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.

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.

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).

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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.

Cannabis legalization and the empirical-minded median voter

No big surprises from the cannabis questions in the latest CNN-ORC poll. It looks as if the Gallup numbers from earlier in the year (58 for legalization, 39 against) were a bit of an outlier; the gap seems to be nearer 10 points than 20, which makes a difference. But the CNN-ORC findings, along with those from the Pew survey, confirm the decisive shift in public opinion. Support for legalization now has a clear majority. Most interesting finding, to my eyes: the new poll asked the question two ways:

“Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?”

“Do you think the sale of marijuana should be made legal, or not?”

The answers were virtually identical: 55/44 for legal use, 54/45 for legal sale. So for those of us who have wondering whether the “use” question was inappropriately lumping supporters of decriminalization with supporters of full commercial availability, the answer is “No.” A majority really favors full legalization. On the other hand, when the question gets specific, the majority disappears:

“As you may know, Colorado now allows anyone over the age of 21 to purchase small quantities of marijuana for their own use from businesses that have been licensed by the state government to sell marijuana. Do you think this is a good idea or a bad idea, or do you want to see what happens in Colorado and other states that legalize marijuana before you decide how you feel about this matter?”   

“Good idea” leads “bad idea” by a small plurality, 33/27, but the largest group (37%) wants to wait and see.  Yes, of course phrasing the question that way encouraged the wait-and-see answer, but it’s encouraging that so many voters are empirically-minded on this issue rather than fixed in one of two fact-proof ideological camps.

Even among those who oppose legal pot, most prefer to have users pay fines rather than going to jail. And support for medical marijuana is overwhelming: 88/10.

All of this suggests that those who oppose legalization have chosen a grossly inappropriate strategy, if their objective is winning as oppposed to mere fundraising and personal advancement. Moral denunciation, opposition to medical research (with actual cannabis, not hypothetical individual molecules), and support for user penalties are all losing moves. Instead of simply posing  their own prejudices and certainties against those of the legalizers, they ought to offer cautious experimentalism. The median voter might buy “Wait and see,” if it appeared sincere. But she’s way past “No, nay, never!”

Footnote Logically, of course, “Wait and see” isn’t a clear pragmatic implication of uncertainty. Waiting also has costs. The right conclusion is “Make cautious changes that are easy to modify in the light of new evidence, and watch for that evidence.” The big problem for the “No” side is that if there are going to be large bad consequences from legalization, they will likely develop over years, not months.

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.

How to legalize cannabis

Debating whether to legalize pot is increasingly pointless. Unless there’s an unexpected shock to public opinion, it’s going to happen, and sooner rather than later.

The important debate now is how to legalize it. The results of legalization depend strongly on the details of the post-prohibition tax and regulatory regimes. In the current situation, continued prohibition might be the worst option. Full commercial legalization on the alcohol model might well be the second-worst. But that’s the way we’re heading.

I’m preparing an essay about designing a post-prohibition regime. After the jump is a set of topic sentences and paragraphs for sections of that essay, not yet in a well-defined order. (UPDATE: Numbers inserted to facilitate comments.)

Substantive comments are welcome. Rant and snark will be ruthlessly zapped.

Continue Reading…

Statistics on the Prevalence of Drug Users Can Be Misleading

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.