What policy would minimize total damage?

Mark Kleiman responds to a WSJ column expressing concern about increases in marijuana use leading to increases in schizophrenia. Kleiman responds to the specific concerns and then steps back to frame the larger policy decisions.

The author of the WSJ piece solemnly announces, “The claim that marijuana is medically harmless is false.” No sh*t, Sherlock! Nothing is harmless. It’s always a question of counting harms, weighing them against one another, and comparing them to benefits. And we should do that not only when embarking on “social experiments” (i.e., making changes) but also when continuing a high-cost and potentially unsustainable status quo policy.

The costs of cannabis prohibition are large (including $35 billion a year in criminal income), and its capacity to keep consumption in check appears to be breaking down. That’s not a reason to plunge wildly into legalization on the libertarian model, but it is reason enough consider, soberly, the options around legal availability. Mere unquantified viewing-with-alarm (about schizophrenia, or workplace impairment, or intoxicated driving, or increased use by adolescents, or increased substance abuse disorder) no longer counts as a valuable contribution to the debate, any more than mindless sloganeering about “The failure of the War on Drugs.”

Some people will get hurt as a result of legalization; some people are getting hurt now by prohibition. The question before us is, “What policy would minimize total damage, net of the benefits of responsible use?” Continued prohibition in some form – at least the prohibition of commerce – might turn out to be the answer to that question; at least, Jonathan Caulkins and Keith Humphreys both think so, and they’re two of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable people around on this issue.

But being “against legalization” does not by itself name a policy position. No one I know has a serious proposal to put the genie back in the bottle, reversing the trend toward more cannabis use, and heavier use, that started around 2003 and seems to be accelerating. So it’s time to try some innovation. Who knows? We might be able to construct a licit market, and norms of responsible use, that would stop the progression toward more potent and less CBD-buffered, and thus probably riskier, cannabis. And then we should evaluate the results of those innovations with as much cool detachment as we can summon up: not to “prove” that one team of culture warriors or the other was right, but to consider what to try next. That’s the way grown-ups make policy.

4 Comments

Filed under Controversies, Policy

4 responses to “What policy would minimize total damage?

  1. Very well thought out and reasoned. We do need to be moving forward and figuring out how to mitigate damage by maintaining effective limits on underage use and abuse and assessing other societal implications.

  2. Excellent! “I concur,” as the guy in ‘Catch Me If You Can’ is wont to say.

  3. Kieran Hamilton

    Great article, it does tend to be a very polarised debate and we do need some sensible and reasoned debate on the issue.

    As a side note, I was just wondering if you have a twitter account linked to this page? I have a Twitter page with similar content and it would be much easier to share your posts if they were on Twitter already. I’m just being a bit lazy to be honest, but thought it would also be beneficial for yourself even if you had an account which WordPress auto-posted to Twitter. Just a thought, sorry if I’m being rude!