RIP Mark Kleiman, Who Brought Rigor, Dispassion, and Candor to a Frequently Overheated Drug Policy Debate

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Back in 1989, Mark Kleiman published a book, Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control, that exemplified his calm, methodical, just-the-facts approach to drug policy. Kleiman argued that federal efforts to curtail cannabis consumption were ineffective and diverted resources from programs that had a better public safety payoff. Three years later, in Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results, he came out in favor of legalizing marijuana, arguing that the costs of prohibition outweighed its benefits. At a time when three-quarters of Americans still supported marijuana prohibition, Kleiman’s position was striking, especially coming from a widely quoted and consulted academic who had the ear of policy makers.

When fellow libertarians complained to me about Kleiman’s legendary prickliness, I would remind them of that history, which illustrated his best qualities: intellectual rigor and honesty, combined with a willingness to draw unpopular conclusions when he believed they were justified by the evidence. I did not always agree with Kleiman’s conclusions, but I admired his method, which acknowledged subtleties and uncertainties, anticipated counterarguments, and insisted on empirical support for claims that were frequently asserted as articles of faith.

“Eventually we must learn to discuss our drug policies without raising our voices,” Kleiman wrote in Against Excess“A drug-crazed drug warrior can be as great a public menace as a drug-crazed addict.” He never lost sight of the burdens imposed by coercive drug policies, even when he supported them.

That’s the Mark Kleiman I will miss. His rhetoric as a partisan Democrat, which was sometimes directed at me for reasons that were hard to fathom, could be short on facts and long on feelings. But his policy analysis, whether or not you agreed with him, was a model of logic and dispassion.

Kleiman, who died yesterday at the age of 68 due to complications following a kidney transplant, favored noncommercial legalization of marijuana, fearing the public health consequences of mixing cannabis and capitalism. He also had a soft spot for psychedelics, recognizing their low abuse potential and potentially profound benefits for individuals who use them properly. Years ago I was startled when I ran into him during a psychedelic conference at a Unitarian church in San Francisco, where he wore a tie-dyed T-shirt under a blazer. Later I learned that he was a longtime friend of Earth and Fire Erowid, proprietors of the indispensable drug information website

When it came to drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, tobacco, and alcohol, Kleiman took a harder line, discounting their benefits and emphasizing their hazards. During a 2008 Cato Unbound debate, I asked him whether, given the damage done by irresponsible and excessive drinking, he favored a return to alcohol prohibition, his response was characteristically candid:

Under existing U.S. conditions, I wouldn’t. There’s no public support for it. Compliance would be poor, and the illicit market large. The amount of public force required to overcome such a strong cultural pattern is greater than the evils of alcohol can justify….

Were I asked to legislate for a nation where alcohol was currently banned and where drinking was not currently a well-established practice, I’d be inclined to leave the law as it was. Why import a drug problem you don’t already have?

Kleiman thought the government should continue to prohibit relatively unpopular drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and (nonprescription) methamphetamine, arguing that it helped keep a lid on problems that might otherwise get out of control. But he never pretended that prohibition was cost-free, and he argued that in many respects it (and the criminal justice system more generally) was excessively punitive.

“We have a highly intrusive and semi-militarized drug enforcement effort that is often only marginally constitutional and sometimes more than marginally indecent,” Kleiman wrote in The American Interest several years ago. “Most drug use is harmless, and much of it is beneficial…No harm, no foul. Mere use of an abusable drug does not constitute a problem demanding public intervention.”

Kleiman understood that prohibition makes life worse for those who defy it, while arguing that such costs could be justified if banning drugs prevented others from developing habits that hurt them and others. Although the average cost of drug addiction is indisputably higher under prohibition, he suggested, the total cost could well be higher if legalization led to a big enough increase in abuse.

Even while Kleiman insisted on balancing costs against benefits, he conceded that the challenge of identifying and measuring them, combined with the difficulty of anticipating unintended consequences, frequently made that project questionable.   “Perhaps, if the AIDS epidemic had been foreknown,” he wrote in Against Excess, “a convincing argument could have been made that the increase in heroin addiction as a result of one or another form of legal availability would have been more than compensated for by the reduction in HIV transmission.”

While Kleiman was quick to acknowledge the ways that drug policies could go horribly wrong, he never gave up hope that better results could be achieved through carefully designed and enforced bans, taxes, licenses, and regulations. He was impatient with the argument that prohibition is fundamentally unjust because it deploys state violence against people who have not violated anyone’s rights, and he did not seem to perceive a moral problem with decriminalizing drug use while continuing to treat drug suppliers as criminals.

Despite our differences, Kleiman was always happy to engage in debate, and he was a formidable opponent. He was a lively (and entertainingly profane) interview subject who gave good quotes, and he could be remarkably gracious. After I reviewed Against Excess in Reason, praising his honesty but pulling no punches, he wrote a very kind letter to the editor thanking me for offering “well-reasoned criticism” and “giv[ing] a fair reading to a book whose conclusions he does not endorse.” Not long after he attacked me as an uninformed ideologue when I criticized Barack Obama’s response to a question about rescheduling marijuana, he and I both participated in a conference where he enthusiastically shook my hand and praised my presentation.

Kleiman, who cut his teeth as policy analyst at the Justice Department and later held a series of academic positions, most recently as a professor of public policy at New York University, could be counted on to call bullshit where he saw it. He criticized opposition to vaping as a harm-reducing alternative to smoking, for example, and debunked claims that marijuana causes psychosis and drives violent crime. While he tended to overestimate the ability of smart and knowledgeable people like him to fine-tune the nation’s drug habits, he was open to evidence and arguments that complicated that mission. Discussions of drugs and criminal justice in this country would be greatly improved if more people followed his example.

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