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.

The political left and prohibition

"Legalization Now" Banner At The May...
“Legalization Now” Banner At The May Day Immigration Rights Rally (Washington, DC) (Photo credit: takomabibelot)

Andrew Sullivan picks up on Jack Meserve’s discussion of the political left and prohibition:

Meserve:

Think of a few of the currently illegal vices: recreational drug use, gambling, prostitution. With some exceptions, the left has been in favor of legalization or decriminalization of these activities. Now think of legal vices: gluttony, cigarette smoking, alcohol use. On these habits, we’ve supported bans, onerous restrictions on place and time of consumption, and increasingly aggressive fines and taxes. There seems very little consistency between these positions, and few have even attempted justifying the differences. Progressives have been guilty of letting our temperament rather than our reason guide the policies; bans on activities like drug use are seen as naive or old-fashioned, but legal vices like cigarette smoking are public-health or collective-action problems to be solved through brute government action.

Then, Sullivan offers some reader reactions to Meserve. Here are just a couple:

…legalization isn’t being pursued as a public health issue.  It’s being pursued to make sure people don’t face fines, criminal charges, arrest, or jail time for using a substance that is less harmful and addictive than other legal substances.  Any public health aspects come into play when you discuss how pot would be regulated ONCE it is legal.  But Meserve doesn’t discuss or raise any public comments about what happens post legalization in the piece.

another:

Why is the pot legalization initiative on the ballot in Washington when legalization has failed to qualify so many times before, despite our alleged libertinism?  Well, this one contains a 25% excise tax dedicated to substance abuse prevention and healthcare in general, a state-run store regime was added, age limits put in, and specific concentrations of THC in the bloodstream for DUI were defined.  These things were absent in prior initiatives, meaning that had they qualified and passed, anyone could have set up shop across from a kindergarten to sell. It’s almost instead of us being a bunch of stoned hippies just out for a good time, we wanted to make sure that this vice was legalized in the most thoughtful, responsible way possible, while also making provisions for ameliorating possible social harms caused by legalization.  That’s left-wing social engineering at its best.