Legalization of Pot: Let’s Find Out What Works

In the wake of successful ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana production and consumption, the rest of the country–and the federal government–need to decide what to do. In a web-exclusive at Ten Miles Square, UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, one of the country’s most distinguished experts on drug policy, suggests we take advantage of the new situation by making these states true laboratories of democracy:”

Ideologues on both sides are claim to know with certainty what the results of legalization would be; all good in the view of the legalization advocates, all bad in the view of those who support the current laws.

But those of us who try to study the issue scientifically find ourselves in a world of doubt. How much lower would legal prices be than current illegal prices? If there were heavy taxes, how much evasion would there be? Would buyers in a legal market favor possibly more dangerous high-potency varieties, or would lower-strength products dominate the marijuana market as beer dominates the alcohol market? Would legalization greatly increase problem marijuana use? Use among teenagers? (That might depend on the price.) Would there be an increase in auto accidents due to stoned driving? Would problem drinking decrease – or increase – as result?…

Colorado and Washington have just made this sort of experiment possible. But what about the feds, who have their own laws to enforce?

[T]he federal government could shut down both of those experiments, if it were determined to do so. Everyone who applies for a license to grow or sell marijuana is, in effect, asking the state for permission to break the federal law, and that list of applicants could become a list of targets for federal drug-enforcement agents.

That approach would please the drug warriors. But it would make it impossible to learn anything useful from the Colorado and Washington experiments.

So why shouldn’t the federal government cut Colorado and Washington some slack? As long as those states prevent marijuana grown under their laws from crossing state lines and thereby subverting marijuana prohibition in the rest of the states, the Justice Department could step back and let the consequences of the new policies play themselves out. They might succeed, or they might fail. In either case, the rest of us could learn from their experience.

Kleiman, as usual, makes abundant good sense.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.