Why choose between hanging and drowning?

The choice between Chapo Guzman and Big Marijuana is a false choice. Demand something better!

Yes, having pot sold by money-hungry corporate marketers might be better than having it sold by money-hungry illegal entrepreneurs: more reliable product, less violence, fewer people behind bars, some tax revenue.

Or it might be worse, depending on how successful the marketers turned out to be at manufacturing more of the out-of-control users who generate most of the sales of any addictive drug, whether a legal one like alcohol(or legal cannabis, if it arrives) or an illegal one like cocaine (or cannabis today). That 80% of consumption will be by the 20% users who use the most is more or less a fact of nature, independent of legal status. So problem users, not casual, responsible users, will be the focus of all that marketing attention.

But why assume that those are the only choices? Why not use regulation to put a brake on market concentration in the new industry? Or require that cannabis enterprises be organized on not-for-profit basis? Or (if the Federal government would allow it) make cannabis sales a state monopoly, and run it – unlike the state lotteries – in a way that aims to minimize addiction rather than maximizing it?

The choice between Chapo Guzman and Big Marijuana is a false choice. Demand something better!

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

33 thoughts on “Why choose between hanging and drowning?”

  1. You can demand all you want, but market forces will take over. Big Marijuana is inevitable. To some, it is welcome. But now that I’m a parent, it’s frightening. (And please don’t tell me that under a “controlled” regime, storeowners will ID. How’s that workin’ out for booze today?)

    1. It actually seems to be working…just as it’s supposed to, actually. Despite being in my 20s I look fairly young so I pretty much always have to show my ID to buy booze. Maybe wherever you live it is easy to get alcohol without an ID but that is not the case in the SF Bay Area.

      1. Professor Kleiman is writing as if all the economic theory regarding the superiority of capitalist systems doesn’t exist.

        Personally, I don’t much care for big agriculture either. But I also know that without it, our food prices would be a lot higher, our food quality a lot lower, and many people would starve.

        Capitalist systems keep prices low and quality high. They are efficient. It seems to me like banning marijuana capitalism only makes sense if you think the stuff should ideally be illegal in the first place. But if you think that people who enjoy getting high should be able to do so, introducing deliberate inefficiency into the distribution system is necessarily bad, because it means fewer people will be able to enjoy their preferred form of recretation.

  2. Mark,

    All of your 3 alternatives are some form of legalization. Why not offer some of us ole’ Carrie Hatchet-types some good prohibition-style alternatives?

    1. I don’t think leaving what’s now a $35 billion market in criminal hands is a plausible alternative long-term. I have lots of “smart prohibition” ideas about cocaine, heroin, and meth, but I don’t think any of them would out-perform the minimal version of legalization, which would be permission for people to grow their own.

      1. How will people “grow” their own coke, meth, heroin (safely and competently)? Pot, in its final usable form, is still just a plant.

        1. well, maybe not heroin, but folks have safely grown their own opium. Safe is a dubious concept, but I would take home grown opium before street heroin.

  3. Unless the “money-hungry corporate marketers” as you call them start gangland-style executing large swaths of people, to threaten, scare and dilute the market share and influence of their competitors, it will never be worse.

    1. Take a look at the death tolls from alcohol and tobacco and think about whether you really mean that.

      1. I’d agree with that in a heartbeat. It’s not like gangland killers demand that you volunteer to be killed, you know. There’s a fundamental, categorical difference between selling something that harms people who use it, and going out and harming people.

        It has to do with the volition of the person harmed, their having a choice in the matter.

        Anyway, what is it with your hatred of corporations? Seems peculiar for somebody who likes the biggest, meanest corporation on the block: The government.

        1. The victims of alcohol-fueled homicide and drunken driving don’t volunteer to be killed, either. And I don’t dislike corporations; that would be as stupid as disliking governments. They’re institutions full of people acting under incentives; in each case, the organizational action will differ in systematic ways from the public interest, and good institutional design will attempt to minimize those deviations. I prefer a minimally unregulated market in neckties, newspapers, and netball equipment; for commodities where the bulk of the quantity consumed involves substantial harms to self or others, I prefer more regulation.

          1. #1 – “good institutional design will attempt to minimize those deviations.” Laughable. See, public choice theory.

            #2 – “Take a look at the death tolls from alcohol and tobacco and think about whether you really mean that.” I do. How many people have died from consuming marijuana compared to tobacco and alcohol? Zero. Are you really trying to say that allowing for-profit marijuana businesses will all of a sudden lead to massive increases in marijuana deaths from consumption, and marijuana related homicides and drugged driving, though no actual evidence exists to suggest that?

            If your goal is to restrict for-profit businesses from taking over the marijuana industry, then more regulation is the sure fire way to make sure that does not happen, as big-moneyed corporate interests will simply capture the regulatory process (again, see public choice and every other heavily regulated industry). More regulatory authority will only crowd out different forms of competition from drug markets and lead to cartelization of industry. By allowing for a freed market in drugs, and note, I said FREED market (see, Chartier, Gary), all sorts of practices and different forms of sale will emerge without having to worry about being subject to arbitrary occupational licensing and regulations to enter the market.

            Oh, and saying that it is stupid to dislike government is morally reprehensible — unless you fancy mass slaughter, arbitrary denial of fundamental natural rights, and the whole host of evil shit that government does on a perpetual basis. Government is not our friend, it is our enemy, that is, if you believe in individual freedom and liberty and don’t have a Hobbesian view and utter lack of faith in mankind.

          2. You say it’s stupid to dislike corporations and governments. I think it’s rational. Others agree with me. Such footnotes of history as Thomas Paine and James Madison said about governments that they are born of our (human) “wickedness,” “a necessary evil” and that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

            But those 18th century visionaries hadn’t seen the worst of it. They never saw the advent of the machine gun (19th century) of poison gas (20th century); they could not bear witness to the gulags, re-education camps, nuclear bombs, and death camps. Tens of millions died at the hands of government just in the 20th century. So forgive us our wariness of this singular institution–it hasn’t been kind to our fellow human beings.

            (And, yes, I understand that some governments are Switzerland and others are the Khmer Rouge and, yes, I can distinguish between them. But, for reasons mentioned above, it’s better to err on the side of, say, the Articles of Confederation over the Ba’ath Party.)

          3. for commodities where the bulk of the quantity consumed involves substantial harms to self or others, I prefer more regulation

            “Self” is extremely different than “others” in this situation.

            People have the right to risk harm to themselves. Do you think there should be “more regulation” for surfing? Bungee jumping? Sex?

            The only thing that makes drugs different from these things is that people still moralize a lot about drug users. And they think that there’s something offensive about using certain chemicals to alter one’s consciousness as opposed to other risks (and other chemicals).

      2. Take a look at the death tolls from alcohol and tobacco and think about whether you really mean that.

        Take a look at the death tolls from marijuana use vs. law enforcement and cartel violence related to the black market in marijuana and think about whether you really mean that.

        Marijuana has been in common use worldwide for decades despite prohibition, and for centuries upon centuries before that. Who has been killed as a result of their own or someone else’s marijuana use or abuse? Where are the bodies, Mark?

  4. What about the missing option of grow your own? Analogous to those who make their own beer or wine. For most suburban & rural folks that’s an option. It’s much easier & lower tech than making your one beer. Similarly allow folks to share with friends but not sell.

    1. Good option! Could be expanded to allow consumer co-ops. That’s one of my two favorite outcomes; government monopoly is the other.

    2. It will be impossible to keep people from selling their legally grown produce. Maybe there could be a limit to how much an individual can legally sell. Say, under $100,000 worth. While many people would exceed the limit it would be impossible to do a mass marketing strategy without an obvious legal violation.

    3. Since this policy will benefit rich whites, it makes sense to allow a policy (grow your own) that will benefit them. Bravo! Have you noticed that all of the legalizers are repulsive middle-upper age white guys!?

  5. I may be slow today, but who says we have to let them advertize at all? Is there a Supreme Court ruling that says we can’t ban ads? Honest question – I really don’t remember.

    1. Alas, yes. A series of cases under the heading “commercial free speech.” Not certain that it would apply to cannabis, but it already applies to prescription drugs.

      1. Well then I guess we need to bring on the scary warning stickers, with photos of people with those holes in their throats.

        Unless there’s also a ruling against that!

        Maybe we need to put fewer eggheads on the Court, too. They seem a little too detached from reality. I’m all for brains! But please, someone who lives on Earth.

  6. re: “But why assume that those are the only choices?”

    Points for cleverly wording that as a question.

    The only folks I see talking about some silly scary extremes – like that false dilemma – are those who have a (financial) need to shop some straw men.

    Yes, yes, skewer a straw man: save us O Savior from a putative false dilemma (put forward by prohibitionists) of those “only choices” — and thereby shine forth with thine wisdom!

    But back in the real world of free enterprise, big companies, little companies, Mom, Pop, Uncle Joe on his farm, Brother Billy Bob in his basement, Aunt Alice in her attic, all would be as free to grow pot as they are to make wine now, as legal as growing orchids under lights.

    Yes, your microbrewery analogy fits in there, too. But just not to the exclusion of other choices. We want freedom – I know I do. Big or little company, I do want the option of being able to import legally some nice Jamaican, Thai or Indian Charas; scoff all you please. I don’t mind if a big company brings me my pot – or my Bicard, er, or my rum.

    And how about ‘in ways that maximize freedom’, first and foremost? Is there any way we can pay lip service (at least) to freedom and liberty as being desirable goals in there somewhere?

    And maybe stop soft-selling prison? I hear the same people wax eloquent on the evils of “Big Marijuana” so often – while these same government apologists are mum about prison and loss of freedom. It is as if they could care less about liberty – or are downright hostile to it.

    The scary fear we see shopped of “Legalized Pot Addicts!” is way overblown and ignores … well, reality.

    1. The Egan article makes the assumption that our choice is between Chapo Guzman and Jamen Shively. I reject that false alternative.

  7. I agree with Mark’s sentiments, but nonprofits are easy to game. It’s quite common in the education or health rackets: set up a nonprofit that “contracts” with for-profits that just happen to be commonly controlled with the nonprofit.

    I’m more for denying IP rights to legal dope dealers. This doesn’t have a First Amendment problem, although it does much the same thing: making advertising not worth the candle. It might even make Brett happy, depending on whether he is an anti-IP libertarian or a pro-IP corporatist.

  8. It seems to me that a choice of policy should be dictated by risk as much as expected outcomes. It’s not enough to ask “What is the expected level of harm/benefit under this regulation [or lack of regulation]?” We also have to ask “Given that we’re aiming for this outcome, what is the range of outcomes that we might actually get if we miss our target? What will those other outcomes evolve to, given the pressures and incentives that people will face?” Something tightly-regulated might be best if done in its ideal, Platonic form, but if we miss that target and the response is to tighten up on enforcement to compensate, then we might see some (but far from all!) of the pathologies of prohibition re-emerge.

  9. “That 80% of consumption will be by the 20% users who use the most is more or less a fact of nature, independent of legal status. So problem users, not casual, responsible users, will be the focus of all that marketing attention.”

    I would be willing to stipulate the 80/20 rule. It applies in all sorts of unexpected places, and this wouldn’t be unexpected at all.

    But I wonder about the focus of marketing attention. Consider the alcohol beverage industry. Beer on TV always, and now an occasional liquor ad on TV. Are they really aimed at the serious drinkers? I dunno. Most of the serious drinkers I grew up with knew what beer and/or liquor they liked by the time they were old enough to buy it, and were not at all influenced by the advertising. My impression is that the huge advertising budgets are largely aimed at the many casual occasional drinkers. They are the ones, I think, who are most easily influenced to buy what they see advertised, rather than the old standbye that’s become a part of their lives.

    Or maybe not. I really don’t know. And I’d be interested to see some data on the subject. But I don’t even know where to look.

    1. I really don’t know. And I’d be interested to see some data on the subject.

      Repeated for emphatic agreement (and in the hopes of a follow-up post).

  10. Swedish restaurants have good wine lists. Alcohol is bad for you and the state liquor monopoly Systembolaget sells wine to you disapprovingly in a brown paper bag. On the other hand, being Swedes and disliking rubbish in any form, they hire top graduates from Bordeaux or Davis to do the shopping, with enormous buying power. Hence the paper bag contains good stuff.
    Unfortunately the libertarians who provide the foot soldiers for US pot liberalisation will never allow efficient socialism.

  11. I’ve heard the 80/20 argument about “abuse” repeatedly and still don’t find it a credible reason for imposition of a heavily regulated market for marijuana — even presuming that were possible. I’m a small “s” socialist and I don’t deceive myself into thinking you can be so invasive as to keep people from growing their own in a legalization environment that prohibits having more than 3 plants (a ridiculously low number as anyone with actual growing experience will tell you.)

    One, I am certain, based on 40 years experience, that we as a society would be far better off if we could convince the 20% of problem users of other substances to switch to marijuana. Some people follow the pied piper and believe that we can magically make the 20% go away or not matter if we impose enough penalties, but we’d do better to use some perspective whatever it is and deal more appropriately than we’ve been doing so far, which is to attempt to impose penalties on 100% of marijuana users.

    Two, when it comes to at least one legal substance — tobacco — the problem users are more like 80%, at least in terms of the harm they cause to themselves. I’d agree that the 80/20 ratio holds for alcohol, but the abusive 20% there cause harm out of proportion to their numbers.

    Three, we need to not lose sight of the greatest harm that marijuana causes — imposing ridiculous legal and social harm on those arrested for it out of all proportion to its negative consequences. If possession of marijuana really rates a year in the pen — and we keep things truly relative to the harm caused — why isn’t drunken driving subject to the death penalty? (note that i am NOT a supporter of capital punishment)

    Four, unless whatever legalization solution sharply reduces and strictly limits the involvement of law enforcement in marijuana, it will change very little — and there will continue to be a high social cost to the conceit that we need suppress the “bad” in marijuana. The resources wasted on enforcing marijuana prohibition will simply shift to enforcing marijuana regulation.

    Five, while the idea of tight regulation of marijuana appeals enough to the right side of the political equation to perhaps gain the votes necessary in some jurisdictions to move toward something other than the present disastrous policy, beware. See point Four just above. We’d be much better off throwing lots of these folks out of office before we develop the proposal to legalize than ending up with a prohibition-lite compromise based on satisfying the ridiculous anxieties of people who’ll never change their minds on this or see reality for what it is.

    Six, the one thing that the 80/20 thing misses is the self-limiting quality of marijuana. No matter how much THC, smoke too much or too often and guess what? You just don’t get the buzz you were looking for. Switching to a different strain will help some. But the reality is that the user needs to not overdo things, because after a certain point as far as what you’re getting out of it is you’re just burning up a lot of expensive vegetable matter. Sure, it’s a safer alternative to tobacco, but most users don’t want to just be burning the stuff up — or can afford it. The only solution is to smoke less and most users realize that. There is no other substance that does this to its users.

  12. The choice isn’t between Chapo Guzman and big corporate weed. It’s between the thousands of American families who make their living from marijuana and big corporate weed. My hometown — Humboldt County — used to have fishing, timber, and weed. Most of the timberland has been clearcut, with the profits being funneled to the few people who own timber companies. The sawmills are almost all closed, the decent blue collar jobs within are either a distant memory or, for those of us under ~30, a myth. Clearcutting helped destroy the habitat needed to maintain the fisheries, but the biggest culprit there is the massive diversion of our water to support wealthy and politically influential farmers in the central valley and central Oregon. The fishing industry still exists in NorCal, it’s just 5-10% of what it was a generation or two ago. So now, after America’s particular form of rapacious capitalism has left Humboldt wholly dependant on the pot trade, now it’ll be given to RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris? Thanks America!

  13. I challenge the assumption that 20% of marijuana users are people with a problem. Is there one, single, cause-and-effect example that can be given of marijuana’s harm to any single one of its users? Anyone out there? Show of hands?

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