The LA Times denounces Prop. 19, badly

A little fact-checking sometimes goes a long way.

The Los Angeles Times editorial in opposition to Prop. 19 makes several of the points made in this space: the proposition, like so many initiative measures, is badly drafted to the point of incoherence and will not do in fact what it purports to do: tax and regulate cannabis.

But the editorial, as a piece of reporting and analysis, is not precisely Pulitzer Prize material. As someone who more or less agrees with the conclusion, perhaps I have special standing to criticize the evidence and argument brought to bear in order to reach that conclusion.

Here’s the first paragraph of the editorial:

Marijuana is the most popular illegal drug in the United States. Seventy years of criminal prohibition, “Just Say No” sloganeering and a federal drug war that now incarcerates 225,000 people a year have not diminished the availability or use of — or apparently the craving for — cannabis.

I’m not sure where 225,000 people a year comes from. It’s neigher the number of people behind bars on cannabis charges – that number is closer to 30,000 – nor the number of people in federal prisons on all drug charges together – about 100,000 – nor the total number of drug-war prisoners, which is more like half a million.

The claim that the laws haven’t diminished the use of the drug is astounding. Not only is it false: if it were true it would completely undermine the rest of the argument. If the cannabis laws weren’t suppressing some cannabis use that would otherwise occur, then all of their costs come without any benefit whatever, and they should be abolished at once.

But the claim is certainly false. The laws increase the price of cannabis by about tenfold over the price that would obtain in a legal market. They create legal risk – of arrest and the acquisition of a criminal history, though rarely of imprisonment – for cannabis users. And they help maintain the social stigma that the drug still carries: an occasional cannabis smoker is still a “drug user,” while a chronic drunk is not. And “drug user” is a damaged social identity, even though most users of illegal drugs are, in fact, occasional pot smokers. (The dating service eHarmony just sent out a list of the top ten “can’t haves” listed by women using its site: “drug use” was #8, with a majority of all women flatly refusing to consider dating anyone in that category. Heavy drinking didn’t make the list.) The laws work largely by leveraging social attitudes.

No one knows how much more cannabis would be consumed if the drug were legal on the terms proposed by Proposition 19: more or less free commerce with minimal taxation. Reasonable estimates might range from twice as much as today to five times as much, with the size of the market likely to grow with time as social attitudes change. (The consumption increase under my preferred “grow-your-own” policy would be smaller, but not small in absolute terms: I might guess at a doubling, though I wouldn’t be surprised by a much smaller immediate impact or a much larger effect in the long run.)

The editorial continues:

And helping meet the demand is California, the nation’s top grower. Marijuana production here results in an estimated $14 billion in sales, and its cultivation and distribution are now tightly woven into the state’s economy. It is grown in homes, in backyards and even in national parks, including Yosemite.

It’s not clear what “an estimated $14 billion in sales” means: is that supposed to be the farmgate price, or the total retail value? In either case, it’s wrong. The total value of the retail cannabis market in the United States is $10-20 billion per year, and while California is a major supplier it’s far from being the only state where cannabis is grown; in addition, Mexico, Canada, and Jamaica all contribute. There’s no way the California cannabis industry generates anything like $14 billion.

Nor is it clear what place this assertion has in the argument of the editorial. The larger the illicit market, the stronger the case for changing the law.

Marijuana is popular, plentiful and lucrative, costing about $400 a pound to grow and yielding $6,000 a pound on the street.

Huh? The cannabis business, albeit illegal, is fiercely competitive. $400/pound might be a reasonable guess at the cost of producing high-quality cannabis indoors under legal conditions; I think the LAT was drawing on the RAND estimate (from the excellent study by Beau Kilmer et al.) on this point. But it’s certainly not the cost of production under illegal conditions, or the retail price would be much lower.

Then comes the meat of the editorial, which gets the argument more or less correct:

Whether marijuana should be legal is a valid subject for discussion. Californians ought to welcome a debate about whether marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol, whether legalization would or would not increase consumption, and whether crime would go down as a result of decriminalization. But Proposition 19 is so poorly thought out, badly crafted and replete with loopholes and contradictions that it offers an unstable platform on which to base such a weighty conversation.

Its flaws begin with the misleading title: Regulate, Control and Tax Act. Those are hefty words that suggest responsibility and order. But the proposition is in fact an invitation to chaos. It would permit each of California’s 478 cities and 58 counties to create local regulations regarding the cultivation, possession and distribution of marijuana. In other words, the law could change hundreds of times from county to county. In Los Angeles County alone it could mean 88 different sets of regulations.

The proposition would have merited more serious consideration had it created a statewide regulatory framework for local governments, residents and businesses. But it still would have contained a fatal flaw: Californians cannot legalize marijuana. Regardless of how the vote goes on Nov. 2, under federal law marijuana will remain a Schedule I drug, whose use for any reason is proscribed by Congress. Sure, California could go it alone, but that would set up an inevitable conflict with the federal government that might not end well for the state. That experiment has been tried with medical marijuana, and the outcome has not inspired confidence. Up and down the state, an untold number of residents have faced federal prosecution for actions that were allowed under California law. It’s true that the Obama administration has adopted a more tolerant position on state laws regulating medical marijuana, but there’s no guarantee that the next administration will. Regardless, Obama’s “drug czar,” Gil Kerlikowske, has firmly stated that the administration will not condone marijuana’s legalization for recreational purposes.

One reason given by Proposition 19 supporters for legalizing marijuana is that California is in dire fiscal straits, and taxing the cannabis crop could ultimately enrich state and local coffers by $1.4 billion a year. But again, critics say that argument is misleading. The act essentially requires local governments that choose to regulate and tax marijuana to establish new bureaucracies and departments, and much of the new revenue could be eaten up by the cumbersome process of permitting and licensing sales, consumption, cultivation and transportation.

The editorialist might have added that competition among jurisdictions would likely produce a “race to the bottom,” with each town competing with its neighbors to have the lowest taxes and loosest regulations in order to attract the industry, the way South Dakota attracted the credit-card industry. The result would be to minimize tax revenue.

Adding that point, and acknowledging the high cost of the current policy, to the paragraphs immediately above would have left the LAT with a competent essay in opposition to Prop. 19. The question is why they decided to add to that essay a bunch of logically and factually dubious extraneous material.

When the Heritage Foundation produced a bad argument against Prop. 19, I attributed its failure to do any fact-checking to its managers’ belief that publishing falsehoods does not damage the Heritage brand as long as the falsehoods are in the service of right-wing causes. But surely that’s not true of the LAT. Its failure to do basic fact-checking seems inexplicable on any rational basis. All I can think is that being able to use the editorial “we” causes delusions of omniscience.

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 “The LA Times denounces Prop. 19, badly”

  1. An extremely bright and sincere recent Stanford grad told me yesterday that he was voting for Prop 19 because small-time marijuana dealers compose 80% of the prison population. I would like to think that the debate surrounding this initiative is more of a fact-free zone than all the others that have come before the state’s voters over the years, but my fear is that in general the initiative process is driven mainly by emotion and misunderstanding and whether it produces good or bad public policy lies entirely in the hands of lady luck.

  2. I’m confused as to why Prop 19 would force employers to tolerate marijuana on the job. How do CA employers currently handle MMJ and alcohol consumers?

    The principal value of the passage of Prop 19 would be the formal & definitive registration of the intent of the CA electorate. I certainly don’t expect Prop 19, if enacted, to be the long-term foundation for the legal treatment of cannabis in CA. As someone commented in an earlier thread, Prop 19′s value is as a catalyst

  3. And "dealer" probably doesn't mean dealer, but means that they had possessed an amount sufficient to automatically classify them as a "dealer," even if was for their future use or to share with friends. And each one, knowing that he or she had done nothing morally wrong, probably told the judge that he or she was sincerely repentant for the wrong he'd done. Sick, sick, sick. It is morally wrong to burden marijuana users or dealers with a criminal record, let alone to imprison them. That should be the only issue here. Those who enacted the law and who enforce it are the ones who deserve punishment.

  4. This is your [think tank's/editorial board's] brain on drugs. So embarrassing – drugs really do seems to mess people up, even when they're not the ones ingesting/inhaling.

  5. We voters have a chance to vote for Liberty and Common Sense by approving Prop19, the decriminalization of marijuana. A “YES” vote proclaims that the multi-billion dollar “War on Drugs” is misguided, expensive, and dangerous and damaging to America. Currently, there are no effective controls on pot distribution. The current reality is a failure.

    Mexico is falling apart, turning into multiple warring narco-states, right on our border. Our “war against terrorism” is weakened as well-funded organizations perforate our borders. Marijuana is the Mexican drug gangs biggest money-maker; since they produce the pot but just haul the cocaine. Eliminating their pot business plan will hurt them greatly while upping our security.

    We spend billions chasing pot and trying/jailing offenders. The prohibition builds resentment and disrespect for laws. People would better cooperate with law enforcement and immigration, IF they felt that they weren't criminals in their own country. Marijuana is relatively benign, but ONLY for adults. The worst side-effect of pot is being busted.

    Students caught with pot are denied loans and aid, which deprives America of another college grad. Every parent should see that their child's future is endangered for no reason.

    Law enforcement against prohibition website:

    Money spent for no reason.

  6. Note that the LAT is only addressing cannabis legalization because Prop 19 is up for a vote. Note also that while they called for a "discussion" they didn't offer their opinion about the merits of legalization or on its optimal form. If Prop 19 loses expect them to go back to silence on the subject. Let's just wait another 10-15 years for the state to start treating its citizens like adults.

    Regarding E-harmony, you're reading too much into the data. First off, E-harmony is notoriously for squares, but even so it's probably the case that many people discount casual cannabis users from the definition of "drug users". And if cannabis users were really such a damaged class, would Bill Bennett have been hyperventilating about the shift in culture around cannabis?

    I suspect that most of the increase in cannabis use once it's legally available will be by responsible users – the type who enjoyed it quite a lot but who won't or can't participate in an inconvenient trade (i.e. who just don't know "a guy" and aren't willing to stick their neck out to find one).

  7. Mark, I think this is the root of the matter: "If the cannabis laws weren’t suppressing some cannabis use that would otherwise occur, then all of their costs come without any benefit whatever, and they should be abolished at once.". I will be interested to see if alcohol use decreases. My suspicion is that it will, if for no reason other than the total lack of side effects only hours (if that long) after use. This might raise a business concern amongst distillers, brewers, and vinters.

    I do not know why the federal law doesn't include marijuana along with laws applying to alcoholic beverages. In the great panoply of mood altering substances used by Americans, surely marijuana is the more benign. Other than food safety aspects, I'm not sure why either is regulated at all. Again I suspect "bidness" concerns.

    I find the relative frequency with which pharmaceuticals are used for recreational, or self-medicating purposes, and the creative chemistry built upon these substances far more alarming and detrimental to human health.

  8. Beth, the reason that marijuana is illegal is that it was originally associated primarily with African-Americans and jazz. Later, when Jim Crow laws were repealed, the drug war was needed to keep black people in their place.

  9. Hadn't even thought of that, Henry. I thank you, and can happily say that abolishing the laws seem especially timely!

  10. Re the suggestion that prohibition inflates the rpice of cannabis tenfold – and thus dissuades use.

    1. Couldnt part of any regulatory regime for cannabis be minimum pricing (whether this was via taxation or not isnt really relevant to this point)? If implemeted – and there are plently of models from both alcohol and tobacco around the world for doing so – This surely make the suggestion that legalisation would neccassarily lead to plummeting price and related rise in use redundant.

    2. The price of cannabis in the dutch coffee shops is approximately the same as the price on the illict market in the UK and US. Granted that this dutch price may be inflated by the back door illegal supply, but it does suggest that the demand will support legal supply at a similar price.

  11. Steve, the black market will have room to adapt, i.e. attractively undercut, in the presence of any regime that keeps prices comparable to current rates.

  12. But there will be obvious other preferential factors of legal supply; regulated products with info on packaging re potency etc, not having to interact with a criminal mkt, regulated legal environments for consumption etc.

    The experience in the Netherlands seems to bear this out – even if there is cheaper product available illegally – most people prefer to use the coffee shops.

    Ofcourse the illegal trade would not dissapear but I think it is safe to assume it would be dramatically smaller.

    Given that pot is pretty cheap any way – for most casual users a relatively small outlay relative to their income, im not convinced that demand is as price elastic as some suggest. I acknowledge it may be more so (like alcohol and tobacco) for some vulnerable groups – lower income (including kids) and heavier users.

    I think price effects in terms of displacement between alcohol and cannabis also need to be explored. Ive seen very little research on this but the public health implications could be significant.

  13. regulated products with info on packaging re potency etc, not having to interact with a criminal mkt, regulated legal environments for consumption etc.

    In the acute transition phase from prohibition to legalization, most consumers of cannabis will be, IMO, existing users, already used to dealing with the black market. If the legal price remains comparable, I doubt this group will attach much cachet to the above factors. They already have heuristics for potency and a setup/ritual for use environment. The surest way to get the existing users to make a (reasonably) rapid switch to the legal custom is to make an irresistible pitch, and there's none more so than price. Once the switch is done, you can then boil the frogstart taxing it higher.

    The experience in the Netherlands seems to bear this out – even if there is cheaper product available illegally – most people prefer to use the coffee shops.

    I haven't scanned the literature base recently, but when I did, I found a document at CEDRO which stated that barely a majority of users patronized the coffee-shops. Of course, that may be because, as I understand it, most coffee-shops are located within a few dense urban areas. Of course, local regulatory control could lead to the same disparity and thus black-market opportunity in the US (via dry counties/cities..etc).

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