Wishful thinking

How could the legalization of cannabis for adults make it less available to minors?
I can’t imagine a mechanism.

Andrew Sullivan:

I have always maintained that marijuana is not for minors. And if it were legal and regulated, we’d be better able to keep it from them.

How, precisely? What’s the mechanism? What about legalization for adults would make it harder for minors to get cannabis?

But the truth is likely to be even worse. How do you make something way more available to adults and not have it become more available to minors as well? Yes, many kids today have better access to cannabis than adults do. But (despite frequent assertions to the contrary) nowhere near as much access as they have to alcohol, which is dirt-cheap and available from the wino outside any liquor store, or (in most cases) at home.

Here are the brute facts: more kids engage in binge drinking every month than smoke pot at all in that month. Is that because alcohol is more fun? Or because it’s so easy to get?

The flip of this is the anti-legalization argument that pot has gotten more potent and therefore more dangerous over the past generation. But of course that’s the result under prohibition. If the stuff were legal, there could be limits on potency, and less-potent legal pot would compete with more-potent illegal pot.

Really, this stuff isn’t that hard, if you start with questions instead of conclusions.

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

32 thoughts on “Wishful thinking”

  1. Andrew Sullivan should try replacing “marijuana” with “pornography” in that first sentence. It might lead him to think more realistically on the topic of keeping things from minors.

  2. Maybe I’m missing an implied step or two here. A minor can get pornography over the internet these days (no one sells French postcards on a dark corner anymore) — how is that like getting marijuana?

      1. The point is that minors always find a way to get hold of stuff they want – be it alcohol, porn, weed, cigarettes or what have you. Legalizing and regulating weed will change nothing in that regard – except, possibly, to enable mom and dad to safely accumulate a stash that junior will raid at the first opportunity. In theory, porn is legal and regulated and minors are not supposed to get hold of it – and yet, day in day out, they do, whether it be by discovering dad’s stash, cruising the Googlesphere for tempting links or, for that matter, making a little for themselves. Similarly, even if you create a legal market for weed, there will always be kids who know someone who is willing to “help out”, or for that matter, who sees a chance to make a buck by selling the stuff on with a mark-up for the risk involved. I could easily see a strand of weed libertarianism developing that rejects government interference on principle! That is, of course, assuming that stoner parents don’t simply decide that 14 or whatever age you care to name is the right time to initiate their kid into the wonders of weed.

        1. Ah, I see — the old “nothing will ever change” argument. Thanks for clearing that up.

          1. And what argument do you have to offer, Karl? Wishful thinking isn’t much of a gambit. Surely you remember being a teenager? Remember how your peers could always find something if they really wanted to, legal or not? Or have you Romneyed those days down the memory-hole?

          2. The problem is, other Nick, that the question here isn’t whether or not teenagers will get marijuana. They currently do and I haven’t seen anyone deny that they would post-legalization as well.

            The question is whether it would be *easier* for them to get post-legalization and a general “minors always find a way to get hold of stuff they want” doesn’t actually tell us anything about that.

        2. This analogy is ludicrous. Marijuana isn’t something you can anonymously acquire and consume over the internet. You have to physically obtain, prepare, and inhale it.

          It would still be illegal for minors to acquire marijuana under legalization. If they tried to buy it in a retail location, the seller would be breaking the law by selling to them and, presumably, be fined to hell and/or lose his license. If the minor tried to purchase marijuana in the underground market, would the purchase price not be high like it is currently since the seller would be breaking a serious law? If mom and dad, big brother or sister, or some friend buys the pot, the minor would be able to acquire it more easily than right now, so I guess this method of acquisition would be the driver of the increase in use.

          As for regulatory limits on potency, I wonder if they would really matter much. Several states ban 190 proof Everclear, which I guess is beneficial, but what’s the practical difference between 190 and 170 for someone looking to get real drunk real fast? The return on consumption in terms of how “high” your marijuana gets you diminishes as potency increases. If you want 5% THC pot to get you as high as the 15% THC pot that you’re used to, you’re gonna have to smoke a lot of it. If you want 15% THC pot to get you as high as the 25% THC pot that you’re used to, a drag or two more will probably do the job.

        3. Sounds like the “criminals will always get assault weapons of mass murder, so golly everyone should have one!” argument as well…

  3. When I was in high school, it was quite a lot easier to get marijuana (and LSD, and mescaline) than it was to get liquor: liquor was sold by people who had licenses from the state of California, those licenses were worth quite a lot of money and would be taken away if they sold us booze. Marijuana was sold by people who had no licenses and for whom the consequences of selling to kids were not worse than the consequences of selling to adults. As an adult now in Virginia, I see the grocery stores being put through unpleasant hoops in selling me wine if they have been caught selling to minor passing as adults, so they card people up to an apparent age of 30. So I’m with Sullivan on this, I think he is right.

    1. The problem is that if we go by data rather than anecdote, it’s pretty clear that he is wrong. If marijuana were really easier to get than alcohol, we would see different rates of consumption than we actually do. There is something about drug legalization that brings out the worst possible arguments by anecdote by people that wouldn’t otherwise countenance it.

      1. If marijuana were really easier to get than alcohol, we would see different rates of consumption than we actually do.

        That’s begging the question. The consumption rates are modulated by factors other than price, such as any remaining residual stigma, price, peer group preferences, fear of consequences if caught..etc

        1. Right. Its not impossible to imagine a school where everyone can get weed but not everyone wants to smoke it — meanwhile not everyone has access to liquor but everyone wants to drink it.

      2. Sure, but arguments by anecdote are more democratic. Anyway, what numbers back up the claim that alcohol is more accessible than marijuana, and are there regional patterns? Are we working backward from consumption figures? Maybe it’s just because I grew up outside of Berkeley, but it’s hard for me to imagine easier access to liquor.

      3. It’s not an anecdote that among teens marijuana consumption far outpaces cigarette consumption, and is almost equal to alcohol consumption. If the universal truth that you and Kleiman base your argument on is “the easier a substance is for adults to obtain, the more it will be used by kids,” then how do you explain that? Cigarettes are cheaper and far easier to get than marijuana – that’s true for adults and kids – and yet kids are far more likely to use marijuana? So I reject that premise.

        The real question is whether marijuana use among teens will go up, and the truth is that – as daksya mentions below – availability is only one among many considerations that go into the equation. Looking at teen marijuana consumption in the Netherlands, or cigarette consumption here, the answer is that peer group preferences are a far stronger determinant than availability or fear of consequences.

        Also, keep in mind that the goal of smart drug policy should be harm reduction. I don’t think they necessarily will, but let’s stipulate that teens will be more likely to use marijuana post legalization. Think about how they’ll use. Rather than getting an unlabeled clear bag of untested who-knows-what from a shady drug dealer and risking life-long criminal justice consequences and improvising a bong out of an aluminum can, they’d be getting a product that’s been tested for potency and purity, properly labeled, and obtaining it from a friend or family member (older brother?) far more likely to care about their well-being (i.e. not stab them and take their money; care about whether there are signs of dependency; encourage safer administration) than any drug dealer.

      4. No, you really just don’t seem to know how it works. More kids think drinking is acceptable than think smoking pot is acceptable, mostly because they’ve been fed a lot of stupid shit about pot. That’s why there’s more drinking. But marijuana is just plain easier to get. Easier for you, easier for the person doing the selling. The provider takes far less risk in selling pot than in purchasing alcohol for minors.

        Anybody that regularly buys alcohol for minors has to make many trips to a liquor store or convenience store. So in the first place, they need to be pretty motivated to wanna help you. Either a family friend or an older “cool guy.” And if they do it for a lot of people they feel constantly scrutinized for buying so much beer. Occasionally minors use fake IDs.

        Since alcohol is more perishable and harder to conceal, the exchange either has to be made in private or they risk further scrutiny for handing it over in the parking lot.

        Then, when the exchange is made, you’re saddled with this huge thing that you can’t bring home and can’t hide elsewhere.

        You can sell an eighth anywhere. On the street, in a car, in your home, in the school parking lot, in the classroom when the teacher leaves for a moment. Almost impossible to get caught if you exercise a modicum of discretion.

        Can’t go home drunk, because you’ll get pretty easily figured out. Going home high is easily doable, especially if you throw in eye drops.

        Also, $50 worth of pot lasts you a lot longer than $50 worth of beer.

  4. Andrew Sullivan is a gifted writer (“writer” being defined as being talented in communicating things). But he’s logically-challenged, innumerate, and not an especially interesting thinker. This was true when he was a frothy George W. Bush supporter, and it’s true now when he’s a frothy Obama supporter.

    His thesis here is especially silly. Teenagers seem to have no problem getting booze. I tend to favor de-criminialization of pot, largely because I think law enforcement has bigger fish to fry. But the idea that de-criminialization will make it harder for kids to get the stuff is ludicrous.

    1. This ought to be the thread-winner. It sums up Sullivan with honest precision and ought to make people think twice before wasting page views on the Daily Mish.

  5. I would dispute the point that alcohol is dirt-cheap. Maybe it is dirt-cheap relative to what it would cost if it were illegal, or maybe it depends on what type of alcohol you buy.

    Say somebody who regularly both smokes marijuana and drinks has $50 to spend and wants to maximize intoxication time. If this person has no problem with the taste of liquor sold in plastic containers, then $50 will buy a lot of (horrible) alcohol and keep him drunk for most his waking hours over the course of a week. If this person prefers to drink something that doesn’t taste like rubbing alcohol, he can still get a lot of booze, but will have to sacrifice some drunk time. Essentially, as the drinker selects alcohol from higher shelves, he sacrifices time spent drunk. It doesn’t take uber-snooty drink preferences to get to the point where someone would be better off buying an eighth of medical grade and taking a hit every three or four hours. This could provide for about a week of being constantly stoned.

    A point that matters a little less for minors is the environment in which people like to intoxicate themselves. Alcohol is, for many, a social drug. Lots of regular drinkers probably prefer to be around others when they drink. They even go to bars and pay high markups for their drinks, or even cover fees just to walk on someone else’s floor, all so they can drink in the company of peers. Those $50 don’t stretch so far if someone buys alcohol with the cost of company included in it. Marijuana on the other hand, typically seems to be less of a social drug than alcohol. You get high, then horizontal. There isn’t the same cost for the complement of a social environment.

    1. I’m still thinking…

      If marijuana were legal like alcohol:

      I wonder how much smokers would be willing to pay for a joint in a marijuana bar? The joint would get them high for a couple hours, then they’d take in the reggae and black lights. (I say this in jest, not pejoratively.) Would the owner be able to mark up the cost of the joint enough to account for the costs of running the business, but not too much that would discourage patronage? Drinkers at bars keep drinking. Marijuana smokers need very little of a product–for which the price is expected to plummet–to be stoned for a couple hours.

  6. Just got started on “Marijuana Legalization…”, and will not have another argument in the public sphere about this subject until I’ve digested the book like a Cormac McCarthy novel. Here’s what I see right now missing from the discussion: as a front line treatment provider, in terms of cannabis use what’s functionally off the table is discussion of the social realities/pressures that drive indiscriminate cannabis use. Are the NIH doing enlightening studies on individual characteristics that lead to substance misuse? Of course. Is the dopamine hypothesis helpful in explaining idiographic response to THC? Yes. Does any of this begin to explain in a coherent way the attachment so many present to cannabis use? Only in a very limited, distorting way. American culture is addicted to addiction; until we accept and confront the socio-economic factors that drive this reality we will be stuck with at best partially effective fixes that obscure and implicitly support the true sources of this county’s addiction to addiction, including (but not limited to) a decayed individualistic mythology; frustrated nationalism; archaic economic injustice; the narcissistic self-indulgence of empire in decline; and the ignorant flailing of a society stuck in puerile materialist ignorance.

    Will more folks, esp. teens, smoke more pot when it’s decriminalized? Without reading the book: yes. Will we ever as post-agricultural beings approach sanity and coherence on the subject of drug use if we do not address the inherent inequities of our kleptocratic, hierarchical society? Not a f***ing chance. Either we restore psychoactives to their rightful place as controlled tools of social cohesiveness and individual transcendence, or, as Mr. McCarthy (see above) so eloquently puts it, they will destroy us. As in, if we do not muster the strength to face ourselves (which most, if not all of my clients are essentially willing to do, once we understand each other), then these conveniently placed chemical ‘friends’ will do the job for us – for a price. A non-negotiable price.

  7. Both alcohol and marijuana are legally available to resident adults in the Netherlands.
    Any real-life evidence on the relative incidence of abuse among Dutch minors?
    Seems more relevant than this kind of arm-chair theorizing.

  8. The problem stems from the mentality that says: “pot is bad, therefore make it illegal”. Apply this to all “bad” substances, and you see the ridiculous results. There’s got to be a better way.

  9. I can eat one delicious cannabis-infused maple nut caramel and, after waiting 45 minutes, be very, very high for about 12 hours. The cost, including sales tax: about $1.67 at my local dispensary. The cheapest booze available in my area is a bottle of Two Buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s, and that would be 29.3% higher at $2.16 (slightly more if there’s a deposit on wine bottles – I don’t buy often enough to know), and there’s no way it would make me drunk for 15.5 hours (which would be what it would need to do to cost the same amount per hour of intoxication).

  10. Speaking for myself, marijuana was absolutely easier to get than alcohol before I turned 21. For people who have a lot of friends older than you that are willing to buy up for you it may be different, but growing up in San Francisco this has been my experience.

  11. Since Mark is baiting, I’ll bite. Of course, there are mechanisms working in both directions, and some will influence the other.

    Leading to increased availability: As there is no risk in doing so, cigarette users commonly leave the drug in plain sight in homes/cars, often stay in possession of the drug throughout the day, and–to a smaller extent–discard partially unused cigarettes in accessible locations. These all aid teens in finding/stealing/being offered the drug, and it will be the same for cannabis when those risks are eliminated for its users. It’s doubtful regulation will require cannabis to be kept under lock and key like firearms, and even if so, it’s doubtful this will be widely enforced, nor would the punishments likely be severe.

    Leading to reduced availability: A large percentage of adult cannabis users will move away from black market purchases, shrinking the black market. Assuming some overlap in the dealers for adults and teens, the teen market should also see a reduction. Also to some extent the reduced adult market could free enforcement resources to be used on the teen market. If cannabis becomes easier to acquire from known adult users, this would lower prices so that the risk of serving the teen market outweighs the profit.

    Without a solid proposal of regulations to be put in place, it’s hard to say to what extent these mechanisms will function and what the net outcome will be. The book is absolutely right: we just don’t know in what direction teen availability will move, but there are valid (if not likely) reasons to believe it could be reduced.

  12. Sure, legalization for adults would make pot easier to obtain for minors, but that’s hardly a sufficient argument against legalization; after all we don’t think alcohol is for minors either, but we’ve legalized it for adults, despite the fact that this makes alcohol easier for minors to get.

    But I’m not sure that alcohol is always easier to obtain. Um, this guy I know says that in college (freshman year, when nobody was of legal age), there were probably more sources for alcohol, but you could only get and transport one or at most two night’s worth of booze at any one time, wheras with one score you could buy a month’s supply of weed and carry it home in your pockets. So on a day-to-day basis, pot was indeed more available than alcohol, even if there were more opportunities to buy alcohol.

  13. I suspect that yes, more under-18 individuals will be able to obtain pot if it is legalized.

    However, pornography (mentioned above) is actually a very good comparison. We accept as a matter of First Amendment law that adult discourse does not have to be censored to the level appropriate to children. And I think most of us (except for the very prudish) would agree that’s a very good thing.

    The question is why should some cancer patient not be able to obtain his medicine, or some recreational user not be able to enjoy herself, just because someone else’s child might abuse the drug?

    The thinking behind this is all wrong. The only way to protect children from any danger is to strip adults of all their freedoms. And that’s not a solution.

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