Cannabis, Bill Bennett, and the technique of selective reading

A friend emails, “Bill Bennett read your book … or at least every other page of it.”

A friend emails, “Bill Bennett read your book … or, at least, every other page of it.”

Well, yes. Bennett and his sidekick Christopher Beach, in using the Caulkins et al. Marijuana Legalization book to support their argument against legalization, illustrate the point made here yesterday about the contrast between analysis and mere advocacy. To an analyst, every course of action* has advantages and disadvantages, which ought to be carefully weighed against the advantages and disadvantages of its alternatives. To a mere advocate, the course of action he prefers has only benefits, while the courses of action he deplores have only costs.

Since Beach and Bennett chose to base their argument on our book, (albeit without providing a link to it), it’s easy to see their principles of selection in action. They start out by mis-stating the book’s viewpoint and purpose:

In their book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, and Beau Kilmer—all of whom support the legalization of marijuana in some fashion—report …

This account suggests that the authors of the Weekly Standard essay never quite finished the book. While the first fifteen chapters, in Q&A format, are entirely collective products (I suppose in this context I can’t say “joint products”), the final chapter consists of four individually-authored essays. Of the four authors, only Angela Hawken favors legalization on the alcohol model. I’m clearly for legalization, but just as clearly against commercialization, concluding “So my first choice—not what I think will happen, but what I would like to see happen—is permission for production and use through small not-for-profit cooperatives, with a ban on commerce.”

Beau Kilmer points out how uncertain the whole proposition is, and devotes his essay to arguing that, if legalization is to be tried, it ought to be tried in an experimental mood, with, for example, sunset clauses. He adds:

Given the dearth of evidence we have about legalizing any of these activities, I am not convinced that jumping from one end of the continuum (prohibition) to the other (commercial production with advertising) is a good idea. Indeed, given the concerns about marijuana companies working hard to promote use, nurture heavy users, and keep taxes low, implementing the most extreme alternative to prohibition could be a really bad idea.

And Jonathan Caulkins – in fact the lead author of the book, though  Beach and Bennett list my name first – comes down more or less in the Beach-and-Bennett camp, starting his essay with  “I would vote against legalizing marijuana … ” (though he lists a grow-your-own approach as a possible “middle ground”). Jon concludes:

About half of all days of marijuana use come from people who self-report enough use-related problems to meet criteria for substance abuse or dependence with respect to marijuana or another substance. Does the happiness a controlled user derives from using marijuana on a typical day offset the unhappiness of someone else spending a day harmed by and/or struggling to control problem drug use? In my opinion, the answer is no. In a free society there are plenty of other ways to have fun without insisting on a right to use something that becomes a stumbling block for others.

Why should Beach and Bennett want their readers to believe that the authors of Marijuana Legalization are all legalization advocates? Because doing so allows them to treat everything in the book that supports their position as if it were an unwilling concession from the legalization side of the debate. They then proceed to quote only sections from the book that discuss disadvantages of legalization, which might leave a reader wondering why the authors of this purported pro-legalization tract have nothing good to say about the position they supposedly hold. Here’s the full Beach-and-Bennett discussion of the “gateway” issue:

Marijuana, of course, is a gateway drug. Even the authors of Marijuana Legalization admit that “kids who use marijuana—particularly those who start marijuana use at a young age—are statistically much more likely to go on to use other drugs than their peers who do not use marijuana.”

(Note the “even the authors …” formulation. And yes, I get a certain amount of this from the other side: “As even the fanatic prohibitionist Mark Kleiman admits …”)

Here’s the relevant section of the book, in full (emphasis added):


Kids who use marijuana—particularly those who start marijuana use at a young age—are statistically much more likely to go on to use other drugs than their peers who do not use marijuana.

What is not at all clear, however, is whether marijuana use causes subsequent use of other drugs or whether it is merely a signal indicating the presence of underlying social, psychological, or physiological risk factors—such as weak parental supervision, a taste for intoxication, or a willingness to take risks—for both early marijuana use and later hard-drug use. There have been some well-done studies with twins (comparing one who used marijuana with the other, who did not) that implicitly control for genetics and unmeasured family background, and some find evidence consistent with the gateway hypothesis. But once again, the question is how much of the correlation reflects causality.

Since most people have opportunities to try marijuana before they have opportunities to use harder drugs, marijuana use might precede hard drug use even if both are caused by the same underlying personality traits. Indeed, Andrew Morral and colleagues at RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center have
shown that such explanations are completely consistent with available data.

However, the fact that causal connections are not needed to explain the observed correlations does not mean there is no causal connection. At least two very different mechanisms might produce a causal “gateway” effect. One is the consequences of the drug use itself. For example, trying marijuana might increase the taste for other mind-altering experiences or lead users to revise their judgments about other substances, inferring that they are more pleasurable or less risky than previously supposed. The causal effect could also lie in social interactions. If acquiring and using marijuana leads to greater contact with peers who use and favor the use of drugs generally, those peer interactions might influence subsequent behavior. One version of this conjecture is that those peers could include people who sell other drugs, reducing the difficulty of locating potential supplies.

There’s a case to be made against any sort of cannabis legalization, though on the facts as now known I don’t find that case convincing.  But if it’s going to be made convincingly, it needs to be made after a full accounting for the costs of continued prohibition. And I haven’t seen anyone other than Caulkins try to make that all-things-considered case. David Frum writes much more soberly and temperately than Beach and Bennett, but his account is nonetheless entirely one-sided. The fact that someone as able as Frum couldn’t come up with a stronger argument ought to give some comfort to his opponents on the “Legalize it!” side of the question.

There’s a much stronger case to be made against commercialization, and I keep trying to make it. But politically speaking, there’s simply no active support for moderation: this is a case where, in the immortal words of Jim Hightower, “They ain’t nothin’ in the middle of the road but yaller lines and dead armadillas.” So I think we will wind up with full alcohol-style legalization, and therefore with much more of the bad outcomes that Bennett and Frum and Kevin Sabet warn about, partly because they prefer a last-ditch defense of policies that seem to me no longer defensible to a serious consideration of less-drastic alternatives.

Footnote * Of course, the phrase “every course of action” is slightly hyperbolic. As Dr. Johnson said, some things shouldn’t be tried even once: that is to say, shouldn’t even be considered as options. His examples were incest and folk-dancing; torture heads my personal list.

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:

6 thoughts on “Cannabis, Bill Bennett, and the technique of selective reading”

  1. Maybe Bennett thought the "support legalization in some fashion" was enough of a hedge, given your characterization of your own position as being in support of legalization but clearly against commercialization. But that doesn't excuse Bennett's misrepresenting Caulkin's position.

    1. If you’re a shill like Bennett, the idea that someone is willing to consider not prosecuting users of homegrown weed is easily enough to make them into an advocate of “legalization” in some form. It’s a little like the way that people who don’t think women should be jailed for terminating a pregnancy get lumped in a “pro-abortion”.

  2. Colorado is still in the early stages of serving as a laboratory of democracy with respect to cannabis legalization. Edibles have become a major focus of attention recently due to some unanticipated issues in their sale and use. Unintentional overdose due to slow absorption (leading to repeated oral administration) has been one problem. Marijuana edibles such as cookies have also been tested for bacterial content and have grown out coliforms such as E. coli and other organisms. They are not being prepared in the way that ordinary cookies are prepared for sale for human consumption.

    There have been several incidents in recent days of explosions in homes where cannabis is being processed into hash oil; the use of butane heaters to concentrate the THC is unsafe and several people have been hospitalized with burn injuries when the inevitable eventually happens. The police are saying that hash oil labs are a rerun of the meth labs of the nineties. Crude equipment and a low level of technical competence conspire to create occupational hazards for inexpert operators.

    Hell of it is they are probably not even covered under workers' compensation.

  3. Mark, Bennett has been doing this for a *long* time. I remember Bennett speaking at a Kennedy School event in the early 1990s. He demonized supporters of drug legalization (granted, back then people were talking about legalizing crack, for want of a better crime-control idea) in the most extreme possible terms–essentially saying that it was evil for any decent person to even consider the costs and benefits of legalizing any drug–while praising the work of people who had "responsible" drug-policy ideas, whom he made sound like Dirty Harry reborn because they seemed to like only conservative solutions. He mentioned two names but I remember only one of them because he had this odd two-middle-initial name that I'd heard a couple of times before: "Mark A.R. Kleiman." So, then as now, he was praising you for taking precisely the kind of one-sided approach that you've dedicated your whole career to opposing.

  4. "Moral clarity" is one of the watchwords of Bennett and others on the right. Usually it means, "My minds made up, don't confuse me with facts." (Moral clarity has its limits. They reserve it for things they don't like. When it comes to things like torture or misdeeds of conservatives, they suddenly realize the virtues of nuance and appreciation of situational factors.)

  5. For heaven's sake, it's Bill Bennett. He's been pre-discredited for our convenience ever since he blew at the casinos all those millions he made by affixing his name to preachily moralizing tomes, and then confessed that all of the moral prescriptions and proscriptions he pressed on other people hadn't made a dent in his own issues with alcohol and gambling. He's in contention to be the one person most unfit to have an opinion on these issues. That he's lying or just criminally lazy is vaguely amusing, but surely you aren't surprised by it?

    I suppose it might be marginally more useful to chew out The Weekly Standard for hiring his lying ass, and for failures of fact-checking. Of course, it's The Weekly Standard; no-one expects any better of them. Even so, and just as an experiment to determine whether they have an unanticipated sense of shame, someone ought to send to their editor a (short, suitable for publication) letter demanding retraction and correction. I'd think that as the most thoroughly traduced co-author Coulkins would be the obvious person to send such a letter, or it could be a joint effort lead-authored by Coulkins.

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