Stupid, Counterstupid

New York Times’ “Room for Debate” blog, which poses questions and asks panels of experts to submit short position statements on the questions, recently tackled the issue of pot legalization and risks of addiction. The specific question: “What would be the effect of legalization or decriminalization on marijuana abuse and addiction?” The experts?

OK, firstly, isn’t addiction a medical issue? Shouldn’t we have some doctors or something? Also, why did the Times think it was relevant to put the first three professors’ field of study, but the last professor’s place of employment? Do the first three teach at Oaksterdam University? Is the fourth guy a professor in eugenics? Either way, these guys put on a clinic in shitty argumentation. Let’s look at two of them.

Contestant #1

Not Your Grandfather’s Pot?

Aside: have we really reached the period in history when a major argument against drug legalization is based on a romanticized version of drug use by grandfathers? I mean, I think that’s great, but I hope when I’m a grandfather that people aren’t making arguments revolving around “your grandfather’s speedballs” or “your grandfather’s child porn.”

Mark A.R. Kleiman is a professor of public policy at U.C.L.A., the editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis and the author of “Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results.” His new book, “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment,” will be published later this summer.

“Drug Policy for Results”? Like “Drug Policy for Dummies”? I’m pretty sure that’s not proper English. Try to use it in a sentence. You can’t. While you’re at it, try making a policy that doesn’t create any results. You can’t do that either. And if that’s not enough of a challenge, try to figure out how that book can sell new for $139.61 and sell used for $4.12. General Motors SUVs don’t depreciate that fast.

One of the standard arguments against the legalization of cannabis is that “this is not your grandfather’s pot”: cannabis, say the drug warriors, is much stronger now than it was a generation ago.

Wouldn’t your grandfather’s pot be two generations ago?

It is, therefore, much more dangerous, and must remain prohibited.

That would be like saying that the existence of heroin means that morphine is getting stronger over time and so we should prohibit morphine.

That argument is a few bricks shy of a full load.

For those of you who were confused by that line, Kleiman is using the metric system. 15.5 argumentative bricks make up 1 argument-load. Kleiman’s phrasing is actually a neat historical reference. In 1674, Sir Archibald Withesworth brought 14 argumentative bricks to his debate with Sir Oliver Duckington (the debate was on whether maypoles had become too tall, and were no longer “your granddad’s maypoles”), thinking it would be enough to beat the 13.5 that Duckington was rumored to possess, only to have Duckington reveal two argumentative bricks stuffed in his pea coat. Duckington famously quipped, “Twine argument doth lack a fiw bricks in the completion of one full load!”

Here are some of those bricks.

Some of what bricks? The bricks missing from the incomplete load? The bricks in the load? Have you established what a “brick” actually is?

1. The average gram of cannabis sold today contains much more Δ-9-trahydrocannabinol (THC) than the average gram sold in 1970, though there has always been some highly potent product available.

Look, a brick! Hmm, this is just a statement of fact. I guess arguments need those. But, it’s a pretty weak fact – weed is stronger on average now, but all sorts of weed were available. I hope the other bricks are a little denser…

2. Emergency-room visits and treatment admissions related to cannabis have increased, though the number of self-reported cannabis users hasn’t.

Ok, another fact. This one seems to support the weed-is-getting-stronger argument, so I’m guessing the bricks Kleiman is talking about are parts of the incomplete load. Also, is this the dumbest statistic ever? That’s like saying people are hornier because there’s a lot more porn being watched now than there was 40 years ago.

3. If the only change were in potency as measured by THC content, users could (and do) compensate by smoking smaller quantities.

Whoa, not really a fact. This sounds like a continuation of brick #1, because if it followed out of brick #2, it would mean “if the only change in emergency-room visits were in potency as measured by THC content”, which would be pretty silly. Maybe this is one of those logic games where you have to rearrange the sentences to make a coherent argument? Also, this argument negates point number one, because now we’re saying, weed is stronger today than it was before, but maybe people are smoking less, so we don’t know anything, except that more people are going to the hospital.

4. But contemporary cannabis also has a much higher ratio of THC (which tends to induce anxiety) to cannabidiol (CBD, which tends to relieve anxiety). That would be expected to create a higher rate of panic attacks.

Are panic attacks really the reason we keep weed illegal? Also, call me crazy, but don’t most people smoke pot to chill out? If weed led to panic attacks, wouldn’t that discourage use? I mean, what would happen if it turned out contemporary alcohol had much higher levels of cyanide to alcohol, which would create a higher rate of death? You’d worry about the cyanide, but a little less so about growing rates of alcohol addiction.

5. Whether high-THC, high-ratio pot is also more habit-forming than other pot remains unknown. Increased treatment admissions might come from increased enforcement pressure against users. Or perhaps a cannabis habit is harder to live with than it used to be because the cannabis experience is more disturbing.

So the question is whether legalization would lead to more addiction, and you, Kleiman, have spent 5 “bricks” to set up this high-THC dilemma only to say you have no idea? You couldn’t even mention that maybe high-anxiety users are more likely to go to the hospital? Didn’t you mention that total numbers of users hasn’t changed, thus rendering your second point moot?

6. If cannabis were made legal, restrictions could be put both on potency and on the THC/CBD ratio. So rising potency makes no sense as an anti-legalization argument; if anything, less-potent legal pot would be expected to substitute for the more-potent pot that would remain illegal.

OK, now you’re just talking about whatever you want. Why is this still part of the list? Is this a brick? The previous bricks were in favor of the rising potency argument, this one is against it.

7. Any sort of flat-out legalization would risk a large increase in the number of very heavy users. A legal cannabis industry, like the legal alcohol industry, would derive more than half its revenue from people with diagnosable substance abuse disorders. Telling marketers they can get rich by creating disease is dangerous.

Now you’re not even talking about the potency argument anymore.

8. Instead we could choose a “grow your own” policy that would allow production for personal use or by small nonprofit cooperatives, but forbid commercial sales.

Are you saying that people can’t become dependent on drugs they grow? Are horticulturalists known to be hard to tempt? You realize that this brick doesn’t have anything to do with the original question?

Cannabis policy is fascinating because so many people smoke the stuff,

Facial hair policy is fascinating because so many people have some!

but whatever we do about cannabis will leave us with most of the nation’s drug abuse problems, which center on alcohol, and most of the nation’s drug-market and drug-enforcement problems, which center on cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

Hi, I’m Mark Kleiman. I made a really poor argument about marijuana policy, but who the hell cares, because there are much more important issues at hand. Conveniently enough, I wrote a book about those issues, but hey, if that books sucks, don’t get angry at me, there are more important issues still, like AIDS and renewable energy. Bricks!

Contestant #2

Mitigating Dependence

Wayne Hall is a professor of public health policy at the School of Population Health at the University of Queensland in Australia.

What effect would marijuana legalization have on dependence?

You know when I was in middle school we were told to restate in the question we were asked to answer in the introduction of our essays.

Some people remain skeptical about whether marijuana dependence exists but let’s assume that it does and that it affects around 1 in 10 of those who use marijuana.

Some people remain skeptical about whether aliens exist, but let’s assume that they do and that 1 in 10 people among us are aliens. OK, fine, this is ridiculous, but I’m sure there’s a good reason for making an assumption based on no facts.

The effects that legalization has on marijuana dependence depend critically on what we mean by the term.

The effects of something that actually requires a nuanced definition on a concept that many people don’t believe actually exists will depend on how we define the aforementioned term. Clarity.

If we mean replacing imprisonment with a fine as the penalty for using marijuana then legalization would have little effect on dependence.

Well, that’s not what legalization means, now is it? Legalization means make legal. Decriminalization, a word mentioned in the Times’ prompt, is what you’re referring too, but you’re from Australia and speak weird English, so we’ll give you a pass.

Evaluations of this policy in 11 U.S. states in the 1970s and 1980s found little or no effect on rates of use among adolescents and adults.

Hold your horses, Wayne. Evaluations of this policy showed no effect on rates of use, not rates of dependence. Granted, no one has been able to definitively prove dependence at all, let alone in any policy evaluation, but let’s look back at your “assumption.” If you’re equating change usage levels with change in dependence, you’re assuming that your made-up 1-in-10 ratio applies no matter what, that inevitably, one in ten tokers will be dependent. But if that’s the case, then no policy can impact rates of dependence, and since prompt is asking how a policy of legalization will affect dependence, why are you still talking?

There is more debate about the effects of allowing a de facto legal marijuana market as the Netherlands has done since 1983 in tolerating the sale of small amounts of marijuana in coffee shops. Marijuana use increased in the Netherlands in the 1990s, but this was also the case in the rest of Europe, and policy analysts disagree about whether rates of use increased faster in the Netherlands than elsewhere.

Translation: Weed was legalized in the Netherlands, and we can’t draw any conclusions.

If by legalization we mean making it legal to use, grow and sell marijuana then our task becomes more speculative because no modern country has adopted this policy.

Yeah, that’s the point of this exercise, to speculate, except we expected you not to suck at it.

It seems common sense that legalizing marijuana use and sales would lead to more people using it regularly

Except that making weed de facto legal in the Netherlands didn’t have the “common sense” effect of increasing weed consumption…

and this would probably mean more marijuana dependence.

(If we assume that 1 in 10 people are always going to be dependent, and that legalization will have no impact on dependency rates, which is something Mr. Wayne just made up, because he has no idea).

Nonetheless it is difficult to say how much use may increase because there are options for reducing use under a legal market that are not now available. For example, we could tax marijuana to set the price at a level that discourages casual use, regulate its THC content, restrict sales to minors, include a health warning on packs and advise users on ways to reduce dependence risks (e.g. by using less than weekly).

Oh, so there are all of these other factors? That would have been nice to know a while ago. So, any idea how these factors are going to impact dependence?

These possibilities make it difficult to predict the effect that a legal market would have on rates of marijuana dependence.

Ahh, I see, it’s too difficult. It’s not like you get paid to think about these things as a professor of public health policy, is it? You don’t want to take a stab at it?

Marijuana dependence should be taken into account in considering whether we should legalize marijuana in any of these ways.

Yeah, it should be taken into account by assuming that 1 in 10 people who smoke weed will be dependent on it. Account taken!

But this concern also needs to be weighed against the costs of current policy, that is, the creation of perverse incentives to produce more potent marijuana, the widespread disregard of legal prohibition on marijuana use that could contribute to a decline in respect for law and policing; the unregulated access of minors to marijuana; and the social and economic costs of a large marijuana black market.

Here’s a recap of Mr. Wayne’s argument:

1)      Let’s assume one in ten weed smokers are dependent.

2)      Well, there are a lot of other factors to consider, but I don’t how to consider them. I want my Mommy.


1 Response to “Stupid, Counterstupid”

  1. 1 David(P) July 22, 2009 at 12:49 am

    This is one of the reasons I really like blogs and the whole web2.0 movement. The big popular newspapers and TV stations (aka the “media”) so often fail at enforcing logic in their debates. You should post this feedback in the comments section on the NYtimes site. It has always been the responsibility of the reader to think critically, but the power to share the criticism on the same page as the original article is very exciting.


    I guess the debate is technically about dependence rates, but as there is no real data about that, it has just degraded into a hazy more general legalization/decriminalization debate.

    I’m no policy wonk, but I think the way to do this debate correctly would be to look at the existing laws regarding controlled substances, and try to ascertain their purpose and spirit, and the implied level of danger that makes a substance worth controlling. As there must be some rational by which coffee and asprin are legal but DMT and 2C-I are illegal.

    Then, we could look at cannabis, which we know a lot more about now then we did back in the day, and decide which side of that danger threshold it belongs on, and ask ourselves if the original logic behind controlling it still holds up.

    We could even do a little bit of cost-benifit analysis. Dependence rates are one aspect of the issue, along with taxes, costs of imprisonment, the dangers of driving while under the influence of cannabis, or the effects of removing it from the black market, for example.

    We might then even ask ourselves to what extent it makes sense for the government to get involved in substance control, and look at the effects of policy change not just in the Netherlands, but in Canada, and Germany, and other countries similar to ours that have experimented with changing cannabis policy.

    I just wish we had a better mechanism in our government for re-visiting existing laws to decide if we should keep or discard them.

    Though I guess if we did it would probably create an incentive for shifty politicians to assassinate all sorts of hard-won laws on the sly.

    As ham-fisted as their little debate is, the NYtimes actually deserves some credit for keeping the issue on people’s minds. It’s very powerful to frame something as an open question. Crackpots have been doing it for years now with climate change and evolution. We should be doing the same with the issues that are important to us.

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