Analysts and advocates

Even good actions have bad consequences. Analysts study that fact; most advocates deny it.

The LA Times story about the marijuana-legalization briefing Jon Caulkins, Beau Kilmer, and I presented at AEI gave the impression that we were opposed to state-level legalization as proposed, for example, in Colorado. Part of the problem was the headline, but a subsequent exchange with the reporter revealed that we had in fact conveyed to him an anti-legalization message.

Much of the discussion at the briefing concerned the likely effects on prices outside of Colorado if the Colorado proposition were to pass.  We predicted a very large drop nationwide, since dealers from the rest of the country could buy at retail in Colorado for way less than they now pay growers for bulk marijuana.

That would create some bad effects in the form of increased drug abuse and some policy problems for the federal government. It would also create some good effects, such as displacing Mexican imports and thereby somewhat reducing the revenue flows of violent Mexican drug gangs. We made no claim about whether the price drop would be good or bad on balance; we just wanted people to notice that it would very likely happen.

So why did this seem to the reporter like an argument against the Colorado proposition? Here’s my hypothesis:

The first principle of policy analysis is that virtually any action has both advantages and disadvantages, compared with the status quo or with some alternative action. So an analyst is always looking for the disadvantages, especially the disadvantages of ideas he supports.

Many advocates, on the other hand, live in a world in which no one concedes anything. To mention or acknowledge that some course of action has a disadvantage is to oppose that course of action. So supporters of marijuana legalization deny that legalization would increase marijuana abuse, while supporters of continued prohibition deny that prohibition causes non-drug crime. Of course this isn’t true of all advocates; some prefer a more analytic approach and hope that frankly acknowledging the downside of whatever they’re proposing will help their credibility. But the journalistic reflex is to treat every such acknowledgement as a concession of ground. And the journalistic convention of even-handedness prevents reporters from stating, accurately, that one side is being honest and the other is lying. That tends to thin the ranks of honest advocates

These are two utterly different ways of looking at the world, and the mutual incomprehension is profound. Analysts often hold advocates in contempt; “Are these people really stupid enough to believe the crap they put out, or are they just a bunch of liars?” And many advocates deeply disbelieve in the possibility of analysis, and assume that every statement made in a policy debate is simply a move in a game.  Because I point out the disadvantages of both legalization and prohibition, there are legalizers who quite sincerely believe that I’m a closet drug warrior and warriors who equally sincerely believe that I’m a closet legalizer.

The facts on both their houses!


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:

25 thoughts on “Analysts and advocates”

  1. “Many advocates, on the other hand, live in a world in which no one concedes anything.”
    I think that’s exactly right. At the first admission of a policy’s weakness, most people will conclude that you oppose it completely. So if each potential solution is each flawed uniquely, perhaps the way to get across your political endorsement without compromising intellectual precision is to criticize the worst policies first, and slowly work your way up to your preferred scheme. If they’re still listening by then, they’ll have learned your style of communication. At worst, they’ll paint you as without any preferences at all.

  2. As a supporter of marijuana normalization, I don’t particularly care to argue that eliminating prohibition won’t result in increased marijuana use (although I don’t really know that it will – the Netherlands experience, for one, suggests otherwise).

    What I do contest is the notion that any increased marijuana use automatically implies an increase in “marijuana abuse”. How exactly does one tell the difference between the two? (I’m assuming that besides dedicated drug warriors, no-one argues that all recreational marijuana use falls into the “abuse” category).

    Perhaps I’ve missed something, but from those who see themselves as pragmatic problem-solvers (vs. ideologues) regarding recreational marijuana use, I’ve yet to hear a good explanation of the difference between acceptable use and “abuse”. That despite that fact that this would seem to be an essential distinction for those sensible non-absolutists – acceptance of both categories is the one thing that ostensibly distinguishes them from both drug warriors and total legalizers, after all.

    Please advise.

    1. Quantity is a good distinction. Smoking one joint a day is different than smoke three. And since legalizing the weed production will send costs down to a fraction of current — maybe less than $10 an eighth — standard economic principles predict that a lot of the people who smoke 1 joint a day will smoke three, because those three joints would cost less than the one costs already.

      1. I disagree with your premise, but let’s momentarily grant it for the sake of argument. You still seem to be begging the question. How does increased use – e.g. three joints per day instead of one – cross the line from use to misuse? What are the criteria?

        1. Here are the DSM-IV criteria for substance abuse:

          Substance abuse is defined as a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress as manifested by one (or more) of the following, occurring within a 12-month period:

          1) Recurrent substance use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home (such as repeated absences or poor work performance related to substance use; substance-related absences, suspensions, or expulsions from school; or neglect of children or household).
          2) Recurrent substance use in situations in which it is physically hazardous (such as driving an automobile or operating a machine when impaired by substance use)
          3) Recurrent substance-related legal problems (such as arrests for substance related disorderly conduct)
          4) Continued substance use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance (for example, arguments with spouse about consequences of intoxication and physical fights).

          1. BTW Our book includes some stats on the proportion of all “use-days” that are reported by people who meet the criteria for abuse or dependence. I’d have to look it up to get the exact #, but I think it was between 40-50%. This is a variation on the 80-20 rule Mark talks about (correctly) so often. Most individuals who have used MJ in the last month are do not meet these criteria for abuse or dependence (only 4.4M out of 17M do), but they account for a disproportionate share of the use-days.

            (Use-days is a better metric than users, because of the heterogeneity across users in intensity of use. In theory grams or units of THC or some such measure would be superior, but those are harder quantities for people to report accurately. There is some evidence that grams per use day is positively correlated with frequency of use-days, so the use-days metric is probably actually conservative when representing 80-20 phenomenon.)

          2. The DSM-IV criteria is not very useful in this context – maybe it’s meaningful for alcohol and other substances that can cause substantial functional impairment, but I’d be surprised if Marijuana was actually the cause, rather than at most an adjunct, of any of those four symptoms. Which are, in any case, more like subjective “sociological” manifestations then anything resembling rigorous criteria.

            Jon Caulkins’ 3:32 AM answer is meatier – it offers up a measurable aspect of Marijuana use, which does answer my question as posed. If I understand correctly, then, it’s OK to enjoy Marijuana once every other day or less – but daily use is bad, indicating abuse or dependence. Thanks for that! But you won’t be surprised to hear that it tees up my next question…

            Why is daily use, even dependence, a bad thing? It’s really not obvious. Dependence does not seem problematic per se, as long as there’s a reliable supply, and when even the consequences of supply disruption are not particularly severe (withdrawal, such as it is, is quite mild and has no negative health implications, unlike, say, from Valium). Is there any scientific evidence that enjoying a few tokes every night after work is any more problematic than the traditional martini (or a nice glass of Cab)?

          3. To follow up – I may have been unfair (albeit perhaps by being overly generous) to Jon Caulkin, by missing his reference to “people who meet the criteria for abuse or dependence” as being the ones who use indulge on more that 40-50% of days. If my second reading is correct, then the implication is that the 4.4 million daily Marijuana users meet one or more of the DSM-IV criteria for “abuse”.

            Naturally, that brings up additional questions.

            1. Is that really so? (Yes, I find it hard to believe).

            2. Is there any research that establishes causation, rather than correlation, between daily Marijuana use and the four DSM-IV symptoms?

            3. If the answer to (2) is in the negative, then the question from my immediately preceding comment still stands.

          4. eb53: My posting of the DSM-IV criteria was somewhat tongue-in-cheek since it seemed to me that you were being (deliberately) obtuse here and engaging in a kind of Sorites-style “But there’s no bright line!” rhetoric that I’d call pointless. And now that I reread your response, it looks like I was right. The criteria are “subjective” and “sociological”? Of course they are! We’re talking about people here. What kind of rigorous criteria could possibly satisfy you?

            On the other hand, I might agree with you that daily use is not necessarily problematic. It’s true that people don’t see anything wrong with a drink after work to “take the edge off”. I’d point out though that the cognitive effects we’re talking about there don’t even venture into “tipsy” territory so the marijuana equivalent would have to be quite a small dosage.

            Jon: I think one problem is that increased usage of marijuana leads to increased tolerance so you just looking at “grams of THC consumed” might be misleading.

      2. Nick: I strive to be deliberate, but any obtuseness comes naturally. So in the interest of wrapping this up, I’ll skip past any additional attempts at nuance and try to get to the point, which is this: I don’t understand what harm our sensible, rational, analytic community attributes to Marijuana use that would justify harassing, arresting and imprisoning people who choose to use it.

        I understand the anti-drug absolutists – they really believe that getting high on anything other that religion is a bad thing as such. Our sensible types, on the other hand, seem to mostly oppose Marijuana legalization because it would lead to increased Marijuana usage. This seems rather circular, as arguments go. So I’m just trying to get at what actual harm they think they’re preventing.

  3. re: “Analysts and advocates by Mark Kleiman”

    Wait a sec… so Mark Kleiman hasn’t been getting government paychecks and consulting fees all his career? We’ve missed his pure and blessed Solomonic unbiasedness all these years? Just our dope-addled paranoiac conspiracy brains imagining things at too fervid a pace?

    That must be it.

    1. Sweetie, you (presumably) live in a capitalist society. We’re all corrupt. Get over yourself.

      1. In other words, “Yes, Mark Kleiman gets nothing but government money.”

        Of course, I’m the unreasonable one for pointing out the obvious vested interests here – following the money. Mea culpa.

  4. @O.B. Server: If there is a dumber or more ignorant sack of shit than you, I’ve never seen it on display.

    1. TruthTeller: This sort of comment is usually sternly frowned upon around here.

      Don’t you think you can come up with a more civil way to express your disagreement? Besides that, you have completely failed to rebut OB Server on any facts, choosing instead to more effectively reveal unpleasant things about your own personality than your attack on OB Server’s could ever hope to accomplish.

      1. Yes, though O.B. Server clearly violated the “play nice” rules by insulting a poster, Truth Teller’s return insult was no less a violation.

        Actually, I should be grateful to O.B. for illustrating my point. (Of course “I should be” is not the same as “I am.”)

        In his world, which is the world most advocates inhabit, there is no truth; there are only arguments on our side (good) and arguments on the other side (bad). And no one makes a “bad” argument out of sincere and intelligent belief; he must be a fool, insane, or corrupt. Of course, the fact that in this case the target of his fury has endorsed the legal availability of cannabis doesn’t matter.

  5. I think the briefing was portrayed as imbalanced because it was imbalanced. It did not seem to cover at all the parts of the book that showed potential gains from legalization though this didn’t seem like an intentional omission/bias. The book is great BTW but I have a few minor gripes I’ll share later.

    1. Gloriosky, Sandy. Who ever heard of, oh, reading the work? Nah, that would be too much like work, wouldn’t it?

  6. Can I just say, that we should all remember the LAT had better days, before it was owned by extremely immature losers from Chi-town?

    Can’t someone else buy it back already? It used to be a real paper.

  7. I think when you say “Are these people really stupid enough to believe the crap they put out, or are they just a bunch of liars?”, you’re ignoring a very real third possibility: they’re not stupid and yet they still somehow believe the crap they put out.

    I made the mistake of talking with some flat tax fans the other day and, believe me, it happens.

  8. Cheap pot nationwide? I’ll believe it when I see it.

    I can tell you this from experience: in the years since medical MJ has been quasi-legal, the availability of cheap (but effective) brown pot has gone way down, while availability of expensive green “medical grade” (not the same high, and not necessarily better dollar-for-dollar depending on what you enjoy) has gone way up. The result has been a rough doubling of the cost of recreational MJ per unit “high” — at least that’s my experience in the midwest heartland.

    If the price goes down, that’s a good thing economically, because it leaves more dollars free to be spent in the taxed economy.

  9. Maybe Kleiman the careful drug policy analyst and Kleiman the screeching Democratic partisan could be reunited if the latter could ponder the possibility that the principle that every action has advantages and disadvantages applies also to the election of Democratic politicians.

    Confirmation bias is universal, but seems to be stronger in areas where we know less.

    1. Yes, I admit that re-electing Barack Obama has disadvantages. (For example, Republicans in Congress will continue to block efforts to reflate the economy unless the presence of a co-partisan in the White House brings out their inner Keynsians, as it did under Reagan and GWB.) But being a careful analyst doesn’t mean proceeding slowly and deliberately to put out the fire when the house is burning, or remaining indifferent between the water – which does indeed do damage – and the flames.

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