What happens if a state legalizes pot?

New piece by Caulkins et al. in The American Interest. Short version: it’s complicated.

After all, it would still be illegal under federal law. A new piece in The American Interest (by the usual suspects) addresses the question in some detail, with specific reference to Washington and Oregon.

Update Looks as if we may get to find out. The latest Washington State poll result (57-33-10), along with the fact that there’s not much organized opposition to the measure, suggests to me that passage now has to be considered highly likely.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

11 thoughts on “What happens if a state legalizes pot?”

  1. I’m still disappointed to note you don’t even attempt to address the significant environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation under the failed-but-still-determinative prohibition policy framework. Enormous plantations in very remote public lands are vectoring rat poisons by the pallet-load into imperiled wildlife like the Pacific fisher. Indoor grows on the grid generate extreme carbon impacts, while off-the-grid generator-powered ones create even higher carbon loads and diesel spills. Only the most mendacious drug warriors even pretend that enforcement efforts have any hope of preventing these kinds of impacts.

    Meanwhile, water diversions from critical dry-season flows that could in nearly all cases be replaced by storage of abundant winter rains for reasonably-scaled grow operations continue, leaving North Coast California salmon streams running at half their historic average flows. Permitting and regulating grows offers by far the most realistic hope of keeping the water clean and in the stream, but US Attorneys have bigfooted counties’ attempts to create those regulatory frameworks.

    1. To some extent, the problems you identify are the latest mission creep of agencies, mostly in California, who want funding to fight pot. It is all the rage to harp on the enviro aspects of cannabis cultivation. But let’s keep things in perspective.

      You think indoor grows are wasteful? How many HID lamps are in your average big box? I calculated about 200 in the local CostCo. That’s a lot of indoor cannabis, and that’s just one store in one town.

      And how big is your idea of a “massive” grow? I’d suggest that even at its worst this problem pales in comparison to the (legal) pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer runoff from our millions of acres in monoculture corn, soy, and other crops.

      I think it’s wrong to demonize even the worst growers for these things, given the Sierra Pacific clearcuts, salvage logging, and all kinds of other (legal) shenanigans. I do agree that these and many other problems will be better addressed with regulation than with prohibition.

  2. Scott G: Good point. Here’s another: I’m still disappointed that this sort of statement is thrown around…

    The hundreds of thousands of marijuana-possession arrests do not fill many jail cells because it is primarily drug distribution, not use, that puts people in prison.

    …without acknowledging the fact that possession of ludicrously small amounts of marijuana automatically counts as “distribution” under the insane drug laws.

    For cryin’ out load, you can’t even grow one plant in a closet without risking serious prison time. In fact, it’s about the riskiest way to acquire weed. Growing that particular plant is “manufacturing drugs”, and one plant at maturity is many times the amount of pot that qualifies you for a charge of “intent to distribute”. When these guys say “the possession conviction might have been … the result of a plea bargain down from a distribution offense“, can they also say how many of those were plea bargained down from these sorts of distribution offenses which don’t involve any actual, you know, distribution?

    Ever pick up some locally hard-to-find item for a friend when you go on a trip where it’s available? Does that make you a (whatever it is) dealer? Do that with pot and you are. Do you routinely keep a month’s supply or more of caffeine in the house? A month’s supply of MJ can land you in prison on a distribution conviction. This sort of thing happens all the time in places like Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, etc. I personally know of several such convictions. The one-sided view presented in the article doesn’t look right to me.

    Mark: I think your view on this issue seriously lacks this perspective.

    Daksya: Yeah, I couldn’t help but notice the first plug for this article is still on the front page here!

  3. Looks like we may find out in Colo too. And I’ll say that around these parts, during the downturn a lot of warehouses kept their doors open by renting to grow ops for the ‘medical MJ industry’.

    1. I’m pessimistic that CO has the votes. It’s a damn shame, too. It looked like y’all had a pretty well-regulated system. 🙁

  4. Speaking of finding out, by when?

    The Washington initiative says,
    The state liquor control board, subject to the provisions of this act, must adopt rules by December 1, 2013, that establish the procedures and criteria necessary to implement“.. the various parts of the initiative.

    The Colorado initiative says,

    What’s the chance that, after passage, a federal legal attack would be deployed and conceivably squash the legalization(s) even before they get off the ground?

  5. If cannabis was heavily taxed, plastered in health warnings and sold by people who check ID cannabis use would increase.

    True or False?

  6. With legalization, the marijuana production sector would shrivel in terms of revenues and employment even if consumption increased. If legalization were to triple and the number of users and the quantity per user remained the same, all of the resulting demand could be satisfied by less than 30,000 acres of farmland—about three dozen mid-sized farms. Contrast that with the 75 million acres of American soil planted in soybeans.


    Legalization would create more unemployment than it would legitimate jobs for those who are now producing and trafficking illegally.

    So… I can get a job now in the “marijuana production sector”? Do they have a dental plan? Contrasting the possible scope of legal marijuana growing operations against an industry which receives billions annually in federal subsidies and illegal growing operations against legitimate jobs (while completely ignoring retail and any other sector of the market) for the purpose of downplaying the potential economic benefits of legalization by frightening the public with the specter of “unemployment” seems to me a bit disingenuous. Like on a “Reefer Madness” scale.

  7. Here is a slightly OT question.

    I-502 specifies a per-se intoxication standard of 5 ng/ml of THC, which must be measured with a blood test. I gather that the existing medpot interests are opposing I-502 on the grounds that medpot users will be at risk of DUI convictions because of this provision (though I suspect their real motives are economic).

    My question is, how much impact can this provision have? Is there commercially-available testing technology of the sort that can realistically be used by law enforcement? Will taking the sample for the test require the services of a phlebotomist? How many police agencies have phlebotomy technicians available? What is the turnaround time for tests like this, and how promptly does the blood sample have to be processed for the results to be meaningful?

    I’m wondering if the per-se standard provision isn’t intended to be a dead letter from the start. Certainly it smells to me like DUI testing for THC will be very different from Breathalyzer testing.

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