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Book Review: "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know"

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #743)
Politics & Advocacy

Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark Kleiman (2012, Oxford University Press, 266 pp., $16.95 PB)

(Note: You can now order "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know" and support at the same time -- click here for details on our current membership offers.)

Marijuana legalization in one form or another will be on the ballot in at least two states -- Colorado and Washington -- this fall, and maybe three, if one or both of the Oregon initiatives currently in the signature validation process actually qualifies. [Editor's Note: One did, Friday night.] Public opinion polls show a populace that is now evenly split on the subject, but with support for it trending rapidly upward in recent years. We could be on the cusp of the biggest changes in how we deal with marijuana since pot prohibition began to emerge in the states a century ago.

So, Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know couldn't be more timely. A collaborative effort by four academic drug policy researchers, this tome is thoughtful, thorough, and balanced as it addresses the wide array of issues and disputes associated with changing pot policy. One can only hope that politicians charged with voting on marijuana policy reform would read it, or at least, that their staffs would do so and offer them up a nicely bullet-pointed précis.

Grappling with the topic of marijuana legalization is a surprisingly complicated affair. Marijuana use is so common, the impacts of marijuana prohibition so pervasive, that to talk about marijuana law reform involves disciplines ranging from botany and biochemistry to medicine and public health and diplomacy and international law, and more. One of the qualities that makes Marijuana Legalization so handy is the way it disaggregates the multi-sided issue into easily digestible, bite-sized chunks. The book is divided into two sections, one on marijuana itself and one on legalization, and subdivided into thematic chapters ("Who Uses Marijuana?" "What are the Risks of Using Marijuana?" "What if Marijuana Were Treated Like Alcohol?"), which in turn are further subdivided into one-to-two page questions and answers.

The answers to the questions are carefully based on the latest academic research and meta-analyses and appear, overall, to be fair representations of the state of knowledge in the fields in question. Sometimes, though, it appears the authors are striving so much for fairness that they risk pulling muscles from bending over backwards.

In the section on the gateway theory, for instance, the authors note that there is a correlation between teen pot use and an increased likelihood of moving on to other drug use, but that a causal relationship is more difficult to determine and that other underlying social, psychological, or physiological risk factors could be at play. Still, they feel compelled to note in language approaching the Rumsfeldian that "the fact that causal connections are not needed to explain the observed correlations does not mean there is no causal connection." Ummm, okay. And the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Actually, given the decades of efforts to establish the gateway theory, the paucity of evidence to support it is pretty good evidence.

All of the talk about marijuana dependency may grate on the nerves of advocates, some of whom may well qualify as dependent under the clinical criteria. But clearly, like any psychoactive substance, people can grow habituated to pot and it can have deleterious effects. For all the emphasis on marijuana dependency, though, the authors deserve credit for clearly and forthrightly stating that all dependencies are not created equal. It's one thing to be a skin-and-bones crack addict; quite another to smoke pot and be a couch potato every night.

The careful, balanced tone of Marijuana Legalization is something that legalization advocates might want to strive for. This holds doubly true for claims about the impacts of marijuana legalization that might not hold up to scrutiny. For instance, Proposition 19 advocates may have overstated the impact that legalization in California would have on Mexican drug cartels, only to have opponents come back and undercut those claims. Likewise, claims that our prisons are filled with pot-smokers are unsupported by the facts. That anyone is in prison for marijuana is bad enough -- and the authors say 40,000 people are -- but overstating the negatives of even some aspects of prohibition does not aid the cause in the long run.

Similarly, the authors make clear that there are some things we just don't -- and can't -- know. How much would use increase under various legalization schemes? Anyone who tells you they have a definitive answer is blowing smoke, and his credibility should be called into question. We can make educated guesses, but given the lack of laboratory conditions, that's all they are.

When it comes to legalization itself, the authors delineate several versions, from a free market scheme where marijuana is treated like any other commodity to one that that would see marijuana produced and sold with regulations and restrictions like alcohol or tobacco. There is also a medical model and a state monopoly model (similar to what Uruguay is now proposing). Given the "nightmare scenario" -- potential massive decreases in price along with powerful advertising campaigns by vendors leading to massive increase in use and dependency -- of the more open legalization approaches and the political opposition such fears can engender, that state liquor store model looks a little more attractive, even though it runs in the face of current ideological trends about the inability of the state to do anything as well as private enterprise can.

I have to give the authors kudos for one chapter in particular, "What is Known about the Non-Medical Benefits of Marijuana?" In our drug policy discourse in general, marijuana included, the emphasis is almost entirely on the negative results of drug use. That begs the question: If these drugs are so horrible, why does anyone use them in the first place, let alone get strung out on them? Drug use clearly does have positive benefits for users -- otherwise they wouldn't be using them -- and it's refreshing to actually hear some forthright talk about that when it comes to pot.

Marijuana Legalization doesn't advocate for or against legalization. At the very end of the book, each of the authors lays out his or her personal views. But I'm not going to be a spoiler. Read the book and find out for yourself. It's a most handy primer on the diverse and interrelated topics that constitute the universe of marijuana legalization issues, and its structure helps disentangle what can be an overwhelming array of concerns and issues.

Yes, the authors have undoubtedly reached some conclusions that will not be well-received by the drug reform community, but they have done so in a spirit of scholarship and fairness. If you don't like the conclusions they reach, rebut them or deal with them in the same manner. It'll do you and the cause good.

(Note: You can now order "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know" and support at the same time -- click here for details on our current membership offers.)

(The author's have launched a web site associated with the book,

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


It's really kind of ridiculous to complain about reform advocates overstating the impact that marijuana legalization would have on drug cartels when they got the numbers from the ONDCP (as the authors point out). The only rebuttal to that has been the ONDCP's convenient reversal when the numbers no longer supported their arguments, and RAND putting out a "we don't know how much, but what you said is clearly wrong" statement. Apparently, it' the fault of the reformers that they didn't independently verify the government's numbers. Additionally, you may know reformers who say that prisons are filled with marijuana convicts. I don't. What I hear is that prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders and marijuana arrests are through the roof. The other thing I hear is prohibitionists saying that there's nobody in prison for marijuana possession. Which is, of course, not true. The book is balanced when it comes to the facts, but it's pretty badly skewed when it comes to the authors' unwillingness to give proper weight to their numerous balancing acts.
Fri, 07/13/2012 - 6:58pm Permalink
makevapes (not verified)

"Similarly, the authors make clear that there are some things we just don't -- and can't -- know. How much would use increase under various legalization schemes? Anyone who tells you they have a definitive answer is blowing smoke, and his credibility should be called into question. We can make educated guesses, but given the lack of laboratory conditions, that's all they are."

At the risk of blowing vapor, hopefully not too soon to offer suggestions how to address this question in their Second Edition?  

1.  Legalization would REDUCE "consumption" by eliminating the baneful technicality that you can get in trouble for OWNING A HARM REDUCTION UTENSIL-- a one-hitter, vaporizer etc. which actually REDUCES DOSAGES-- because under present legal conditions a 500-mg rolled up "joint" is EASIER TO HIDE than a cannister with 20 tokes of herb in it and a 25-mg-serving-size utensil.  (The worst enemy you have to hide your utensil from may be not the rogue cop but your own drugwar-hysterical Mom.)

2.  Legalization would de facto relieve barriers to openly making and marketing harm-reduction (dosage-restriction) utensils and publicly advocating and instructing others in their use.  Google "MARIJUANA PARAPHERNALIA" or "PARAPHERNALIA LAWS" etc. to see what's out there.  By the way, speaking of Propa & Ganda, have you noticed how the word "PARAPHERNALIA" breaks down into echoes of smaller hate-words such as  "Paranoid", "Infernal", "Alien"?

3.  Present-day laws are the best Big $igarette Corporations could buy to keep (a) cannabis too expensive to compete with tobacco for kids' money, (b) proper cannabis vaping equipment too risky to own to compete with the "joint" which helps indoctrinate youngsters into $igarette smoking.  (Watch out, in Europe someone offering you a puff on a joint may have mixed nicotine tobacco into it, that's considered "traditional".)

Sorry I'm too cheap to buy books so apologies if I"ve insulted the authors by covering subjects here they actually did justice to.  One reason corporates and Republicans hate riefer is it helps you figure out how to live a voluntary "Spartan"/"Austere" economics, devoid of superstitious personal money-spending habits which sustain today's corporate oligarchy and its political donations strategy.


Fri, 07/20/2012 - 6:15pm Permalink
Jack (not verified)

WOW...what a broad topic...From Botany to International Law etc  etc.. Not to mention Religious freedom

In ANY case people  should be free to be informed and decide their action...No Harm No Jail..I meanyou are not a criminal for using/growing/selling PLANTS...Medical models/warnings are better...4:20

Thu, 05/09/2013 - 1:24pm Permalink

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