Tony Dokoupil on the downsides of marijuana legalization

There is a case against legalizing pot.

Update Tony Dokoupil writes:

I caught up with your post today and you’re right: that line about teen use and IQ isn’t clear. I’ve put in a fix request, adding the words “chronic” and “continued,” so it doesn’t sound like one smoke behind the school house spells doom.

Your reading of my line “the prohibitionist side seems to benefit most of all” is correct. I mean that there’s even in your book that isn’t readily available elsewhere, and would serve any brave soul who wants to make the William Jennings Bryant-esque case against progress on drug policy reform.

Beau Kilmer points out that, in our book, the assertion quoted by Dokoupil that “marijuana can kill” is attributed to official agencies and not endorsed by the authors, at least as applied to acute overdose rather than accident or the health effects of chronic use. Even taking official figures at face value as overdose deaths, the fatality risk from a year’s marijuana smoking would be about one in ten million: roughly the fatality risk from taking a single airline flight.

As to the prediction below (*) about what “an unwary reader” of Dokoupil’s piece might think, we found the unwary reader: Mike Riggs of Reason’s Hit and Run.


Over the past few years, public opinion and media treatment of marijuana legalization have both shifted (presumably interdependently): it’s gone from being a weird, feaky idea to seeming no more than common sense. Since I’ve long favored some softening in cannabis policy, this development does not entirely displease me.

But Tony Dokoupil is right to say that purely one-sided accounts do not do full justice to the complexity of the problem, and he performed a public service by trying to pull together the anti-legalization arguments. It’s gratifying that he used our marijuana-legalization book as a source.

Still, I was surprised to read that “the prohibitionist side seems to benefit most of all” from our attempt to present the relevant facts and arguments, unless by that Dokoupil simply means that it partly fills the near-vacuum of serious anti-legalization arguments left by the recitation of tired drug-war slogans by the current opponents of legalization.

And several of the anti-legalization arguments made in the article are not in fact drawn from the book.

For example, Dokoupil writes:

Research released this past summer connected teenage pot use to a permanent drop in IQ between the first puff and early middle age.

First, that isn’t quite true as stated. The research showed that chronic, dependent use starting in adolescence and continued through early middle age was correlated with reductions in IQ. I don’t think the data are strong enough to make the case that the use caused the decline, and in any case it involves a very small proportion of cannabis users. The typical teenage pot-smoker will suffer no cognitive impairment, as far as we now know.

Whatever the merits of the claim about cannabis and cognitive decline, it doesn’t come from the book, though an unwary reader* of Dokoupil’s essay might think it did.

In the end, though, Dokoupil comes down where I come down (which leaves him more supportive of full legalization than Jonathan Caulkins but less so than Angela Hawken):

The better decision is incremental reforms at the state level and a hands-off approach from the feds. Let people grow pot, and sell it, but not for profit, and without advertising, and in a tightly regulated marketplace. Tinker every year, adding new provisions and privileges as much needed new research comes in. And always update the law with a sunset provision. That way the process can’t be hijacked by lobbyists and special interests—and only one thing goes up in smoke.

The “sunset-clause” idea comes from Beau Kilmer, and the case for it, and for incremental reform, is strong. There’s simply too much we don’t know about marijuana to make a headlong and irreversable plunge into alcohol-style legalization a safe move.

On the other hand, that’s the proposal on the table in Washington and Colorado. The more cautious, incremental approach is something that a legislature might consider, but isn’t well adapted to the initiative process. So the practical choice facing voters Nov. 6 isn’t between the status quo and something clearly better, but between a costly present policy and a risky alternative.

Update A commenter asks why, if marijuana legalization seems like common sense, it has so little legislative support. That question requires a long answer, but the short version is that even voters who would prefer softer cannabis policies might be leery of politicians who seem “soft on drugs.” If the movement in public opinion continues, I’d expect a phase-change in the politics, as we’ve seen on gay-related issues.

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:

22 thoughts on “Tony Dokoupil on the downsides of marijuana legalization”

  1. If it’s common sense, why does the congressional legalization caucus include about 4 members?

    1. President Nixon’s US National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse gave the reason. After they completed their study, they said the real drug problem was not marijuana, or heroin, or cocaine. The real drug problem, they said, was the ignorance of our public officials who have never bothered to read the most basic research. In a perfect illustration of their point, Nixon refused to read his own commission’s report — because he heard it disagreed with his preconceived ideas.

      You can find the full text of the report, along with every other similar commission ever done at under Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy. Take the list of studies to any elected official and ask them which ones they have read. You will search long and hard before you get anything other than a blank stare in response. That’s the problem. Not one of them has read the most basic research.

    2. Maybe because the prison industry and the corrections unions are against it? Look, there is A LOT of money to be made by putting people in jail. Legalization would put a big ht to their cash flow stream

  2. I mean, not that Congress is known for common sense. But at least the members seem professionally to have a finger in the winds of public opinion.

  3. We keep hearing about “legalizing marijuana for recreational use”, but what it really appears to be is an attempt to legalize marijuana as a far safer alternative to alcohol.

    According to the CDC, alcohol kills 80,000 people every year in the U.S. while marijuana kills none, and marijuana’s addiction potential is only about that of coffee.

    Since marijuana is far safer and far less addictive than alcohol, we could GREATLY reduce the amount of harm and addiction in society by giving people the right to switch from the more harmful drug, alcohol, to the less harmful drug, marijuana. Paranoid old men keep marijuana illegal and make our children LESS safe!

    1. marijuana’s addiction potential is only about that of coffee

      That stuff which gives me intense headaches the day after I quit ingesting it? I think you overstate the case against marijuana.

      1. for most people, so will quitting cigarettes. and alcohol withdraw can kill you. so what is your point again?

    2. Right now the people of Colorado and Washington states are on the right track to thumb their noses at the big wig alcoholics,who probably never smoked marijuana, lobbying to ban it from legalization. It needs to be legal across the board..Nationally! FDR was smart to lift prohibition in 1933, maybe because Eleanor wanted to have some red wine at dinner…legally of course. He knew trying to stop self-destruction was costing each town,city, states, etc. way too much money and found a way to capitalize on it to gain revenue…and revenue it did produce. If they want to attack the current deficit, create jobs, reduce crime…etc…etc…Legalize THC. Tell them to stop being stupid. Thanks

  4. “There’s simply too much we don’t know about marijuana to make a headlong and irreversable plunge into alcohol-style legalization a safe move.”

    I agree with tacc2, that’s a ridiculous statement. We know lots about marijuana. We know lots about the *smoke* of marijuana, and its comparison to tobacco smoke. We know a lot about the component chemicals in marijuana, and their benefits as some cancer therapies (I’m not talking about chemo-symptom relief, either.) There is no excuse not to legalize and regulate marijuana just like we do cigarettes (which are many times more harmful than marijuana,) and alcohol (abuse of which causes many times more harm than even abuse of marijuana.)

    To continue giving huge tax-free subsidies to illegal drug trade, while spending huge amounts of tax money on useless incarceration of casual marijuana users is nothing less than economic idiocy.

    I am a person who doesn’t use marijuana, btw. (I tried it decades ago in my youth, and I don’t like it. I do like drinking alcohol occasionally, and, lucky me-alcohol’s legal.) But really, people, how is legalization and regulation of marijuana, like we do alcohol and tobacco, anything but a NO BRAINER?

    1. Since we don’t have a lot of experience with the legal sale of marijuana, and we don’t regulate alcohol and tobacco identically, adjustability of the implementation seems to be common sense.

        1. So should pot be next to the vodka, beer, cigs, or hot dogs?

          Different licensing for each in most jurisdictions.

        2. I’m a compatriot of John A Arkansawyer (posted above); we have a flawed but thoughtful medical-marijuana initiated measure on our ballot this fall. Nothing has so made voting for it attractive as the spectacle of the pile-on of establishmentarians against it, toward the last of the campaign. Most of their arguments, even the ones advanced by grownups–i.e. medical types and law-enforcement professionals–are drawn less from logic than from Mr. Garrison’s standard anti-drug lecture to his South Park class: “Drugs’r bad, children…drugs ‘r bad….” My best bet is that none of these folks have consulted any of the works recommended by (and made available with the help of) Mr. Schaffer.

          Tellingly, the medical pot advocates were the only initiated act proponents to do their homework, circulate petitions honestly and get the canvass sheets submitted on time with sufficient legit signatures.

  5. See the book for a long list of things we don’t know about marijuana legalization.

    Among the most important: in a world of legal marijuana, would heavy drinking go up or down? That’s not a question that can be answered pure logic; it’s an empirical question. Current evidence is mixed and inconclusive.

    Since heavy drinking is a much bigger social problem than marijuana abuse, illicit marijuana dealing, and marijuana law enforcement combined, a marijuana policy that made the heavy-drinking problem worse would be a net loser from a social perspective.

    Uncertainty is not an argument for inaction; uncertainty is an argument for caution, and for taking small and reversible steps rather than large and irreversible steps if there’s a choice.

    1. for taking small and reversible steps rather than large and irreversible steps if there’s a choice

      And if there isn’t?

    2. Since heavy drinking is a much bigger social problem than marijuana abuse, illicit marijuana dealing, and marijuana law enforcement combined, a marijuana policy that made the heavy-drinking problem worse would be a net loser from a social perspective.

      Surely you mean “a marijuana policy could be a net loser from a social perspective if it made the heavy-drinking problem enough worse”. As written this says that literally any increase in heavy-drinking would outweigh any benefits from the policy.

  6. Politicians don’t support legalization for two reasons: There are not enough people who already support legalization running for office. And there is no real political downside to being against it.

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