Nonsense on stilts: the Heritage Foundation on Prop. 19

Heritage, not satisfied with all the true and valid arguments against a bad piece of legislation, guilds the lily.

I’m no fan of California Proposition 19, the marijuana-legalization initiative, or of the way it’s been promoted, with proponents claiming imaginary, and sometimes self-contradictory, benefits.

[No, 60% of the revenues of the big Mexican drug trafficking groups don’t come from selling cannabis in the U.S. That was a made-up number from the drug czar’s office in the Bush Jr. days: utterly implausible, never supported by any actual data, and now formally disowned.]

But nothing I’ve seen from the “pro” side can match the truly heroic mendacity of the Heritage Foundation brief-in-opposition. It’s a self-parody of phony-think-tank pseudo-research, asserting both that cannabis prices would fall drastically under legalization – leading to greatly increased consumption – and that the post-Prop-19 cannabis market would have the violence, disorder, and consumer crime to fund purchases characteristic of illicit markets. (Nobody steals to support a $5/day habit, and if cannabis is legal there’s no “black market” to divert it to.)

With that as a warm-up, the Heritage folks invent an entirely new brand of pharmacology, in which cannabis is hideously dangerous but alcohol quite safe. (The trick is to compare data on moderate drinking with data on heavy cannabis smoking, and to simply ignore the facts about alcohol-related violence.)

What’s really scary is that the people running Heritage think they can produce this kind of crap and get away with it. It wouldn’t have been hard to run a draft report past any of a dozen actual experts hostile to cannabis legalization and have them spot the howlers. In the extreme, Heritage might have even gotten an expert to write the report in the first place.

What’s even scarier is that no doubt the executives at Heritage are basically correct: for an outfit that occupies the Heritage there’s simply no price to be paid for making sh*t up. People who look to Heritage for “research” have already opted for ideological reliability over quality and accuracy, and journalists either really can’t tell the difference between a real policy research outfit like RAND and a propaganda mill like Heritage or don’t think it would be “objective” to distinguish attempts to find the truth from efforts to fit arguments to pre-determined conclusions.

Even within the world of advocacy groups, there are differences in quality. I can’t imagine a comparable product coming out of, for example, the Center for American Progress. But how much does CAP benefit from the difference, given that journalists mostly won’t mention it, even if they perceive it?

As long as there’s no price to be paid, the lying will continue, with each side justifying its own liberties with the truth on the grounds that the other side did it first. It makes me cranky.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

11 thoughts on “Nonsense on stilts: the Heritage Foundation on Prop. 19”

  1. It used to seem like Cato and AEI were slightly superior to Heritage and CEI. Not so clear recently, although I still think Cato has some nodding acquaintance with truth-telling.

  2. Aren't think tanks great? You just lay out a set of conclusions and then spend your days finding facts that fit them. Most have even created neat little sections on their websites in which they organize their "evidence". You want an apple, go to an apple orchard. You want carefully selected "truth" that fits your pov, go to a think tank.

  3. I remember back in the 1980's when the AEI was the respected mirror-image of Brookings on the right. It was much more than slightly superior to Heritage; it was a positively good shop. Now, of course, it is a whorehouse, with Norm Ornstein playing piano. But even back then, Heritage was a whorehouse, pure and simple. Cato appeared to get rid of its last shreds of integrity about a month ago, when they fired their liberaltarians.

  4. Yes, it's true, the 60% number is soft. (Likewise, the cartels don't get all their guns from the US, but we fret about those that do.) I take it your argument isn't that the actual amount of money is trivial enough that we should be content to leave it on the table. Do you believe there's any divergence of interests between the US & Mexico here?

  5. Heritage says alcohol can have some health benefits, but then says marijuana has none at all. I believe marijuana has been demonstrated to be useful in certain circumstances. Also, Heritage makes this claim:

    "Alcohol differs from marijuana in several crucial respects. First, marijuana is far more likely to cause addiction."

    Is that true?

    My favorite bullet point from Heritage: "Would stores dealing in marijuana have to fortify their facilities to reduce the risk of theft and assault?"

  6. To expect truth from the Heritage Foundation is no different from expecting it from Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Burton Pines, then research director and later vice president of Heritage acknowledged that years ago when he said: "We're not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time. Our role is to provide conservative public-policy makers with arguments to bolster our side."

  7. I've stopped referring to these wingnut operations as "think tanks." They're actually "ignorance tanks" or "stupid tanks."

  8. With a few exceptions (like Rand, as you mention), think-tanks are designed to support apologists masquerading as researchers.

    They do no actual research; their job is to write op-eds and go on television to support the policy goals of their employer's funders.

    Their typical job title–"scholar"–allows the newspapers and TV shows where they appear to *call* them "scholars," for the better befuddlement of the average news-and-opinion consumer.

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