The opponents of cannabis legalization in Nevada have finally started to get their act together, and it now looks as if the proposition might not pass after all. The mendacity quotient from the “No” side is fairly high, as might be expected on a topic where passions run so deep: the former head of drug treatment for Nevada is telling people that marijuana causes “early senility,” which will certainly be news to the folks at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, to say nothing of the National Institute on Aging.

[For my thoughts on an earlier ploy — the argument that increased cannabis potency makes the drug vastly more dangerous than it was a generation ago — see here.]

But the proponents of the initiative have apparently decided not to be out-bullshat. For a mere $5,000, they got the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV to calculate that the proposition could yield $26 million a year in revenues for the state.

Now to an outsider, there might seem to be one small problem with this calculation: since the federal Controlled Substances Act makes cannabis illegal, the state-licensed and state-taxed distribution scheme proposed in the initiative could not actually take effect, and therefore no actual revenues would be forthcoming. It’s hard to finance the purchase of schoolbooks, as promised by the head of the initiative movement, with imaginary, or pro-forma, money. However, such minor considerations weren’t allowed to get in the way of science:

“R. Keith Schwer of the Center of Business and Economic Research said the study did not take into consideration that marijuana is an illegal substance banned under federal law.”

[Economists will recognize the research technique called “assuming a can-opener.”]

The study also assumed 75,000 regular cannabis users in Nevada, consuming an average of 12 grams per month each. Given about a quarter of a gram per joint, which is what current surveys estimate, that comes to something over a joint and a half per user per day, every day. Can you say “serious stoner”? [Here’s where rising potency does matter: 12 grams a month of today’s cannabis isn’t the same as 12 grams a month of what the boomers were smoking thirty years ago.] But I suppose the detail that the bulk of the hypothetical revenues would be coming from people suffering from clinically diagnosable substance abuse disorder is another thing the Center for Business and Economic Research “did not take into consideration.”

It is my considered, though not inflexible, opinion that providing legal, noncommercial access to cannabis for those adults who want it, while forbidding commerce in the drug, would probably — weighing advantages against disadvantages — outperform the current complete prohibition of the Evil Weed. [It’s impossible to be sure, both because the outcomes are uncertain and because there’s no obviosly correct way to balance X person-years of drug dependency prevented against Y prisoner-years behind bars.] That being the case, I wouldn’t be unhappy to see the Nevada proposition pass.

But the quality of the debate makes me wish that both sides could lose.

[Okay, I’ll admit it: what really bothers me is the $5000. A study this transparently bogus, from a research unit at a state university, should cost real money. Why should it be cheaper to rig an economic analysis than to fix a basketball game?]

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: