Cannabis, Bill Bennett, and the technique of selective reading

A friend emails, “Bill Bennett read your book … or at least every other page of it.”

A friend emails, “Bill Bennett read your book … or, at least, every other page of it.”

Well, yes. Bennett and his sidekick Christopher Beach, in using the Caulkins et al. Marijuana Legalization book to support their argument against legalization, illustrate the point made here yesterday about the contrast between analysis and mere advocacy. To an analyst, every course of action* has advantages and disadvantages, which ought to be carefully weighed against the advantages and disadvantages of its alternatives. To a mere advocate, the course of action he prefers has only benefits, while the courses of action he deplores have only costs.

Since Beach and Bennett chose to base their argument on our book, (albeit without providing a link to it), it’s easy to see their principles of selection in action. They start out by mis-stating the book’s viewpoint and purpose:

In their book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, and Beau Kilmer—all of whom support the legalization of marijuana in some fashion—report …

This account suggests that the authors of the Weekly Standard essay never quite finished the book. While the first fifteen chapters, in Q&A format, are entirely collective products (I suppose in this context I can’t say “joint products”), the final chapter consists of four individually-authored essays. Of the four authors, only Angela Hawken favors legalization on the alcohol model. I’m clearly for legalization, but just as clearly against commercialization, concluding “So my first choice—not what I think will happen, but what I would like to see happen—is permission for production and use through small not-for-profit cooperatives, with a ban on commerce.”

Beau Kilmer points out how uncertain the whole proposition is, and devotes his essay to arguing that, if legalization is to be tried, it ought to be tried in an experimental mood, with, for example, sunset clauses. He adds:

Given the dearth of evidence we have about legalizing any of these activities, I am not convinced that jumping from one end of the continuum (prohibition) to the other (commercial production with advertising) is a good idea. Indeed, given the concerns about marijuana companies working hard to promote use, nurture heavy users, and keep taxes low, implementing the most extreme alternative to prohibition could be a really bad idea.

And Jonathan Caulkins – in fact the lead author of the book, though  Beach and Bennett list my name first – comes down more or less in the Beach-and-Bennett camp, starting his essay with  “I would vote against legalizing marijuana … ” (though he lists a grow-your-own approach as a possible “middle ground”). Jon concludes:

About half of all days of marijuana use come from people who self-report enough use-related problems to meet criteria for substance abuse or dependence with respect to marijuana or another substance. Does the happiness a controlled user derives from using marijuana on a typical day offset the unhappiness of someone else spending a day harmed by and/or struggling to control problem drug use? In my opinion, the answer is no. In a free society there are plenty of other ways to have fun without insisting on a right to use something that becomes a stumbling block for others.

Why should Beach and Bennett want their readers to believe that the authors of Marijuana Legalization are all legalization advocates? Continue reading “Cannabis, Bill Bennett, and the technique of selective reading”

Statistics on the Prevalence of Drug Users Can Be Misleading

A new paper shows how drug use prevalence statistics can skew perceptions of drug policy

Drug policy development and analysis often focuses on the prevalence of users, most commonly the proportion of the population that has used one drug or another in the past 30 days or past year. These are the data that are typically being cited when people say things like “Drug use is down/up by 10%”. But the prevalence of people who have used a drug in the past 30 days or year is a crude statistic that papers over extraordinarily diversity in these users’ drug consumption and consequences thereof.

For example, if everyone who uses cocaine once a month starts using it once every five weeks instead while everyone who uses it 2-5 days a month starts using it every single day, a politician could point to the changed prevalence of past 30-day cocaine users and claim a big drop. But the total amount of cocaine being consumed would have risen sharply, as would the number of people who were getting addicted or experiencing other damage from cocaine use!

Among U.S. policymakers, The Obama Administration is I believe the only one in history to embrace this reality by setting no goal for the prevalence of drug users within the adult population. Rather, the goals of the drug strategy for people over the age of 25 are to reduce the number of chronic heavy users of hard drugs and the prevalence of drug-related morbidity and mortality.

In the research world, the wizards of drug policy at RAND Corporation have taken on the issue of simple prevalence measures in a new journal article that is available for free here. In a series of helpful examples, they show how reliance on these measures can skew perceptions of a range of drug policy issues. The example below comes from their paper.

The left two columns of the table tell a familiar story: African-Americans make up a much higher proportion of drug offense arrestees than they do past-year drug users. From this one might draw a range of conclusions, for example that decriminalizing possession would reduce the African-American arrest rate more than the White arrest rate, or, that interventions to reduce racial discrimination in policing (e.g., stop and frisks that lead to drug arrests) would particularly lower the African-American arrest rate. However, these conclusions are based on the assumption that all past-year drug users are the same, which the right column of the chart shows is false.

With the same crudely-defined prevalence category (past year drug use, yes or no) exists substantial diversity on another dimension: Frequency of making drug purchases. Whites account for a smaller proportion of purchases than their proportion of past-year users would lead one to expect, whereas African-Americans show the reverse pattern. There are many reasons this could be so — Whites buying drugs in bulk more often, Whites more commonly sharing drugs in a social network with only one purchaser, dealers being more available in some neighborhoods than others — but whatever the mechanism, the data in the third column suggest new interpretations that were hidden when the measure was simply past-year use. If arrests are mainly about purchases for example (and they do track them remarkably closely), decriminalizing simple drug possession might not affect African-Americans disproportionately after all.

Presentation2

Does this mean that prevalence of users statistics are inherently deceptive? Only if they are used to mean something that they don’t. But even when they are interpreted correctly, it still leaves observers in the dark about much of the reality of drug use in a society. That’s why we need other measures such as volume of consumption, purchasing pattern and prevalence of addiction.

Holder’s Sentencing Reforms Could Increase Racial Disparities in Incarceration

Instructing federal prosecutors to use long sentences for drug dealing within organizations may increase the over-representation of people of color in prison

Attorney General Holder’s new policy on the application of mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases reserves tough sentences for offenders who work within larger organizations rather than being independent operators. Under this policy, a banker who will launder drug money for any outside drug organization may get more leniency than would a courier or lookout who is a member of single criminal organization. In a balanced appraisal of Holder’s proposal, Jonathan Caulkins points out a potential adverse impact of prioritizing offenders on this criterion:

Organizations of all ethnicities import drugs, but given the geography of production and transshipment, smuggling operations are disproportionately Hispanic. Likewise, members of all racial and ethnic groups participate in retail selling, but — with the exception of outlaw motorcycle groups — the gang members are disproportionately minorities.

The result of assuming that those criminals who work within a larger organization deserve more severe punishment may therefore be that the federal prison population over-represents Hispanics and African-Americans to an even greater extent than it does today.

An alternative approach to sentencing is to worry less about whether drug offenders are part of an organization and instead focus the toughest punishment on those individuals whose removal would most severely disrupt the overall illegal drug trade. This would be a significant departure from the longstanding law enforcement practice of sweeping up huge numbers of low-level drug offenders, most of whom are people of color who work within a gang or other large criminal organization. To quote from an op-ed Jon and I co-authored a few years back:

The US has increased incarceration for drug-law violations literally tenfold since 1980 without achieving more than temporary increases in prices. There would be little lost by halving the average sentence length for easy-to-replace functionaries within the drug distribution system (lookouts, typical retail sellers, hired hands, etc). It would also spare the public the enormous human and social costs of mass incarceration.