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.

More than two options

Operation Mallorca, US Drug Enforcement Admini...
Operation Mallorca, US Drug Enforcement Administration, 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Kleiman is making sense:

“For every complex problem,” H.L. Mencken wrote, “there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

That is especially true of drug abuse and addiction. Indeed, the problem is so complex that it has produced not just one clear, simple, wrong solution but two: the “drug war” (prohibition plus massive, undifferentiated enforcement) and proposals for wholesale drug legalization.

Fortunately, these two bad ideas are not our only choices. We could instead take advantage of proven new approaches that can make us safer while greatly reducing the number of Americans behind bars for drug offenses.

Our current drug policies do far more harm than they need to do and far less good than they might, largely because they ignore some basic facts. Treating all “drug abusers” as a single group flies in the face of what is known as Pareto’s Law: that for any given activity, 20% of the participants typically account for 80% of the action.

Thank goodness for commentary that avoids straw men and phony binary choices.

I can’t sleep no more…

Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that human error will exist, whatever the drug policy, and uses a recent police killing of an unarmed 18 year old to point out that the stakes are very high when anything is criminalized.

When people talk about ending the War on Drugs, or decriminalizing marijuana, or reining in stop and frisk, they are not simply talking about the right of private citizens to get high, they are talking about the right of private citizens to not be subject to lethal violence at the hands of the state. … For all practical purposes, if an officer, pursuing an arrest, believes you have endangered his life, and can demonstrate that belief, he or she can kill you.

Now, this doesn’t suggest that our choices are criminalize or legalize and it doesn’t suggest that the costs of not enforcing drug laws are acceptably low.

There is no such thing as a problem-free drug policy, the questions we need to answer are:

  • Which problems are we not willing to tolerate?
  • Which problems are we willing to tolerate and how can we minimize them?
I don’t know all the details of this case and these things are usually more complicated than headlines suggest. It sounds like police may have been on edge because of recent shots fired at officers in the area. This interview includes leading questions that advance a narrative of police abuses of a minority community. I have no way of knowing the ways in which this narrative may be true or false, but the parents grief is heartbreaking.