Paternalism and pot policy

Legalizing drugs tempts people into drug abuse. Banning them tempts people with drug dealing.

Andrew Sullivan points to arguments by Rod Dreher and David Frum that cannabis legalization would benefit mostly middle-class moderate users at the expense of mostly poor heavy users.

Sullivan is horrified by the frank paternalism involved, but horror isn’t a criticism, and he’s wrong to attribute to Frum and Dreher the notion that “all American adults are basically children that we have to protect from their own choices.” What Frum and Dreher are saying is that some Americans – many of them minors – are indeed in need of protection from their own bad choices. (Dreher is especially clear-minded in pointing out that the need for paternalistic protection varies not just from person to person but from choice to choice: lots of people are capable of managing their diets but not their retirement financial planning. I, for example, want paternalistic protection against being sold adulterated drugs or contaminated food.) There’s no logical flaw in the idea that more-liberal policies in a variety of domains might serve the interests of those better-placed to make good choices at the expense of those worse-placed.

That said, it seems to me that Frum and Dreher do only half of the analysis. They consider the consumer side of the drug market (even then, ignoring the costs inflicted, mostly on poor folks, by 800,000 possession arrests per year), but not the producer side.

Legalizing marijuana would make it easier for people to smoke pot. Some of those people would benefit from having that option; others would make choices they would come to regret. On average, the more socially advantaged will make better choices, and be better positioned to recover from their bad choices, than the less socially advantaged. To that extent, legalization favors the privileged over the less-privileged.

But keeping marijuana illegal creates a different sort of temptation, by expanding the range of illegal money-making options. Compared to theft, commercial sex work, or hard-drug dealing, pot-dealing is less edgy and less risky. Some of the people who take it up (not very many, in my view) may be better off than they would have been doing legal work; others will be better off than they would have been doing alternative illegal work. But, inevitably, some people will yield to the temptation for a quick buck and wreck their lives in doing so. And like those who yield to the temptation to smoke too much pot, they’re likely to come from the bottom half of the income/status distribution, not the top half. Just how damaging your youthful pot-dealing arrest will turn out to be could depend very strongly on how good a lawyer your parents can find for you.

On balance, are poor neighborhoods made better off by maintaining cannabis prohibition? Maybe so. But opponents of legalization haven’t made that case in anything like adequate detail.

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:

28 thoughts on “Paternalism and pot policy”

  1. Similarly, humans are important, but they are not the only entities we owe consideration. Keeping marijuana illegal means keeping marijuana production unregulated, which means, here in the Emerald Triangle, risking the future of species and ecosystems that truly distinguish this region. I would really appreciate it if you’d at least acknowledge that these issues need to be part of the calculus of marijuana policy reform.

    I’ve tried to raise these issues in a recent TEDx talk and on KQED’s Forum.

    1. Thanks Scott. Thoughtful, thoughtful stuff…
      From your TEDxEureka talk: Our worst actors are now deep in our wilderness laying waste to our wildlife.

      1. Thanks, Koreyel. That particular line started as a response to Mr. Thomas LaNier of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who at a meeting here in Arcata last spring said words to the effect of “we’re going to drive them into the wilderness.” Problem being, we have.

        1. The first time I went up there backpacking (~30 years ago) I was in Weaverville at the old IGA looking at a map and eating a sandwich, when a local came up to me and pointed out where not to go because of the dope growers, and I was glad he did. This old(?) ecologist won’t argue about the damage to ecological capital , but the toll in CA on human capital is high as well. Looking forward to the vid.

  2. “…some Americans – many of them minors – are indeed in need of protection from their own bad choices.”

    Just because someone needs protection from their own bad choices gives no one the right to protect them against their will.

    1. Except in the case of minors I should say. Hopefully parents and legal guardians will be able to do more good than harm.

        1. If this is true, it’s the strongest argument for legalization I can think of. The only numbers I found on alcohol says minors are 16% of the market there, so this suggests we could at least cut in half use by minors, assuming similar levels of regulation.

          1. Doesn’t follow logically. If use among adults triples and use among teens doubles, then the percentage of the market that is teens goes down.

          2. To Keith (can’t reply directly, it seems). You are correct, poor logic on my part. 🙂

  3. One thing you neglected to mention is that drug enforcement has consequences in disadvantaged communities, because of disparities in how police target their efforts and the different treatment that different groups get. Even if you never touch an illicit substance, if you are from certain backgrounds you are likely to bear the brunt of enforcement efforts, e.g. being stopped by police more often, or getting wrong-door no-knock raids as detailed by Radley Balko.

  4. The case I have never seen made adequately (or at all, really) is how legalization could make things worse then the status quo.

    Poor and/or young people currently DO consume vast quantities of alcohol and tobacco, with absolutely horrifying effects. The money used for that directed into weed, consumed through a vaporizer (a bit expensive, but getting quickly less so), has vastly better health, social, and economic outcomes. It’s still a vice, and like any vice, it will be somebody’s breaking point, but there’s certainly a very strong suggestion based on average outcomes that things would be substantially better.

    It will be good to watch Colorado and Washington, so there’s real data to work with.

    1. This follows logically IF cannabis substitutes for alcohol. But whether cannabis is on balance a substitute, a complement, or neither is simply unknown.

      1. I agree we are lacking data in general. But where we have specifically identified a population with limited resources for the engagement of vices (poor/young people), it would seems likely that where used it would most commonly be as a substitute. Of course, its relatively low cost, and the current tendency for that cost to be incurred at a time separate from the engagement might modify this somewhat.

        Anecdotally, out of a dozen serious users I know, only one regularly mixes use with alcohol. I imagine this kind of data could be gathered from what we know now (though I don’t have it).

    1. “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you are making too much money.” —Robin Williams

    2. “I said to a guy, “Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful,” and he said, “Because it intensifies your personality.” I said, “Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?””

      – Bill Cosby

  5. ” I, for example, want paternalistic protection against being sold adulterated drugs or contaminated food.”

    You seem to be conflating two very different things under the heading of paternalism. As a consumer attorney, I very much want efficient and effective barriers to adulterated drugs and contaminated food. Both are examples of where the buyer is being given something very much other than advertised and an suffer grievous harm thereby, on top of the economic harm of not getting what you pay for.

    I don’t know of anyone who says “I want my drugs to be adulterated or sham compounds dressed up as the real thing” or “heck yeah, I want rat shit in my food” or who needs a paternalistic Nanny State government to tell them otherwise and that they should indeed want things to be as advertised. Nobody needs a paternalistic anything to tell them that.

    Paternalism is where I decide that I like bourbon or pot or alpine skiing and you come along and say that, even in the absence of harm to others, I need you to stop me from enjoying my bourbon or pot or alpine skiing because I, as a child, need a wise father to make judgments for me.

    Perhaps you think of these things as the same, but they are very much not the same.

    1. That’s exactly right. And alpine skiing is a great example. It’s risky! There’s a good argument that from a strict cost-benefit analysis, you shouldn’t do it! Skiing accidents ruin families! They increase health care costs and disability insurance premiums.

      And yet, the fact that alpine skiing is fun is considered– BY ITSELF– sufficient to justify allowing people to do it. Even though the societal benefits of skiing are probably entirely vestigial.

      Prohibitionists, if they want to justify paternalism, need to tell us why pot ISN’T like alpine skiing– why, in other words, it isn’t simply a fun, risky activity.

    2. Not so fast! Maybe Mark secretly craves adulterated drugs and contaminated food, has difficulty controlling his cravings on his own, and therefore desires a paternalistic policy to save him from himself. And it’s a good point — 40% of people who eat contaminated food out of dumpsters are minors!

  6. “…some Americans…are indeed in need of protection from their own bad choices….”

    Much more importantly, the rest of us are in need of protection from their bad choices. It’s not about affecting the condition or behavior of individual transgressors, it’s about ameliorating the condition of the collective.

  7. “To that extent, legalization favors the privileged over the less-privileged.”

    This is looking at the distributional effects of the negatives from legalization. It doesn’t look at the distributional effects of the negatives of continued criminalization, which I suspect are also heavily weighed against the less-privileged. It’s good that the qualifier “to that extent” was added, but the “extent” isn’t extensive.

    1. Just thought I’d add that despite what Richard Crews says above, the distributional effects of the negatives of virtually any policy change affecting broad sections of society is probably going to weigh harder on the less-privileged.

      And Robin Williams has probably spent more time with drug-addled rich people than with poor, crack-cocaine users, so his sampling may be biased.

    1. I haven’t done weed in years, but I never “quit.” Although I would toke up if someone handed me a joint at a party, I literally wouldn’t walk across the street to get some. I know it’s not that hard to find it, but it’s still more work than I’m willing to bother with. If I could get it legally at the 7-11, I might spring for a nickel bag (Is that even a current unit of measurement in the trade? I have no idea what current prices are.) now and then, so I suppose my pot consumption would go up a little, but not much.

  8. @All: Mostly, a very good thread, but as Mark mentioned we are trying to restore the usual RBC norms to drug policy discussions, so a few ad hominems were deleted.

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