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Against commercial cannabis

Drug-policy expert Mark Kleiman makes the case against legalizing marijuana and letting companies market and sell it:

Cannabis use (like drinking, eating, and gambling) is harmless to most of the people who engage in it. Is it wrong to suggest that someone start a potentially benign activity simply because it might turn into a bad habit?

Might. "Aye, there's the rub." To the consumer, developing a bad habit is bad news. To the marketing executive, it's the whole point of the exercise. For any potentially addictive commodity or activity, the minority that gets stuck with a bad habit consumes the majority of the product. So the entire marketing effort is devoted to cultivating and maintaining the people whose use is a problem to them and a gold mine to the industry.

Take alcohol, for example. Divide the population into deciles by annual drinking volume. The top decile starts at four drinks a day, averaged year-round. That group consumes half of all the alcohol sold. The next decile does from two to four drinks a day. Those folks sop up the next thirty percent. Casual drinkers -- people who have two drinks a day or less -- take up only 20% of the total volume. The booze companies cannot afford to have their customers "drink in moderation." [...]

So the prospect of a legal cannabis industry working hard to produce as many chronic stoners as possible, and fighting hard against any sort of effective regulation, fills me with fear. I don't believe that the actual tobacco companies would enter the cannabis market, but I don't doubt that the cannabis companies that would emerge from full commercial legalization would have all of morals the tobacco outfits morals, and a less tainted product to sell.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 16, 2010; 2:32 PM ET
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Then we should outlaw alcohol which, except for perhaps the inhalation of lung steam and some noxious chemicals, is categorically worse for you than cannabis.

If we had to pick between the two, I'd pick cannabis. At least it's useful for cancer patients. In what category is alcohol objectively useful?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 16, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

How is this different from the financial services industry and debt? Both use business models that depend on a significant number of people making bad (in some cases disasterous) choices.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 16, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

To follow on Mimikatz's point, fast food outlets will maximize profits if people over-eat, and department stores will maximize profits if people over-spend. The fact that effective marketing might promote over-consumption is true of just about anything one can think of.

If a decision is ever made to legalize a product that is currently illegal, we will then have complete control over whatever restrictions we wish to impose upon how the newly legal product is marketed. If we don't want billboards or magazine advertising for marijuana, we can prohibit it.

I don't hold a strong opinion for or against legalization. But this piece is so riddled with fallacious reasoning and unsupported statements, it hardly qualifies as the making of a "case" at all.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 16, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

The data you cited may be misleading. Sure, the top decile for alcohol users may account for 50% of alcohol sold, but is this revenue? or volume?

I can't imagine that hardcore alcoholics are ponying up the big bucks for Grey Goose and not settling for Kamchatka. As a result, aren't the marketing efforts to generate not volume of sales but PROFIT MARGIN focused on the second, third and fourth decile?

My hunch could be wrong but I would like to see the $ revenue sold for each decile.

Posted by: dlieb_97 | August 16, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

This can easily be engineered around: make it legal to buy and possess cannabis but illegal to sell, a la Swedish prostitution laws.

Posted by: heresiarch | August 16, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Wow. Now THAT is some solid liberalism right there.

He's against legalizing pot because "a legal cannabis industry working hard to produce as many chronic stoners as possible, and fighting hard against any sort of effective regulation, fills me with fear."

Really? Do we really have less to fear from legal corporations selling pot than we do from the current "firms" that supply the (black) "market" for the stuff? Or, in other words, you would rather have violent underground crime syndicates control the supply of a product in high demand than a mainstream, legal corporation?

Absolutely stunning.

Wondering if

Posted by: CW13 | August 16, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

can we all agree that if the standard for prohibiting any product is that some people will abuse it in a self-destructive manner, we would end up living in a society with minimal freedom.... of course, perhaps this is the point.

Posted by: cdosquared5 | August 16, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I think there are very few proponents of legalization who are also calling for a completely unregulated commercial market for dope. It's not zero (so he's not completely battling straw men).

There's a continuum with most things (guns, dope, prostitution, cheese, lobbying, polonium 210...) :

Illegal::::Regulated::::Free Market.

I'm a big fan of the legal/regulated for most everything on that list.

Posted by: jeirvine | August 16, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

That's a false equivalence on his part. Alcohol is physically addictive, and it has been shown that some people are genetically predisposed to addiction.

Marijuana is not physically addictive.

Marijuana can be psychologically addictive, and very much so. But so can anything that gives the user pleasure. Some people are addicted to World of Warcraft, but we don't use that as a premise to ban video games.

Furthermore, marijuana use does not necessarily mean that it is detrimental to their life. I know a lot of people that smoke pot regularly that live absolutely normal lives - and I don't mean "they hold down a job and aren't in prison" normal, I mean "they have a good, 9 to 5 office job making $50k salary" normal. I've known math geniuses that smoked pot regularly. Again, just like games, most users do so purely recreationally.

His argument falls into the traps most anti-legalization arguments fall into: false equivalences with physically addictive substances and a base assumption that smoking pot is implicitly damaging to one's life. Neither of these are borne out by reality.

Posted by: burndtdan | August 16, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Excuse me but Kleiman isn't an expert. Kleiman is an idiot. He isn't splitting the difference here, he still wants marijuana to be illegal.

Pot should be legal and treated just like alcohol.

Posted by: kindness1 | August 16, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

I do not see how this line of argument pertains to cannibis...

Did you read the Washington Post article about children's cereal company's blocking EPA oversight over the chemicals they use?

I can't think of many for-profit companies I trust do look out for social welfare before profits.

Posted by: Mazzi455 | August 16, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

This analysis completely ignores the existing costs of keeping marijuana and other drugs illegal. Are corporations really worse than drug lords (and the associated costs of dealing with an illegal drug trade)? Is marijuana actually addictive?

"In what category is alcohol objectively useful?"

Kevin, I was under the impression that drinking a glass of red wine a day is (on net) beneficial for your health.

Posted by: justin84 | August 16, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

The point about Prohibition vs Repeal and Regualtion is a good one. "Last Call," Daniel Okrent's excellent and entertaining book about Prohibtion, makes precisely that point. Under Prohibition alcohol was illegal and unregulated. Ironically, after Repeal it was HARDER to get a drink than before. Repeal introduced all sorts of regulations like Sunday closings, nightly closings, so many feet from schools; some states continued as dry, some had state-run package stores with odd hours, and so forth, so that alcohol consumption dropped after Repeal. We did not get back (per capita) to pre-Prohibition consumption levels until the mid 1970s (largely I think because many more women drank after Repeal than before) and then consumption fell in the 1980s (which I would attribute to the rise of MADD and the anti-drunk driving educational programs and "drink responsibly" campaigns.

Education and regulation (including limits on advertising) worked infinitely better than Prohibotion with alcohol, although we still have many problems with alcohol. Same with tobacco. Could be the same with pot.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 16, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

And speaking of the costs of enforcement, part of the reason that Prohibition failed besides the simple fact that too many Americans wanted to be able to continue drinking, was that it was never really enforced, except when it was enforced in a draconian fashion. GOP-controlled legislatures (including the US Congress) voted in Prohibition but then underfunded and in some places actually didn't vote any money for enforcement. The Feds lurched from ineffectual to tyranical enforcement and back; some areas didn't seem to have enforced at all.

Hoover's decision to begin drastic enforcement (misinterpreting the 1928 election as a referendum for the drys rather than against immigrants) was the final nail in the coffin--there were some horrific enforcement blunders that greatly accelerated Repeal. Finally, Repeal was touted after the Depression started as a way to bring back jobs in the brewing and distilling industries. It was ratified even faster than Prohibition had been.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 16, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse


There have been studies indicating low to moderate consumption of wine is beneficial.

As for Kleiman, he's kind of clueless. Tobacco companies will be the first to make the switchover: they already have all the land and equipment and being first to market will give them a huge competitive advantage.

The key, of course, is government regulation to rein in excesses and set standards for production, quality and labeling.

Posted by: lol-lol | August 16, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

We need to make these people take courses in logic before they're eligible to hold public office. The argument is we should keep pot illegal because it's just as bad as alcohol & tobacco, which are legal.

That argument wouldn't make any sense even if its premise was true.

Or is he arguing for the prohibition of booze & tobacco? Ezra, do you really think this guy is "making the case" or are you just putting him before us for criticism? Lately, you've got me wondering.

Posted by: maxicurls1 | August 16, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Excessive consumption of alcohol or tobacco can actually kill you. Excessive marijuana use may be a social problem, but it doesn't cause physical addiction and won't kill people. I have a hard time coming up with a rational reason for banning marijuana while alcohol and tobacco are legal.

Posted by: tl_houston | August 16, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

@justin: "Kevin, I was under the impression that drinking a glass of red wine a day is (on net) beneficial for your health."

That's what the wine lobby wants you to believe!

I'm sure it is, I'm just saying, between the two, I'd pick the non-alcoholic version.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 16, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

You could make exactly the same argument about soda.

The fact that a law is convenient for the government, or results in more healthful citizens, are not in themselves sufficient reasons to have a law.

Posted by: pj_camp | August 16, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

I don't buy the argument. But, OK, can't we at least legalize growing enough pot upon one's property to supply one's needs?

The underground sources now supplying those who can't or don't wish to grow their own will continue to supply their customers, though perhaps the price will drop a bit.

Posted by: ChrisBrown11 | August 16, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

I do not think this is a useful way to look at the pot legalization issue. What are the costs of keeping pot illegal right now - socially, economically, including the issues of housing prisoners, financing and fighting the foreign drug cartels, including the people who are psychologically addicted right now, vs. the various costs and benefits from legalization. Taxes, freeing up law enforcement, hemp as an agricultural product, and so forth. To be clear, what are the TOTAL costs and benefits NOW vs LATER.
When someone breaks out a complex issue and tries to make a decision on one tiny aspect, that person is trying to hide something.

Posted by: grat_is | August 16, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

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