Chesterton's Weed

A few days ago Glenn Loury hosted Mark Kleiman on Bloggingheads to discuss Mark’s work implementing Washington state’s marijuana legalization plebiscite. In the conversation Mark suggested that:

- tax revenues will not be anywhere near as high as people are expecting (and it would be a bad thing if they were insofar as this could only occur were the state to actively promote vices to problem and/or new users, as in the case of state lotteries)

- recreational diversion is a very substantial part of the “medical” marijuana system

- producers should be kept fragmented so as to be too powerless to accomplish alcohol-style regulatory capture that would let them aggressively market, avoid excise taxes, and promote the problem users who account for most revenues

- legalization and regulation should be accompanied by a short-term increase in enforcement against the underground market (and law enforcement should have gotten a cut of marijuana tax revenues to assure buy-in)

- the federal government has the constitutional power (under Wickard v Filburn and Gonzales v Raich) to obstruct Washington’s market (but not to demand the active cooperation of local authorities)

- marijuana is responsible for lots of emergency room visits (for bad trips, not poisoning) and policy should discourage strains with high THC:CBD ratios

- paternalistic policy is generally justifiable to protect minors and to help adults realize self-control and enlightened self-interest

Moreover, when California had a similar (unsuccessful) plebiscite in 2010, Mark frequently expressed a “pox on both your houses” attitude towards the backers and opponents alike, viewing both sides as prone to bad faith and the “legalization in one state” model as unworkable in the face of federal obstruction, and he generally held out the hope for a narrow defeat.

So given that Mark sounds like neither a pothead nor a libertarian, why on Earth would Mark be the appropriate person to implement a law backed by these two constituencies? Well, first, he’s a bona fide expert on drug policy (I’ve read and loved Against Excess but admit I have not read his co-authored Marijuana Legalization book). Second, and more interestingly to me, while he is skeptical of the details, he has no problem with the basic idea of adults who choose to seek out marijuana for moderate recreational use being able to obtain it legally. That is, Mark is not out to sabotage the basic legitimate aims of the law, but he has a pessimistic streak about all the ways it could have bad effects.

If we go by the logic of Chesterton’s fence this makes Mark the perfect person to oversee implementation of legalization. As you may recall (and if you don’t, how exactly is it that you came to read TAS?), Chesterton’s allegory involves coming across a fence blocking a road and the fool says to just smash it whereas the wise person says to first figure out why it was built as it was presumably built for a reason and not by lunatics or sleepwalkers. (Yeah, I know, it was all reefer madness, paper companies, and freemasons). So the person whose idea of a marijuana policy is “everybody must get stoned” isn’t somebody you’d want in charge of it, especially if they’ve convinced themselves of their own talking points that marijuana isn’t addictive or dangerous. (By which logic the problems with alcohol are DTs and alcohol poisoning, but there’s no need to reckon non-physiological addiction, car accidents, homicide, cirrhosis, heart disease, etc). Rather you want somebody who worries about all the things that could go wrong to implement a reform because that person will take steps to make sure that, as far as possible, they won’t.