I’m glad to see the Washington Post endorsing the idea that the feds should let Washington State and Colorado go ahead and experiment with legal marijuana. “For now, the federal government does not need to stage an aggressive intervention, one way or the other. It can wait, watch and enforce the most worrisome violations as they occur.” Precisely.

Still, I wish that the Post, and the rest of the media, would get clear on what the question actually is. The Post editorial starts: “Small-time marijuana use will soon be legal in Colorado and Washington state.” That’s true, but it’s far from the whole truth. Yes, the Colorado and Washington initiatives did legalize (not just decriminalize) possession for personal use, and that’s important. But they did much more than that.

The voters in those two states have instructed the authorities to establishe regulated systems of commercial marijuana production and sale, more or less on the alcohol model. So the question is not whether the feds are going to start busting kids in Boulder for having a joint; of course not. The question is whether they’re going to stand by and watch as substantial aboveground industries develop to engage in activity that remains felonious under federal law.

Along with the editors of the Post, I think a hands-off stance is justified; the feds can crack down on the relatively small number of licensed growers and sellers at any time if that becomes necessary. Therefore, there’s no need to be hasty about it. Instead, the feds should bargain with Washington and Colorado authorities for rules, and state-and-local enforcement actions, to keep interstate traffic down to a minimum in return for federal acquiescence in allowing intra-state commerce.

But the whole discussion makes no sense unless it starts by recognizing the radical nature of the Washington and Colorado laws. They’re not just about legalizing “small-time use.” They’re about creating the marijuana equivalents of the beer industry. Yes, marijuana is a less hazardous drug than alcohol. But that’s a pretty low bar to clear. A badly-managed legalization might or might not be better than our current badly-managed prohibition. But it wouldn’t be pretty. This one is worth getting right.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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