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Research on Crime, Incarceration and Cannabis Regulation

University of California, Los Angeles Professor Mark Kleiman gives a presentation at the University of Connecticut School of Law. (Photo courtesy of Mark Kleiman)
Award Date 
Grant Amount 
To support research projects on crime, incarceration and cannabis regulation led by Mark Kleiman.
Topic (focus area) 

Note: This page was created using content published by Good Ventures and GiveWell, the organizations that created the Open Philanthropy Project, before this website was launched. Uses of “we” and “our” on this page may therefore refer to Good Ventures or GiveWell, but they still represent the work of the Open Philanthropy Project.

Good Ventures, with input from GiveWell, awarded a grant of $245,000 to the Washington Office on Latin America in December 2013 to support research projects on crime, incarceration and cannabis regulation to be led by Mark Kleiman. The grant is part of our exploration of criminal justice reform and drug policy reform in the United States, two areas we’ve prioritized for deeper investigation through learning grants. The grant is also meant to take advantage of what we see as a timely opportunity to study the implementation and effects of marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado.

Good Ventures made a follow-up grant to support Mark Kleiman’s work on swift-and-certain sanctions in April 2015.

We first decided to speak to Dr. Kleiman because of his work researching and promoting the concept of swift and certain sanctions, which Matt Stoller and Aaron Swartz found to be a potentially promising policy and because his work was recommended to us by Steven Teles.1

During our conversations with him, Dr. Kleiman presented us with policy ideas aimed at reducing crime and incarceration that struck us as innovative, potentially high-impact, and neglected. These ideas included:

  • Swift and certain sanctions (more here)
  • Position-monitoring (more here)
  • Reducing alcohol abuse by, for example, increasing alcohol taxes (more here)
  • Regulating cannabis in Washington State and Colorado. Some ideas Dr. Kleiman thought would be worth trying out or studying to prevent recreational cannabis legalization from harming heavy users included:
    • Allowing home delivery of cannabis.
    • Allowing individuals to set their own quotas (alterable only with thirty days notice) as a commitment mechanism to avoid using more than they intend.
    • Setting limits on the amount of THC that could be produced.
    • Studying the retail process and ways for the state to dissuade abuse such as labels or other forms of communication.
    • Setting levels of cannabis taxation such that the price of legal cannabis will neither be much higher than its current, illicit price (which would incentivize a continued illicit market) nor much lower (which would increase abuse)2
  • Refocusing international narcotics enforcement on violence prevention3

  • Researching the possible beneficial effects of some illicit drugs4

These ideas struck us as potentially innovative, insightful, and pragmatic. Dr. Kleiman believes that, without regulation, legalized cannabis markets may be dangerous to heavy users (see above) or lead to a backlash.5

As our investigation of criminal justice reform moved forward, we heard that Dr. Kleiman is excellent at navigating the intersection of research and policy and we learned that there does indeed seem to be a lack of research funding and attention toward his ideas relative to our impression of their promise (see here for a discussion of existing funding for criminal justice reform).6

We asked Dr. Kleiman about his need for more funding and his team’s priorities. Dr. Kleiman told us that he could use $250,000 to $300,000 on immediate, time-sensitive research and technical assistance and could usefully spend up to $1 million per year if additional funding priorities were included.7 He also told us that his application to a foundation for $175,000 to work on these issues had recently been rejected.8

Dr. Kleiman also sent us a prioritized list of fifteen specific projects and their budget estimates. The top six projects, totaling $245,000, were:

  • Alcohol cross-elasticity Dr. Kleiman believes alcohol abuse is a serious threat to public safety and cannabis use could be a complement or substitute for alcohol use, so cannabis policy’s effects on alcohol use could be an important component of its costs or benefits. He proposed to “use the natural experiment created by difference in cannabis policy between Western and Eastern Washington to measure the impacts of cannabis availability on alcohol sales and on health and public-safety outcomes.”9

  • Outcome list and data-gathering plan. In order to learn from the experiments with legalization in Washington and Colorado, it could be important to have baseline data from before legalization has had its effect. Dr. Kleiman proposed to identify the most relevant outcomes for evaluating legalization, determine how to measure those that are measureable, determine which must be measured before legalization is implemented, and then estimate the cost of carrying out time-sensitive data-gathering.10

  • Online implementation tool for swift-and-certain sanctions programs. Dr. Kleiman proposed to create a website to provide information to jurisdictions interested in implementing swift and certain sanctions for probation and parole violations.11

  • Swift-and-certain mechanism study: self-command and procedural justice. In order to learn more about the mechanisms behind the success of swift and certain sanctions and to improve program design, Dr. Kleiman proposed to “develop and field-test instruments to measure self-command, delayed gratification, and perceptions of fairness among offenders subject to swift-and-certain sanctions programs to determine which, if any, predict outcomes.”12

  • Optimal cannabis taxation. Dr. Kleiman proposed to “[d]etermine the optimal level and basis of cannabis taxation for states now legalizing, balancing considerations of health, public safety, revenue, and administrative feasibility.”13

  • User-determined quotas. Dr. Kleiman proposed to study the possibility of implementing user-determined quotas to help cannabis users avoid problem use.14

We were surprised to learn that, in a field with so much attention, Dr. Kleiman had not already found funding for his agenda, and was planning to allocate the same staff time to for-profit consulting if he could not find funding for this work. The grant $245,000 grant from Good Ventures will be used to support Dr. Kleiman’s research. While the grant amount was designed to be enough to fund the above six projects, it is unrestricted and Dr. Kleiman is free to use the funding for other research opportunities if they arise.

Dr. Kleiman’s descriptions of his proposed projects are available here.

Another donor has since donated an additional $70,000 to support the projects on Dr. Kleiman’s list, also unrestricted and also at our recommendation.

We published an update on this grant in May, 2015.

Read more:

  • Mark Kleiman’s Faculty Page
  • Mark Kleiman’s Proposed Project List
  • A conversation with Mark Kleiman on July 2, 2013
  • Criminal Justice Reform Cause Report
  • April 2015 Follow-up Grant
  • Sources

    • 1.

      Mark Kleiman of UCLA Public School of Affairs is very worth talking to. GiveWell’s notes on a June 12, 2013 conversation with Steve Teles

    • 2.

      Dr. Kleiman has been part of a group working with the state of Washington on their implementation of a market for cannabis. The work involved estimating the size of the market and making policy recommendations. Their recommendations included allowing home delivery and allowing individuals to set their own cannabis quota that can only be changed with 30 days’ notice. A proposal that wasn’t accepted but might be in the future was to limit cannabis production, and specifically to use THC as the basis for limiting it. An important aim was to get the state policy makers to focus on the outcomes of drug policy and not just the purchase process. With alcohol, regulators tend to focus on who can buy and sell alcohol, but with drugs and alcohol it is important to also consider the potential outcomes of any policy in terms of the costs and benefits to individuals and society.

      The group proposed a number of potential projects that would require additional funding. One project would be to understand the process by which the cannabis market will bring in consumers: what they know about cannabis, how they acquire information, and what the state can do to communicate to users and dissuade abuse – including how to design labels and what to include on them, and what information should be distributed by the vendor, on a state website, or via other forms of communication. Cannabis is a complicated drug, so vendors need to be knowledgeable, and the state needs to figure out how to incentivize vendors not to market to drug abusers. The 20% heaviest users account for 80% or more of the volume of drugs consumed, so vendors have a strong incentive to market to abusers.

      Colorado and Washington both plan to make the tax on cannabis a percentage of the sales price. It would be better to set the tax so as to keep prices similar to what they were on the illicit market, since higher prices would allow the illicit market to continue to exist, and lower prices would increase drug abuse. Since production costs will likely fall over time, Washington’s tax plan risks starting with prices too high and ending up with prices too low. Colorado’s tax starts at too low a level. GiveWell’s notes on a July 2, 2013 conversation with Mark Kleiman

    • 3.

      US international drug policy is focused on reducing drug flows and putting drug traffickers in prison, not on reducing harm and violence. Drug law enforcement can shape the behavior of rug traffickers; making violence something that attracts enforcement attention could reduce the violence. GiveWell’s notes on a July 2, 2013 conversation with Mark Kleiman.

    • 4.

      There is surprising little research on the possibly beneficial effects of illicit drugs on the body or the mind. Research on illicit drugs is rare in the US because it is difficult to get permission to use illicit drugs in benefit-oriented or harm-reduction studies. Such research is possible in other countries, such as Israel, the UK, or the Netherlands. Research would allow us to better understand the significance of varying chemical compositions of drugs. Cannabis is a complex drug and states should be able to require labeling that explains the effects of each variety, e.g. the consequences of different THC/CBD ratios, but there is little research on these effects. GiveWell’s notes on a July 2, 2013 conversation with Mark Kleiman.

    • 5.

      Without technical assistance or relevant advocacy, the cannabis market in Washington and Colorado is likely to end up looking like the alcohol market, where the industry is allowed to promote itself to heavy users with few policy constraints. Historically, alcohol went from being illegal to manufacture or sell to being an ordinary good that is entirely marketable (except to children). Ideally a middle ground could be found for cannabis. If not, there could be a backlash against cannabis legalization. GiveWell’s notes on a July 2, 2013 conversation with Mark Kleiman

    • 6.

      SRF gave Mark Kleiman a $40,000 grant about 8 years ago to expand a report he had written for the Department of Justice into a book called When Brute Force Fails. SRF has been influenced by Kleiman’s writings on criminal justice, and Kleiman helped connect SRF to Angela Hawken, the researcher who led the HOPE trial.

      Steinmeyer said that Kleiman has a unique ability to interpret research findings and apply them to how policy should be designed. Whereas other researchers specialize in conducting rigorous studies of individual policies or programs, Steinmeyer noted, Kleiman is good at looking at the big picture. GiveWell’s notes from a September 10, 2013 conversation with Mark Steinmeyer

    • 7.

      • Immediate funding priorities: Dr. Kleiman’s team is looking for funding to work on cannabis policy … . Dr. Kleiman recently presented some of these projects to a foundation with a budget of $175K total, of which the alcohol cross-elasticity study was the largest expense ($65K). The foundation decided not to fund the proposal. Dr. Kleiman could do more on the same set of projects with a budget of $250-300K. GiveWell’s notes on a November 12, 2013 conversation with Mark Kleiman.
      • Dr. Kleiman and his team are prepared to spend up to $1 million per year. With $1 million in funding, Dr. Kleiman would (in addition to the projects described above):
        1. Form a coalition to develop a plan for national marijuana legalization and regulation. The coalition would use data from Colorado and Washington to support the national effort in areas such as research, policy analysis, and advocacy. A political deal on national legalization and regulation might be feasible now but not five years from now, partly because libertarians are currently willing to accept a commercial marijuana market that is less open than the alcohol market, and drug warriors still have some influence but may be willing to compromise. However, as public opinion swings toward marijuana legalization, libertarians might bargain for a more open market, thereby making a political deal less feasible or making the likely deal one in which the commercial marijuana market resembles the alcohol market. Dr. Kleiman views this as the second-worst model, with the worst model being prohibition.
        2. Reduce violence and incarceration attributable to drug laws and their enforcement. David Kennedy and Dr. Kleiman, among others, work on designing drug law enforcement with the aim of reducing violence and incarceration. Budget cuts are causing police layoffs in many cities and states, leading to a politically opportune moment to advocate for more cost-effective drug enforcement. There is theoretical, experimental, and technical work to be done in this area. Some solutions and funding opportunities include:
          • Choosing one particularly violent drug trafficking organization in Mexico and focusing drug enforcement resources on its US-based distributors in order to shut off its US market, thereby disincentivizing drug-related violence in Mexico. Dr. Kleiman has worked with a student group on this idea and has published an article in Foreign Affairs. However, he has never had sufficient funding to work out the plan in detail, and the program is not feasible under the current administration of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
          • Documenting best practices for violence-minimizing drug-law enforcement; providing handbooks for new police chiefs, attorneys general, and governors.
        3. Putting together a group to determine the most effective ways to use new funding designated for drug treatment. Under the Affordable Care Act, drug treatment coverage will be expanded to its greatest extent in US history, so ensuring that that funding is channeled into effective programs will have a tremendously beneficial effect.
        4. Support efforts to replace the current system for probation and parole violations (random but draconian punishment) with modest but swift and certain sanctions. Properly implemented, such programs improve outcomes by greatly reducing drug abuse, re-offending, and incarceration.
          • It is crucial to provide interested jurisdictions with a support team to help set up and evaluate “swift and certain” community corrections. Though this kind of support does not require many resources, it is currently lacking, which currently forms a barrier for some jurisdictions.
          • The federal Justice Department has awarded grants to four counties, including Essex County, MA, to replicate the Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program, which uses “swift and certain” sanctions. The Massachusetts legislature recently funded a replication project in an additional site, which may be in need of technical support. This support would cost about $50K.
          • Beau Kilmer’s team at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center has generated important results in its evaluation of South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety, a swift-and-certain approach to drunk driving and domestic violence. There are currently unfunded research opportunities to explore similar programs in other states and to conduct randomized controlled trials.

    • 8.

      Dr. Kleiman recently presented some of these projects to a foundation with a budget of $175K total, of which the alcohol cross-elasticity study was the largest expense ($65K). GiveWell’s notes on a November 12, 2013 conversation with Mark Kleiman.

    • 9.

      Mark Kleiman. Proposed project list.

    • 10.

      “identify key outcome dimensions to consider in evaluating legalization. Determine which are measurable and how to measure them, and identify those that need to be measured before the change takes place. Estimate the cost to carry out the urgent part of the data-gathering effort.” Mark Kleiman. Proposed project list.

    • 11.

      “Create a website where a jurisdiction interested in implementing swift and certain sanctions for probation and parole violations could get all the information necessary to decide whether to do so, design a program, and design an evaluation. This would include a comprehensive review of the results of such programs in the past, including Hawaii HOPE, Texas SWIFT, and Washington State WISP, details on potential barriers to implementation, and promising areas for future research that sites might want to consider addressing in their evaluations.” Mark Kleiman. Proposed project list.

    • 12.

      ” Develop and field-test instruments to measure self-command, delayed gratification, and perceptions of fairness among offenders subject to swift-and-certain sanctions programs to determine which, if any, predict outcomes. The goal would be to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the success of such programs and thereby improve program design and management.” Mark Kleiman. Proposed project list.

    • 13.

      Mark Kleiman. Proposed project list.

    • 14.

      ” Cannabis legalization may bring with it the risk of substantial increases in problem cannabis use. Sweden had some success in the past with monthly quotas on alcohol purchases. An alternative that has never been seriously discussed would be to create a system of user-set quotas. The project would be to design such a system, identifying likely weak points and unwanted side-effects and proposing remedies.” Mark Kleiman. Proposed project list.

    GiveWell’s notes from a September 10, 2013 conversation with Mark SteinmeyerSource
    GiveWell’s notes on a July 2, 2013 conversation with Mark KleimanSource
    GiveWell’s notes on a June 12, 2013 conversation with Steve TelesSource
    GiveWell’s notes on a November 12, 2013 conversation with Mark KleimanSource
    Mark Kleiman. Proposed project list.Source (archive)