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Reading Jonathan Caulkins is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.

December 13, 2012

Boy, did I just waste a chunk of my life. Wish I could get it back.

Here’s my first mistake: Reading Kevin Sabet’s tweets today, which included this one:

Thoughtful Natl Review piece,Caulkins/Lee: “the arguments for legalization often overlook considerable downsides&risks”

Here’s my second mistake: Deciding to read the piece.

It’s The Drug-Policy Roulette by Jonathan P. Caulkins and Michael A. C. Lee in the Summer 2012 edition of National Affairs (not National Review).

Tnis piece reminds me why I often consider Caulkins one of the worst of the drug policy “academics” cabal in the U.S.

And, I’ve just got to ask, how does someone, whom I assume has advanced degrees, miss out on gaining a basic understanding of analogies?

So, first he hits us with this:

The commission’s advice echoes four decades of arguments by advocates of legalization, who have long promoted their cause as a simple solution to the violence, disease, incarceration, social decay, and other ills fostered by the drug trade. [...]

But the arguments for legalization often overlook its considerable downsides and risks. They serially underplay, for instance, the possibility of substantially increased use of and dependence on drugs. Though no one really knows precisely how much drug use would go up if it were legalized, advocates tend to disingenuously offer exact estimates favorable to their cause — suggesting that they can know with confidence that increased use would be limited and controllable. This false certitude neglects the fact that no nation in the modern era has legalized the production of any of the major illegal drugs for unsupervised use. (Even the Netherlands allows only retail sales of marijuana, not production or wholesale distribution.) Legalization is thus a leap into uncharted and potentially dangerous waters.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s the uncertainty argument that he and his friends pushed in the “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know” book.

How dare we legalizers say we know what will happen if drugs are legalized when there is no exact place in the world that matches the conditions? It’s unknowable, and it’s irresponsible for us to say that we know anything.

And then he proceeds to go on for over 60 paragraphs to tell us what will happen if drugs are legalized. Is he completely irony-challenged?

And, of course, like the rest of them, he never seems to consider that anything other than prohibition exists as an approach to dealing with drug problems.

I recognize a lot of the content of the book in this article, including the infamous “toast” example.

… it has become fashionable for legalization’s proponents to moderate their requests, asking only for “experiments” with legalization. The implicit (if not explicit) promise is that if legalization turns out badly, we can always re-impose prohibition — ending up no worse off, and at least a bit wiser. [...]

The concept of reversibility (as employed in the drug-legalization debate) comes from the physical sciences, and has to do with whether an object can be returned to its original condition after being changed by some process. The difference between ice and bread is a good example: Applying heat to ice will melt it into water; removing the same amount of heat energy by putting the water in the freezer allows it to refreeze into the original state. By contrast, when one applies heat to bread, the bread becomes toast. Removing that heat energy by putting the toast into the freezer creates cold toast, not fresh bread. Melting ice is a reversible process; toasting bread is not. The related social-science concept is called “path dependence,” meaning that outcomes depend not only on current inputs, but also on the past history of the system.

Legalizing drugs is like toasting bread: Not all of the resulting changes can be undone by re-imposing prohibition.

No, it’s not.

It’s not even close. Legalizing drugs isn’t remotely like toast and adding a bunch of scientific talk about ice and water doesn’t make a bad analogy work.

Having a baby is like making toast. Once the toast is done and has popped out, you can’t put it back in and make it not be toast again. See what I did there? That’s how an analogy works.

Legalizing drugs could be like opening Pandora’s box. That would be an actual legitimate analogy. Wrong, but at least structurally appropriate.

By the way, that notion that Caulkins derides of wanting an “experiment” with legalization sounds a lot like what I and others have advocated for years using the Justice Brandeis “laboratories of democracy” idea.

An idea that his co-author Mark Kleiman now seems not only to be embracing, but almost ready to take credit.

TCR: In a column you wrote for TCR you mentioned using Washington and Colorado as ‘laboratories for democracy,’ what does that mean?

Kleiman: A lot of voters obviously want to legalize marijuana, but they’re often not very well informed, because we have no idea what the consequences are. There’s only so much you can know about the consequences of legality if all you can study is illegality.

Given that it’s likely we’re going to be changing our policies, it would be nice to know in advance what the consequences are, but it’s hard to do that without actually trying it.

We don’t want to try it at a national level, because that would be very hard to undo if it went wrong. So the place to try is in some district or territory and the whole world can learn a lot from letting Colorado and Washington play their game.

What do you think of that, Jonathan? Is Kleiman making toast now?

Going back to the Caulkins piece, the “roulette” in the title is, you guessed it, another horrific analogy, which he reveals at the end.

Experimenting with legalization is like playing drug-policy roulette. If you have been consistently putting money on black at the roulette table with only mixed success, would it make sense for you to place all of your remaining money on red the next turn and expect a certain win? Of course not. Expecting legalization to rectify prohibition’s unintended consequences without creating any of its own is similarly unwise. Worse, while a roulette player is free to alternate from black to red and red to black, betting on legalization could be an irreversible mistake.

No, it’s not. It’s not anything like roulette. It’s just a bad analogy.

So I’ve decided to title and end my post the same way Jonathan did. With a bad analogy.

The title of this post, of course, is from the description of a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster from Douglas Adams’ delightful “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” It’s as ridiculous as Caulkins’ analogies, but has the distinct advantage of being funny.

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Pete Guither is the editor of



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