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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.