The Pot World Loses a Voice of Reason

Mark A. R. Kleiman's dogma-eschewing policy ideas will be sorely missed

Until about five years ago, I was only vaguely familiar with Mark A. R. Kleiman. I knew only that he was a well-regarded policy researcher who favored sane drug laws. Then I read the book he cowrote: Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, and was eager to find out more. That book, in its clarity and total avoidance of dogma and reliance on fact and reason, is the best take on the subject of legalization — all of its promise, and all of its pitfalls — that I know of. (Kleiman’s co-writers were Beau Kilmer and Jonathan P. Caulkins).

Upon further inquiry, I discovered that Kleiman, in his quiet, wonky, academic way, had been for decades a major, driving force behind drug-policy reform: the kind that ultimately led to California and other states finally legalizing cannabis. Sadly, I never interacted with him much outside of a few mostly perfunctory emails for stories I was writing. Even there, his wit and insight were on full display. I say sadly because Kleiman died on Sunday of complications resulting from a kidney transplant. He was 68.

After delving a bit more into his work, I discovered his Twitter feed, which was less restrained and more emotional than his academic work, but evinces the same kind of fact-driven assessments of our political environment. In one of his last tweets, he took on a favorite recent target of his, Bret Stephens, the buffoonish conservative New York Times‘ op-ed writer who once referred to “the disease of the Arab mind.” In the quirky stanza format Kleiman used on Twitter, he wrote this a few weeks ago after Stephens took up the cause of America’s bigots:

Sorry, but once you’ve published an essay

with the phrase “the disease of the X mind,”

where X names a billion-person ethnic group,

your friends don’t get to play the

“But he hasn’t a bigoted bone in his body!” card

in defense of your latest outrage.

That’s a subjective assessment that could have a QED after it, so mathematical it is in its logic.

But Kleiman was never one to take “sides.” For example, he often took on Alex Berenson, another product of The New York Times, who recently wrote a hilariously retrograde anti-cannabis polemic, disguised as scholarship and journalism, that’s actually called “Tell Your Children.” In January, Kleiman tweeted:

If you’re pro-cannabis legalization,

and outraged by the way @AlexBerenson cherry-picks his facts

and butchers his statistics,

now go back and read some of your side’s propaganda.

Note that Berenson wasn’t the ultimate target there. Kleiman had no use for bullshit, from anyone, for any cause, and he wasn’t afraid the charlatans lurking throughout the pot world. He had no reason to be: dude had tenure.

But of course, Twitter wasn’t his work, and it was his work that helped make the environment around pot, insane though it is, nevertheless more sane than it otherwise would be. In 1989, while teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he wrote Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control, a book that was largely informed by his experience as a senior drug-policy official in the Justice Department under Carter and Reagan. With the quiet skill of a master teppanyaki chef, he verbally filleted prohibition in general and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign in particular.

As with all sincere academics, Kleiman’s views evolved over the years. He adapted to change. For instance, I doubt very much that in recent years he often applied the word “abuse” to the use of cannabis (though he never denied that it could be abused). His first book was written when the idea of full-on legalization seemed remote at best. His later work — for the likes of the RAND Corporation, in more books on cannabis and crime, and in pieces for magazines and policy journals — was highly influential in cannabis-policy circles.

While he was a strong advocate for cannabis legalization, he never pretended there were no downsides to the use or commodification of pot, whether legal or illicit. As states began to legalize, he was particularly worried about industry consolidation and the emergence of “Big Pot,” which, he warned, would yield just another rapacious industry like tobacco or booze. “The industry has interests that are different from the public interest,” he told the Huffington Post in 2017. “And the more powerful those interests are, the harder it will be to get appropriate legislation.”

For such a staunch civil libertarian on the subject of prohibition, Kleiman could be almost schoolmarmish on some matters. For instance, he opposed not only packaging clearly aimed at kids, but the very concept of cannabis in the form of candy. “It’s a drug,” he said in the same interview. “People should be aware of its druginess.” And yet, he acknowledged the reality of the situation, and offered advice on how to regulate such products.

Kleiman was a criminologist who in recent years worked as a professor at New York University’s Marron Institute on Urban Management. His reasoned approach was perhaps due in part to the fact that he wasn’t a pot advocate who took up policy, but just the opposite: a policy nerd who lent his skills to regulating cannabis.

He took a lot of heat from all sides, whether from the prohibitionists or from the more dogmatic pot advocates. But, at least among the latter group, people tended to treat him with respect even when they had vehement disagreements with him. All but the most enraged nutcases knew that, at the very least he was always being honest. That makes it harder to scorch a person.

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