Bloggingheads on drug policy with John McWhorter

I had a good time; YMMV.

No surprises for RBC readers, but a very serious and pleasant conversation. I haven’t spent much time talking to McWhorter in the past; I hope to spend more in the future.

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:

7 thoughts on “Bloggingheads on drug policy with John McWhorter”

  1. Yes, that was a truly informative and thought-provoking discussion. Thank you. And – more please!

  2. There’s one line of speculation I haven’t yet seen explored, atleast on this blog. So far, HOPE seems to have seen limited deployment and remains relatively obscure. Should it become lot more widespread and widely known, what do you expect the emergent response of drug distributors to be?

  3. Very informative discussion. I like McWhorter in a lot of these Bloggingheads discussions because he tends not to pretend to know things he doesn’t know and he usually asks the questions that I have in listening to someone more knowledgeable about a subject. What I would love though would be a discussion between you and Ta-Nehisi Coates, another Baltimore native who grew up with the results of our drug war at the peak of the crack era.

  4. At about 6:40 in the video, Kleiman states, “you’d have to repeal basic economics not to have a very large increase in cocaine consumption [if cocaine were legal].”

    Well, according to the ONDCP, the average retail price of a pure gram of powder cocaine (in 2007 dollars), dropped from a high of nearly $700 in 1982 to just over $100 as of 2007. During the same period, the percentage of US high school seniors reporting past-month use of powder cocaine declined from 5% to 2%. So, in reality, a very large drop in price was accompanied by a very large drop in use.

    I would assume an academic like Kleiman would be familiar with a basic economic concept like price elasticity of demand. I’m rather astounded that he fails to address the possibility that demand for cocaine is largely price inelastic, particularly since the existing data tends to support this conclusion.

    Historical cocaine price data can be found here: (see graph on p.50)

    Past-month use of cocaine by US high scool seniors:

  5. pfroehlich2004,
    1) You might find that adopting a slightly less supercilious tone is conducive to a productive discussion.
    2) Given the enthusiasm and vigor with which cocaine possession is investigated and prosecuted – considerably more strenuous than for marijuana or underage alcohol, at least as portrayed on television – is it possible that the reason you’re not seeing a big rise in demand following a steep decline in price is that you’re looking at the wrong price? Maybe the right price to consider is not the money, but the legal consequences of getting caught using cocaine. The failure of the cocaine-using population to expand may reflect not that the number of people willing to use cocaine is fixed and small, but that the number of people sufficiently willing to brave a police response is. Also, cocaine simply seems not to be fashionable these days, perhaps because of the rise of other, still-cheaper and highly effective stimulants such as methamphetamines.

  6. @Warren Terra:

    Point taken. I was rather annoyed by that particular statement though. Price elasticity of demand is essential for predicting how consumption patterns will be influenced by price changes. To blithely ignore it seems intellectually lazy.

    It’s certainly possible that the huge fall in demand was due to the introduction of more severe legal penalties for cocaine possession and trafficking and it’s also possible that people became more concerned about the health risks (the possibility of sudden cardiac arrest can be very dissuasive -even to youths in an experimental phase).

    The Bureau of Justice Statistics website has data on average time served by type of offense, but unfortunately they only go back to 1994 and do not differentiate between substances. Average time served (in state prisons) for both trafficking and possession rose through the end of the 1990s, after which trafficking sentences remained fairly stable while time served for possession convictions fell slightly. (You can see the data here:

    As to whether the drop in cocaine use was due to the arrival of methamphetamine, again it’s difficult to know exactly as we don’t know how many survey respondents used cocaine or methamphetamine exclusively and how many used both. However, reported use of both substances has declined over the last decade suggesting that there is less demand for stimulants in general.

    If you happen to have stats on average sentences and time served for cocaine and meth offenses specifically, I’d be quite interested in seeing them.

    Anyhow, what do you think would happen if cocaine were legal for adults to purchase, but with all advertising banned? How much of an increase in use (if any) would you expect to see?

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