Mexican marijuana and blood diamonds

No, the comparison isn’t very precise. If all the casual pot-smokers insisted on using domestic product only, nothing much would change.

Greg Campbell’s comparison of marijuana smokers to buyers of blood diamonds (h/t Andrew Sullivan) is hardly original: the Partnership for a Drug-Free America ran a series of ads on this theme a decade or more ago, one of them showing a young pot-smoker saying “I killed a judge today.” But it comes wrapped in two spectacular fallacies.

First, Campbell cites unnamed  “Mexican officials” for the claim that “cannabis now provides the cartels with as much as half of their revenue.” That’s down from the zombie estimate of  60% that U.S. officials continued to prop up until Beau Kilmer, Jonathan Caulkins, Brittany Bond, and Peter Reuter at RAND drove an analytic stake through its heart, but it’s still nonsense; RAND estimates the true figure at 16-26%. (Link goes to a .pdf; see p. 33.) And that’s the marijuana share of their drug-export revenues alone, ignoring all the money they make from extortion, kidnapping, theft from PEMEX, and drug sales to Mexican consumers.

Second, Campbell identifies “the casual marijuana smoker” as the class of person with the “responsibility for ethical behavior.” But of course casual smokers don’t, by definition, smoke very much.  Marijuana consumption, like alcohol consumption, obeys the 80/20 rule (sometimes known as “Pareto’s Law”) under which 20% of the people engaged in any activity account for 80% of the activity.  So Campbell should be addressing his message to serious pot-heads rather than Saturday-night tokers.

But the sort of serious pot-head who reads the New Republic and worries about the impact of his consumer behavior on violence abroad probably smokes expensive sinsemilla – mostly domestic or Canadian in origin – rather than cheap Mexican product.

And those prosperous, literate, socially conscious folks constitute a distinct minority among heavy marijuana users; 62% of the days of marijuana intoxication are accounted for by users with a high-school education or less. The social gradient associated with cannabis use has reversed since the 1960s, but that fact has yet to fully penetrate the public discourse ; as Jon Caulkins has remarked, marijuana is now predominantly used by Wal-Mart customers rather than Whole Foods customers.

Campbell notices the fact that legalization would end the problem only to dismiss it with the claim that “legalization isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.” But that’s not true at the state level: with three propositions on the ballot this fall (Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) it’s probably better than even money that at least one will pass, and – unless that state, or the federal government, stepped in with massive enforcement – a single state that legalized outside the medical context could easily supply the entire continent with pot, more or less wiping out the Mexican cannabis trade. Maybe that’s not a sufficient argument for legalization, but it’s substantial one.

So the logical conclusion of Campbell’s argument would seem to be that pot-smokers concerned about the impact of their habit on Mexican violence should put aside some of their budget for marijuana purchases to contribute to one of the legalization efforts. That’s not quite the conclusion he draws.

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:

15 thoughts on “Mexican marijuana and blood diamonds”

  1. Of course marijuana users don’t shop at Whole Foods. Their prices are extortionate when you’re NOT particularly hungry.

  2. “But the sort of serious pot-head who reads the New Republic …. probably smokes expensive sinsemilla ….”
    Under full legalisation and cheap raw material, one obvious strategy for a commercial vendor is product differentiation. This works very will for alcohol; Dom Pérignon really does taste different from Cava Plonk, but people will pay more for imported lagers than for standard domestic Heineken, and for premium vodka, with no taste difference discernible to me. Am I right (though a lifelong nonsmoker) in thinking that this pattern hardly applies to cigarettes, apart from outliers like Gauloises and Sobranie? Since you already point to substantial quality differences in marijuana, legalisation and brand differentiation would probably build on them, leading to a market that looked more like alcohol than tobacco.

  3. M. Romney is, by all accounts, sincere in his Mormonism (if nothing else).

    The possibility that Romney accedes to POTUS and at least one of the three western states legalizes cannabis is, therefore, something like one-third. (I’m probably messing up the stats bad.)

    But here’s my prediction: if Romney wins and cannabis is state-level legalized, then President Romney will not hesitate to dispatch federal law enforcement to confront state governments on the cannabis issue. We may be headed for what is known, in technical jargon, as a “huge clusterfuck.”

    1. Let’s suppose for the moment that the initiatives in each state have a 50% chance of passage. In that case, the probability that at least one state passes its measure is 1 – (1/2)^3 = 7/8. In fact, to make it an even money bet that the measure passes in at least one state, the probability of passage in any one state needs to be about 20%. I’ve made the hugely simplifying assumption that the probability of passage is the same in all three states, so I wouldn’t take these numbers as anything but illustration.

      I don’t think it’s unreasonable to treat Mittens’ candidacy outcome as being statistically independent of these ballot measures. The Presidential election also looks (to me) like a toss-up. That belief causes me to ask if my fellow citizens are paying any attention at all, but that’s a different matter entirely. If Mittens’ is statistically independent of these ballot measures and the election really is a toss-up, then the probability that Mittens would become President with at least one so-called rogue state legalizing cannabis is the product of the probabilities, or (7/8)(1/2) = 7/16, rather more than 1/3 (in my opinion, at least). Of course, if you have a different (lower) probability for Mitten’s election you could get 1/3 as the answer.

      1. Treating all those events as independent seems like a very bad idea to me. Since party identification is highly correlated with position on marijuana, I think all of those are going to be significantly correlated by way of turnout issues.

        But on the other hand, Rasmussen has a poll out of Colorado with 61% of likely voters favoring legalization. Especially since Rasmussen tends to skew Republican, it seems to me like legal marijuana in Colorado has a much greater chance than 50%.

        But on the other other hand, I don’t think I’d give Romney a 50% chance of winning the election. Nate Silver has him at 33%. Perhaps I’m being overoptimistic (there’s a first time for everything) but that seems about right to me.

        So I’d say lower than 1/3 but not a whole lot lower.

        1. Everything is correlated with turnout issues, and turnout is determined by races other than just the top-of-the-ticket. Cannabis legislation has the potential to activate liberals in a way similar to gay-marriage ban amendments activating cultural conservatives. I see no reason to think that the Washington, Colorado and Oregon results will be more than weakly correlated. I could be wrong. One of my major points is that when Mark said “… better than even money that at least one will pass,” he was seriously understating the odds if the issues have anything like an even split in the electorate. If the support is in the 60% neighborhood among the electorates of all three states it’s virtually certain that at least one will pass.

          I think this election is going to be closer than anyone is calling it at the moment. Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, but there are way too many novel factors playing in this election for me to believe anyone has a handle on it.

          1. “Cannabis legislation has the potential to activate liberals in a way similar to gay-marriage ban amendments activating cultural conservatives.”

            I agree. I’d also say that it has the potential to activate conservatives. How much will it activate liberals and how much will it activate conservatives? I’m not sure but it sure seems to me that the amount it activates Oregon liberals will be correlated with the amount it activates Colorado liberals. This kind of thing is precisely *why* I say they’re going to be correlated. It’s not just a case of three (biased) coin flips. These states are filled with people and there are going to be similarities between how those people operate.

            But I agree that “better than even money” seems like a weaker than necessary statement. Actually, looking at this:


            where you have two polls from last year with only 40% stated opposition to legalization (full stop) and then the Rasmussen poll with only 27% opposition to regulated legalization (which the initiative apparently allows for), I’d say the odds of passage in Colorado alone are really quite high.

            I guess my only reservation is that despite all those poll results, I still somehow find it hard to imagine a US state legalizing marijuana. Maybe when they’re actually at the polls, some Coloradans will have the same sensation and get cold feet.

        2. Since party identification is highly correlated with position on marijuana, I think all of those are going to be significantly correlated by way of turnout issues.

          I’d like to see some curent stats on that; with both a good chunk of the religious right (Pat Robertson) and the libertarians in favor of legalization, I suspect that the partisan difference is lower than it was.

          1. The big thing that I’d think is different between Washington in February and Colorado now is that Pat Robertson’s major speech on the issue was in March, and that I think Colorado has significantly more Christian Right voters than Washington.

  4. re: “First, Campbell cites unnamed … half of their revenue…. zombie estimate of 60% that U.S. officials continued to prop up until … [infallible, untainted] RAND estimates the true figure at 16-26%.”

    And the Animal Farm moral of this story is: the amount of blood-soaked Mexican pot smuggled to the US is whatever the U.S. Government needs it to be, for a given situation or narrative. Think of the stakeholders! (I.e. government officials and contractors.)

    Big percentage of bloody Mexican marijuana when it suits; or small percentage when expedient. It simply depends on who’s asking – and why they want to know. Government must be flexible with truth, da?

  5. RE MJ-buying with a conscience —
    A couple of months ago I got a call from a Mexican reporter (newspaper I think, Tijuana I think, not sure now) who was doing a story on how so many Mexican were driving across the border to buy their marijuana in California — in hopes that it was grown in California — in an effort to avoid subsidizing the Mexican DTOs.
    The reporter had no data, so I have no idea whether the story was rooted in just a handful of people’s behavior or truly was reporting on a trend, but either way the image has a certain irony.

  6. The locavore movement pertains here. MJ consumers should commit to growing their own weed. Then judges don’t have to die.

  7. The main problem here is I don’t think you can hold marijuana buyers responsible for the secondary effects of their purchases when they are subject to an unfair and oppressive government ban on the legal production of their product.

    If marijuana were legalized, buyers could of course purchase pot that does not put any money into the cartels. The prohibitionists cut that route off and then blame POT SMOKERS, rather than themselves, for the foreseeable consequences.

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