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)

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:


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