Marijuana: The Most-Debated, Least-Important Illegal Drug

By most measures the majority of the drug problem in both the US and Mexico does not relate to marijuana, so nothing you’re going to do with marijuana is very likely to decisively change the character of the overall drug policy situation

So says Professor Jonathan Caulkins in Randolph Nogel’s unusually nuanced article on the potential impact of US marijuana policy on Mexico. What Jon is saying will surprise many people, but he’s quite correct. Marijuana gets outsized attention in US drug policy debates, yet it matters at most slightly for the security of Mexico (and not at all for Central and South America). Domestically, it does not contribute to overdose deaths nor account for even 1% of imprisonments. But its status as a culture war symbol — particularly for baby boomers — will keep it in the forefront of popular debate even as concern over cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin wanes.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Marijuana: The Most-Debated, Least-Important Illegal Drug”

  1. I think this view is a little short-sighted. What illegal marijuana does is to keep the market for illegal drugs large; it’s like the Kipling poem:

    Five and twenty ponies,
    Trotting through the dark –
    Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
    Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
    Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

    The mass market in marijuana (brandy and tobacco) keeps the infrastructure for everything else robust.

  2. “it matters at most slightly for the security of Mexico”
    How was this determined? Kleiman’s methodology seems to be to misrepresent a RAND study (in this blog post), and then decide that a loss of 20% of revenue (not profit) won’t effect an organization. What’s yours?

  3. None of the current marijuana interest has anything to do with the ‘drugs problem’. The legislation and interest is in solving the ‘drug war’ problem. Just as Obama is enthusiastic about having forced Congress to raise taxes, just a little, because it represents a new state of being, I am enthusiastic about marijuana legalization because it changes this society from a reflexively ‘stupid on drugs’ position to one that has more nuance. That’s progress.

  4. Keith: “…even as concern over cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin wanes.”
    What comparable legislative and policy changes are on the table regarding these drugs? I challenge the assumption that there’s a “lump of attention” so that more concern for X means less for Y. That’s true for academics, legislators and other policy professionals: you can only work really hard on one thing at a time. But that’s not so for the general public. Marijuana activists have placed pot legalization on the political agenda. Good. They haven’t moved other drugs off it because they weren’t there in the first place.

  5. I don’t understand the logic of this post. It seems to be that pot isn’t particularly harmful, therefore we shouldn’t bother to make it legal. That seems weird.

  6. And of course in terms of substance use disorder, cannabis remains small compared to alcohol.
    Still, those hundreds of thousands of arrests – even though few of them lead to prison time – and tens of billions in illicit revenues aren't small problems. Cannabis is one of those second-order issues well worth spending most of a career on.

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