Where Kleiman gets annoyed once again that people are having a discussion

Mark Kleiman in Another drug legalization pitch notes:

Esquire publishes yet another drug-leglization screed. Whoever does press relations for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition deserves a bonus.

Perhaps. I’m not going to speak to the salary level of LEAP’s press rep (although I’m happy to support a raise). But what’s interesting is the annoyance with the fact that, once again, legalization is being discussed as a serious policy debate (even though he pretends nonchalance by putting “yawn” in the title).

But Kleiman and his colleagues have not only opposed “legalization” (a somewhat odd thing, since Kleiman himself favors a form of marijuana legalization — the term seems to be more related to his obsessive fear of cocaine legalization and his dislike of “legalizers”), but as a group, they have often steered public policy discussion away from even including the discussion of legalization itself. Most references to legalization are snide comments about legalizers, or throwaway arguments that are completely lacking in evidence.

Now, in the case of the Esquire article, it’s interesting and useful to start having more of a discussion of what prohibition actually costs us in numbers of lives (as opposed to the merely anecdotally horrific). That doesn’t mean that I believe the full numbers in the Esquire article stand up to scientific rigor for accuracy (nor do I believe the author claimed it to be more than an attempt at rough number crunching).

For years, we have heard prohibitionists and their apologists toss out numbers that include things like prison and some pretty made-up “lost productivity” numbers as part of the costs to society of drug use, and few (other than legalizers) have stepped up to correct that (See James Roberts just last week at CATO: “Numerous studies have totaled up some of the costs to taxpayers and consumers from the current problems with drug addiction. These burdens on society — estimated at more than $180 billion a year — affect everyone.”). So a bit of hyperbole on the other side to make a point, while not my preference, seems reasonable.

Kleiman has some legitimate beef with the numbers used. Not all overdose deaths will end with legalization. But his “few hints” to get the reader started in demolishing the Esquire article go nowhere.

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.

Could be. I don’t know. There are so many different numbers out there regarding alcohol deaths, it’s hard to sort through them. This undoubtably includes fatal car crashes where alcohol was a factor and may or may not have been a contributing factor. But regardless, I’m not sure what significance these rough numbers have to the argument. There’s not going to be 100,000 deaths a year from marijuana if it’s legalized. That’s certain. I can’t think of anyone who would dispute that. So merely legalizing and regulating any particular drug does not mean that it will automatically lead to the same actual lethality as alcohol. The 100,000 number gives us nothing meaningful to use in applying to any other drug.

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.

As he’s done before, Kleiman here uses dishonest argument structure to create an unsupported conclusion out of thin air. Re-word that argument into its basic form.

Argument: Legalization means either a huge price drop, or a set of taxes crying out for profitable evasion, and thus requiring enforcement.

Conclusion: Thus, legalization means either a substantial increase in drug abuse, or a big illicit market.

Structure: A means either B or C, therefore A means either D or E. Nonsense.

He’s trying to get you to accept that a huge price drop is the same thing as a substantial increase in drug abuse a priori, and that a set of taxes crying out for profitable evasion is the same thing as a big illicit market. Cigarettes have a set of taxes crying out for profitable evasion, and yet the illicit market is negligible compared to the massive world-wide destructive drug prohibition market.

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).

I agree. However, it’s nice to actually discuss the fact that many overdoses are costs of prohibition, and that ending prohibition could actually reduce the number of overdoses.

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.

Here Kleiman uses a combination of straw man and the nirvana fallacy. The article never claimed that all gang killings would disappear if the drug market became legal. In fact, they specifically chose to “lowball it” when coming up with the estimated portion that would stop with the end of drug prohibition.

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.

What does that mean? Particularly from one who is both a legalizer and a drug warrior, and who uses logically unsound arguments?

I know that Mark Kleiman is convinced that legalization of cocaine will immediately mean that roughly the same number of people using and abusing alcohol now will use and abuse cocaine (with no reduction in alcohol use or abuse) and that therefore we will have armageddon, because nobody can resist the allure of cocaine addiction. And that just isn’t true.

Legalizing cocaine doesn’t mean that it has to be in the alcohol model. There are many options that will make it possible for responsible adults to acquire safe drugs legally without having cocaine keggers and people selling 8-balls in every football stadium. In fact, much like we have dramatically reduced the number of cigarette smokers through education and public attitudes, it’s likely that there will be strong public attitudes directed against public cocaine intoxication. And there are many people who enjoy a drink who will have no interest in ever using cocaine.

Also, legalization is a complex interaction of various options and opportunities. Marijuana legalization will have an affect on the other drugs. Heroin will have its own model, different from cocaine and marijuana. Meth will probably be replaced by a pharmaceutical amphetamine (little blue pills). Most people will continue to use none of them, and many will use drugs but not abuse them. Some will abuse drugs and some will commit crimes, and we’ll be able to focus our limited resources on those last two groups (possibly being even more effective by being able to be swift and certain in our response (but more about that when I shortly review Kleiman’s new book)). The opportunities for rich discussions of public policy will be enormous.

Legalization is on the table. It is a point of discussion. It cannot be ignored or merely pushed off as so politically impractical to negate consideration. Those who would lead policy will have to be willing to have serious discussion about it, or they’ll be left behind.

There are lots of discussions for us to have, arguments to thrash out, policy differences to air, methods to consider, and that should be exciting.

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66 Responses to Where Kleiman gets annoyed once again that people are having a discussion

  1. paul says:


    Sparring over the particulars of a legalization plan like how exactly it would be paid for or which drug exactly addicts would have access are questions I would be happy to leave to others.

    I’m more interested in the larger questions. I hope I am not putting words in your mouth in saying that I believe your fundamental argument is “legalization will result in more drug use and more addicts.”

    To that argument, I would say I agree to a point. Many more would probably try it, some would become addicted. It is my belief the harms we reduce by legalization would outweigh the harms caused by it. You probably disagree, but we have not tried it and we cannot know for sure until we do. The examples of legalization we have now are sparse and people can make of them what they will in debates.

    But the missing element in this debate today is liberty. Alcohol prohibition probably reduced drinking and problem drinking successfully by some measure, and that was a good thing, but it was an outrageous affront to liberty. If a man wants to drink, that is his own business.

    Defenders of the status quo (prohibitionists) never bring up the liberty argument because they have discarded liberty as unimportant in their quest to save people from themselves. To people like me, however, liberty is not a side issue, it is THE issue. That’s why I find these arguments over the best way to regulate or enforce to be uninteresting.

    Enlightenment liberalism, and the idea of personal liberty and dignity that sprang from it, are the single greatest contribution of the Western world to humanity. Right now, there are a great number of energetic people all pursuing their varied interests and ways of killing liberty in America, and I very much fear they will succeed.

    As for the U.K., it seems to me they have thrown it all away entirely, and are happy not to look back. How sad for the country where these ideas were born!

    — “If you love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home and leave us in peace. We seek not your council, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.” — Samuel Adams

  2. Nhop says:

    “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:”

    –God, what a tosser!@#@@

  3. David Raynes says:

    Paul-you say:
    “I hope I am not putting words in your mouth in saying that I believe your fundamental argument is “legalization will result in more drug use and more addicts.”
    “To that argument, I would say I agree to a point. Many more would probably try it, some would become addicted. It is my belief the harms we reduce by legalization would outweigh the harms caused by it. You probably disagree, but we have not tried it and we cannot know for sure until we do. The examples of legalization we have now are sparse and people can make of them what they will in debates.”
    Well yes-you ARE putting words into my mouth. My concern is that legalisation would create more TOTAL personal and social harm. Not only am I concerned about numbers using and numbers of addicts, I believe and I believe the evdience we have supports this, that normalisation & legalisation would create more long term users. More life-long users, not just more experimenters. More harm.

    The clear evidence is in the alcohol/tobacco model and the effects and variances in that worldwide. Where alcohol use is normalised the total harm social and personal, is profoundly increased over those countries where it is not. Similarly with tobacco, there is plainly scope for substantial increases in use in some countries, some countries 80% plus (or more )of the population smoke-much of eastern europe for example. There is therefore, plenty of scope for very dramatic increases indeed in the use of the currently illegal drugs were use to be normalised.

    You say “we cannot know until we do”, I say that (trying it) is or would be, an act of blind faith which ignores the evidence.

    I say if any currently illegal drug were to be normalised we would have to be every clear sighted about the personal and social consequences, we have to be very clear about why we might want to do that. Yes liberalism is AN argument, I am surprised it has taken you so long to get to it in this debate, normally, by now, people are quoting John Stuart Mill-“On Liberty” to me and I am quoting back the bits where he says (in terms) that actions can be taken to restrict the liberty of the few in the interests of the many.

    Quoting what others say (however clever they were when they wrote their work) is sterile debate. Let us use common sense.

    Normalisation and legalisation of illegal drugs will likely lead to a lot more use, including a lot more use by every user anda lot more users (for which there is ample scope). Since all of these drugs are personally & socially harmful, there would be more harm. The suggestion that criminality would alter under a normalised model is true-but only to a point (which i have already described). That possible alteration alone, is not a sufficient reason to normalise use of these things. Liberalism is not a sufficient reason. Totem & taboo arose in primitive societies because it was found that the interests of the majority often needed these rules of behaviour.

  4. paul says:


    Liberalism and Liberty ARE sufficient reasons. Just ask the millions of people in American prisons. How can you dismiss this so lightly? In America, we now have as a function of daily life:

    –2.4 million people in prisons and jails.

    –A vast erosion of civil liberties.

    –Swat teams kicking down people’s doors in the wee hours of the night to search their house for drugs.

    –Institutionalized seizure of personal property, where the burden of proof is reversed, and people must prove their property was NOT involved in a crime to get it back.

    –A creeping prison industrial complex with hundreds of thousands of employees, both civil and private sector, dependent on the continuation of the drug war for their livelihood.

    –A racist imbalance in prison population, with blacks and Latinos hugely over represented that would make apartheid South Africa blush in shame.

    These are terrible things, and that’s just America, and just confining the problems to questions of liberty. Whether or not liberty is important to you is a matter of personal values and how you prioritize them.

    So back to the harm argument. We must not forget the horrors happening right now in Mexico and the endless violence that gripped Columbia, but I’ll focus on America.

    I will accept that there will be more drug use and more drug users, at least for awhile. I do not think it is common sense to believe these numbers will be overwhelming, for the simple reason that if people want these drugs right now they can get them, and very large percentages of the population have already tried them and are not interested in continuing to use them.

    Just because something is legal does not mean there is no social stigma. Nobody approves of alcoholism, more and more people disapprove of smoking, and nobody is going to approve of heroin use. I don’t believe the argument that we must keep it illegal to signal disapproval is very strong.

    This argument–that keeping drugs illegal reduces their use and the harm that comes from that use–is the heart of the prohibitionist stance. Personally, I judge it to be weak for the reasons I just gave above. I just can’t believe that hordes of people will start using drugs and going berserk in the streets if drugs are legalized.

    After that, it is easy for me. If overwhelming numbers of people don’t start using drugs after legalization, then the harms that end with prohibition–impure drugs, corruption, a huge prison population, massive criminality and violence to civil liberties–surely tip the scales to the legalization side.

  5. David Raynes says:

    I argue against absolute liberalism in relation to drug use, that is, the normalisation of the use of any particular harmful substance that is for the time being fashionable, because societies only work where individual liberty, to do anything one wishes, is to some extent limited by social rules.

    Societies without rules are anarchies. Anarchies favour the strong, financially or physically. The US is locked into an outdated, atavistic idea of what liberty really is. That stems from your history. It is not too late to change. In fact in other societies, ours is one, it is actually quite hard to get imprisoned for personal use of drugs.

    A society with substantially more addiction (and the terrible social consequences) through the normalisation of currently illegal drugs, limits the freedoms and liberties of and impacts severely on, the lives of those who do not.

    As for your remarks about not believing in more users in your normalised drugs nirvana. You will of course believe what you want, you will also selectively choose to believe what suits your argument.

    The evidence of the capacity of human society to become very dependent indeed on use-reinforcing substances is there for all to see, it is exemplified in the tobacco/alcohol model. The substantial rise since 1960 in the use of illegal drugs in your society also bears witness.

    This is hard evidence, not me theorising and picking things that suit my point. I suggest you pay attention to the evidence.

  6. Joel Jackson says:


    You say

    “I argue against absolute liberalism in relation to drug use, that is, the normalisation of the use of any particular harmful substance that is for the time being fashionable, because societies only work where individual liberty, to do anything one wishes, is to some extent limited by social rules.”

    I agree with this; no one is arguing FOR “absolute liberalism” when it comes to drugs regulation.

    -We aim to end the criminalization of personal use of currently illegal drugs by responsible adults (‘adults’ meaning people over 21 years of age, ‘responsible’ meaning not driving drugged, not at work drugged, etc).

    -We aim to actually regulate the manufacture/distribution/sale of currently illegal drugs, rather than leaving the control of drug manufacture/distribution/sale in the hands of organized crime cartels.

    -We aim to end unlawful search and seizures by zealot-like law enforcement agents looking to score cash or property for their own departments (it really does happen!).

    Last but not least, we fight for the restoration of a persons’ right to put into their own bodies whatever they wish, be it “harmful substances” or not that harmful, that are “for the time being fashionable” or unfashionable.
    Fact: A person owns their own body.
    If you disagree with this, then maybe you think that you own my body or are in some way personally responsible for it.
    Know this – what a responsible adult decides to injest/inject/inhale into their own body is no concern of yours, unless it is you who are deciding what to put in your own body.

    I reject your obvious intentions to nanny adults other than yourself; perhaps you should have some children (unless you already do) or start a day care so that you can use your motherly instincts to benefit more impressionable pupils.

    I suspect you cannot be persuaded to see the drugs issue as a ‘personal responsibility of each individual’ type of issue – perhaps you have something to gain or maintain (economically/financially) by staying your course?

  7. David Raynes says:

    One of the problems of the debate is that those who argue for legalisation use langauge without precision. It is an “Alice in Wonderland” situation. Words mean what you say they mean (in effect). It is of course often quite deliberate, setting false memes running, to equate (for example) the illegality of fentanyl (except as a closely controlled medical treatment), with the prohibition of alcohol in the US.

    I joined in on this debate because of the nonesense about taking criminality away through legalisation which caught my eye.

    You say no one is arguing for absolute liberalism, that is playing with words.

    What is (mostly) argued for around the world, is the putting of the illegal drugs (or any other undiscovered substance that people may for the time being, wish to use “recreationally”) on the same or a similar footing to that of tobacco & alcohol. That is what Soros argues for and that argument is what he and others in big business, finance. Naturally, big business wants a captive audience for legal use-reinforcing substances. It uses drug users and activists as the footsoldiers of the debate.

    Let us agree that is what is (mostly) suggested then move on.

    The reasons for that argument range from absolute liberalism, the freedom to do what one wishes with one’s own body regardless of the wider social consequences, better quality control through regulated manufacturer, and limiting the collateral damage and the criminality of the current mechanisms. (The unintended consequences I think da Costa called them).

    The wildest argument is that by legalising supply and lowering the price criminality can be kept out of supply.

    As I have pointed out, in the UK, under the British System, we supplied heroin to almost anyone who could convince a doctor they needed it, that action did not remove a criminal parallel market, nor did it remove the harms of heroin.

    We currently give methadone to addicts, in huge quantities and at substantial public expense, it does not remove the harms and the deaths. It does not remove addiction, it does not remove the consequences to children brought up in addictive households. It does not stop those who are so supplied continuing to deal in methadone, heroin or any other drug. It does not make most of those so supplied, suitable for regular work, it does not cure the addiction. It is not what most of those addicts say they want.

    Very few of those arguing for legalisation on the tobacco/alcohol model deal with or are honest about the wider social consequences and costs of normalising these substances. They fail to project the idea forward to the kind of society we would get. That may well be because many of those arguing are illegal drug users themselves. (Indeed I know some very noisy legalisers are).

    What the legalisation lobby also fails to deal with is that most of the wider population do not want to see wholesale legalisation and of those that do and who are not users themselves, they often do so on a false prospectus, the blatantly silly allegation that legalisation will take criminality out of supply.

    And no I do not make any money out of my activism on the other side of the debate. It actually costs me substantially. Evil prospers while good men stand by and do nothing.

  8. Pete says:


    I’m not going to address at length the repeated times you keep using the nirvana fallacy, other than to point out that you seem unable to stop.

    I’ve noticed that you’ve added another word to the legalization crowd that we don’t use: “normalization.” You act like it’s a necessary part of legalization and that just isn’t true. Drugs can be legal and regulated and not be normalized.

    And as long as you keep bringing up the tobacco model, here’s a prime example: Tobacco is legal, but not normalized, and we, as a society have done an incredible job in reducing the harms from tobacco because it’s legal. Look at the strides made in the past 20 years in understanding the harms of tobacco, educating people, and helping people quit who are having problems with it.

    That’s the power of what we can do with a legalized market, where we control the drug rather than giving it to criminals to control. And yes, evil is prospering while deluded men stand by and do nothing. Every day we continue this misbegotten drug war, we fuel the violence world-wide of drug cartels, the Taliban, and street gangs, making their efforts extremely profitable and helping them recruit additional members to their ranks. Every drug dealer we arrest creates an automatic lucrative job opening which is filled, increasing the ranks of criminals, even as the arrested ones have their criminality reinforced in prison. The vast sums of black market money corrupt law enforcement officials and government officials, and we destroy our inner cities and the family structure of the poor. Additionally, in terms of racial justice, prohibition is the worst public policy since slavery.

    You’re going to have to show me a whole lot more than your gut feeling that a lot more people will be addicted through legalization. Even one iota of evidence would be a start.

    You say:

    That may well be because many of those arguing are illegal drug users themselves. (Indeed I know some very noisy legalisers are).

    Nice try, but as it turns out some of every single occupation and persuasion are illegal drug users, so your point is lost. And look at the overall group of legalizers, including some noisy ones like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, William F. Buckly, Jr., Walter Cronkite, or the clergy in various churches calling for an end to the drug war. Not big drug users.

    The fact is that drug users have no problem getting drugs now. That’s not what they’re looking for. They’re looking to stop the damage of prohibition.

    If you really care about the problems of addicts, then for God’s sake stop turning it over to criminals to deal with them.

  9. David Raynes says:

    Absolutely bluntly, it is not possible to control the market in drugs-legal or illegal. I should know I spent most of my life in an attempt to do that and travelled the world in pursuit of that objective.

    It IS possible to change the culture of use around any particular drug, it takes enormous effort and it takes time and community commitment. In terms of reduced personal and social ill health I say that effort is worthwhile.

    Some countries are attempting that change now, in relation to tobacco. That cultural change will be imperfect, some people will continue to smoke tobacco, however silly that is.

    As for the suggestion that tobacco use is NOT normalised, you are in the realms of fantasy. When I was last in Lithuania I was told that 90 % of the population smoked tobacco. Bulgaria when I visted was worse. Until fairly recently, tobacco use and advertising was everywhere in US and European society. The tobacco companies are fiocussing enromous efforts on the third world. China has a huge tobacco addiction problem. Please get a grip on reality.

    I did not introduce a new word I picked up on one from the plans & objectives of the legalisation lobby. The three core words driving the campaign, are Trivialise, Normalise, Legalise. I ask you why?

    It has to be a more effective reason than supposedly taking out some criminality. It has to deal with the social effects of normalisation. You do not like the word because it and the social consequences of it, are difficult to deal with in debate. I am forcing you to address uncomfortable truths. You are dealing with them very badly. So badly that I am quite enjoying this. Unfortunately, you have taken up too much of my time.

  10. Osborne Perry Anderson says:

    Curious if anyone could answer this question: What right does ‘joe six-pack’ have that ‘tony the toker’ doesn’t?

    Remember ‘social acceptability’ and ‘what the bible/god or jc thinks’ are not rights, only opinions, and don’t count where the rule of law and our rights are concerned!

  11. Osborne Perry Anderson says:

    I was also curious if this post/site was aware of U.S. Patent# 6,630,507 which claims “Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties… cannabinoids are found to have particular applications as neuroprotectants… limiting neurological damage following… stroke and trauma… or in treatment of neurodegenerative diseases… such as Alzheimer’s… Parkinson’s… and HIV dementia”?

    The gov’t obtained this ‘marijuana’ patent in 2003 yet still maintains cannabis has no medical value?
    Sounds like uncle scam is pulling our chain again!

  12. truthtechnician says:

    @David Raynes:

    “Absolutely bluntly, it is not possible to control the market in drugs-legal or illegal.”

    So why is the government oppressing me in order to chip away at some socialist fantasy?

    The government has no right to violate my personal sovereignty in order to attempt controlling drug abuse. I shouldn’t be forced to pay for drug addicts. At the same time, I shouldn’t be forced into prison for using drugs.

  13. paul says:

    If government was able to stop people from taking drugs, and I mean, really stop them, the prohibitionist arguments would have a lot more merit.

    I still wouldn’t agree with them on libertarian grounds, but the harm equation would be strongly balanced towards prohibition. Some drugs ARE harmful.

    But that is a fantasy world. As David said, “It is not possible to control the market in drugs”, and he is right. Any common drug is available to the average person within a matter of hours. Most people who want drugs have already got a supplier, and if that supplier gets caught, they’ll find a new one.

    Since prohibition cannot deliver significant harm reduction, the harm argument fails. And there’s never been a question that the drug war violates civil liberties.

    Sorry to see you go, David. It’s been fun! (and I mean that sincerely.) I do not expect you to be unduly influenced by our arguments, but do not go away believing you have won the debate. Would a genuinely neutral observer think you had?

    The growing number of people joining the reform movement seem to be saying NO.

  14. Pingback: Entangled discussions » Exit strategies for the war on drugs, part1: Framing the discussion

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