Gander, meet goose: cannabis and football

Cannabis isn’t nearly as bad for your brain as football. Should we criminalize football?

Question for David Brooks, Ruth Marcus, Joe Scarborough, and other opponents of cannabis legalization:

It seems likely that very heavy cannabis use starting in adolescence and continuing for many years can lead to measurable decreases in some cognitive abilities. It is possible that occasional use might also cause damage, but right now there’s no strong evidence to back that claim.

On the other hand, it is certain that participation in high school and college football leads predictably to brain damage.

So: If cognitive harm from cannabis is a good reason to support continued criminalization, would you support a ban on high school and college football? And if not, why not?

Cannabis legalization: “Compared to what?”

Prohibition is perhaps the worst option for cannabis policy. Commercialization may be the second-worst.

David Brooks and Ruth Marcus both have anti-cannabis legalization essays up. Brooks doesn’t mention 650,000 arrests a year, 40,000 people behind bars at any one time, or $35 billion in annual illicit income. Brooks does mention the issue of personal liberty, but immediately bats it away: apparently the liberty to do what Brooks disapproves of isn’t really valuable. Marcus mentions that pot-possession arrests are a bad idea but doesn’t say anything about how to reduce them; she just dances gaily on, wishing that the bad consequences of legalization could be avoided. Both Brooks and Marcus seriously overstate the evidence about the damage done by cannabis by flipping back and forth between studies of heavy, chronic use and conclusions simply about “use.” But they’re right to say that cannabis use is bad for some people, and that the number of people harmed by pot is likely to go up when it’s legally sold.

At the same time Bruce Bartlett writes in favor of legalization without ever mentioning drug abuse. He invokes something he calls “economics.” I take it that he uses “economics” to mean the principle of revealed preference, which asserts that whatever a person chooses is what that person wants, and that getting what you want is, by definition, beneficial. He asserts that he is “not aware of a single economic analysis” coming down against legalization, without giving any evidence of having looked.

Well, guess what? If you ignore the benefits of legalization, it looks like a pretty bad idea. If you ignore the costs, it looks like a pretty good idea.

And of course since Brooks, Marcus, and Bartlett all are engaging in the middle- school version of policy analysis that simply ignores countervailing arguments and blows past the compared-to-what question, none of them has to wrestle with the hard questions:

* If cannabis remains illegal, how should those laws be enforced? Whether cannabis use is bad for you is uncertain; that black-market activity, arrest, and incarceration are all bad for you is unquestionable.
* Should cannabis be legal to use, but not to sell? If so, should individuals be allowed to grow for their own use, or should we leave the industry to the criminals?
* If sale is permitted, should it be restricted to not-for-profit cooperatives or to a state agency?
* If commercial sale is permitted, how high should the taxes be? What rules should apply to marketing?
* What information should be provided to consumers by sellers or by public or NGO bodies? If some forms of the drug are more dangerous than others in terms of unintentional overdose or habituation, should the more dangerous versions carry warning labels?
* Should there be a minimum legal age for cannabis purchase and use? If so, how should those laws be enforced? In particular, should underage users be subject to arrest?
* What rules should apply to driving after cannabis use, and what rules of evidence should apply?

I continue to think that continued prohibition may be the worst option under current U.S. circumstances; I’m still waiting for someone who opposes legalization to sketch a reasonable alternative to the status quo. I’m inclined to think that full commercial legalization with minimal marketing restrictions and low taxes – which is where the country is currently headed – might well be the second-worst. But for now the public debate is dominated by those two bad options.

If Brooks and Marcus, and those who share their concerns, want to do some actual good in the world, they need to get down in the trenches and think concretely about policies. Standing athwart history shouting “Stop!” is an undignified posture.

Update Of course Matt Welch is right to criticize Brooks’s equation of a state’s decision not to make some activity a criminal offense with “encouraging” that activity. But equally of course creating a for-profit cannabis industry – which will derive most of its revenue from people who smoke too much – and allowing that industry “commercial free speech” means that the encouraging will go on just the same, even though the state doesn’t do it. In a sane world, it would be possible to allow an activity but forbid its promotion by firms trying to profit from the weaknesses of their consumers; the notion that there’s no middle term between criminalization and allowing aggressive marketing is bizarre on its face.

Welch and his libertarian friends just love “commercial free speech,” a doctrine that exists, as far as I know, only in American law. Lots of places have open political discourse but don’t, for example, let Big Pharma peddle complex medicines directly to sick people. Perversely, this makes it harder to reduce the scope of the criminal law.

David Brooks partly correct, greatly wrong

David Brooks notes that Paul Ryan’s biggest mistake was voting no against the final report of the deficit commission in December 2010. As Brooks puts it:

To put it another way, Ryan was giving up significant debt progress for a political fantasy.

I agree that Rep. Ryan’s bravery is greatly overrated, and in this case when his vote and leadership could have brought the fiscal commission to an up or down vote in Congress, he walked away. Brooks has it wrong on Ryan’s logic, however. He says

Ryan voted no for intellectually coherent reasons. He argued that the single biggest contributing factor to public debt is the unsustainable growth of Medicare. Yet the Simpson-Bowles plan did nothing to restructure Medicare, and it sidestepped health care issues generally.

The statement that the fiscal commission report had nothing to address Medicare is absurd. The commission chairman’s mark assumed the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, took faster, more direct steps to limit the tax advantage of employer paid health insurance than the cadillac tax, had more aggressive cuts to Medicare than anyone has called for so far, called for a new physician payment system to end the SGR charade, mandated a move of dual eligibles to managed care, would have implemented the malpractice reforms that Republicans wanted, and called for a strengthened Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) by allowing it to focus on hospitals beginning in 2014. Here is a summary post I wrote in Spring 2011 on the health policy provisions of the deficit commission report with a link to the report itself.

You don’t have to like or agree with the ACA, but it does plenty to reform Medicare (see title III). And the deficit commission went even further by correctly saying that the ACA was the only horse we have to ride so lets ride it, and here are some more steps to go further. I generally like reading David Brooks and think he is typically thoughtful, but in this case a crucial part of his narrative is just not based in reality.

As an aside, it is interesting that 4 of the 5 House members voted no, while 4 of the 5 Senate members voted yes. While the Senate is generally noted to be the bastion of gridlock, if we ever do have some sort of grand bargain, it seems mostly likely to bubble out of the Senate.

cross posted at freeforall.

David Brooks says the thing-that-is

A call to arms against the lunatics who have taken over the party of Lincoln, and a Jeremiad against the spineless mainstream conservatives who have let them do it.

The most important fact about contemporary American politics is that the Republican party has become an extremist organization, in which what used to be the fringe is now the base.

The most important problem facing political journalists and pundits is whether to report that fact as fact, or to remain even-handed as between (in Churchill’s phrase) the fire-fighters and the fire.

The biggest disappointment of the three and a half years since the 2008 election is the extent to which journalists (both reporters and pundits) have chosen a false ideal of even-handedness over the obligation to Say The Thing That Is rather than treating it as on an equal footing with The Thing That Is Not. Barack Obama’s “sweet reason” strategy had two chances to work: some Republicans could have chosen to be reasonable, or – given that the GOP went as far off the rails as it has – the reporters could have called them on it. Neither happened, and the result was the 2010 election outcome.

So I’m somewhat cheered by the evidence that journalists are waking up and smelling the crazy. But I have to admit that I didn’t expect David Brooks to help lead the charge. Why, the man who seemed to embody the reborn spirit of David Broder sounds positively reality-based as he rages at the spinelessness of his fellow conservatives:

The wingers call their Republican opponents RINOs, or Republican In Name Only. But that’s an insult to the rhino, which is a tough, noble beast. If RINOs were like rhinos, they’d stand up to those who seek to destroy them. Actually, what the country needs is some real Rhino Republicans. But the professional Republicans never do that. They’re not rhinos. They’re Opossum Republicans. They tremble for a few seconds then slip into an involuntary coma every time they’re challenged aggressively from the right.

Without real opposition, the wingers go from strength to strength. Under their influence, we’ve had a primary campaign that isn’t really an argument about issues. It’s a series of heresy trials in which each of the candidates accuse the others of tribal impurity. Two kinds of candidates emerge from this process: first, those who are forceful but outside the mainstream; second, those who started out mainstream but look weak and unprincipled because they have spent so much time genuflecting before those who despise them.

Just as the Terri Schiavo affair helped push some people across the aisle in the mid-2000s, the anti-contraception jihad, along with Santorum’s virtual call to religious warfare, is doing so today.