It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which California voters don’t legalize recreational marijuana in the near future. But as Jonathan Rauch put it, marijuana legalization is lot more like health care reform than gay marriage: There are a range of ways to implement it, with different policy tradeoffs involved. As the next wave of ballot initiatives will not occur until 2016, it’s a good time for everyone to think carefully in advance about the consequences of different forms of legalization.

In California, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and ACLU criminal justice and drug policy director Allen Hopper had the foresight to encourage evaluation of different marijuana policy options well in advance of the 2016 electoral cycle. The mechanism for doing this is a Blue Ribbon Commission to study marijuana legalization, of which I am glad to be a member.

In an article in the San Jose Mercury News, the commission’s work plan is clearly laid out:

This blue-ribbon commission will begin with a focus on three critically important issues: protecting children, preserving public safety, and taxation and business structures.

In the coming months, we will conduct research, analyze existing data, interview experts, conduct public hearings and issue reports. We will also closely monitor developments in Colorado and Washington, where legalization is already underway, as well as other states considering legalization.

Designated working groups will address each of these topics and then make public presentations of their findings. Open discussions over the next two years are the best way to educate the public and ourselves, as well as influence those likely to draft legislation or a ballot initiative. Only through collaborative public dialogue can we ensure that marijuana legalization in California incorporates a broad range of best practices.

Let me underscore one item that is not in the plan Gavin and Allen lay out: Writing a ballot initiative and then campaigning for it. Instead, the commission will serve as a think tank, listening station and information resource.

Public policy changes are often hastily designed with insufficient public input and minimal attention to available evidence. The California Blue Ribbon Commission is a forum that can ameliorate those common problems and thereby lead to more considered, democratically legitimate public policy. I hope everyone who cares about marijuana policy — irrespective of their specific views — will attend the commission’s public events and follow its work.

Cross-posted at [The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys