No, dammit, cannabis isn’t harmless!

Rick Hertzberg’s latest sounds like a press release from the Marijuana Policy Project.

I remember when criticism of anti-drug policies was pretty much taboo in mainstream media. Now the shoe is on the other foot. The “drug policy reform” crowd is to be congratulated on the rout it has inflicted on its “drug warrior” opponents. But the current media diet is no more intellectually nourishing than the one it replaced.

Rick Hertzberg provides a sample. I’m considering assigning it as the final exam the next time I teach drug policy, asking the students to identify the fallacies and factual errors. Here’s a sample:

1. Barack Obama inhaled and now jokes about it, so federal enforcement of marijuana laws makes him a hypocrite. (The federal government arrests growers and sellers, not users. There’s no suggestion that Obama ever sold pot.)

2. Cannabis should be in Schedule IV, not Schedule I. (No drug can be in anything but Schedule I unless it has accepted medical use. Obama ought to be criticized for not getting the DEA out of the way of medical research, but rescheduling isn’t an option unless you either do the clinical trials or change the law.)

3. “Just about everybody who gets busted for pot spends time locked up.” (Many possession arrests – which are most marijuana arrests – are “non-custodial,” resulting in a ticket and a court date rather than a trip downtown in handcuffs. Few result in convictions. That’s not to deny that pot-possession arrests create heavy costs.)

4. “Marijuana-associated suffering enters the picture only when prohibition does.” (Rlly? Srsly? Cannabis dependency isn’t typically as bad as alcohol dependency, but it’s hardly a walk in the park, and it’s not a very rare outcome: about 9% of people who start smoking as adults, and perhaps 15% of those who start smoking as adolescents – median age at first use is now 16 – will wind up as heavy daily smokers for periods of months or years. At any one time, more than 2 million people in this country find that their cannabis use is interfering with their lives.)

Hertzberg is a smart and serious reporter. So when one of his pieces reads like a Marijuana Policy Project handout you know the “anti-prohibition” crowd has made huge strides. But to those of us who dissented from the old orthodoxy (still embodied, of course, in most public policy and in the research agenda of the National Institute on Drug Abuse) and also dissent from the new orthodoxy, it’s just a tad depressing.

Somebody should write a short, easily-accessible book with the basic facts about cannabis and cannabis policy.

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:

51 thoughts on “No, dammit, cannabis isn’t harmless!”

  1. “No drug can be in anything but Schedule I unless it has accepted medical use.”

    Alcohol is both a drug and not in Schedule 1. Presumably it would be easier to
    unschedule cannabis and pass new laws to regulate it and its derivatives than
    to re-jigger the CSA classification system, yes?

    1. Alcohol is specifically exempted, as is nicotine. It’s not scheduled at all.

      1. That’s the point 2 much more dangerous drugs than marijuana ever was and they’re being protected by the vested interests of capitalists. Marijuana will also be exempted once the capitalists get their portfolios rearranged.

      2. Why not? Why are they unregulated, but cannabis is? (Well, lightly regulated — you merely need to be of sufficient age to purchase. Regulations on alcohol content and sales vary widely).

        Historical inertia?

        Pot’s in an odd spot. It’s really, really hard to seriously make the case that pot is more dangerous, more of a societal ill than booze or nicotine (neither of which is any danger of being prohibited) — other than, of course, the fact that smoking pot might put you in jail where as lighting up a cigeratte just means people ask you to go outside.

        So what do you do about it? Do you pretend pot is especially dangerous to justify it’s exclusion from the legal substances you can abuse? If you do, you get scoffed at — we’re a nation of pot smokers, pretty much any one of us has used it or know people who have — and we’ve watched people get into trouble with booze or try to quit nicotine, and you’re never gonna be able to sell pot as worse than that.

        Do you admit it’s not as bad, but still should be illegal? People want to know why — and point out that the prohibition against pot is largely observed in breech. Again, large swathes of the American public have, had, or will use it. It’s not exactly a niche product only a few have tried.

        Do you claim it’s a drug, and thus regulated, and booze and nicotine aren’t? Again, won’t fly with most people.

        Makes it hard to talk sensible policy. Not so much because of pot, but because of alochol and nicotine. We — as a society — have decided that certain recreational drugs are acceptable. We — as a society — use pot like it is, but ban it like it isn’t.

        Which leaves sensible policy people either defending non-sensical policy (trying to pretend cannabis is somehow ‘different’ than booze or alcohol. Worse or more addictive or dangerous or costs more) or stuck spending their time explaining how their policy is sensible, it’s booze and nicotine’s policies that aren’t. Which doesn’t really help.

        Of course, despite not using the stuff, I’ve been a long-time proponent of legalization. Cannabis is, after all, demonstrably no worse than many other perfectly legal substances we abuse. It’s better (in my own opinion) than some, even. Our nonsensical drug policy might as well at least be coherent, and shove cannabis with booze and cigarettes as “this stuff doesn’t count or doesn’t meet some criteria for harm that is basically ‘people are gonna do it anyways'”.

        What’s that old military tenet? Don’t give an order you know won’t be obeyed? That’s the problem with pot, same as it was with Prohibition. Too many people are just gonna ignore the law on this one, which is generally a sign that the law should be rethought.

  2. #1 seems to be phrased rather tendentiously. The argument is that Obama’s prior drug use (and lack of observable academic or professional harm) should lead to a more nuanced view of marijuana use. The hypocrisy lies not in his enforcement of federal law, but his unwillingness to propose even modest reforms in the drug’s regulation.

    If he argued that there should be opportunities for additional research, that decriminalization should be considered if the benefits outweigh the costs, etc., the calls of hypocrisy would no doubt be muted somewhat. Perhaps the key takeaway from this debate is that nuance rarely wins in arguments for any policy position.

    1. Also, the reporting that I have seen about Obama’s pot use indicates that he was a serious user and also traded the stuff. He’s not going to admit to selling it or cultivating it, of course, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t do it (or that he never possessed sufficient amounts of it to give rise to a possession with intent to sell prosecution).

  3. ‘Somebody should write a short, easily-accessible book with the basic facts about cannabis and cannabis policy.’ Maybe first, somebody should write a short, easily-accessible book with the basic facts about sugar and sugar policy. We need to quit kidding ourselves; capitalist societies are built and maintained by selling things that the consumer will constantly need. Let’s see; how about opium to the Chinese, Coca Cola with Cocaine and, of course tobacco; to name a few. Addiction to anything is a god-send to the capitalist. People need their addictions; preferably the ones that do the least amount of damage to the society as a whole.

      1. Ummm … perhaps because he understands that the material they’re supposed to regulate has risks as well as benefits?

    1. Right. We know that more than 10% of pot-smokers wind up getting into patterns of problem use. What is the comparable statistic for peas and carrots?

      1. What is the comparable statistic for caffeine, and what are these “patterns of problem use”? If we’re talking about a daily habit that people would rather not give up, I would say that’s pretty comparable to common caffeine usage patterns, except that the number for caffeine is likely much higher than 10%. If we’re talking about a daily habit that people would rather give up but find they have difficulty doing so, I could accept the 10% number for caffeine as a round estimate.

        Cannabis dependency isn’t typically as bad as alcohol dependency, but it’s hardly a walk in the park

        You mean something like this?

        If you stop taking caffeine abruptly, you may have symptoms for a day or more, especially if you consume two or more cups of coffee a day. Symptoms of withdrawal from caffeine include:

        depressed mood
        difficulty concentrating

        No doubt, caffeine withdrawal can make for a few bad days. However, caffeine does not cause the severity of withdrawal or harmful drug-seeking behaviors as street drugs or alcohol. For this reason, most experts don’t consider caffeine dependence a serious addiction.

        1. Well, let’s not forget about the *smoking* part of this. I hope that whoever finally ends up doing ***research*** on pot looks at the smoking issue separately.

          I kind of hate to see anyone smoke anything. It just seems like it will be bad for your lungs. Call me crazy but that’s how I feel. I breathe dirty air every day and I wish I didn’t have to. I hope that someone out in Science Land is looking into this.

          Caffeine and peas don’t cause cancer … afaik.

          And I am not a drug warrior, thank you very much. But Mark is right — you can’t just go around half-cocked, approving of everything willy-nilly.

        2. Yes, the caffeine example is what brings me to a halt.
          I am addicted to it but I haven’t had to break the law to address this addiction.
          What happens to MJ addicts when they quit? Headaches and….?

          As for MJ use interfering with one’s daily life, lots of things do that for some folks.
          Some people are food addicts, yet no one proposes outlawing food.
          I just can’t take this MJ addiction thing seriously.
          I’m trying but…it just seems like the wrong word.

      2. Over 10% of the population is obese, and that’s a side effect of excessive consumption of food. So I’d say the comparable stats for peas and carrots don’t look so good.

        1. Uh, I’m gonna go out on a limb here, Brett, and guess that most obese people aren’t suffering from an addiction to peas and carrots.

          1. Oven-roasted carrots with a lovely buttery sauce?
            Bugs Bunny is thin as a rake, but Peter Rabbit is plump (see the buttons incident), so the literary evidence is ambiguous.

        2. Hi Brett!!

          Actually, I have to disagree a bit. “Excessive consumption of food” is, by current research standards (which I know about only to the extent they are covered either here, or in the local rag… ; > ), an oversimplification. Weirdly, it’s turning out that what’s living in your gut plays a huge role in size, independent of how much, or to a lesser/different extent, *what* you eat. Yes, I’m serious. A calorie is *not* a calorie across different people, the way people used to think. It really isn’t.

          1. Oh, I’m well aware of that, and I expect the case with pot is equally complex. I’m trying to keep it down to drug warrior level of simplicity.

          2. Oh, okay, fair enough. We could have a whole convo though about how the country is trying to use Puritanism on fat people, which. will. not. work. Puritanism should be thought of as a seasoning, or a condiment, not an actual food group.

  4. First point is so specious. A citation for smoking pot in a national park would have had no consequences for the choom gang? Very evenhanded policy analysis.

  5. At any one time, more than 2 million people in this country find that their cannabis use is interfering with their lives.

    When did “roughly 3 million” being seriously messed up get downgraded to “more than 2 million” finding pot ‘interfering’? And you still haven’t cited your source.

    1. The source is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Last time I checked, 3 million is more than two million, and I was working hastily from memory.

    2. Beat me to it, Daksya. Source? I’ll believe it when he links to it, until then my working hypothesis is that it came about like this. But if such a study exists, I’d love to read it. I have a sneaking suspicion that if we were to judge caffeine consumption and it’s ill effects by the same criteria, we’d find an even bigger problem there.

      1. 4.4 million people in the household population (which excludes prisoners and homeless) self-report (likely an underestimate) meeting diagnostic criteria for abuse or dependence. Almost twice that many report having tried to cut down on their use over the past twelve months. Jon Caulkins has done detailed analysis of those who specifically report that their cannabis use is causing emotion problems, causing social stress, or causing people to narrow their behavioral repertoires. You can believe him that the sum of those categories, after adjusting for overlap, is around 3 million people, or you can download the data and do your own analysis. Or you can just continue to disbelieve facts inconvenient to your prejudices.

        1. And don’t forget … hair loss. I have only anecdotal evidence but this stuff matters to people.

          1. Technically what I heard was that it lead to “thinning.” This was from an experienced stylist, and she also noticed the same thing from smokers of regular cigs, which is why I wonder if it isn’t just the smoke, not the mj. An important distinction, I think you’ll agree. Again, I’m not much convinced that pot is any worse than alcohol, but I do worry a lot about people’s lungs. We breathe enough cr*p already. Let’s not throw out the baby too.

        2. I had a look at the 2010 NSDUH summary you linked to.

          The specific illicit drugs that had the highest levels of past year dependence or abuse in 2010 were marijuana (4.5 million).

          In 2010, an estimated 15.7 percent of past year marijuana users aged 12 or older used marijuana on 300 or more days within the past 12 months. This translates into 4.6 million persons using marijuana on a daily or almost daily basis over a 12-month period.

          Now, unless there are a significant number of occasional users counted among the “dependence or abuse” class, which hardly seems likely, it looks to me like they’re counting nearly every daily (or near-daily) user in that class. How many people do you know that are dependent enough on caffeine that they consume two or more cups of coffee on a daily or near-daily basis? Of those, how many might self-report at least three of the criteria listed in Appendix B.4.2? Depending on how the questions are posed, I can see a lot of people affirming 2, 3, 4, 5, and/or 7 for caffeine dependence. Criteria 1, to a significant extent, measures the effects of prohibition rather than dependence. Who spends a great deal of time getting their hands on coffee when it’s legally available everywhere?

          Or you can just continue to disbelieve facts inconvenient to your prejudices.

          Don’t take it personally that I prefer to confirm things for myself, Mark. I’m from the Show-Me state. I haven’t disputed that marijuana connoisseurs often become dependent, I’ve pointed out the caffeine consumers also often become dependent. It’s fairly common for people to develop dependencies on pretty much anything enjoyable or perceived as being beneficial. Personally, depending on how the questions were posed, I could go either way on both mj and caffeine, though I know from personal experience that I have very little difficulty voluntarily going extended periods of time without either substance. I can live with that. Putting a number on dependent consumers is interesting, but the question I’m posing is how big of a problem is cannabis dependence? I’ve known a great deal of cannabis consumers over my lifetime, and my experience tells me it is not much more problematic than caffeine dependence, and certainly far less troublesome than alcohol or tobacco dependence, or gluttony for that matter.

          1. I’m gonna go ahead and say it, even though it’s likely to be scoffed at both by the regulars here and by the forum’s Moderator in Chief.
            In order to get a picture of the actual rate of DEPENDENCE, one would also have to eliminate all of those who are using Cannabis to self-medicate for any one of a variety of chronic conditions. An accurate picture of true drug dependency can only emerge when these people have been identified, and excluded from the definition. This would include conditions as varied as M.S., and chronic pain for injury, and as a retired psychologist who spent sixteen years in practice, any persons with psychosis or B.A.D. histories, as they widely self-medicate with cannabis. People with conditions helped by cannabis will undoubdetly trim thse numbers quite a bit.

  6. @Mark: I have never heard of this guy, but on what do you base the statement that “Hertzberg is a smart and serious reporter”?

    1. Hertzberg was a speechwriter for Carter and is a long-time scribbler for the New Yorker.

      In my book, both of those are demerits, but in my book Professor Kleiman has different taste than me.

    2. I’d call him a smart and serious essayist, journalist, and quasi-pundit. And he’s a very talented writer. (His collection “Politics” is one of my favorite books, and that’s 90% due to the prose.)

      But I think his last stretch as anything like a “reporter” was when he covered the 1988 presidential campaign for TNR.

  7. This headline is misleading. Nothing in the article indicates that anyone serious is saying pot is “harmless”

    1. Hertzberg: “Marijuana-associated suffering enters the picture only when prohibition does.” What’s the difference between saying something causes no suffering and saying that it’s harmless?

      1. Nobody in the world is smoking pot and suffering. They might be harming themselves, but they certainly aren’t suffering.

  8. Funny article. Could you say I’m an astronaut so NASA will send me into space? Just saying stuff doesn’t make it true. Any argument made from the government or defending the government about it being dangerous is a moot point and holds no water. Not as long as they support the 2 worst, deadliest drugs out there. Alcohol and tobacco. Tell me though….what is so harmful about it? I’d really like to hear that.

  9. On point #2, THC is already approved and classified Schedule III, correct? That’s essentially “Marinol.” I’m not familiar with the legal ins and outs by which keeping cannabis at C1 while reducing THC to C3 is justified, but it certainly looks highly questionable. Does the administration not have some avenue to reinterpret the relationship between these two in order to get the Marinol evidence to reflect on cannabis?

    After all (correct me if I’m wrong here), we classify cocaine as C2, but we don’t say that coca leaves are C1 because they are “different” from pure cocaine and have not passed their own FDA safety & efficacy studies. Instead they count the same as the purified drug. It seems that the federal government could choose to treat marijuana the same way, were there not a political determination to keep marijuana C1.

  10. Do any of the science folks here know the veracity of the research that linked psychosis and marijuana use? I would love to know if they actually isolated those who likely had early undocumented symptoms of mental health problems from others.

    1. Very interesting. I am not good at picking apart studies. This piece seems to say that there is no increased risk from smoking mj v. tobacco. It also doesn’t say there is less risk. And I wonder, why don’t people just use those vaporizer/nebulizer things? Wouldn’t that get around the whole smoke issue?

  11. Add to that the fact that we as a society have NO consistent approach to, or even definition of(it changes every time the APA looks at it, and it’s being changed yet again), addiction. We criminalize addicts of some substences and not others. Even within the realm of “legal” addictions we have no rhyme or reason. We try to discorage and even intervene in alcohol, but we only “strongly discourage” tobacco (if you have any question which drug kills more, it’s tobacco, by a long stretch). And addictive disorders like workaholism and shopaholism are in fact rewarded. Sometimes richly. I’ll accept an approach which labels cannabis as a drug of dependence when I see a sensible approach to addiction in general. And it’s sorely lacking.
    Sorry if that was O/T, but it needed to be said.

  12. Inverting the situation might help: try finding a recreational drug that is less harmful than marijuana. I’m betting it’s impossible.

    As for marijuana addiction, the possibility exists that if someone believes they’re addicted, they will act out by exhibiting withdrawal symptoms. This is called the ‘nocebo effect’, which is the opposite of the placebo effect. With the nocebo effect:

    “’The mere anticipation of possible injury may actually trigger pain or disorders. This is the opposite of the analgesic effects we know can be associated with exposure to placebos….’ The new study illustrates how media reports about health risks may trigger or amplify nocebo effects in some people.”

  13. For what it’s worth, I think that a generally responsible, liberal voice like Hertzberg’s is now speaking this way is pretty bad news for those who, like Mark and Keith, want to lend intellectual authority to the notion that we must be cautious–very cautious!–in approaching cannabis policy reform. It seems we are collectively slouching toward a giant collective “meh…” when it comes to pot. (I think that’s a good thing.)

  14. @Mark. More than two million people are adversely effected by marijuana? Where does this figure come from? Does this come from the census? lol. I would think you got some small sample and extrapolated. I can’t figure out where this stuff is coming from or why you feel it’s in your interest to promote it.

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