The very political neuroscience of cannabis

If you were a neuroscientist and discovered that there were, on average, measurable anatomical differences between (1) the brains of 20 young right-handed people who smoke an average of a little more than 11 joints per week and had been consuming cannabis for a little more than 6 years and (2) the brains of an age-sex-chirality-matched group, and that those differences persisted even after controlling for alcohol consumption and were accentuated among those who use more cannabis, you’d probably say, “Hmmm … that’s interesting. I wonder what it means.”

After all, it might mean:

1. That using cannabis at that level causes changes in the brain.
2. That something else correlated with cannabis use – for example, use of other illicit drugs – causes changes in the brain.
3. That something about having that kind of brain makes cannabis use more attractive to people to have it than it is to people who don’t.
4. That the brain differences and the cannabis-use differences between the two groups are the product of some unknown third factor.

If, on further study, it were to turn out that the differences were the result of cannabis use, then you might ask, “What are the consequences – if any – of those differences?” After all, various learning tasks are known to change brain anatomy: London cabbies, who are required to learn London in astonishing detail, have larger-than-normal anterior and posterior hippocampi, and visual artists also have brains that are structurally different from non-artists.

Now, if you’d started out with already-known measured deficits in cannabis users and found brain changes independently known to lead to such deficits, that last question wouldn’t be so hard to answer. Of course, that’s hard, because the most recent meta-analysis found “no evidence for enduring negative effects of cannabis use” on neurcognitive function. (The Dunedin 8-IQ-point finding is about people with chronic substance use disorder.)

Overall then, if you were that neuroscientist, you’d write a paper saying “We studied cannabis users and non-users and found the following brain differences. Here’s the next study we plan to do, addressing the questions of causation and possible impact.”

That’s assuming that your goal was informing your readers about the content of your findings. If instead you wanted to score points in the culture wars, push your political agenda, and perhaps please your sponsors at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Office of National Drug Control policy, you’d behave differently. Continue Reading…

Bureaucratic politics 101: the U.S. adjusts its position on the drug treaties

Historically, the United States was the chief architect of the prohibition-oriented international drug control regime, and among the most “hawkish” of the signatories (along with Sweden, France, Russia, Japan, and Singapore, and much of the Arab world). The U.S. did a bunch of finger-wagging at the Dutch for their relatively liberal policies. And the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement in the State Department (“INL” in Alphabet-speak, informally “Drugs and Thugs”) has long been one of the more hawkish players in internal drug-policy debates.

The treaties, on their face, require the criminalization of not only drug dealing but drug use. One of the arguments made against the tax-and-regulation approaches adopted by initiative in Colorado and Washington State was that their adoption would put the country out of compliance with its treaty obligations. There are legal loopholes: the treaties acknowledge that their obligations apply to each signatory only insofar as consistent with its domestic institutional arrangements. Since the U.S. federal government, the party bound by the treaties, lacks the constitutional power to require criminalization at the state level, it’s not clear that the actions by Colorado and Washington State voters can be said to have been illegal under international law.

Uruguay has gone further, legalizing at the national level. The Uruguayan government argues that even that is allowed by the treaties, because the treaties recite the reduction of illegal drug trafficking and the protection of public health among their stated goals, and the Uruguayan law is designed to accomplish those goals. Whatever the merits of that argument legally – personally, I don’t think it passes the giggle test, though as a policy matter I’m glad Uruguay is making the experiment and hope it succeeds – it is one that the United States could once have been counted on to scorn.

And yet, when the U.N. Commission on Narcotic drugs met in Vienna last month, and some member countries got up to criticize the Uruguayan move (which the International Narcotics Control Board, the referee set up by the treaties, promptly denounced) the U.S. had no comment on that issue.

In part that reflects changing U.S. public opinion about cannabis, and the more liberal stance of the Obama Administration compared to its predecessors. But in part it reflects the fact that INCB also blasted Colorado and Washington State, putting INL in the position of having to defend the permissibility under international law of those regimes and of the accommodating stance toward them adopted by the Justice Department. So the voters in those two states in effect forced a change in our national stance in international fora.

Here’s Ambassador William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of INL, explaining the new stance: the treaties, we are now told, are “living documents,” allowing “flexibility” in how different nations choose to meet their obligations, and we should seek a new consensus about what that means.

Obvious, once it’s happened. (It might not have happened in, say, the Romney Administration.) But, as far as I know, not predicted in advance by anyone, least of all by me.

Footnote It would be easier to take more seriously the self-appointed “Global Commission on Drug Policy” if spokespeople such as Michel Kazaktchine didn’t insist on making nonsensical claims, such as that minor drug offenses account for half of U.S. incarceration (the actual figure is more like 20% for all drug offenses) and that prohibition has failed to reduce consumption (compared to what?) and that alcohol and tobacco control via taxation and regulation have been more successful (by what measure).

A Different Approach to State-Federal Marijuana Enforcement

In Colorado and Washington now and presumably in other states in the next few years, marijuana legalization exists in strange world of federal-state confusion. Producing, selling and using the drug is legal in states that opt for legalization, but remains illegal at the federal level. This has implications for infrastructure (e.g., whether banks will allow marijuana dispensaries to open accounts) and for taxation (e.g., whether the IRS will allow marijuana producers to deduct expenses). It also has implications for the future, as the next president and attorney general could decide to ramp up federal enforcement at a moment’s notice.

One commonly proposed solution to all these challenges is for the federal government to proactively accommodate legalizing states. Mark Kleiman has argued that the federal government should issue revocable waivers of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to states that want to conduct legalization experiments.

A new paper by Erwin Chemerinsky, Jolene Forman, Allen Hopper and Sam Kamin argues that a different approach to cooperative federalism is possible and has been used with other laws:

We propose an amendment to the CSA that would allow states and the federal government to cooperatively enforce and regulate marijuana. As with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Affordable Care Act, state law would govern in states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana, and federal law would supplement state law only when states defer to federal law or fail to satisfy federal requirements. Just as the Environmental Protection Agency works with states to enforce air and water pollution laws, federal agencies could continue to cooperate with opt-­‐out states and local governments to enforce marijuana laws. However, state laws and regulations would control within those states’ borders, rather than the CSA.

As a non-lawyer, I don’t have the chops to evaluate their legal argument, but if you do or just want to learn more about another proposal to resolve the current federal-state conundrum regarding marijuana, you can download the full text of the paper for free here.

How not to make a hash of marijuana legalization

The cover package in the current issue of Washington Monthly includes articles on cannabis legalization by Jonathan Caulkins, Jonathan Rauch, and me, under the heading “Saving Marijuana Legalization.” Mine has the wonderful title (which I think Paul Glastris gets credit for) “How Not to Make a Hash of Marijuana Legalization.”

All three pieces consider how to legalize cannabis rather than whether to legalize it. Caulkins and I both distrust the trend toward a commercial system on the alcohol model, and I’m also unhappy both about a pure states’-rights approach and about legislation by initiative. I also float the idea of user-set monthly purchase quotas, a “nudge” strategy that I claim might do some good and couldn’t hurt.

Michael Hilzik gives the whole thing a very nice write-up on the LA Times business page.

Footnote Depressingly, none of the LA Times commmenters makes a point that is either original or cogent. It’s like hearing from the Romneybots in the fall of 2012.

U.S. Marijuana Legalization and the Future of Mexico

Alejandro Hope runs one of the precious few blogs that regularly provides data-based drug policy analysis, and his work is always worth reading. The latest example is his Bloomberg View essay Legal U.S. Pot Won’t Bring Peace to Mexico.

Alejandro estimates that national U.S. marijuana legalization would deprive the Mexican drug trafficking organizations of 1.5 to 2 billion dollars in revenue, but he is not confident that this would result in any reduction in violence or crime more generally. He sees the basic drivers of lawlessness in Mexico as more fundamental:

In the final analysis, Mexico doesn’t have a drug problem, much less a marijuana problem: It has a state capacity problem. That is, its institutions are too weak to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens. Even if drug trafficking might very well decline in the future, in the absence of stronger institutions, something equally nefarious will replace it

I broadly agree with Alejandro’s analysis, and would add one other point: recent historical experience also does not support the idea that reduced drug trafficking revenues will pacify the Mexican cartels. U.S. cocaine consumption has fallen dramatically since 2006 and cocaine is a far more lucrative drug for the Mexican cartels than is marijuana. Yet the period in which the U.S. cocaine consumption decline was hitting the cartels in the pocketbook coincided with the great surge of cartel-related violence in Mexico.

These realities force honest analysts to return to the basic principle that there is no inherent connection between illegal markets and violence. Whether those who engage in transactional crimes are also violent and/or directly challenge the state varies based on the context, time and place. Irrespective of what happens regarding marijuana markets, the state capacity question that Alejandro raises will be central to the future security of the Mexican people.

Two-buck drug policy expertise

For some mysterious reason, the Kindle version of the Caulkins et al. Marijuana Legalization book is available for $1.99.  You don’t need a Kindle to read it; it shows up on my PC a page at a time, quite legibly. Unlike a genuine paper remainder, you can’t use it to start a fire, but since you can give it away or “lend it out” electronically you could certainly use it to start an argument.

I’m told this low, low price won’t outlast the weekend.

Speaking, I believe, for all four authors, I can say we’re much more interested in readers than in royalty checks, so let me encourage you to grab one for yourself and one for your annoying uncle.

 

The Link Between Overcrowded Prisons and a Certain Drug

Over the past few months, I have given some talks about public policies that could reduce the extraordinary number of Americans who are in state or federal prison. The audiences in every case were blessedly bright and engaged. Yet they also had a broadly shared misunderstanding about how two drugs are related to the U.S. rate of imprisonment.

At each talk an audience member expressed the view that over-incarceration would drastically diminish soon because states were now legalizing marijuana. I responded by asking everyone present to shout out their estimate of what proportion of people currently in a state or federal prison were serving time for a marijuana-related offense. The modal answer across audiences was around one third, which explains the shocked looks that greeted my pointing out that even under the most liberal possible definition of a marijuana-linked incarceration (e.g., counting a marijuana trafficker with 10 other felony convictions as being in prison solely due to marijuana’s illegality), not even 1% of the U.S. prison population would be so classified.

Not wanting to discourage people, I said that there was a different drug that was responsible for many times as many imprisonments as marijuana and for which we could implement much better public policies. I then asked people to guess which drug it was. Give it a try yourself (answer after the jump). Continue Reading…

U.S. Marijuana Possession Enforcement Intensity is Down Over 40%

Future historians of drug policy will appropriately regard the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado as a significant reduction in U.S. law enforcement’s role in cannabis regulation. Yet that marijuana enforcement policy shift had been underway for a lot longer than many people realize.

The chart below presents 2007-2012 FBI Uniform Crime Reports data on marijuana possession arrests and National Survey on Drug Use and Health data on aggregate days of American marijuana use*. To put the two lines on the same scale, aggregate days of marijuana use are reported in 10,000s. The most striking feature of the data are that the two lines are going in opposite directions. The net result is a 42% decline in marijuana possession enforcement intensity (i.e., the number of arrests per day of marijuana use).

Pot post2

Americans’ marijuana use went up by almost 50% just from 2007-2012. This sharp increase in the population’s total days of use has been driven less by the increased number of users than by the big increase in the number of individuals using heavily (e.g., smoking every day or nearly every day). That growth in use meant there was a large increase in police opportunities to arrest people for marijuana possession. But marijuana possession arrests have instead been falling as numerous states have passed decriminalization laws (with for the first time in U.S. history, no White House opposition) and/or created loosely-regulated medical marijuana systems.

The data in the chart support at the least three conclusions about marijuana policy:

(1) U.S. Marijuana possession enforcement intensity had become light even prior to the passage of legalization in two states. As of 2012, the average American once-a-week pot smoker would expect to be arrested for possession about once every century. This reality isn’t evident when one focuses just on the number of arrests, or on how arrests compare to some irrelevant standard (e.g., number of arrests per minute or the percentage of all drug arrests that are for marijuana).

Conclusions about how intensely a crime is being policed can only be drawn in the context of information on how often that crime is committed. Six hundred fifty thousand arrests is a big number in the abstract, but relative to over 3 billion days of marijuana use, it’s small. That why the U.S. can have a large absolute number of marijuana possession arrests yet at the same time be policing marijuana at a less vigorous rate than do most developed nations.

(2) There is no evidence of “net-widening” in U.S. marijuana enforcement policy. In some regions, such as New South Wales, Australia, reduction in criminal penalties for marijuana use led to an increase in arrests. Apparently, Australian police officers who previously felt penalties were too tough began feeling comfortable widening their enforcement net to intervene in more cases of marijuana use. This phenomenon has not been replicated in the U.S., where severity of penalties and number of arrests have been falling in tandem.

(3) Changes in official marijuana policy are often a formalization of what has already been evolving on the ground. The creation of recreational marijuana markets in Washington and Colorado (with some other states likely to follow) is in one sense qualitatively new. Yet it is also the culmination of an established trend of rapidly declining law enforcement involvement in the regulation of marijuana. That’s one reason why it’s often hard for observers to determine whether new drug laws have a unique causal effect or are more a ratification of informal policies that were already in place.

*My thanks to Dr. Beau Kilmer and his team at RAND for providing me with days of use data.

Wish-I’d-Said-That Dep’t

John McDuling in Quartz: “Investing in marijuana stocks is a lot more dangerous than smoking marijuana.”

There is a ton of money to be made in the cannabis business: by fleecing investors.

There’s also a ton of money to be lost: by being one of those investors.

Legal cannabis will be a commodity, and a cheap one at that. Maybe somebody has a clever branding strategy to make money anyway, but what are the odds you’re going to pick that lucky company to invest in as opposed to the 99 others that are going to go broke when pre-tax retail prices hit $3/gm. for sinse, with concentrates trading at a discount on a per-milligram-THC basis?

This is one case where the old rule applies in spades. The sure-fire way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket.

Beau Kilmer on restricting cannabis marketing

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.