Joe Klein on drug legalization: same old same old

No, marijuana does not account for 47.5% of all arrests in the United States.

Joe Klein has an essay in the latest Time pushing drug legalization.

Happy as I am to see the drug issue re-opened for debate after thirty years of relentless and largely unanswered drug-war propaganda, I find Klein’s piece hugely disappointing. He has allowed himself to be played by the legalization crowd the way George Will gets played by the climate-change denialists, quoting made-up statistics as “facts” and ignoring essential distinctions.

*No, marijuana does not account for 47.5% of all arrests in the U.S.

*No, legalizing marijuana would not make any substantial dent in the incarceration problem: of the 2.3 million Americans behind bars, and the 500,000 behind bars on drug charges, only 30,000 are there for cannabis. That’s a lot of people &#8212 especially if you’re one of them &#8212 and I’d like to see the number shrink, but it’s a drop in the bucket. The incarceration action is mostly around cocaine.

*No, the California cannabis crop is not worth $14 billion.

*No, there is no huge revenue windfall available from legalization.

Let’s start with a few facts:

1. Cannabis is not “the largest cash crop in California.” That zombie statistic has a history: during the collapse of the lumbering industry in the early 1980s, the Ag Department county extension agent in Humboldt County, which grows timber and pot, was so angry about the suffering he saw around him due to unemployment among loggers that when he filled out his annual estimates of crop-by-crop revenues for his county he listed pot as #1, using a completely made-up number. Dale Gieringer of California NORML then projected that out nationally to show that cannabis was the nation’s #2 cash crop, ahead of soybeans but behind corn (or maybe it was the other way around. Since then, another NORMALista named Michael Gettman has produced even more fantastic numbers. In fact, the Abt Associates estimate put the total retail value of the cannabis trade at about $10b, about 15% of the total illicit-drug trade. That’s retail price, not farmgate price. And not all of that is grown domestically; some of it comes from Mexico, from Canada, and from Jamaica.

2. By the same token, there is not “an enormous potential windfall in the taxation of marijuana” unless the newly legalized industry manages to hugely multiply the number of chronic zonkers.* As Alex points out, the revenues of suppliers of products and services that generate bad habits in some users come overwhelmingly from problem rather than moderate users.

3. It is not the case that “47.5% of all arrests are marijuana-related.” I’d never heard that pseudo-statistic before, so I can’t say where it comes form; it might be that cannabis is that share of all drug arrests. According to the FBI, there are 14.4 million arrests per year in the U.S. Of those, 1.9 million are for “drug abuse violations.” It’s plausible that half that number could be cannabis violations By contrast, 2.6 million arrests are for alcohol-law violations: DUI, illegal sales, and drunkenness. So much for the idea that legalization takes the criminal law out of the drug abuse problem.

I haven’t seen the statistics on Mexico, but it’s completely implausible that most of its drug revenues come from cannabis, since most of our cocaine still comes through Mexico and the cocaine market is 250% of size of the pot market.

Conceptually, the piece conflates cannabis with other drugs, when the plausible set of policies aren’t the same. Can you really imagine a legal retail market in crack? I can’t, and I’ve tried.

Klein, reflecting the thinking of the resurgent drug-legalization movement, ignores the two major breakthroughs this decade in reducing the size and violence of the illicit drug markets while putting fewer, rather than more, people behind bars: David Kennedy’s low-arrest crackdowns on disruptive and violent drug markets (started in High Point NC and the subject of an excellent story by Mark Schoofs in the Wall Street Journal), and Steve Alm’s H.O.P.E. probation-enforcement project in Honolulu.

Those of us who are serious about reducing the 20-25% of the current prison population serving time for drug offenses ought to be thinking about harm-minimizing enforcement, not fantasizing about drug legalization.

I’m not strongly opposed to legalizing pot, though I’d much prefer legalization under a non-commercial (and therefore non-revenue-generating) model in which users were allowed either to grow their own or to join non-profit consumer co-ops. Otherwise we’ll just be putting the minds of the tobacco and beer marketers who have done such a good job encouraging abuse of nicotine and alcohol to work on the problem of how to encourage abuse of cannabis.

* Update A reader objects to “chronic zonkers”:

I haven’t seen you refer to alcohol users as “boozers” or crack users as “drug fiends,” so your wording suggests an animus.

Of course not all cannabis users are chronic zonkers, any more than all drinkers are drunks. But the chronic zonkers and the drunks account for most of the volume; in the case of alcohol, half the consumption is accounted for people people who average at least four drinks a day, year-round. One person smoking eight joints a day is worth more to the industry than fifty people each smoking a joint a week. If the cannabis industry were to expand greatly it couldn’t do so by increasing the number of casual users, it would have to create and maintain more chronic zonkers.

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