If you ignore the disadvantages of cocaine legalization, legalization looks like a fine idea.

Dan Kahan and Ilya Somin are entirely correct. If you simply ignore all the negative consequences of legalizing cocaine, including the violent crimes likely to result from combination use of cocaine and alcohol, then legalizing cocaine looks like a good idea.

Update I agree entirely with Kahan’s point (noted by some commenters below) about “cognitive illiberalism” in the gun debates. Too much of the discourse that on its surface is about the effects of gun policy actually reflects a culture-war battle between people to whom guns are icky and people to whom guns are liberating.

Kahan has updated, acknowledging my point above. For some reason the update is behind a sign-in wall. But here’s the version he sent to me:


Honestly, I only meant to say, “like Mark Kleiman says ….” I even linked/cited him multiple times!

Likely I should have been more nuanced; instead of “legalize,” I should have said we should … we should … That’s part of the problem; this is a very complex — one needs to write several excellent books, as Kleiman has, to spell it all out.

The U.S. has reached a dead end in trying to fight drug use by treating every offender as a serious criminal. Blanket drug legalization has some superficial charm—it fits nicely into a sound-bite or tweet—but it can’t stand up to serious analysis. The real prospects for reform involve policies rather than slogans. It remains to be seen whether our political process—and the media circus that often shapes it—can tolerate the necessary complexity.

Consider mine a “gateway” argument to the more serious stuff that Kleiman is offering.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

52 thoughts on “Duhhhh…”

  1. I dunno about repealing drug laws to reduce gun violence. What the hell is the point of that? No. There’s no point to that. You repeal drug laws because it’s a moral and health issue.
    The problem is the US government treats (cocaine) addiction as a crime, rather than a health issue. Consider Insite, a Vancouver based health care initiative by the province of BC. There were over 300,000 visits to the centre, and no, lemme reiterate, NO fatalities in 2010. Were there further funding, perhaps there’d have been more than 400 people enrolled into the program’s treatment, which had a 43% success rate.
    Outside of the centre, fatal overdoses were reduced by 35%. Within the city of Vancouver, overall, fatal overdoses were reduced by 9%.

    1. The supervised injection site in Vancouver would be relevant to the question of legalizing cocaine if the Province of Vancouver had, in fact, legalized cocaine.

      1. The point of the Insite reference is that much harm can be reduced – harm to the addicts and harm to society around them – by treating addition as a disease rather than a crime. Criminal law in Canada is federal, not provincial (though provinces can create some kinds of offences – our constitutional law is complicated too …) and what drugs are legal is a federal matter.

        The federal government tried to close down the Insite program as encouraging (or not sufficiently punishing) the consumption of illegal drugs, despite pretty well unanimous medical and police support for the program. The province defended the program right to the Supreme Court of Canada, which found Insite to be a valid exercise of provincial powers over health care and beyond the power of the feds to close.

        1. Strictly, you can’t treat it as a “disease, rather than a crime”, because if you do, people have a choice as to whether or not they get “treated”. All you can do is treat it as a disease, AND a crime.

          1. Nah, keep addiction as a strictly health issue. Also, sending addicts to jail is just ridiculously expensive. BC’s court system is already backlogged enough.

        2. I’ll add, healthcare in Canada is a strictly provincial issue, except for the amount of funding the federal provides to the provinces (but the provinces, being tax collecting entities, set their own budgets, regardless). The RCMP, too, while being a federal agency, are contracted by the province, and follow the provincial government’s directives, as the court system is provincial.
          Which means, while there are laws regarding drug use, they aren’t strictly enforced. At least around the downtown east-side in Vancouver.
          And despite the federal government’s opposition to Insite, the current provincial government supports it, and the opposition party supports it, and it has a high approval rating in the province (76%!)

  2. And if you simply ignore all the negative consequences of outlawing it, like black markets funding international terrorism, destabilizing nations, the erosion of civil liberties, and rampant crime, THAT seems like a good idea.

    1. I’m with Brett, here. There is a real tendency to set the analytic frame around ‘effects in the USA’ and to ignore the staggering number of murders and the corruption of the social order in Mexico and other countries. Our drug prohibition constitutes an enormous foreign aid program to foreign thugs.

      1. Also requires ignoring the gigantic first, second, and third-level effects of what has grown into a gargantuan prosecutor-prison-industrial complex in the freedom-loving USA.


    2. Which, of course, is the reason I don’t ignore those negative consequences, but have spent most of a career trying to design policies to minimize them, to the outrage of drug warriors and anti-prohibitionists alike.

  3. I would suggest that anyone wishing to consider the objective work of a scholar that belies the title of this post should follow it’s first link.

    1. Both colloquially and in this specific case, “duhhhh…” refers to an argument, not to a person. It’s the equivalent of “ooops!” Of course neither Kahan nor Somin is stupid. But leaping from “X has a disadvantage” to “We should not do X” is a dumb argument.

      1. The article discusses pharmacologic interactions between alcohol and cocaine, with a possibility that there is a potentiating interaction between the two drugs on violence and violent thoughts. There may only be an additive effect, however; the authors were not certain of which conclusion to draw, based on a single study showing potentiation by cocaine of alcohol-induced violent thinking.

        The additional violence which would occur if cocaine were legal goes on one side of the ledger. The decrease in violence that would occur if the illegal drug trade were replaced by a legal drug trade goes on the other side.

        There may be a clear difference between the two sides of the ledger, but the “fact” that the increase in violence from legal cocaine would far offset the decrease from violence attributable to drug trafficking does not appear to me to be so self-evident as to warrant a Duhhhh response either to the argument or the man, without additional information.

        1. @Ed Whitney: Framing issues as “we must chose between this or that by toting them up on the ledger” only makes sense if there is only one way to produce a good outcome. There are illegal markets with no violence (including in cocaine), there are legal markets with extensive violence. One can clearly change the level of violence in a market without changing the legal status of a market (in either direction), hence it is not a case that our only choices are either cocaine legalization with extensive user violence OR an illegal cocaine market with extensive violence.

          1. Tote = carry. Tot = enter in a ledger. So you can be toting something up a hill, but totting something in a ledger.

          2. I don’t think just because there are legal markets with violence that it follows that policy wonks can actually control the level of violence.

            A free society is inevitably messy. But if drug and alcohol prohibition demonstrate one thing, it is that moralistic types who want to save people from themselves have extremely inflated egos when it comes to their power to fix things.

      2. I, too, am referring to “the objective work … that belies the title of this post”, and not to any particular scholar. I thought Kahan’s argument was far from a duhhhh. That he wasn’t making the argument you’re objecting to moots the particular objection in this case.

  4. Denzel in “Flight” was a good movie, great to see him doing something serious-ish again. But it highlighted the urban fable of using Cocaine to counteract effects of alcohol excess.
    Unlike the film, article referenced in your post points out (didn’t read the original)the down side:
    “Both prospective and retrospective data further reveal that co-use leads to the formation of cocaethylene, which may potentiate the cardiotoxic effects of cocaine or alcohol alone. More importantly, retrospective data suggest that the combination can potentiate the tendency towards violent thoughts and threats, which may lead to an increase of violent behaviours” outweighs any possible benefit to be derived from antagonizing ” the psychomotor performance deficits and driving deficits induced by alcohol”.
    Wish Zemeckis’s pic had done this too.

  5. Kahan gets more to the point in comments at the linked article:

    There are in fact about 1 billion things we could do besides adopting gun control laws *or* arming schools that would more reliably & dramatically reduce death among children. Why not ban swimming pools? They kill scores more kids every yr than guns. Say that & people — those who want to ban assault rifles & those who want to repeal gun-free-school-zone laws — will look at you like you have 2 heads, and say “you are missing the point.” Indeed: because *their* point isn’t about saving childrens’ lives; it’s about using law to construct, advance, attack, etc. meanings that are associated with ways of life. I’m not sure what’s more disturbing, either: that so many people are committied to using law to impose their partisan meanings on others; or that they in fact are committed to doing this & don’t even realize it …

    I’m finding it refreshing to read liberal viewpoints coming from a scholar who demonstrates rigorous avoidance of cognative illiberalism. Many thanks for posting the link here.

      1. Yeah, but guns are a LOT more common than swimming pools, meaning that each individual pool is enormously more dangerous than each gun. I suspect the National Pool Association has less clout, too.

        1. One problem with that analysis is that for it to work, all of the “all others” have to be drownings in swimming pools.

      2. Cranky, I think you’re missing Kahan’s point (as evidenced by the attempt to change the terms from “death among children” to something else in order to fit your cited data to your position), which has nothing to do with guns or swimming pools:

        Indeed: because *their* point isn’t about saving childrens’ lives; it’s about using law to construct, advance, attack, etc. meanings that are associated with ways of life. I’m not sure what’s more disturbing, either: that so many people are committied to using law to impose their partisan meanings on others; or that they in fact are committed to doing this & don’t even realize it …

        1. BTW: I’m not tying to poke at Cranky here (not this time) or anyone else for that matter. Read what Kahan had to say about cognitive illiberalism vis-a-vis the gun debate. When it comes to “Reliance on one-sided, cherry-picked empirical arguments” to make a point I don’t think any of us has much room to point fingers after last weekend’s emotion-fueled brouhaha here, certainly not I. Kahan’s point hit home with me, but it’s easy to miss (he describes this as a design feature in comments to the article Mark linked to):

          [commentator ob]:
          I just want to note, that I thought for much of the blog post you would totally miss the point. However, indeed I missed your point. To prevent that, it would likely help if you started with a short version of the paragraphs from “Now one thing to note” onwards. The reader would be able to more readily follow your logic instead of asking: what the heck has that to do with the current discussion?

          I actually did anticipate that some people would hvae that reaction; but I think it is a reaction they should critidcally reflect on.

          Later he elaborates:

          I didn’t raise the issue of bannig pools b/c I support (or oppose) doing so, but as heuristic, or test: the fact that people are happy to live w/ lethality of pools & fixate on guns & in fact react w/ indignation when you poijt out that pools are more dangerous is evidence that the motivation for focusing on guns is what guns *mean*, not what they *do.*

          I am not proposing to ban pools or do anyting like that. I am using the example as a test to see what really motivates people. If they cared about “saving kids lives,” they wouldn’t be focusing only on reglating assault rifles or putting armed guards in the schools; they’d be looking at swimming pools. If they wanted to reduce homicides — including ones by guns — they’d be talkig about getting rid of drug laws. People impute harm to things that offend their values, and when things that offend their values cause harm, they react in a strong way. Things that are “normal” relative to their values are seen as harmless; or if they cause harm, well, it’s not nearly so emotionally troubling etc.

          I think he’s saying that if we will discipline our thinking processes to avoid these intellectual traps we stand a better chance of coming up with better ways to improve our lives than “arm the teachers” or “ban the guns”, and I think I agree.

          1. After re-absorbing Kahan’s paper on cognitive illiberalism, I’ve discovered that I was quite wrong about his recommended means of avoiding it. Read his thoughts on “expressive overdetermination” to see where I was wrong. Fascinating stuff!

          2. I’ve got serious doubts adding “and I despise gun ownership” to, “getting rid of guns would reduce murder” would actually persuade anybody. This “expressive overdetermination” doesn’t sound very likely, unless I’m completely misunderstanding it. Although it would be a refreshing change.

          3. One example of expressive overdetermination which I bounced off Kahan was the idea of advocating drug prohibition reform to liberals as a measure intended to drastically reduce the perverse incentives of the black market to gun violence, while advocating to conservatives on the grounds that it is in part an anti-gun-violence measure which doesn’t infringe on their keeping or bearing of arms in any way. As is the norm in politics, nobody gets everything they want, but this way everybody gets something important to their cultural identity which, Kahan quite convincingly argues, underlies and heavily influences our political decisions at a subconscious level.

            And yes, I find the intellectual honesty of such an approach refreshing, though it should be noted that the cognitive illiberalism suppressed by the approach is something that we are all extremely vulnerable to, and not usually very conscious of when we exhibit it. After reading Kahan’s paper and reflecting on it’s concepts, I was easily able to see many examples in my own rhetoric, though as he says it’s much more obvious to others than it is to ourselves.

      3. That’s injuries, not accidental deaths–injuries can be intentional (that factsheet includes suicides and homicides.)

        Far accidental deaths, you want this sheet–http://danger.mongabay.com/injury_death.htm

    1. Interesting, but goes a little too far in dismissing the possibility of overcoming cultural biases. Objectivity is enormously difficult, but it’s not categorically impossible. Unless you dismiss even trying; You can never accomplish what you’re not willing to try.

      Nor do I really think gun controllers admitting to despising gun ownership in addition to claiming rational basis for their preferred policies is really going to cool things down.

    2. I don’t understand this swimming pool argument. How many intentional homicides are committed using swimming pools?

      1. If the aim is strictly saving lives then intent is irrelevant. That said, with respect to gun regulation, the intent is not just to save lives but to increase or preserve a sense of security and civility in society. The security a gun can bring depends on which side of the gun you’re standing.

          1. given the level of training and time spent qualifying, armed police forces don’t necessarily make me nervous. given the number of proven excessive force cases including excessive deadly force cases that happen each year among a highly trained group like police officers doesn’t make me more comfortable about the large numbers of guns in the hands of people who are not so rigorously trained.

          2. I have to say, if I found myself staring down the barrel of a police officer’s gun I’d feel quite insecure.

          3. Well, I’d feel insecure if staring down the barrel of a gun held by a CCW permitee, too. But the mere presence of such doesn’t make me feel insecure, knowing as I do that they are actually *less* likely to shoot the wrong person than cops.

            Admittedly, a lot of this is because they’re not arriving at situations after they develop, and so are less likely to be mistaken about who the right person to shoot is.

            But, I have to say, arguments about the amount of training cops get leave me cold, after reading stories like this. Cases where the police empty magazine after magazine into somebody under dubious circumstances seem to be a tad too common for rigorously training to be plausible.

            In fact, a lot of civilian gun owners put in more time at the range than cops, who typically have incredibly low range time requirements to meet.

            But these are just subjective perceptions, the actual statistics tell us that we shouldn’t worry about either.

        1. But if the intent is saving lives then why concentrate only on accidental deaths? Also, for these purposes, it might make sense to consider certain intentional deaths as “semi-accidental.” Consider deaths cause by impulsive use of guns – many suicides, homicides committed in a fit of rage, and so on.

          1. I believe the argument is that since more kids die in swimming pool accidents than by gunshot you could save more lives by eliminating swimming pools. (I’m not sure that Kahan is actually asserting the validity of that claim). And yet (getting back to Kahan’s (and I believe Freeman’s) point), people go straight to gun regulation when that doesn’t top the list in terms of reducing body counts. My point is that reducing body counts is not the whole picture.

  6. People can use cocaine and alcohol right now. Why would legalising cocaine suddenly increase the number of violent crimes attributable to concurrent alcohol and cocaine use?

      1. Is there any evidence that cocaine use would explode? Is there an enormous unmet demand for cocaine? Is it possible that people who combine alcohol and cocaine do so because they can’t afford to use cocaine exclusively?

        1. Does the history of Prohibition suggest that cocaine consumption would “explode”? Based on what happened with alcohol, you’d expect most cocaine consumption, post war on drugs, to be in the form of “original recipe Coke”. Prohibitions are well known to shift consumption towards stronger, more compact forms of whatever is prohibited. Beer and wine prior to and after Prohibition, hard liquor during.

          I’m sure there would be some transients as we resumed being free, but the trajectory of alcohol consumption really does suggest that people don’t gravitate to extreme drugs when free to chose.

          1. Now this was a long time ago, but I seem to remember reading in (I believe) Prof. Kleiman’s Daedalus essay that legal cocaine would be used by upto 60% of the adult population. Its current use as per US surveys is ~2%.

            And the reason for the combination use is posited in the video i.e. cocaine prevents passing out due to high alcohol use, thus allowing extended drinking and alcohol makes sleep possible after a cocaine binge.

            Both for cannabis and cocaine, it seems their interaction with alcohol is the primary factor of concern for Mark Kleiman regarding drug policy.

            Personally, I think, in the longer run, making the common illicit drugs legal alongwith some honest but tactical education will have the effect of displacing alcohol as the ubiquitous default intoxicant, which it currently is solely due to the utter paucity of competing legal recreational intoxicants. Understandably, the current spectre of alcohol looms large in present analyses of drug policy.

          2. Yeah, as I said, “Original recipe Coke”. In which form it’s about as horrible as caffeine. It is, after all, just a stimulant, it’s not Thyonite.

            I’m willing to believe there’s a dangerous synergy between cocaine and alcohol. Caffeine and alcohol aren’t exactly a safe combination, either; One of the few redeeming aspects of alcohol is that falling asleep limits the damage you can do. Anything that will keep a drunk awake is a bad idea.

            But we know what a country with legal cocaine is like. We don’t have to speculate, we don’t have to take seriously predictions that 60% of the population would be snorting lines. We used to live in a country were cocaine was legal! And it wasn’t remotely like that.

          3. Marijuana was legal too, and lifetime use among adults was nowhere near 40% as it is today. Obviously, legalizing marijuana isn’t a magic act that will restore circa 1936 use levels. Why would cocaine be any different?

  7. Marijuana was legal too, and lifetime use among adults was nowhere near 40% as it is today. Obviously, legalizing marijuana isn’t a magic act that will restore circa 1936 use levels. Why would cocaine be any different?

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