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Reefer Madness
Pot Policy Is Really Complicated

David Brooks’ column on marijuana legalization this week had the blogosphere up in arms. The premise of the column is that legalization would encourage marijuana use—a lower pleasure that lowers peoples’ characters— and therefore legalization experiments, like Colorado’s that just went into effect, are bad ideas. David Weigel had a typical response at Slate:

“In healthy societies,” writes Brooks, “government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.”

That’s a definition of “society” that includes only some people and wishes away—or just ignores—the social damage done by prohibition and arrests. Consequences like sentencing disparities, which collar black teens for the sort of drug use/sale that people who look like me or have my credit rating could easily get away with. Like the mind-boggling police state abuses carried out in the name of catching drug users.

The argument here is that legalizing marijuana would significantly reduce drug related crime and prison time without bringing any other seriously bad effects. But the reality is not so simple, as this profile piece on Mark Kleiman in a November New Yorker shows. Kleiman is perhaps our country’s foremost expert on drug policy. When Washington state officials decided to bring in an outside expert to help them set up the state market, they chose Kleiman. Yet Kleiman has always been uneasy about (or opposed to) legalization, and the New Yorker piece makes clear why: it paints a picture of how attempts to legalize pot are fraught with tremendous complexities. Even as Kleiman has worked to set up the market in Washington, the profile shows him in frequent conflict with state officials, trying to get them to realize the difficulties their legalization measures could create.

For example, a key question is how states should set the prices for legal pot. Set it too low, and cheap weed could help prop up the black market in other states (this is called “diversion”), but set it too high and people will prefer to buy from the black market. Quite apart from these price considerations, the piece makes clear that the black market isn’t going away even with legalization, which means that even the visible costs of punishing dealers probably aren’t going to go away either.

Apart from these technical issues, a piece Kleiman and a few other co-authors published in the AI magazine shows that the wider cultural and drug policy questions are also quite complex. “A Voters Guide to Legalization” is about the best, objective single piece you’ll see on all the issues surrounding pot. A taste:

The marijuana legalization debate has droned on for decades. The familiar debating points having been repeated so often and accepted so uncritically by the two groups of partisans that advocates on both sides are certain of their validity. This is not a healthy situation, since both sides’ views are either non-trivially mistaken or simply irrelevant to specific legalization proposals.

Read this AI piece next to the New Yorker profile and you’ll be far more informed about all the costs and trade-offs involved in pot legalization.

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  • Bruce

    The Colorado citizenry has chosen the “least bad” option, given that there isn’t a good one. Life and governance are all about trade offs. As this post rightly points out, it should not be expected that it will be simple.

    • Fred

      I’m not at all sure they have chosen the “least bad” option. I think Brooks is indisputably correct. Among the problems I have with big “L” Libertarians: they have entirely too much faith in individuals; they seem to have no concept that allowing individual freedom to the detriment of social order ultimately deprives _everyone_ of freedom (anarchy being, as John C. Calhoun said “the greatest of all curses”); and they see no place for the state to at least attempt to create an environment in which good choices are easier to make and more clearly rewarded. Drug legalization will be a catastrophe, but once it’s done, the genie’s out of the bottle. Enjoy the mess you’ve helped create, Libertarians.

      • Bruce

        Ben’s comments below reflect my beliefs well. When you put the government in charge of prohibiting something, you are hoping that they will act responsibly. There is no evidence that government can act responsibly and that has especially been shown time after time on the drug war. Everything that government does eventually results in over reach and that has been the case here with SWAT units making marijuana busts and judges imposing mandatory sentencing for getting high. The least bad option is to have the government out of it. The problem with a lot of conservatives is that they don’t want big government – except where they want it – on things like drug wars and the military.

  • Kevin

    Kleiman’s article seemed thoughtful and covered many related aspects and trade offs of the issue. Thanks for linking.

  • Ben

    The key argument about legalization is that kidnapping people, locking them up, and ruining their lives is not a just or moral response to the weed problem. So let’s stop doing that.

    Will legalization solve every problem and make the world a permanent, perfect utopia? No. It just makes the government less evil, in one specific way, regarding one specific activity.

    Life is complicated and there are always tradeoffs for everything. But that’s not an argument for participating — and, if you’re a weed-prohibition supporting voter, you’re guilty of participating — in unnecessary and unjust government bullying and violence against people engaging in a peaceful activity.

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