest-selling legal cannabis stores in Washington being the two closest to Portland.)

It wouldn’t be hard to draft a better-balanced measure than the one to be voted on in two weeks. For example, it might be wiser to limit legal production and sale to co-ops or non-profits, keeping the profit motive out of the business altogether.

But the choice Oregon voters face isn’t between what’s on the ballot and some perfectly designed cannabis policy; it’s between what’s on the ballot and continued prohibition at the state level, until and unless a better initiative can be crafted, put before the voters, and passed into law.

Measure 91 would enact an ordinary law, not a constitutional amendment. If it passes, the legislature will be free to amend it the next day by a simple majority vote; such moves are allowed not only by law but by the conventions of Oregon politics.

So the question facing Oregonians who want adults to be able to buy cannabis legally – without the nonsense of finding a “kush doctor” and faking an ailment – is whether to defeat the proposition and hope that the legislature will act on its own (or that a better-drafted bill will appear on the ballot in 2016) or whether instead to pass the current proposition and hope that the legislature will move to fix what’s wrong with it.

Given the balance of political forces, it seems more reasonable to trust the legislature to rein in a too-lax legalization scheme than to expect it to do what no legislature in the nation has been willing to do yet: pass a full cannabis-legalization law.

It’s not hard to identify the key points that need amendment, within the context set by the initiative: cannabis sold by a set of for-profit enterprises under state regulation. (That leaves aside such interesting ideas as just letting consumers grow their own, or requiring that growers and retailers be not-for-profit co-ops or public-benefit corporations, as well as the alternative of state-monopoly retailing, which has some attractive features but can’t be done while the federal Controlled Substances Act is in place, because the state can’t tell its officials to violate federal law.)

* Recognize preventing adult substance use disorder among the goals of the law.
* Assign some of the regulatory authority to the health department rather than giving it all to the revenue department.
* Give the regulators explicit authority to restrict the quantity of cannabis that can legally be grown. (Ideally, growing rights ought to be auctioned off rather than given away, giving the financial windfall to taxpayers instead of to the lucky few who end up with licenses.) * Increase the proposed taxes, and make them adjustable to keep legal prices at about the current illegal level as production costs fall. In the end, to prevent a big price decrease, the tax would have to be a very large fraction of the current illegal or quasi-medical price of about $10/gram.  Ideally, taxes would be based on the intoxicating power of the product – measured in milligrams of THC, the primary active chemical – rather than on the total weight of the plant material. (We tax whisky more heavily than beer or wine; why shouldn’t cannabis taxation work on the same principle?)
* Require that retail clerks have some serious training in pharmacology and substance use disorder, and make it part of their job to discourage excessive and dangerous consumption patterns, rather than letting their bosses just tell them to sell as much product as they can.
* Make sure there’s enough enforcement against illicit growing and dealing to make the legal market competitive.
* Rein in the medical-marijuana business. Once Oregonians with medical need can buy tested and labeled product at commercial outlets, there’s no need to have an entire parallel distribution system. It makes sense to offer tax exemptions for limited quantities to genuine patients, but the current practice of “patients” buying “medical” supplies for illicit resale has to stop.

There are lots of other good ideas around. (See the forthcoming RAND report on legalization options for Vermont.) But those will do for a start.

Would the legislature pass them all? Probably not. But Oregon’s chances of getting to a temperate cannabis policy will be better if the voters force the legislators to get off the dime.

It’s not an easy choice; as a Californian, I’m glad I don’t have to make one like it (yet). But if I had to vote in Oregon, I’d vote “Yes.”

The (Drug Control) Empire Strikes Back

By and large, I’m not a fan of the work of the (self-appointed) Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Commission’s latest report draws strong conclusions:

Ultimately the most effective way to reduce the extensive harms of the global drug prohibition regime and advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation.

Unfortunately, those strong conclusions aren’t backed with strong evidence or strong argument. Calling your drug laws “regulations” or “taxes” rather than “prohibitions” doesn’t make them any easier to enforce. The claim that it’s possible to “get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation” has, for now, to be filed under “Interesting, If True.” Experiments with legal supply of “cannabis, coca leaf, and certain novel psychoactive substances” are a good idea, but of course most of the action in the “war on drugs” is in cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine; the drugs we would most like to legalize in terms of reducing the costs of prohibition would be among the hardest to legalize successfully in terms of public health. (We always have the bad example of  alcohol – which causes more violence, more health damage, and more addiction than all the illicit drugs combined – staring down at us.)

That said, the frustration with current drug policies that motivates the Global Commission is entirely justified. Changing the goals and means of the current international drug control regime in the direction of less violence and less incarceration is harder and more complex than denouncing the drug war in abstract terms, and less dramatic than legalization, but it’s necessary and important work, and someone who reads the Commission’s reports but doubts the existence of a regulatory utopia might be motivated to engage in that work.

Naturally, the international drug control empire is going to fight back. Yuri Fedotov, one of its Grand Pooh-Bahs as Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (serving, one might note, as the representative of a government with an especially stupid, vicious, and unsuccessful set of drug policies), says of the Commission report that “It’s very hard to reconcile these recommendations with the major provisions of drug-control conventions.” That, of course, is true.

But what Fedotov doesn’t say, and which is also true, is that it’s very hard to reconcile the premises of the drug-control conventions with observable reality. The Single Convention was written in 1961, before anyone knew about neurotransmitters and receptors. Why should we allow the outdated concepts embodied in that treaty and its successors – treating drugs with abuse potential as evil rather than risky, and assuming that the answer to illicit markets is always more and more law enforcement - to continue to dominate our thinking?

It’s too bad that many of the folks who are willing to say that the existing international drug control regime is based on fantasy insist on pushing the equal and opposite fantasy that there’s a magic wand called “regulation” that we could wave at the problem to bring it under control. But the first step in fixing something is noticing that it’s broken and the Global Commission has at least taken that first step. UNODC and its sister agency INCB, and their allies around the world, are still – if you’ll pardon the use of a technical term – in denial.

 

 

 

 

Using up one more of my fifteen minutes

Which item does not belong on this list?

  • Pope Francis
  • Janet Yellen
  • Rand Paul
  • Mark Kleiman

Politico is out with its annual list of 50 “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter in this age of gridlock and dysfunction,” and by some oversight I’m on it, with  an insanely flattering profile and a fairly flattering sketch 

Mark Kleiman

Now, if I had my druthers, I druther be one of the Forbes 400 than the Politico 50, but I’ll take what I can get.

For the record, the BOTEC/RAND team that did the Washington State work included about 50 people, with Jon Caulkins, Beau Kilmer and Angela Hawken (among many others) contributing much of the intellectual firepower and Steve Davenport, Bob Jesse, and Lowry Heussler doing most of the organizational work. The “hemperor” may not be entirely naked, but he’s certainly dressed in borrowed clothing.

Another Day, Another Misinformed Article on Obama’s Addiction Treatment Record

Writing about President Obama’s record on drug addiction treatment without mentioning the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the development of the regulations for the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) is analogous to writing about LBJ’s record on health care without mentioning Medicare and Medicaid. But alas, Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post is the latest journalist to do so. The transformative impact of the ACA and MHPAEA on addiction treatment is not a hard-to-uncover secret. It has been written about extensively in the scholarly literature (see for example here and here) and in the mass media (see for example here and here). But like a number of other journalists, Ingraham critiqued the Obama Administration’s alleged lack of commitment to drug treatment without even mentioning either landmark piece of legislation.

To Ingraham’s credit, he did at least look at some data, which was the budget for federal drug control spending across agencies:

So on the one hand, yes – it’s true that more federal dollars are going toward drug treatment. On the other hand, treatment and prevention account for less than half of federal drug spending, most of which still goes toward law enforcement efforts.

This conclusion rest on the false assumption that an administration’s financial commitment to addiction treatment is equal to federal spending on addiction treatment. But the ACA and MHPAEA are major federal actions that drive private dollars into addiction treatment by improving coverage for over 100 million people with private insurance. Analyzing what an administration has done in any health care policy area without looking at its laws and regulations for private insurance is generally misleading, and is certainly so in this case where none of the private investment is captured in federal drug control budget data.

Health care policy analysts generally see the Obama Administration’s addiction treatment record as the most praiseworthy in at least 40 years, and some journalists (e.g., Jesse Singal) have done a fine job reporting that fact. That does not however make it less disappointing to see yet another misinformed article written as if the ACA and MHPAEA never happened.

Legalizing pot carries risks. So does prohibition.

As predicted, the Wall Street Journal refused to correct the Bennett/White op-ed that strongly implied (without quite stating explicitly) that I believe cannabis legalization would sextuple the rate of cannabis dependence to 16.2 million. (My previous whining about that here.) However, the Journal did publish my letter, with only helpful edits and an accurate headline that’s a pretty good haiku-length statement of the case.

Like the original article, the letter is behind a paywall, so – on the off chance that some RBC readers don’t pay tribute to the Murdoch empire – I’ve pasted it in below.

 

Legalizing Pot Carries Risks, but So Does Prohibition

To the Editor:

William Bennett and Robert White (“Legal Pot Is a Public Health Menace,” op-ed, Aug. 14) cite my research as support for their claim that the legalization of cannabis would mean creating 16.2 million “marijuana addicts.”

Not only is the attribution false; the claim it purports to buttress is absurd. I made no such prediction, and the idea that legal cannabis could create more addicts than legal alcohol doesn’t pass the giggle test. It would be astounding if the actual number were one-third as high as Messrs. Bennett and White project

Cannabis legalization on the current alcohol model—low taxes and loose regulations—would indeed risk a large increase in the extent of cannabis abuse. That is why some of us are working hard for high taxes and sensible regulations on cannabis, as well as stronger controls on alcohol, which is after all a much more personally and socially dangerous drug.

Cannabis legalization in any form will create some harm; every drug policy has disadvantages. But against that must be set the enormous harms from cannabis prohibition: $40 billion a year in illicit revenue, some of it going to violent criminal organizations in Mexico; tens of thousands of people in prison; and more than half a million users arrested each year.

Our goal should be to eliminate as much as possible of the damage from prohibition while minimizing the harms that would result from a badly designed legalization.

Mark Kleiman

Los Angeles

16.2 million cannabis addicts? No, of course I didn’t say that. Bill Bennett just made it up.

In his latest anti-cannabis-legalization screed, (behind the Wall Street Journal paywall), written with a former federal prosecutor named Robert White, William Bennett writes:

Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the  the university of California, Los Angeles, has estimated that legalization can be expected to increase marijuana consumption by four to six times. Today’s 2.7 million marijuana dependents (addicts) would thus expand to as many as 16.2 million with nationwide legalization.

Now, if Bennett wants to make silly predictions, and if Rupert Murdoch wants to publish them, all I can say is, “It’s a free country.” But I think I’m entitled to protest when he attributes that silliness to me. It’s hard to count how many ways that short paragraph is wrong, but the central points are simple:

1. An estimate of the possible change in quantity consumed is not an estimate of the change in the number of dependent users. Consumption can also grow because the amount consumed per dependent user increases.

2. Even most dependent users are not, by any reasonable definition, “addicts.”

3. The large estimated impact on consumption depends the  factor-of-ten price decrease (to about $1-2/gm. for moderately potent product) that would result if cannabis were treated like an ordinary commodity. If taxation or production limits prevent such a drastic decrease, the effect of legalization on consumption would be much smaller.

Continue Reading…

California’s Strange, Tragic Embrace of Prisons

California has for decades operated a large number of overcrowded prisons, in which conditions were recently described by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy as incompatible with the concept of human dignity and having no place in civilized society. If that were not sufficient cause for reform, the fiscal strain imposed by the state’s correctional system is now nearly $9 billion a year. Yet a generation of California elected officials — unlike their brethren in left-wing bastions such as South Carolina, Texas, South Dakota and Mississippi — have done nothing to reduce the size of the state’s prison population.

A range of lawsuits filed over many years (and fought by successive governors) recently culminated in the federal government forcing the state to move some prisoners to local jails. But Governor Jerry Brown is defying federal pressure to fully comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to reduce overcrowding to a still problematic 137% of capacity.

Even modest reforms to criminal sentencing get little love from elected officials in this Democratic Party-dominated state. Hope for change surged briefly last year when a bill to convert simple drug possession from a felony to a “wobbler” (a crime that could, depending on circumstances, be treated as either a felony or a misdemeanor) actually passed the state legislature after many similar prior bills had failed.

But Brown promptly vetoed it. At the time, he stated that a broad review of all sentencing was commencing, and that would be the vehicle to revamp the criminal justice system more broadly, including sentencing policy.

Almost a year later, Brown has shown no signs of honoring that commitment. Instead he has proposed another half billion dollars in new spending to build more jails and prisons.

Why so many red states have run rings about putatively progressive California in the pursuit of de-incarceration is a mystery that political scientists may one day unravel. In the meantime, a proposition to convert a significant number of felonies to misdemeanor status and to allow prisoners to retroactively appeal their sentences will be on the California ballot this November. The initiative, like the lawsuits before it, is a predictable consequence of elected officials repeatedly proving themselves unwilling to proactively address a serious social problem.

Three Misunderstandings about 24/7 Sobriety for Alcohol-Involved Offenders

Mark Kleiman and I have written extensively about how 24/7 Sobriety and similar programs (e.g., HOPE Probation) have good evidence of reducing crime, imprisonment and drug use. Last week, The Greater London Authority launched a pilot of 24/7 Sobriety for binge drinking criminal offenders. The level of media and public interest in the launch was extraordinary, which to me suggests that many Britons are understandably fed up with alcohol-related violence and disorder in their communities. The media got most of the details right, but not all of them. Let me therefore now make three important clarifications:

1. Alcohol-sensing technology is not by itself 24/7 sobriety. The media focused very heavily on the fascinating technology involved in the alcohol-sensing bracelets that offenders will wear. But 24/7 sobriety doesn’t even require the alcohol-sensing bracelets. Indeed, most of its implementation in South Dakota was done via twice a day in person breathalyzation. Detecting alcohol use is essential for 24/7 sobriety to work but the heart of the program is the criminal justice system responding swiftly and certainly when drinking occurs.

Nick Herbert, MP, who helped us get the 24/7 sobriety law passed when he was Minister for Justice and Policing, puts his finger on the principal challenge the pilot will face:

The key principle in disposals like this is certainty: offenders need to know that a breach will result in instant and decisive penalty. Our criminal justice system resists such practice.

A combination of British law, British habits and British bureaucracy often produces a leisurely approach to responding to misbehavior by offenders under supervision, which is a barrier to changing their behavior. Alcohol-sensing technology, by itself, can’t solve that problem, which requires concerted effort at reform by judges, police and elected officials.

2. 24/7 Sobriety is not a threat to human freedom. A few columnists penned hysterical articles arguing that government using technology to know when people drink is a harbinger of an Orwellian future. It is hard to be completely wrong, but these critics are up to the challenge. If not for programs like 24/7 sobriety the government would send many of these same offenders to prison. Offenders are infinitely more free living in their communities with an alcohol-sensing tag on than they would be in The Scrubs.

3. I did not invent 24/7 Sobriety. Because I worked closely with the Mayor’s Office and Parliament on the law and did many briefings about the evidence supporting the program, some journalists who covered the launch incorrectly described me as the creator of the program.

As I said in my own piece in the Telegraph, 24/7 Sobriety was invented by Judge Larry Long of South Dakota. Getting the provenance right is not just about giving credit where due, though that is important. The larger point is that 24/7 sobriety is not some ivory tower notion conceived by someone who had never been part of the criminal justice system. Rather, it derived from first-hand knowledge of how the system was failing and what could be done to change it. That’s why it’s far more likely to work than anything I or any other professor would have dreamt up from the armchair.

Cannabis legalization: not whether, but how

The New York Times comes out for cannabis legalization.

David Frum is still against it.

Neither deals seriously with the balance of advantage and disadvantage; the Times simply blows off the question of substance use disorder and pretends that passing a law forbidding sales to minors takes care of the problem of increased use by minors, while Frum never mentions the damage done by the $40-billion-per-year illicit market created by cannabis prohibition and proposes nothing that would shrink that market.

And neither the Times editorial board nor David Frum seems interested in the question of how to legalize, as opposed to whether to legalize. The Times doesn’t notice that commercialization is only one approach to legal availability, and arguably not the best; Frum simply dismisses a temperate approach to legalization as politically unworkable, without explaining how to make his kinder, gentler prohibition a political winner.

Alas, I sometimes suspect they’re both right. As a matter of practical politics, our only choices may be a badly-implemented prohibition or a badly-implemented legalization.  (If so, I’m inclined to try the Devil I don’t know.)  So far, my attempts to put political and organizational muscle behind the idea of smart legalization have merely illustrated the wisdom of Ralph Yarborough’s maxim, “They ain’t nuthin’ in the middle of the road but yaller lines and dead armadillas.”  I don’t find life as political roadkill especially uncomfortable, but it does get frustrating. It’s not just that continued prohibition and commercial legalization are both bad ideas; it’s that the arguments for those two bad ideas leave no media space, or mindspace, for discussion of the good ideas that might lie between them.

Footnote Ann Althouse does a good demolition job on the Times editorial, though to the best of my knowledge there’s no evidence of intoxication or health damage from second-hand cannabis smoke or vapor.