Christopher Ryan Ph.D.

Sex at Dawn

Sloppy Thinking on Drugs

Even great minds get addled in the drug legalization debate.

Posted Sep 12, 2009

Over at the Reality-Based Community, Mark Kleiman recently offered a critique of an argument for drug legalization that stands as an example of how even brilliant, well-informed people can slip into sloppy arguments on this issue. My purpose here is not to agree or disagree with the original argument published in Esquire, but to apply a bit of critical thinking to Kleiman's response.

Here are Kleiman's comments:

Demolition of the argument (if you can call it that) is left as an exercise for the reader. A few hints, just to get you started:

1. Alcohol – the drug we decided to legalize and regulate – kills about 100,000 people a year: several times as many as all the illicit drugs combined.

2. The notion that there’s a set of taxes and regulations that would avoid creating a big illicit market while not increasing drug abuse substantially doesn’t pass the giggle test. (Licit pharmaceutical-grade cocaine costs about a tenth as much as street cocaine. So legalization means either a huge price drop or a set of taxes crying out for profitable evasion, and thus requiring enforcement.)

3. Counting all the overdoses as costs of prohibition would make sense – if no one ever died of alcohol poisoning or overdosed on prescdription drugs (often mixed with alcohol).

4. Yes, street gangs do some drug dealing. But it’s absurd to imagine that the gang killings would disappear if the drug market became legal.

Sometimes I think that the legalizers and the drug warriors have a secret arms control treaty, in which each side renounces the use of factually and logically sound arguments. (end of quote)

Kleiman, professor of public policy at UCLA, knows this stuff much better than I do, but with all due respect, it seems his "demolition" of the legalization argument hinges on the fact that alcohol's legality increases it's lethality—a relationship he then generalizes to other substances somewhat unthinkingly. But it's not alcohol's legality (and resulting accessibility) that kills people, but the nature of the substance itself, when used in excess over time (or in acute episodes). Marijuana—the main candidate for legalization at this point—doesn't have anything like this lethality, whether legal or not. No one has ever—in the history of the world—died of a marijuana overdose.

So Kleiman's point strikes me as an argument against legalizing slingshots because so many people die from (legal) gunshot wounds.He presents his argument as if it were overpowering ("doesn't pass the giggle test"), but it seems pretty weak to me. Furthermore, his premise is that legalization necessarily leads to increased use (not the case in Holland), and that increased use necessarily leads to increased medical problems (not the case with something as harmless as marijuana).

2. The notion that there's a set of taxes and regulations that would avoid creating a big illicit market while not increasing drug abuse substantially doesn't pass the giggle test. (Licit pharmaceutical-grade cocaine costs about a tenth as much as street cocaine. So legalization means either a huge price drop or a set of taxes crying out for profitable evasion, and thus requiring enforcement.

Here Kleiman assumes there's no moderate, middle-ground taxation scheme that would raise substantial money while not inflating the price enough to make it worthwhile to engage in large-scale illegal production/importation. But of course, there is. How much alcohol or tobacco are produced or imported illegally? I don't think moonshining or bathtub gin are major national issue these days, despite substantial taxes on alcohol. And I've never heard of anyone growing illegal tobacco plants in their closets or in clandestine warehouses in Oakland. Who's giggling now?

3. Counting all the overdoses as costs of prohibition would make sense - if no one ever died of alcohol poisoning or overdosed on prescdription drugs (often mixed with alcohol).

Again, Kleiman ignores the differing toxicity of various substances. Again, the alcohol=all drugs equation is misleading and factually inaccurate.

4. Yes, street gangs do some drug dealing. But it's absurd to imagine that the gang killings would disappear if the drug market became legal.

Tell it to Al Capone, Professor. It's equally absurd to assume that cutting the #1 source of revenue to street gangs wouldn't have some substantial and negative effect on them—especially as other rackets like prostitution and gambling are already firmly in the hands of older, more established criminal organizations.

Kleiman ends by saying, "Sometimes I think that the legalizers and the drug warriors have a secret arms control treaty, in which each side renounces the use of factually and logically sound arguments."That's no doubt true, but from my perspective, Kleiman's argument hardly seems an example of a "logically sound argument."