January 2012 Issue
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High On Research

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I’m eager to meet with Jonathan Caulkins and don’t want to be late. I think I know where I’m going, too, thanks to his easy-to-follow directions. His office is in the south end of the east wing of Hamburg Hall, which houses classrooms and offices for Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College on the Pittsburgh campus. As I make my way through hallways dotted by clusters of students, I lose my bearings and hurriedly revisit his directions. Back on track, I reach his office and knock on the door. The H. Guyford Stever Chair in Operations Research and Public Policy opens it and cordially greets me. As I glance around the room, I’m struck by its orderly, pristine appearance. Later, as we talk, I’ll realize that the state of his office and the directions he gives are indicative of how his mind works, especially when it comes to his writing.

Caulkins has been getting kudos for a book that came out last summer: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know. The book is one in a series from Oxford University Press, the world’s largest university press with the widest global presence. The series is meant to shed light on topics of our times, everything from overfishing to nuclear energy to China in the 21st century. The world’s illicit drug problem is the topic of Caulkins’ book, which he wrote with his two longtime collaborators—drug and public policy experts Mark A. R. Kleiman at UCLA and Angela Hawken at Pepperdine.

Caulkins, like most professors, has plenty of experience publishing academic papers, which have a narrowly defined audience, usually peers who are already well versed in the given subject. For the Oxford book, the intention was to have the book’s content be reader friendly for the general public. The book’s structure, much like an FAQ format, has resonated with a wide audience. Caulkins says he’s received feedback from hundreds of people: “Everybody from big muckety-mucks to congressional staffers to people on the street.”

In one of several glowing reviews of the book, Forbes.com contributor Rich Danker writes: “[Drugs and Drug Policy] is fit for both the policymaker and the concerned parent (how many books can this be said of?) because it combines a rigorous analytical approach to drugs without skipping over the social reasons the topic deserves to be discussed in the home.”

Caulkins’ expertise in society’s illicit drug problems stems from his background in operations research, an interdisciplinary field that applies mathematical and engineering tools to complex decision-making. His research serves, in part, to advance the understanding of optimal control theory, what he calls a “weird kind of math.” It involves a set of differential equations that describe a system evolving over time—whether that system is the state of a rocket moving through space or the state of an epidemic spreading through a population. What interests Caulkins especially are phenomena that emerge when a system is nonlinear: chaos, tipping points, and what is called the “butterfly effect,” where a small change at one place has a big effect farther down the road. His work in optimal control theory is all over the map—in areas such as fashion, public housing, and capital investment, to name a few.

The substantive body of his work lies in the area of drug control; it’s where he started. As an MIT doctoral student looking for a dissertation topic, he visited research groups working on transportation, energy, environment, and telecommunication issues. “And these groups of 70 people said, ‘Sure! Join us! And here’s the little piece of it you can work on,’” he recalls. “I thought it would be more fun to try to structure a problem that engineers hadn’t studied before.”

He didn’t have to look far to find a pressing problem. In 1988, the United States was embroiled in the War on Drugs in the midst of a crack epidemic prompting drive-by shootings that were growing out of control.

Caulkins’ dissertation received enough positive feedback that he decided he’d be a professor for a few years so he could turn his chapters into journal articles, before moving on to a career in the private sector. “Here I am, 21 years later,” quips Caulkins, “still very interested in drug policy, but have broadened it to lots of bad-guy activities—drugs, crime, violence, delinquency, terrorism, some cybersecurity stuff.”

That is, perhaps, a modest overview. “He has become one of the leading, if not the leading, analyst on the whole issue of drug policy,” says Alfred Blumstein, a renowned criminologist who has been awarded the Stockholm Prize for Criminology, considered the Nobel Prize of that field. It was Blumstein, then dean of the Heinz College, who brought Caulkins on board in 1990. “He certainly brings the strongest of analytic skills, as well as a sense of realisticness, so that the analysis is embedded in what’s meaningful for policy.”

Caulkins established, through his “weird math,” that drug use, in the early phase of an epidemic, spreads by direct contact from one person to another—similar to the flu. For instance, cocaine’s popularity suddenly spiked in the late 1970s; at the time, it seemed nothing more than a relatively safe recreational drug for people who could afford to partake. Users, delighted with its effects, recommended it to their friends, who recommended it to their friends and so on, causing the drug to become increasingly popular in a timeframe so brief that the initial users hadn’t yet progressed into dependency. In essence, the word-of-mouth was all good. It’s at this stage, says Caulkins, when drug policies should focus on educational drug prevention and law enforcement should be ramped up to the fullest extent. Fewer users mean fewer sellers. And, if you can take out one seller, it can have a significant impact, even changing the course of the epidemic—that “butterfly effect.”

But in the next stage—when users become addicted—Caulkins points out that drug- prevention campaigns and law enforcement aren’t nearly as effective. Addicts can’t “Just Say No” anymore. Shifting resources into treatment is the more effective strategy for combating the epidemic. Regarding law enforcement at this juncture where drug markets are well established: “Law enforcement may be more effective at controlling the side effects of dealing—in particular, dealing in flagrant street-corner markets—than at suppressing the quantity of drugs used, by sentencing run-of-the-mill dealers to long prison terms,” argues Caulkins in his book.

“His work has helped people understand something that, in retrospect, seems kind of obvious,” says Susan Everingham, director of RAND’s Pittsburgh office, “which is that a single drug policy intervention doesn’t work the same at all points of an epidemic. Before his work, I don’t think anyone could have said this with as much confidence as is the case now because of Jonathan’s research.”

Caulkins has close ties with RAND, a social and economic policies think tank with more than 1,600 employees in three principal locations: Santa Monica, Calif.; Arlington, Va.; and Pittsburgh. Caulkins took a leave of absence in the mid-1990s to co-direct RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica and another one a few years later to start up RAND’s Pittsburgh office. He says his days at RAND were transformational: “I got so many chances to work directly with policy-makers and give press conferences and work with the press, too. It made me realize that one of my strong suits is explaining difficult issues to people so they can make better informed decisions.”

It’s a skill he’s had numerous opportunities to use. He’s often the go-to guy when drug-related issues are the news of the day, briefing leaders in countries around the world. A few years ago, he traveled so much that he had elite status on four airlines. One year, he spent more than half of his nights in a hotel. He’s trying very hard, he says, not to do that anymore.

Two things stand out in Caulkins’ office. The first is a white board that has scrawled on it multicolored words reading: #1 Dad Ever, compliments of his 10-year-old daughter, Jackie. Caulkins tells me he’s going to have another white board installed so that he has one he can actually write on, because those words he’s never erasing.

The second noteworthy item in his office is what appears to be a comfortable TV floor chair if it weren’t so elegant looking—with stripes of red, black, and beige. That, he says, is a majlis chair, a classic Qatari place of sitting. When he became the Stever chair last year, there was a ceremony on the Pittsburgh campus where he was given a classic black captain’s chair (that I’m sitting in); at a ceremony at Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus, where Caulkins splits his time, he was presented his majlis chair.

In fact, he says, he was in Qatar the previous week to get to know the students in a class that he’s teaching this semester via a Web-based virtual classroom. This is Caulkins’ seventh year of teaching there. “I think I’m the only tenure-track faculty member who has taught every cohort of students on that campus,” he says proudly. “My cool line is, ‘I’ve taught students on four continents, with the students coming from 50 different countries.’” For two years, his family lived in Qatar. Ask any of them, he says, and they’d go back in a snap. But as his kids, now 14, 12, and 10, get further along in school, the actual mechanics of pulling that off again become more difficult. “I spend a lot of time trying to brainstorm ways of getting back there, consistent with my kids and their lives,” he says. “It’s too hard a problem for me to work on.” Even his “weird math” can’t help him on that one.

Caulkins’ latest project, again in the Oxford series, tackles the contentious issue of marijuana legalization, which several states are considering. “We’re almost done,” he tells me. “I’ve been saying that for six weeks. But, really, we’re almost done.” The book, again with co-authors Kleiman and Hawken as well as Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, is slated for a spring release. Caulkins says the objective of the book is to debunk myths and provide intellectual frameworks to balance pros and cons. “We’re trying in some sense to be a book-length voter guide,” he says. “We’re absolutely not, in either of the books, advocating any position, or trying to encourage people to think one way or another. I’m a professional analyst. I don’t really think there’s virtue in personalizing my particular views.”

Yet, Oxford made an interesting request as the book nears completion—that the authors register their respective opinions in a final chapter. Caulkins, not surprisingly, was dubious about the idea—still is, in fact. Even so, he was fascinated when Chapter 16 came in.

“The interesting thing to me is we didn’t do a good job at all of predicting what each other were going to say,” he says. “Our ethos is to try to stick with objective analysis. We try to keep our values out of it. In the post-modern era, everybody coming from a humanities background, in particular, will say: ‘There’s no such thing as value-free analysis. We’re all colored by our background.’ But I was pleased that after working with these people for a collective 35 years, I didn’t know what they were going to say. We are different people with our own different values. But we’ve been able to work together well through all these years—still will, I hope.”

Despite finding the revelation of his colleagues’ views an interesting exercise, Caulkins, if he had his way, wouldn’t allow anyone to read that last chapter until they’ve read the rest of the book. I can’t resist the temptation, though. As I stand to leave, I ask him for his opinion. “You’ll have to read the book,” he replies.

Sally Ann Flecker is an award-winning freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to this magazine.

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