Ten Miles Square

Blog

April 26, 2014 5:06 PM Cannabis, Bill Bennett, and the Technique of Selective Reading

By Mark Kleiman

A friend emails, “Bill Bennett read your book … or, at least, every other page of it.”

Well, yes. Bennett and his sidekick Christopher Beach, in using the Caulkins et al. Marijuana Legalization book to support their argument against legalization, illustrate the point made here yesterday about the contrast between analysis and mere advocacy. To an analyst, every course of action* has advantages and disadvantages, which ought to be carefully weighed against the advantages and disadvantags of its alternatives. To a mere advocate, the course of action he perfers has only benefits, while the courses of action he deplores have only costs.

Since Beach and Bennett chose to base their argument on our book, (albeit without providing a link to it), it’s easy to see their principles of selection in action. They start out by mis-stating the book’s viewpoint and purpose:

In their book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, and Beau Kilmer—all of whom support the legalization of marijuana in some fashion—report …

This account suggests that the authors of the Weekly Standard essay never quite finished the book. While the first fifteen chapters, in Q&A format, are entirely collective products (I suppose in this context I can’t say “joint products”), the final chapter consists of four individually-authored essays. Of the four authors, only Angela Hawken is a straight-up supporter of legalization on the alcohol model, and she’s completely open to changing her view as new data come in. I’m clearly for legalization, but just as clearly against commercialization, concluding “So my first choice—not what I think will happen, but what I would like to see happen—is permission for production and use through small not-for-profit cooperatives, with a ban on commerce.”

Beau Kilmer points out how uncertain the whole proposition is, and devotes his essay to arguing that, if legalization is to be tried, it ought to be tried in an experimental mood, with, for example, sunset clauses. He adds:

Given the dearth of evidence we have about legalizing any of these activities, I am not convinced that jumping from one end of the continuum (prohibition) to the other (commercial production with advertising) is a good idea. Indeed, given the concerns about marijuana companies working hard to promote use, nurture heavy users, and keep taxes low, implementing the most extreme alternative to prohibition could be a really bad idea.

And Jonathan Caulkins – in fact the lead author of the book, though  Beach and Bennett list my name first – is more or less in the Beach-and-Bennett camp, starting his essay with  ”I would vote against legalizing marijuana … ” (though he lists a grow-your-own approach as a possible “middle ground”). Jon concludes:

About half of all days of marijuana use come from people who self-report enough use-related problems to meet criteria for substance abuse or dependence with respect to marijuana or another substance. Does the happiness a controlled user derives from using marijuana on a typical day offset the unhappiness of someone else spending a day harmed by and/or struggling to control problem drug use? In my opinion, the answer is no. In a free society there are plenty of other ways to have fun without insisting on a right to use something that becomes a stumbling block for others.

Why should Beach and Bennett want their readers to believe that the authors of Marijuana Legalization are all legalization advocates? Because doing so allows them to treat everything in the book that supports their position as if it were an unwilling concession from the legalization side of the debate. They then proceed to quote only sections from the book that discuss disadvantages of legalization, which might leave a reader wondering why the authors of t this purported legalization tract have nothing good to say about the position they supposedly hold. Here’s the full Beach-and-Bennett discussion of the “gateway” issue:

Marijuana, of course, is a gateway drug. Even the authors of Marijuana Legalization admit that “kids who use marijuana—particularly those who start marijuana use at a young age—are statistically much more likely to go on to use other drugs than their peers who do not use marijuana.”

(Note the “even the authors …” formulation. And yes, I get a certain amount of this from the other side: “As even the fanatic prohibitionist Mark Kleiman admits …”)

Here’s the relevant section of the book, in full (emphasis added):

IS MARIJUANA A “GATEWAY DRUG”?

Kids who use marijuana—particularly those who start marijuana use at a young age—are statistically much more likely to go on to use other drugs than their peers who do not use marijuana.

What is not at all clear, however, is whether marijuana use causes subsequent use of other drugs or whether it is merely a signal indicating the presence of underlying social, psychological, or physiological risk factors—such as weak parental supervision, a taste for intoxication, or a willingness to take risks—for both early marijuana use and later hard-drug use. There have been some well-done studies with twins (comparing one who used marijuana with the other, who did not) that implicitly control for genetics and unmeasured family background, and some find evidence consistent with the gateway hypothesis. But once again, the question is how much of the correlation reflects causality.

Since most people have opportunities to try marijuana before they have opportunities to use harder drugs, marijuana use might precede hard drug use even if both are caused by the same underlying personality traits. Indeed, Andrew Morral and colleagues at RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center have
shown that such explanations are completely consistent with available data.

However, the fact that causal connections are not needed to explain the observed correlations does not mean there is no causal connection. At least two very different mechanisms might produce a causal “gateway” effect. One is the consequences of the drug use itself. For example, trying marijuana might increase the taste for other mind-altering experiences or lead users to revise their judgments about other substances, inferring that they are more pleasurable or less risky than previously supposed. The causal effect could also lie in social interactions. If acquiring and using marijuana leads to greater contact with peers who use and favor the use of drugs generally, those peer interactions might influence subsequent behavior. One version of this conjecture is that those peers could include people who sell other drugs, reducing the difficulty of locating potential supplies.

There’s a case to be made against any sort of cannabis legalization, though on the facts as now known I don’t find that case convincing.  But if it’s going to be made convincingly, it needs to be made after a full accounting for the costs of continued prohibition. And I haven’t seen anyone other than Caulkins try to make that all-things-considered case. David Frum writes much more soberly and temperately than Beach and Bennett, but his account is nonetheless entirely one-sided. The fact that someone as able as Frum couldn’t come up with a stronger argument ought to give some comfort to his opponents on the “Legalize it!” side of the question.

There’s a much stronger case to be made against commercialization, and I keep trying to make it. But politically speaking, there’s simply no active support for moderation: this is a case where, in the immortal words of Jim Hightower, “They ain’t nothin’ in the middle of the road but yaller lines and dead armadillas.” So I think we will wind up with full alchohol-style legalization, and therefore with much more of the bad outcomes that Bennett and Frum and Kevin Sabet warn about, partly because they prefer a last-ditch defense of policies that seem to me no longer defensible to a serious consideration of less-drastic alternatives.

Footnote * Of course, the phrase “every course of action” is slightly hyperbolic. As Dr. Johnson said, some things shouldn’t be tried even once: that is to say, shouldn’t even be considered as options. His examples were incest and folk-dancing; torture heads my personal list.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.

Comments

(You may use HTML tags for style)

comments powered by Disqus