Tony Dokoupil on the Downsides of Marijuana Legalization

Over the past few years, public opinion and media treatment of marijuana legalization have both shifted (presumably interdependently): it’s gone from being a weird, feaky idea to seeming no more than common sense. Since I’ve long favored some softening in cannabis policy, this development does not entirely displease me.

But Tony Dokoupil is right to say that purely one-sided accounts do not do full justice to the complexity of the problem, and he performed a public service by trying to pull together the anti-legalization arguments. It’s gratifying that he used our marijuana-legalization book as a source.

Still, I was surprised to read that “the prohibitionist side seems to benefit most of all” from our attempt to present the relevant facts and arguments, unless by that Dokoupil simply means that it partly fills the near-vacuum of serious anti-legalization arguments left by the recitation of tired drug-war slogans by the current opponents of legalization.

And several of the anti-legalization arguments made in the article are not in fact drawn from the book.

For example, Dokoupil writes:

Research released this past summer connected teenage pot use to a permanent drop in IQ between the first puff and early middle age.

First, that isn’t quite true as stated. The research showed that chronic, dependent use starting in adolescence and continued through early middle age was correlated with reductions in IQ. I don’t think the data are strong enough to make the case that the use caused the decline, and in any case it involves a very small proportion of cannabis users. The typical teenage pot-smoker will suffer no cognitive impairment, as far as we now know.

Whatever the merits of the claim about cannabis and cognitive decline, it doesn’t come from the book, though an unwar reader of Dokoupil’s essay would think it did.

In the end, though, Dokoupil comes down where I come down (which leaves him more supportive of full legalization than Jonathan Caulkins but less so than Angela Hawken):

The better decision is incremental reforms at the state level and a hands-off approach from the feds. Let people grow pot, and sell it, but not for profit, and without advertising, and in a tightly regulated marketplace. Tinker every year, adding new provisions and privileges as much needed new research comes in. And always update the law with a sunset provision. That way the process can’t be hijacked by lobbyists and special interests—and only one thing goes up in smoke.

The “sunset-clause” idea comes from Beau Kilmer, and the case for it, and for incremental reform, is strong. There’s simply too much we don’t know about marijuana to make a headlong and irreversable plunge into alcohol-style legalization a safe move.

On the other hand, that’s the proposal on the table in Washington and Colorado. The more cautious, incremental approach is something that a legislature might consider, but isn’t well adapted to the initiative process. So the practical choice facing voters Nov. 6 isn’t between the status quo and something clearly better, but between a costly present policy and a risky alternative.

Update A commenter asks why, if marijuana legalization seems like common sense, it has so little legislative support. That question requires a long answer, but the short version is that even voters who would prefer softer cannabis policies might be leery of politicians who seem “soft on drugs.” If the movement in public opinion continues, I’d expect a phase-change in the politics, as we’ve seen on gay-related issues.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.