OBITUARY: Mark Kleiman

First published: 30/09/2019 | Last updated: September 30th, 2019

Mark Kleiman
Photo Credit: UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Mark Kleiman, arguably the most prominent analyst of psychoactive drug policies, died on July 21 of complications from a kidney transplant. The short version of this obituary is my tweet on the day he passed, “In the 1980s-1990s, the serious drug policy community consisted of fewer people than I have fingers and Mark led the way with a brain far faster than most of ours. Often took me a day or two to realize that I’d lost an argument. I’ll really miss him.”

Saying more is daunting because there are some eloquent and insightful obituaries by other authors (Humphreys, 2019; Lopez, 2019; McArdle, 2019; Pollack, 2019; Szalavitz, 2019). Those tributes convey a great deal of affection for Mark, but no one should get the impression that he was a big cuddly teddy bear. At least in public – and he was one of the most public people I know — he was more of a grizzly. Mark loved a good fight, and he was fast and ferocious in a debate.

Authoritarian personalities are often noted for a “kiss up, kick down” style of dealing with status hierarchies. In this respect, and in many others, Mark was an anti-authoritarian. He showed little deference in interactions with elite academics, politicians, or members of the donor class. Yet behind the scenes, he was a dedicated teacher and mentor who did much to launch the careers of many younger drug policy analysts.

One thing that made Mark’s contributions distinctive was that he didn’t go through the intense socialization of a traditional disciplinary program like economics or political science. This may have created professional challenges for him in the academy, but it served him very well in his role as a policy advisor and public intellectual. Having said that, Mark was thoroughly intellectual. I think he saw his work as part of one long conversation with Machiavelli, Hume, Bentham, Schelling, and Lao-tse.

It was fascinating to watch partisans try to peg Mark. If you were to search through all his social media battles (a task that could take weeks), you could find people accusing him of being a shill for the cannabis industry while others accused him of being an apologist for the feds. His only allegiance was, as his long-time blog stated, to “the Reality-Based Community.”

Rejecting ideological extremes in favour of “smart” policies is perhaps a political cliché, but that really captures what Mark did, repeatedly. His reasoning about sensible drug policy was consistent and coherent; if you followed him in his arguments for regulated legal marijuana, you’d soon find yourself backed into supporting a much tighter alcohol market than you’d have anticipated. If you followed his devastating critique of US misapplications of criminal deterrence, you’d soon find yourself entertaining a probation model in which a failed drug test could trigger immediate sanctions. As one of his book titles pithily put it, Mark was “Against Excess” in both drug use and drug enforcement.

Mark was wickedly funny. My colleague Amy Zegart reports seeing his flyers advertising his drug policy course around the UCLA campus: “Taking drugs this spring?” In the early 1990s, Mark and I participated in two weeklong conferences on therapeutic and policy implications of psychedelic drugs at Esalen in Big Sur. After a fascinating slide show and talk from an anthropologist studying the ritual use of Ayahuasca in small Brazilian communities, Mark quipped: “You’ve found the perfect drug prevention program — kids can use all the drugs they want, but they have to do so in church…with their parents.”

Jokes aside, Mark could have written an outstanding book about the psychedelics, and I regret that he never did so. But students and scholars will be mining the books Mark did write for generations.

Article written by Robert J. MacCoun, Stanford University


Humphreys, Keith (2019). In memory of Mark Kleiman.  Washington Monthly.

Lopez, German (2019). Mark Kleiman, who changed the way we think about crime and drugs, has died at 68. Vox

McArdle, Megan (2019). Farewell to Mark Kleiman, a man who always went as far as his mind could go. Washington Post

Pollack, Harold (2019). Remembering a trailblazer in criminal justice policy. The American Prospect.

Szalavitz, Maia (2019). Remembering Mark Kleiman, a relentlessly thoughtful scholar of drug policy.  The Intercept.