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June 05, 2014 10:39 AM Dowd, Althouse, and Cannabis Regulation

By Mark Kleiman

Why, in a universe supposedly designed by a good and loving Deity who is also all-wise and all-powerful, does Maureen Dowd not only exist, but have a column in the New York Times where she gets to inflict her utter cluelessness on unsuspecting readers?

And why, in that very same universe, does Ann Althouse not restrict her blogging to matters on which she is knowledgeable, rather than gleefully parading both her profound ignorance and her insufferable smugness?

The answer, child, is that God is wiser than we are, and made Althouse so that MoDo would not be alone in her cluelessness, and Dowd so that Althouse would have someone she could legitimately look down her nose at. It’s like frogs and storks.

Start with Dowd. She went to Colorado to see about cannabis legalization. But instead of, for example, observing events and inteviewing partipants, she decided to buy a cannabis candy bar and eat it alone in her hotel room, while wearing – I’m not making this up – green corduroys. “The caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar looked so innocent, like the Sky Bars I used to love as a child. Sitting in my hotel room in Denver, I nibbled off the end and then, when nothing happened, nibbled some more.”

Let’s think about all the different ways this is wrong, even leaving out the corduroys:

1. She’s advertising, in a national newspaper, her violation of federal law, without any reflection about what might justify that violation. (This is not to say that such a justification couldn’t be offered, merely that the question ought to arise, but didn’t seem to for Dowd. Is it all right for anyone to ignore federal laws? Or only some federal laws? Or only reporters? Or only Maureen Dowd?)

2. With no, or at least limited, experience in using cannabis, she chose to use it alone. Anyone who plans to become impaired ought always to have someone present who is not impaired, as a “baby-sitter.” That goes double for someone about to use a relatively unfamiliar chemical, who ought to choose someone who is knowledgeable to “baby-sit.” Part of the function of the sitter is to say things like, “I don’t think you want to eat any more of that.” Another part is to fetch water when you’re thirsty but too panic-bound to get out of bed. Both functions are useful.

3. Eating cannabis, unlike smoking or vaporization, does not allow the user to “titrate” the dose by taking a a little, waiting to get the effect, and then taking more if the effect is insufficient. Cannabis users aren’t as good at titration as they think they are, but it does provide a rough-and-ready kind of protection against over-intoxication that can lead to dysphoria and panic. The very long (and variable) lags between ingestion and feeling the effect, and between first feeling the effect and reaching peak intoxication, defeat any titration strategy, so a consumer of oral cannabis needs to be able to judge his or her dosage up front, and should never, never, EVER try to “supplement” when the initial effect seems disappointing.

4. A hotal room in a strange city must surely be among the least psychologically safe and pleasurable venues for getting altered, offering nothing either familiar or natural to hold on to.  Home is probably best. An outdoor setting, or at least one where the outdoors is easily available, might be a good competitor; grass and trees and flowers can be enormously reassuring.

Of course, Maureen Dowd is almost certainly not the most clueless person who will buy pot in Colorado this year, or even this week. At least she didn’t jump or fall to her death. A sensible regulatory strategy ought to consider the risks facing the cluically challenged – including children – especially with respect to edibles, and the rest of Dowd’s column deals with Colorado’s effort to craft such rules, and the industry opposition to any sort of regulation.  So there are things for all of us to learn from the Dowd column, other than that Dowd herself is ot-nay oo-tay ight-bray when it comes to drug-taking.

But we can’t learn any of those things by reading Althouse’s snark-driven response.

Althouse leads off by referring to Dowd’s behavior as a “felony,” which it is not. Under 21 USC 844, possession of a controlled substance is punishable by “a term of imprisonment of not more than 1 year,” which makes it a misdeameanor. You’d think a law professor could tell the difference.

Althouse then calls Dowd’s subsequent reflections on policy products of a “drug-addled brain,” which – if it isn’t merely mean, stupid snark – is simply false. There’s no evidence that having been stoned once – even way too stoned – “addles” anything, and lots of evidence that it doesn’t. Dowd’s opinions ought to be debated on the merits, rather than dismissed with drug-war slogans.

Or does Althouse think that anyone who has ever had a glass of wine, or anyone who has ever been drunk, has a “drug-addled brain”? I’m sure that Dowd, like Althouse, is fully capable of writing nonsense without any chemical assistance.(Since this Dowd column doesn’t mention earth-tones, it’s even possible that cannabis boosted MoDo’s IQ compared to its pre-drug level.)

Then we get into Althouse’s own addiction, which is to libertarian gibberish. She sneers at Dowd’s concern for safety regulation:

Dowd’s drug-addled brain seems to have lit on the liberally-correct notion that what’s needed is more regulation: packaging and labeling requirements and accurate information on correct “dosing.” There’s no dosing information on bottles of alcohol. How high do you want to get? “Dosing” is the language of prescription drugs, which have a medical purpose. Marijuana used for the purpose of getting high is not susceptible to regulation about dosing. In normal prescription drug regulation, feeling high would be an undesirable side effect. If a side effect is all you’re after, the government is not an appropriate adviser.

“There’s no dosing information on bottles of alcohol.” Actually, there is. Every bottle, by law, must give its volume, and its percentage alcohol content by weight, which allows the consumer to know exactly how much intoxicant he is about to consume.

No, that’s not translated to standard drinks – though perhaps it ought to be – but of course alcohol is a familiar drug, and the customary serving sizes – a 12-ounce can of beer, a six-ounce glass of wine, a ounce-and-a-half shot of whiskey or cocktail – all turn out to contain about the same amount of absolute alcohol, so all the consumer needs to do is count his drinks: four drinks is drunk for a non-tolerant female, five drinks for a non-tolerant male.

Anyway, who said that current alcohol regulation – under which something like 90,000 Americans every year die of their own drinking or someone else’s – is a model to follow?

Althouse supports the legalization of cannabis. Once it’s legal – as it is under Colorado law, though not yet under Federal law – I don’t see why the fact that it’s a drug used “recreationally” rather than “medically” should change the public interest in regulating the market to reduce the volume of injury, as with any other consumer product. Nor do I see why “recreational” use of mood-altering chemicals ought to be less dosage-driven than “medical” use. In each case, the consumer is absorbing a chemical in hopes of an effect; the effect depends in part on how much of the chemical he absorbs; and safety depends on the consumer knowing how much is enough.

Whether cannabis legalization turns out to be a good idea or a bad idea depends in part on how skilfully the regulatory job (including taxation or quantity limitation to prevent a big upsurge in substance use disorder) gets done, and how much power the industry has to thwart the regulatory process in order to maximize sales, revenues, and profits. The libertarians who oppose any substantial regulation and taxation are, paradoxically, making the legalization they want to see less attractive as a policy.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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

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