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May 20, 2013

"How to Legalize Pot"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new op-ed in today's New York Times authored by Bill Keller.  Here are some excerpts from an interesting read:

The marijuana debate has entered a new stage.  Today the most interesting and important question is no longer whether marijuana will be legalized — eventually, bit by bit, it will be — but how....

A few places, like the Netherlands, have had limited legalization; many jurisdictions have decriminalized personal use; and 18 states in this country have approved the drug for medical use.  (Twelve others, including New York, are considering it.)   But Washington and Colorado have set out to invent a whole industry from scratch and, in theory, to avoid the shortcomings of other markets in legal vices — tobacco, alcohol, gambling — that lurched into being without much forethought, and have supplied, along with much pleasure, much misery.

The biggest shadow hanging over this project is the Department of Justice.  Federal law still makes felons of anyone who trades in cannabis. Despite the tolerant drift of the polls, despite evidence indicating that states with medical marijuana programs have not, as opponents feared, experienced an increase in use by teenagers, despite new moves toward legalization in Latin America, no one expects Congress to remove cannabis from the list of criminal substances any time soon....  But federal authorities have always left a lot of room for local discretion on marijuana enforcement.  They could, for example, declare that they will prosecute only drug producers who grow more than a certain amount, and those who traffic across state lines.  Attorney General Eric Holder, perhaps preoccupied with scandal management, has been slow to come up with enforcement guidelines that could give the states a comfort zone in which to experiment.

One practical challenge facing the legalization pioneers is how to keep the marijuana market from being swallowed by a few big profiteers — the pot equivalent of Big Tobacco, or even the actual tobacco industry — a powerful oligopoly with every incentive to turn us into a nation of stoners.  There is nothing inherently evil about the profit motive, but there is evidence that pot dealers, like purveyors of alcohol, get the bulk of their profit from those who use the product to excess. “When you get a for-profit producer or distributor industry going, their incentives are to increase sales,” said Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon, another member of the Washington consulting team.  “And the vast majority of sales go to people who are daily or near-daily consumers.”

What [UCLA Professor Mark] Kleiman and his colleagues (speaking for themselves, not Washington State) imagine as the likely best model is something resembling the wine industry — a fragmented market, many producers, none dominant.  This could be done by limiting the size of licensed purveyors.  It would help, too, to let individuals grow a few plants at home — something Colorado’s new law permits but Washington’s does not, because polling showed Washingtonians didn’t want that.

If you read the proposal Kleiman’s team submitted to Washington State, you may be a little boggled by the complexities of turning an illicit herb into a regulated, safe, consumer-friendly business.  Among the things on the to-do list: certifying labs to test for potency and contamination.  (Pot can contain, among other nasty things, pesticides, molds and salmonella.)  Devising rules on labeling, so users know what they’re getting. Hiring inspectors, to make sure the sellers comply.  Establishing limits on advertising, because you don’t want allowing to become promoting....

And then there is the issue of drugged driving.  Much about the chemistry of marijuana in human beings remains uncertain, in part because the government has not supported much research. So no one has come up with a pot version of the breathalyzer to determine quickly whether a driver is impaired.  In the absence of solid research, some legalization advocates insist stoned drivers are more cautious, and thus safer.  (Hands up if you want Harold and Kumar driving your taxi.  Or piloting your airplane.)  On this and much else, Washington and Colorado will probably be making it up as they go, waiting for science to catch up.

May 20, 2013 at 01:52 PM | Permalink

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