What happens if Washington State legalizes pot?

We could learn a lot from one state’s experience. Or we could just keep on fighting the War About Drugs on a new front. I know which outcome I want, and I know which outcome I expect. They’re not the same.

The Washington State marijuana-legalization initiative is now far enough ahead in the polls to make passage a good probability, though nothing like a lock. (Colorado’s proposition is ahead, but not by enough to make passage likely; Oregon’s is DOA, as it deserves to be.)

What might happen if the Washington proposition did pass?

Well, what might happen is that the proponents of legalization, having celebrated, settle down to watch how the initiative is implemented, looking out for aspects of the program that need to be modified in the light of experience.

In the meantime, opponents might admit that the voters have spoken and give the new program a fair shot at implementation, while being alert to what needs to be improved.

The federal government might decide that, the voters in Washington having made their choice, the job of the federal government was to help make that choice work without damaging drug-control policy nationwide, and therefore that federal agencies should cooperate with – or at least not obstruct – authorities in Washington State as they try to work their voters’ will, as long as the state reciprocates by guaranteeing that production in Washington State doesn’t flood the rest of the country with cheap pot. At the same time, the Feds might start a massive data-collection effort to learn what can be learned from the Washington experience. The research community and private research funders would also step up to the plate, grabbing at the chance to finally study legalization rather than speculating about it.

In the real world, of course, it’s much more likely that the proponents will announce that the Millenium has arrived, and that it’s now time to legalize pot nationally and move on to legalize all other drugs. They will then, as the new law is implemented, announce that all of the results are good, nothing is wrong, and all that needs to be modified are the limits the new law puts on production and driving under the influence.

The opponents, in the meantime, will proclaim the end of the world, obstruct wherever they can, and be prepared to see only bad results and no good ones.

The drug warriors who still dominate federal drug policy, especially at ONDCP and DEA will start to figure out how to make it impossible for Washington State to implement the new law.

One of the lessons Jon Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer and I learned in writing our marijuana-legalization book is how much we don’t know about the results of legalization. The whole country – the whole world – could benefit great from Washington State’s experience, if the voters there are bold enough to take the risk.

But doing so would require a truly scientific, experimental spirit: one that prefers measurements to slogans. Anyone who expects such a spirit to prevail on this issue has probably been smoking something.

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

17 thoughts on “What happens if Washington State legalizes pot?”

  1. The drug warriors who still dominate federal drug policy, especially at ONDCP and DEA will start to figure out how to make it impossible for Washington State to implement the new law.

    Any speculation on what form this will take?

  2. As far as the proponents go, you rather scornfully suggest that they’ll use the victory to promote legalizing pot nationwide and all other drugs. Of course we will. We have been pushing for that for some time already and we’ve made no secret of that fact. This isn’t something new.

    Because unlike you, we already have the evidence we need to make that decision confidently. We’re operating under completely different evidence threshholds. You need to know with a fair amount of certainty how many more people will use or abuse drugs and to what degree under legalization before making a confident decision about legalizing any particular drug. We are interested and concerned about that information (and forced to constantly push back against government propaganda), but it is not really a relevant factor in deciding in favor of legalization. For many proponents, the problems of drug use/abuse are problems to be solved through other means than prohibition — prohibition itself is the evil that must be eradicated.

    Imagine, for example, if we went back in time to slavery (and no, I’m not comparing marijuana prohibition to slavery – even though prohibition has been called the worst public policy since slavery and the new Jim Crow is a seriously valid topic of discussion – this is an analogy). But assume that we were looking into freeing the slaves in one state, and even before we had the opportunity to find out how that worked, the abolitionists were pushing to free the slaves in all the states and even around the world. “How irresponsible,” someone might suggest. “We really don’t know for sure what will happen if we free the slaves. Will they be able to find gainful employment? Would they be able to assimilate into the popuation? Or would they end up as second-class citizens in slum-like areas of the cities where crime and disease and unrest might fester? We have to make sure,” these serious minded people proclaim, “that there won’t be worse problems as a result of freeing the slaves. We need to move slowly. Certainliy, we should work to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of slavery – reduce the beatings and so forth – but we just don’t know for certain what will happen with freedom.”

    In many ways, legalization proponents are like abolitionists. We care about what might happen next and value the research that is done, but ultimately, the decision has been made. Slavery is wrong. Prohibition is wrong. Period.

    Of course, I don’t speak for all legalization proponents. Some are more pragmatic about it and less opposed to prohibition as a concept, and might be swayed into waiting to see how one state does before advocating that another state give it a try. But I don’t think those are the ones who annoy you.

  3. Very few of the committed advocates on either side will change their minds in the short and medium term no matter what the outcome. They don’t matter though, it’s the fence-sitters who count, and hopefully there will be some adequate measurement of results out there.

    My one point is that it may end up like carbon regulation under the Kyoto Protocol and Clean Development Mechanism: the first attempt doesn’t always get things right, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying.

  4. Readers of this blog, supporters and non-supporters alike, should keep in mind that the experiences of countries of other countries that have “quasi legalised” both the consumption and the domestic supply of drugs, in particular marihuana, offer interesting insights into what a world that has moved away from outright Prohibition looks like. See for instance:

    1. Release – Rosmarin, A. & Eastwood, N. (2012) – A Quiet Revolution – Drug Decriminalisation Policies in Practice Across the Globe: bit.ly/PZMmY6

    2. Hughes, C.E. & Stevens, A. (2012) – A Resounding Success or A Disastrous Failure – Portugal Decriminalisation of Illicit Drugs:http: bit.ly/Vm9uF8

    And these are just the tip of the iceberg. For those interested, there are more papers where these ones come from, actually nearly 300 papers related to drugs policies & research are available in my website. So, dig in!

    Gart Valenc
    Twitter: @gartvalenc

  5. I’d love to see the community of policy analysts (MPPs, and Ph.Ds, roughly speaking) start to focus on optimal regulation for the cannabis market. For instance, we need clear labeling of the THC/CBD ratio of various strains and maybe some sensible limits thereupon (guess who I semi-stole this idea from?) I mean, really, people need to know what they’re smoking just as surely as they need to know the calorie/carb/fat count on packaged foods.

    But the drug war against cannabis, as currently constituted, countenances too many morally impermissible (harm-exacerbating) side effects to warrant being dignified as an acceptable policy choice. The routinization of SWAT (with the inevitable wrong-door dynamic entries and predictable, horrifying consequences) as well as the institutionalization of asset forfeiture abuse (“cop piracy”) is enough by itself to warrant calling off the drug dogs. We don’t necessarily need a free market but we do need to end the war-like tactics.

  6. “One of the lessons … is how much we don’t know about the results of legalization.”

    It’s not like this is some cutting-edge research issue. There are years of practical experience available to answer these “unknowable” questions. A round-trip plane ticket from Los Angeles to Amsterdam will cost you a bit over $1000. Go take a look …

  7. It’s still a federal crime, according to several laws and international treaties.

    How does a state get to ignore a federal law?

  8. While I’ll probably vote for it regardless–yeah, the Oregon initiative for legalization is an embarrassment. It looks like, to put it bluntly, that it was drafted by someone who was stoned at the time.

  9. As an employee of the “legalization lobby” (MPP) I’m more than a little offended at the kind of motives you attribute to me and my colleagues, particularly as someone who has never met me or the vast majority of other drug policy reform organization employees. I care a great deal about maintaining respect for the rule of law, and minimizing the negative influence of drugs in our communities. It’s pompous, arrogant, and most importantly, incorrect to assume that everyone advocating for legalization is a stoner who just wants to make weed cheap and easy to get. In fact, as someone who took the time to read your book (which was quite good, by the way) I know that you too think current prohibition policies do more harm than good, and I agree with you that we need to minimize the size and power of the industry that legalization has the potential to spawn. So, I’m frankly confused as to why you insist on casting aspersions on folks like me whose views you ostensibly agree with. We both think the same thing on policy, the only difference is I left my office to go out and make it happen.

  10. Gevalt – we’re on it, and have been for years. Our model bill (http://www.mpp.org/reports/mpps-model-state-bill-to.html) includes labeling for THC content, and gives you some insight into other regulatory mechanisms we think are necessary/appropriate. We update it about twice a year as more information/ideas come forward. As Professor Kleiman would surely agree, the most important part is that it be amendable, and easily so, since this is an experiment whose consequences are to a great degree indeterminable.

  11. @Dan Riffle, oh PUH-LEESE. You have as much right to prostitute yourself as the next person, but you want to be self-rigtheous about it too? Your standing to judge others disappeared the moment you handed the K-Y jelly to Soros.

    1. Thanks for the visual, Raymond Guy. Now I have to stab my eyes out.

      Seriously, that’s a great job you did at keeping it classy.

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