Cannabis, Bill Bennett, and the technique of selective reading

A friend emails, “Bill Bennett read your book … or at least every other page of it.”

A friend emails, “Bill Bennett read your book … or, at least, every other page of it.”

Well, yes. Bennett and his sidekick Christopher Beach, in using the Caulkins et al. Marijuana Legalization book to support their argument against legalization, illustrate the point made here yesterday about the contrast between analysis and mere advocacy. To an analyst, every course of action* has advantages and disadvantages, which ought to be carefully weighed against the advantages and disadvantages of its alternatives. To a mere advocate, the course of action he prefers has only benefits, while the courses of action he deplores have only costs.

Since Beach and Bennett chose to base their argument on our book, (albeit without providing a link to it), it’s easy to see their principles of selection in action. They start out by mis-stating the book’s viewpoint and purpose:

In their book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, and Beau Kilmer—all of whom support the legalization of marijuana in some fashion—report …

This account suggests that the authors of the Weekly Standard essay never quite finished the book. While the first fifteen chapters, in Q&A format, are entirely collective products (I suppose in this context I can’t say “joint products”), the final chapter consists of four individually-authored essays. Of the four authors, only Angela Hawken favors legalization on the alcohol model. I’m clearly for legalization, but just as clearly against commercialization, concluding “So my first choice—not what I think will happen, but what I would like to see happen—is permission for production and use through small not-for-profit cooperatives, with a ban on commerce.”

Beau Kilmer points out how uncertain the whole proposition is, and devotes his essay to arguing that, if legalization is to be tried, it ought to be tried in an experimental mood, with, for example, sunset clauses. He adds:

Given the dearth of evidence we have about legalizing any of these activities, I am not convinced that jumping from one end of the continuum (prohibition) to the other (commercial production with advertising) is a good idea. Indeed, given the concerns about marijuana companies working hard to promote use, nurture heavy users, and keep taxes low, implementing the most extreme alternative to prohibition could be a really bad idea.

And Jonathan Caulkins – in fact the lead author of the book, though  Beach and Bennett list my name first – comes down more or less in the Beach-and-Bennett camp, starting his essay with  “I would vote against legalizing marijuana … ” (though he lists a grow-your-own approach as a possible “middle ground”). Jon concludes:

About half of all days of marijuana use come from people who self-report enough use-related problems to meet criteria for substance abuse or dependence with respect to marijuana or another substance. Does the happiness a controlled user derives from using marijuana on a typical day offset the unhappiness of someone else spending a day harmed by and/or struggling to control problem drug use? In my opinion, the answer is no. In a free society there are plenty of other ways to have fun without insisting on a right to use something that becomes a stumbling block for others.

Why should Beach and Bennett want their readers to believe that the authors of Marijuana Legalization are all legalization advocates? Continue reading “Cannabis, Bill Bennett, and the technique of selective reading”

Beau Kilmer on restricting cannabis marketing

No, “commercial free speech” doesn’t make cannabis marketing restrictions impossible.

Beau Kilmer has a very sharp short op-ed in the NYT arguing for the use of federal muscle to limit aggressive cannabis marketing and child-friendly packaging in Colorado and Washington. Going after sellers of cannabis candy seems like clearly good idea, given the risk of accidental consumption by little children. Would it really be too great an imposition to insist that cannabis edibles and potables be unsweetened and not look like confections? Since the Supreme Court’s “commercial free speech” doctrine is based on making truthful claims about lawful products, and since cannabis remains an unlawful product at the federal level, I don’t see the basis for claiming that the legalizing states and the federal government have to permit the same sort of unscrupulous advertising for cannabis as they do for alcohol.

Statistics on the Prevalence of Drug Users Can Be Misleading

A new paper shows how drug use prevalence statistics can skew perceptions of drug policy

Drug policy development and analysis often focuses on the prevalence of users, most commonly the proportion of the population that has used one drug or another in the past 30 days or past year. These are the data that are typically being cited when people say things like “Drug use is down/up by 10%”. But the prevalence of people who have used a drug in the past 30 days or year is a crude statistic that papers over extraordinarily diversity in these users’ drug consumption and consequences thereof.

For example, if everyone who uses cocaine once a month starts using it once every five weeks instead while everyone who uses it 2-5 days a month starts using it every single day, a politician could point to the changed prevalence of past 30-day cocaine users and claim a big drop. But the total amount of cocaine being consumed would have risen sharply, as would the number of people who were getting addicted or experiencing other damage from cocaine use!

Among U.S. policymakers, The Obama Administration is I believe the only one in history to embrace this reality by setting no goal for the prevalence of drug users within the adult population. Rather, the goals of the drug strategy for people over the age of 25 are to reduce the number of chronic heavy users of hard drugs and the prevalence of drug-related morbidity and mortality.

In the research world, the wizards of drug policy at RAND Corporation have taken on the issue of simple prevalence measures in a new journal article that is available for free here. In a series of helpful examples, they show how reliance on these measures can skew perceptions of a range of drug policy issues. The example below comes from their paper.

The left two columns of the table tell a familiar story: African-Americans make up a much higher proportion of drug offense arrestees than they do past-year drug users. From this one might draw a range of conclusions, for example that decriminalizing possession would reduce the African-American arrest rate more than the White arrest rate, or, that interventions to reduce racial discrimination in policing (e.g., stop and frisks that lead to drug arrests) would particularly lower the African-American arrest rate. However, these conclusions are based on the assumption that all past-year drug users are the same, which the right column of the chart shows is false.

With the same crudely-defined prevalence category (past year drug use, yes or no) exists substantial diversity on another dimension: Frequency of making drug purchases. Whites account for a smaller proportion of purchases than their proportion of past-year users would lead one to expect, whereas African-Americans show the reverse pattern. There are many reasons this could be so — Whites buying drugs in bulk more often, Whites more commonly sharing drugs in a social network with only one purchaser, dealers being more available in some neighborhoods than others — but whatever the mechanism, the data in the third column suggest new interpretations that were hidden when the measure was simply past-year use. If arrests are mainly about purchases for example (and they do track them remarkably closely), decriminalizing simple drug possession might not affect African-Americans disproportionately after all.

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Does this mean that prevalence of users statistics are inherently deceptive? Only if they are used to mean something that they don’t. But even when they are interpreted correctly, it still leaves observers in the dark about much of the reality of drug use in a society. That’s why we need other measures such as volume of consumption, purchasing pattern and prevalence of addiction.

Caulkins on (quasi) medical marijuana

How come the number of “medical” marijuana users in some states is so large compared to the total number of self-reported marijuana users? Is there an epidemic of chronic pain among otherwise healthy thirty-year-old men who have been smoking pot for years?

Jon Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon is the lead author on a book on marijuana legalization scheduled for publication next spring. The rest of the team consists of Angela Hawken of Pepperdine and me (who worked with Jon on Drugs and Drug Policy, part of the same series from Oxford University Press) plus Beau Kilmer, who heads the RAND effort studying the possible effects of legalization.

Jon and I don’t come from the same place culturally or politically, and he’s extraordinarily smart (not to mention conscientious and kind), a combination that makes working with him – as I’ve been doing off and on for twenty years – both a challenge and a pleasure. Angela and Beau bring still different personalities, views, and skills to the enterprise – along with razor-sharp minds –  but so far it’s running very smoothly.  The concluding chapter of the new book will consist of a brief statement by each author laying out a preferred option; I can’t predict any of them in detail (even my own thinking keeps shifting) but I expect the four statements to embody lots of disagreement.

Jon and I agree more about facts than we do about values or policies. For example, he’s clearly right to say that the profile of “medical” marijuana users looks like a profile of recreational drug users, not a profile of patients, and that their sheer numbers in some states suggest that most of the recreational market is now accessing its supplies through quasi-medical channels. And that doesn’t even count the people whose recreational needs are supplied by friends with medical cards. Whether he’s also right to say that the Justice Department would do well to crack down on the scam is less obvious, at least to me.