Can’t-make-this-stuff-up Dep’t

A student – a perfect stranger to me – comes up after my drug policy class and asks for help in scoring acid.

After I finished today’s lecture for my drug-policy class, a couple of students came up. One wanted to know what I’d written about “designer drugs,” of which the current examples are K2 and Spice as cannabis substitutes and “bath salts” as substitutes for MDMA. I said I hadn’t written anything and didn’t know much, but that both classes of product seem more dangerous than the things they’re substitutes for, and probably ought to be banned.

The student then asked about Salvia, and I said that, as far as I can tell, it’s so unpleasant that not many people use it, so it’s unlikely to be much of a problem whether it’s legal or not. His next question was about mushrooms, and I said that I thought that they had substantial potential benefits in controlled use, and that – along with peyote and LSD – they ought to be legally available to well-prepared adults under appropriate supervision. The student said “thanks” and walked away.  Not an especially unusual post-lecture dialogue, though pretty remote from today’s topic, which was source and transit country enforcement.

The student behind him needed me to sign a piece of paper for some bureaucratic reason. As he handed it to me, he said, as if following up on the previous conversation, “Do you know where I could get some LSD?” I looked to see if he was pulling my leg, but he seemed quite in earnest. So I said “I can’t believe you just asked me that.” He then said, “No, seriously. Do you know where I could get some LSD?” I repeated, “I can’t believe you just asked me that!” signed his form, and turned my back on him. If he was aware of any strangeness about  asking a total stranger, more or less in public, to commit a felony, he gave no hint of such awareness, let alone any embarrassment.

I’m starting to understand the Red Queen’s spiritual discipline. If you believe six impossible things before breakfast, nothing stranger will happen to you that day.



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:

52 thoughts on “Can’t-make-this-stuff-up Dep’t”

  1. Is the student in question a criminal justice major? Various law enforcement agencies do this sort of thing sometimes.

  2. We don’t have a criminal justice major at UCLA. It did cross my mind that he might be from an enforcement agency, but that seems even more far-fetched than the possibility he sincerely thought he could ask a university teacher to help him score.

  3. Perhaps he was not really interested in buying LSD. Perhaps he is studying philosophy, with a focus on epistomology, and the part that really interested him was not the “WHERE I COULD BUY” but rather the “DO YOU KNOW”.

  4. ” I said I hadn’t written anything and didn’t know much, but that both classes of product seem more dangerous than the things they’re substitutes for, and probably ought to be banned.”

    So, we ban A, which get substuted with B. B is more dangerous, so we ban it, and it gets replaced with C, which is more dangerous still. Rinse and repeat.

    Is the reasoning behind this recursive application, that eventually Z will be so terrifyingly dangerous that drug addicts will give up and stay sober?

    And in the meanwhile, I can’t soak in Epsom salts when I’m feeling sore because bath salts are illegal in case somebody might decide to snort them…

      1. Monsieur Kleiman: You are a very intelligent guy so it jangles my neocortex that you can actually posit this: “both classes of product seem more dangerous than the things they’re substitutes for, and probably ought to be banned.”

        It’s disturbing because it means I probably have similar chunks of irrationality in my perspectives, but damn if I know what they are. Thanks for ruining my day.

        1. M. Kleiman didn’t say, “and *therefore* probably ought to be banned.” Were he to say, “both onion and garlic are related to chives, and can be purchased at most grocery stores,” would you even worry about his logic?

    1. The logical consequence of Brett’s chain appears to be that we should legalize the dangerous B, to prevent the emergence of C. And we should probably legalize the still more dangerous C, to prevent the emergence of an even more dangerous hypothetical D. And so on …

      In other news, I’m not sure Brett is correct about the causality …

      1. Or maybe we should just relegalize A, so people can go back to using the least dangerous substance at the beginning of the chain. I believe the correct term for Mark’s reasoning is “doubling down”.

        1. The name of the game is whack-a-mole. The professional players earn quite an income!

      2. Actually, I would defend Brett as follows:

        The key insight of libertarians on drug policy (besides that the pleasure enjoyed by drug users matters) is that the law of unintended consequences is a very big factor with respect to the wisdom of drug prohibitions. That doesn’t, by itself, mean that no drug prohibitions are appropriate. But it does mean that if your reasoning is “drug X is dangerous, therefore ban it, full stop”, you are basically being a moral scold and are not seriously confronting what makes drug policy difficult. In fact, often times, legalizing the dangerous activity is the least bad policy option. (And that’s even before we weigh the hedonistic benefits of recreational drug use– as we must if we are to respect personal autonomy rather than viewing human beings as a bunch of slaves who are only permitted to do whatever the government lets them do.)

        Again, this doesn’t mean ban all drugs. But the fact that a designer, or non-designer, drug is dangerous proves nothing. Most dangerous things should be legal, because prohibitions carry huge costs.

        1. That wasn’t Brett’s argument, though. Brett claimed that the banning of drugs leads to the invention and marketing of more dangerous substitutes, which isn’t really the same thing at all. To the extent Brett was correct (and I question his assertions of causality), logically the banning of the first drug must be effective (to drive the market to a worse alternative) and so the answer could as easily to more quickly ban the dangerous alternative. After all, once they’re both illegal, people should illegally obtain the less dangerous option.

          Of course, there is a problem in that the drug warriors lie about how dangerous the options are, so the consumers may not be able to rationally choose among banned substances. Drugs that can safely be consumed shouldn’t be banned, and drugs the consumption of which has a lower price to society than is caused by prohibition of them shouldn’t be banned. But Brett’s reasoning, which isn’t the same as your reasoning, just doesn’t work.

          1. Well, Brett is right at least to the extent that the creation of new drugs which can be even more dangerous, but which are not yet scheduled, is in part one of the byproducts of drug prohibitions.

          2. I was commenting on Mark’s reasoning: That K2 and whatever, which were substitutes for pot, were more dangerous, and should be banned. But, of course, as Mark certainly ought to be aware, the only reason anybody is looking for pot substitutes is that pot was banned.

            And I pointed out where a recursive application of this reasoning would lead.

            In fact, there is good reason to expect that banning any controlled substance will shift production and consumption to worse substances: Even before the ban, it was possible to produce the alternative. Obviously if people smoked pot instead of consuming ‘bath salts’, it was because pot was a better way of getting high than bath salts, on one or more metrics. So banning popular ways of getting high can only shift the market towards worse ways of getting high: If those ways weren’t worse, they’d have already been in wide use.

          3. So Gresham’s law applies to drugs as well as to currency, does it? That makes sense.

            It’s not just the drug warriors who lie about the dangerousness of drugs; it’s the dealers too. All the harder for the casual user, or even the addict, to know where to turn.

  5. Have you considered that maybe you were being video-recorded and that the students were part of a right-wing sting?

    1. Yes, that would be my first thought. Another clumsy attempt by James O’Keefe & Co. to fabricate an embarrassing video.

      1. You know, that seems slightly more plausible than the “law enforcement sting” theory. Still, I make it a rule never to attribute to conspiracy what can be explained by mere stupidity.

        1. That was my thought: Stupid. Exceptionally. Although I am always shocked by how much kids will reveal about themselves via Twitter, etc., stuff I may have done too at their age, but did everything in my power to keep from my parents.

          1. If the kid was enrolled in the class and not some random student Mark hadn’t seen before, then I’d go for the stupidity choice. He might also have been on something at the time.

            My best guess for a response would be “if you’re going to ask somebody you don’t really know a question like that, it suggests you might have a problem with drugs. I encourage you to talk about it with Student Health.”

          2. Brian Schmidt has nailed it. To tell the truth, I’ve gotten LSD from one of my teachers before, but I’d known him for years and met him often socially. It would be spectacularly stupid to ask a random professor on campus anything like that, even if your prof is named Shulgin or Hoffmann. But LSD is pretty common on campuses, and it’s easy for a new user to get caught up in the culture & think it’s more normalized than it is.

  6. Is it really a felony to merely suggest awareness of an illicit drug distributor? Am I committing a crime by not turning in someone in my neighborhood for quiet pot sales and gossiping about his activities with other neighbors?

    1. Yes, telling someone where he can score can be charged as conspiracy to distribute, even if the tipster gets no material reward. There’s no law requiring you to turn anyone in. Merely gossiping isn’t a crime, but you shouldn’t say anything suggesting you’re helping someone consummate an illicit transaction.

      1. I suspect you actually have a First Amendment right to say where illegal activity may be going on. Brandenburg v. Ohio would need to be satisfied before merely saying where someone can score drugs could be permissibly criminally prosecuted.

  7. From the fact that you wouldn’t just reply “No,” I conclude that you do, in fact, know where the student could get some LSD. But as a virtuous man, you did not want to lie.

    1. Your conclusion is unjustified. The student had no right to that information, whether the answer was yes or no. And either answer would have lent legitimacy to the question.

    2. If a student asks a personal question of an instructor, the instructor is not obliged to reply.

  8. Maybe the student just read Walter Isaacsons’s biography of Steve Jobs? This was perhaps the most provocative quote in the book:

    “I came of age at a magical time,” he reflected later. “Our consciousness was raised by Zen, and also by LSD.” Even later in life he would credit psychedelic drugs for making him more enlightened. “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you what there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important– creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness a much as I could.”

  9. I don’t know that the student’s asking the question, as phrased, was asking anyone to commit a crime. If the phrasing had been, “Will you get me some LSD?” or similar words requesting assistance, that would be a different matter. In any event, declining to answer was wise.

  10. As a serious question, what is K2?
    I hear a reference to it, and the person said it was M.J. soaked in formaldehyde. That seemed a bit weird to me. That person said it made the M.J. more potent, or some such.

    To me, it sounds like something no self-respecting stoner would touch with a 10 ft bong.

    1. No, “K2” is one of the synthetic cannabinoids: a molecule that binds to some of the same receptors as the THC in the cannabis plant. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone sold mj soaked in fomaldehyde (ick!) and called it “K2.”

        1. No, not an urban legend. Here in Texas it’s also called “dip” and “wet” (as in that’s what your brain turns to after you use it). Blunts soaked in embalming fluid have been a mainstay of seriously hardcore substance abusers here for years. Like crack, everyone knows it fries your brain – doesn’t stop those who crave that kind of self obliteration. It really is kind of the dark side of the dark side of drug abuse. A lot more prevalent than you might think, though not terribly widespread, mostly in the African-American community. One of those things that’s just hard to fathom, kinda like Australian Aborigines huffing gasoline.

        2. Making mj more potent doesn’t even begin to describe it. Back in the late ’70’s I was at a large house party where a few people were (knowingly) smoking mint leaf that had been soaked in formaldehyde (can you imagine?). From what I saw that night, I doubt one would notice the effects of whatever substrate they used as a vehicle to smoke it. Those guys were trippin’ hard. Nobody would mistake it’s effects for mj and I doubt many would want it as a substitute.

          BTW: Based on my limited experience, I DO NOT recommend this even under carefully supervised clinical conditions. Whatever the effect was, it was obviously highly hallucinogenic, but otherwise not much like any LSD or mushroom trips I have witnessed. The people on it seemed to have little sense of “highness”. There wasn’t the usual laughter and euphoric reaction to hallucination, no (real or imagined) deep insights, rather they carried on as if it seemed normal to them to have a long two-way conversation with a houseplant or lay down and go to sleep in the bathtub of a busy hallway bathroom in a party house (she slept apparently peacefully for hours). Some didn’t seem to know there was a party going on. People were laughing at weird and stupid things they were doing, and they’re totally nonchalant as if everything is normal and they’re going about their day-to-day business. It didn’t look like much fun to me. Plus, it’s freakin’ formaldehyde dude!

          That’s the only time I ever saw or recall hearing of anyone smoking formaldehyde. I don’t know if they had a name for it or how widespread it was.

          1. You’re right about cigarettes. I had forgotten that. Must be minuscule amounts — not even the heaviest chain smoker I know trips on it. Of course it’s highly possible that it wasn’t even formaldehyde those folks at the party were smoking — that’s just what they were told when they bough a product from an unregulated market, so who knows. Those who justify prohibition on the premise of protecting children and young adults from the dangers of intoxicating drugs seem to assign as much weight to that factor as they do to the futility of prohibition (especially with regards to that age group) and the relative success of alcohol regulation in keeping it out of the hands of minors.

  11. Well this is the best argument in favor of prohibition that I’ve seen. K2 is a mountain. Spices are food additives. Bath salts are often nicely scented and soften the skin. Salvia is a pretty bedding plant, and mushrooms are good with chicken. If users are going to steal perfectly good nouns, the products should be banned on that basis alone.

    And as for your student, next time suggest that the local police would be a better source for the information sought.

  12. While I understand and support the idea of conducting carefully controlled scientific experiments in this area, I can’t help but be a bit amused at the generalized conclusions presented, as most anyone old enough to have experienced the ’60’s and ’70’s could have told them things like it really does have a consciousness-expanding effect, the more the better the scarier, and it’s a good idea to have someone sober and familiar with the effects around to talk you down if things go down uncomfortable paths.

      1. The sweet spot is what I’m talking about. The more you take, the better the effects, but the higher the anxiety factor. That’s exactly what the Hopkins research reports. Their data suggests a desired-effects curve reaching a point of diminishing returns and intersecting with a curve of increasing undesired effects as dosage increases. The sweet spot is determined by how much effect one wants and how much anxiety one is willing to risk for it. Most recreational users naturally learn their sweet spot fairly quickly. This self-regulating quality can be a safety valve though it’s obviously quite possible to abuse psychedelics.

        As the (usually) most moderate of my circle of late-teen/early-adult friends growing up in the ’70’s I was the one the others counted on to be sober enough to drive for a beer run or babysit for a psychedelic trip. I’ve been there a few times when someone went far past the sweet spot and well into bad-trip territory, and I can tell you it can be quite a terrifying thing to witness and even more so for the subject, who often experiences long-lasting negative effects afterwards. Somebody known and trusted provides a much-needed “reality reference point” for someone experiencing terrifying hallucinations and having trouble distinguishing real from imaginary. That reference point is also quite helpful even if you’re having a good trip, but it’s kind of surreal to be the babysitter, because you’re the only one not in on the joke everyone else is laughing hysterically over.

        Another abuse vector, also common with just about any drug, is overly-frequent use. The Hopkins research doesn’t go this far, but it’s no surprise that — like many drugs — a curve of decreasing effects with frequency of use is common. I’ve actually heard these words spoken in earnest: “Dude, if your best friends can’t tell when you’re tripping, it’s time to lay off for a while”.

        One more thing that amused me about the study: the music! What — no Pink Floyd? Floyd is perfect for tripping! Live stadium concert + a few mushrooms = unforgettable experience!

  13. Mark’s reply was perfectly correct, but lacks the zing of the best put-downs. Any suggestions?
    The bar is set by the 18th-century English politician and agitator John Wilkes:

    Earl of Sandwich: John, do you expect to die on the gallows or of the pox?
    Wilkes: that depends whether I embrace your Lordship’s principles or your mistress.

    To get you started:
    – To ask that question, you must have already found some.
    – How are things on Krypton these days?
    – Yes, but I need his whole supply to face questions like yours.

  14. Prof. Kleiman, take it from the kind of professor who NEVER gets asked that–it was a compliment. He’s saying youre hip enough that you might be able to help him score a cool retro drug like LSD.

    Seriously, though, do you know where I can get some? Just send it to my email address. I’m totally not a cop.

  15. We each read the transaction differently. I suspect that this kid simply cannot imagine any sophisticated person in a big city taking the prohibition on recreational drugs seriously.

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