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 that atter of practical politics, our only choices may be a badly-implemented prohibition or a badly-implemented legalization. My attempts to put political and organizational muscle behind the idea of smart legalization have, so far, merely illustrated the great wisdom of Ralph Yarborough’s maxim, “They ain’t nuthin’ in the middle of the road but yaller lines and dead admadillas.”  Admittedly, I don’t find my 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 left for discussion of the good ideas that 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.

Is cannabis addictive?

Ask this woman.

My dad will never stop smoking pot. Sometimes I wonder about the man he might have been, and the lives we all might have had, if he’d never started.

As I keep saying: the evils of prohibition do not disprove the evils of substance abuse. In the case of cannabis, it’s probable that we could get rid of the former without greatly increasing the latter. But it’s not automatic. And denying that cannabis abuse is a real problem doesn’t help.

Note how the mythology of “addiction” cultivated by the “drug-prevention” effort and the drug-treatment industry interferes with understanding. Most drug abuse is very unlike the horrible picture painted in the linked story: it’s relatively transient. And most people who use “addictive” drugs don’t get addicted to them; substance abuse happens to only a minority of users, and only a minority of abusers actually have the “chronic, relapsing disorder” touted as typical. Bad habits around drug-taking are like other bad habits: they lie along a spectrum, and not everyone who uses a drug that turns out to be habit-forming in others encounters a problem.

But if you have the problem, or your brother, or your son, or your mother, it’s a serious problem. And the risk can’t just be wished away. If you support making cannabis available from profit-seeking commercial vendors, heavily marketed, and cheap – which is the path Washington and Colorado are walking down right now – then the predictable result of your preferred policy will be more people with very bad cannabis habits. And there could be fewer such people if cannabis were kept expensive, if marketing were kept to a minimum, and if users were offered modest helps to their self-command, such as user-set periodic purchase quotas, or if we keep the commercial motive out of the business altogether with state stores or by limiting vendor licenses to consumer-owned co-ops and not-for-profit businesses with boards concerned with limiting drug abuse rather than maximizing revenue.

Of course you’re free to oppose all of that. But if you do so, you ought at least to acknowlege the inevitable human cost.

h/t Andrew Sullivan

Update Comments closed due to persistent trolling, using multipe IPAs. I may start to follow Keith’s lead. Alterantively, we could go to some sort of registered-commenter system. Sorry, folks, but I suppose if you have a picnic you have to expect some cockroaches.

How to legalize cannabis

With a little help (ok, actually quite a lot of help) from my friends Lowry Heussler, Jon Caulkins, Keith Humphreys, and Beau Kilmer, and my sister Kelly, I produced an op-ed for the Financial Times on the design of a post-prohibition cannabis control regime.

Here’s the punchline:

A large increase in problem use might be a price worth paying to rid ourselves of the many ills attendant on prohibition. But it is not a price we have to pay. Smarter policies could lead to better outcomes.

Many thanks to Kesewa Hennessy, Deputy Comment Editor at the FT, for a superb job of copy-editing.

One key point, omitted to save space: the system of user-set quotas proposed for cannabis could also apply – should, in my view, be applied – to alcohol and gambling.

Public opinion on cannabis: Is it “Game Over”?

Public opinion on cannabis legalization has been trending positive since sometime in the late 1990s. By a couple of years ago, it was just about break-even. But in the latest Gallup poll, the “pro” side has moved to an almost-20-point advantage, 58 to 39.

Of course this calls for some caveats.

1. The question, as asked, was about legalizing use, not production and sale.

2. With a sample size of only 1000, some of the movement might be noise rather than signal. The Galston-Dionne analysis of Pew Center data from earlier in the year shows a more closely divided country; again, it’s an open question whether that difference is measurement error or real change over a few months.

3. Bad outcomes in Washington or Colorado might reverse the trend.

All of that said, the new numbers are enough to move my probability distribution. For a while now, I’ve been predicting national legalization sometime in Hillary Clinton’s second term, but without much conviction and with the caveat that the trend in public opinion would have to continue in order to make that prediction come true. Now I’d have to say it will come true unless the trend were somehow to reverse.

Note also that at some point positive feedback takes over. Being for pot legalization has a different social meaning when it’s the clear majority view. The polling results will therefore influence the behavior of some survey respondents and voters directly. Moreover, politicians and other opinion leaders shift their announced (and perhaps actual) views in response to perceived shifts in voter attitudes, that in turn will shift the beliefs of some voters.

If the question of whether to legalize now seems largely settled, that makes the much-less-debated question of how to legalize even more topical. Some of the smarter opponents of cannabis have figured this out, and are now looking for ways of limiting the increase in drug abuse likely to follow legal availability. However, career and ideological interests and group ties are likely to lead the majority of the active drug warriors to keep fighting what now seems like an unwinnable battle, telling one another that legalization is sure to be such a disaster that the public will demand re-prohibition. By doing so, the warriors will help to ensure that the legal system that eventually arises will be over-commercialized, under-regulated, and under-taxed.

This would simply repeat the mistake they made in opposing the medical use of cannabis. While the warriors kept chanting “Cheech and Chong medicine,” the pot advocates rolled right over them. Rien appris, rien oublié.

Update Andrew Sullivan strikes a triumphal note. Hard to fault him for that. But goddammit, “less harmful than alcohol” and “not harmful to most of its users” do not add up to “harmless.” Adolescents spin out on cannabis and wreck their academic careers. People of all ages do stupid things while stoned, including driving their cars into trees and other cars. Cannabis now follows only alcohol as the primary drug of abuse reported by people voluntarily entering drug treatment.

Why take the perfectly reasonable case that cannabis should not be illegal and ruin it with the silly claim that the stuff is harmless?

Cannabis and alcohol (reprise)

David Frum and I agree that “But something else is even worse than X!” is not a good reason to ignore the X problem: autos kill more people than guns, but we should still try to reduce the number of people killed with guns. And the fact that alcohol is a much nastier drug than cannabis, both physiologically and behaviorally, doesn’t make cannabis abuse either rare or benign.

But Point #13 in the post Frum links to wasn’t about the comparison between cannabis and alcohol; it was about the causal connection between cannabis policy and alcohol abuse. As Frum notes, alcohol use and cannabis use are now positively correlated. But that doesn’t tell you anything conclusive about whether making cannabis legally available would increase or decrease heavy drinking.

In my view, an increase of as little as 10% in heavy drinking would wipe out any benefits from cannabis legalization, including the benefit in the form of fewer arrests because of the additional crime that would go along with the additional heavy drinking. Frum is aware of that possibility.

But he ignores the opposite possibility, equally plausible in terms of both logic and evidence. Continue Reading…

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.
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Honest and Dishonest Arguments for Marijuana Legalization

Mike Riggs of Reason magazine supports marijuana legalization but has the guts to point out that three common arguments for legalization are fallacious. He is getting blowback from those activists who consider any dissent from the standard talking points to be gross disloyalty as well as from those who simply get angry at anyone who demonstrates that life can be complex. Agree with him or not, the man’s got moxie.

As long as we are on the topic, another lame, prevalent argument for legalization is that marijuana never harms anyone, and the only reason anyone ever seeks treatment for marijuana addiction is that they are pressured to do so by evil drug warriors. If marijuana use were not subject to criminal penalties, the argument runs, no one would seek treatment because no one really needs it.

If this were true, in the Netherlands, where personal consumption and use of cannabis are decriminalized, no one would seek treatment for marijuana addiction. Continue Reading…

Admirable Obama Administration statement on marijuana legalization

When the Obama Administration decided to invite petitions from the public, it no doubt anticipated that there would be one or more about legalizing cannabis, a proposal that now has roughly 50% public support. Of course, the Administration isn’t ready to go there, but it had a perfectly sensible response:
Continue Reading…