22 Nov 2013

The economics of drugs

The New Yorker has an excellent article [gated] on Washington State's attempt to legalize marijuana. It contains many statements -- often quoting "Pot Policy Professor" Mark Kleiman of UCLA* -- whose meaning changes with context. For example:
If you’re looking to invest in marijuana, all this is good news. But Kleiman finds it troubling, from a policy perspective. He has long argued that the problem with legalizing any vice—whether it be alcohol, nicotine, or gambling—is that “addiction is where the money is.” Twenty per cent of the Americans who drink account for almost ninety per cent of all alcohol consumption. It cannot be news to beer and liquor companies that their key demographic is the problem drinker.
Let's see... Is sex addition so harmful that we should regulate sex? (Has illegal prostitution helped anyone?) Do we need to worry about facebook addicts who are providing 80 percent of the content? What about those addictive television programs that have 80 percent market share? I agree that some products are bad for you in excess, but this article gives many illustrations of how regulators are trying way too hard.**
According to surveys, people who use marijuana “more than weekly” account for roughly ninety per cent of cannabis consumption. A RAND study indicates that this trend is increasing: the number of “use days” reported by the heaviest consumers has risen markedly in recent years. Marijuana may not be physiologically addictive—you don’t go into severe physical withdrawal if you abruptly stop using it—and no one has ever died of an overdose. But even the most ardent advocates of legalization generally concede that it can become a problematic habit for some users. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than eight million people reported trying to reduce their marijuana consumption in 2011.
Eight million may be a lot, unless you consider that 180 million Americans say they want to lose weight, i.e., roughly the same share of Americans who are overweight. I'd guess that the share of marijuana users who want to use less is less than the number of marijuana users -- by at least one person I know very well :)
In a speech, Kleiman said, “The primary impact of legalizing cannabis is there will be probably six hundred and fifty thousand fewer arrests every year and forty thousand fewer people behind bars. And there will be an additional... fifteen billion stoned hours.” He looked out at the half-empty auditorium. “You have to decide whether a stoned hour is a good thing or a bad thing,” he went on. “That decision is going to drive a lot of your judgment about whether legalization is a good idea or a bad idea. But, even if you had your values straight, you’d have to know the facts. And we mostly don’t.”
He's certainly right here, in the sense that federal prohibitions have blocked research into the short- and long-term impacts of marijuana. With respect to "stoned hours," I'm not one to worry. I've never seen stoners fight, and they are safer drivers (the drug DUI rules are a disaster). If anything, we need more stoners and fewer drunks (I bet that government workers would do better without drug testing!).

Bottom Line: I'm glad to see an attempt at legalization, but it's scary to how regulators are control freaks.

* I wrote a paper on opium cultivation in Afghanistan and heroin consumption in the US in 2003, and I'm surprised to see that I did not quote him; perhaps that's because I did not agree with what he said in his work.

** The Dutch are experimenting with paying drunks to work... in beer. That's pragmatic.