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“I am really good at structuring an unstructured problem.”

–Jon Caulkins ’83

The media’s focus on the legalization of marijuana in the United States has caused quite a discussion and Jon Caulkins ’83 is behind some of the research on this hot topic. Jon, a professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA “specializes in analyzing illegal markets and the supply chains that supply them.” His research career, spanning over 30 years, began during the peak of the crack epidemic and he says much of his skill in research stems from his study of science and engineering at Harley.

Jon started at Harley in Grade 7 and says his interest in science and math began in earnest in the Upper School. He says teachers like Alan Soanes (Science, 1971-2011), who wrote his college letters of recommendation, Gail McGuire (Science, 1965-2000), William Lindenfelser (Science, 1976-81), and Edna Deutsch (Math, 1978-2004) really helped prepare him for his career in STEM.

He also credits John Hewey (History, 1964-93) for teaching him “phenomenal writing skills,” though it took a few years for those skills to fully develop. Mr. Hewey had a unique way of giving tests: on test day, he would write three statements on the chalk board and students would choose two topics to write essays about. They were free to agree or disagree as long as the position was well argued. Jon remembers when he got that first test back, he received the worst grade in his life. But, after three years with Mr. Hewey, his writing skills improved dramatically. Jon also enjoyed history class with John Dealy (History, 1969-93) and credits the two John’s for giving him his interest in studying history as a hobby. Michael Lasser (English, 1966-98) also made an impact. While recently co-chairing a commission on academic freedom and freedom of expression Jon remembered the wise words that Michael Lasser used to say in English class, “I may not agree with what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

After Harley, Jon went to Washington University to study systems science and engineering. He said he felt prepared for college overall and, at the time, thought Harley had done a good job giving him a solid education in STEM studies. However, in retrospect, he believes that Harley and really all schools in the United States, should invest more to broaden their STEM programs to be more competitive with the rest of the world. When Jon was a Ph.D. candidate for the engineering program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he said only a few of the 30 students admitted into the program were American.

When Jon began his doctorate studies at MIT, he felt a Christian obligation to focus on helping others and assumed he would research things like energy, environment, or transportation, but found that these subjects were saturated in the research world. As he made his way through graduate school and his doctorate program, he discovered that he was really good at structuring an unstructured problem.

In the late 80’s, he came upon a public opinion poll regarding the biggest issue in the United States: drugs. His faculty advisor at the time was moving to California for a year and left Jon to find some work to do on his own. Jon told his professor about the poll and asked him if he could do some quantitative research on the American drug problem. He was given the go ahead and told, “You have a year, see what you can find.” He dove in and saw that there was a lot of “low hanging fruit” because essentially no one was trying to understand the drug problem was trained in systems analysis. Jon took this unstructured problem and with his unique skill set of gathering quantitative data from various sources, began analyzing the supply chains and logistics, and gave it some structure. His goal was to “model the behavior of the criminals in order to defeat them.” This study was the focus of his thesis, “The Distribution and Consumption of Illicit Drugs: Some Mathematical Models and Their Policy Implications.”

Though he had put a lot of time and effort into this study, at the end of it, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do as a career. At MIT, there was an implicit push to be a professor, but he wasn’t convinced. Immediately following his Ph.D., he did teach for a bit at Carnegie Mellon, but then went to California to co-lead the Drug Policy Research Center at RAND, a research organization that “develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure…” He later founded RAND’s office in Pittsburgh. While he enjoyed his work as a researcher, after marrying and having a family, his priorities changed and he went back to teaching full time.

Jon has been a professor at Carnegie Mellon since 1990 and continues to work with RAND and its federally funded Research and Development Centers, supporting scientific research and analysis that is sponsored by the government. While he specializes in illegal markets like illicit drugs, he has a proven methodology when it comes to research and has been called on to research mathematical models of social policy problems and interventions, policies concerning drugs, crime, violence, delinquency, and prevention, optimal dynamic control, and software quality. He has also done extensive research on quantitative decision making and has shared his knowledge with 3,000-4,000 students ranging from high school to Ph.D’s to professionals. He has researched Taliban finances and trained Army officers on ways to use Artificial Intelligence to aid in 21st century warfare. He was recently asked by the Biden administration to research ways of using satellite data to thwart “Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.” Jon says he is a domain expert on drugs but a methods expert on topics outside his norm. This means that when he is not knowledgeable on a subject he can partner with domain experts to analyze the behavior and process the results. He says people contact him especially for his way of thinking.

We had a chance to ask Jon some questions about the state legalization of marijuana and he shared that “state legislation is confusing.” States have legalized and regulated the drug, but it is still technically illegal in the eyes of the federal government. The federal government could arrest companies for distributing even if it is legal in the state, but they generally ignore it because it is not a priority. 

We also asked him about the difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana products. His answer? Not much (not including CBD products). He says the two materials sold in the markets are not that different and are often used for the same reasons, including stress release/anxiety. The cannabis industry is similar to the alcohol industry in that it is a for-profit industry that sells a product to anyone above the legal age. Medical marijuana’s impetus was, in part, as a political strategy to win over some of the more skeptical voters. States first approve medical marijuana and, after getting used to that, often eventually accept legalized supply of non-medical marijuana.

We asked him about his personal opinion about the legalization of marijuana and he gave a very diplomatic answer: As a researcher it is his job to just report the science and what the evidence says and share his opinion.

Jon is a decorated scholar and professor and has received over 20 honors for his work, including being elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest professional distinctions an engineer can receive. He has also been awarded numerous research grants, advisory roles, and guest lecture appointments. His writing and research has been included in professional and academic articles, publications, and textbooks and, if you are interested in reading some of his work, has recently co-authored the book, Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.