Pot Is Legal in Washington: Q&A with the Man Who Is Making Weed Legit

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Washington state gets ready to regulate legal marijuana with the help of one of America’s top drug policy analysts.

Mark Kleiman is professor of public policy at the University of California in Los Angeles, and co-author of Marijuana Legalization:  What Everyone Needs to Know. His team at Botec Analysis Corporation earned the contract to help turn Washington state’s vote to legalize marijuana into a reality. TIME talked to him about the challenging job ahead.

Does it hinder serious analysis that everyone always wants to make jokes about marijuana?

Probably somewhat. Though they don’t make lot of jokes about cocaine and we’ve got equally terrible policy. It’s the same as making jokes about sex— it’s probably not a bad impulse to notice that the human tendency to excess is inherently funny even if the consequences aren’t.

Is that because they see marijuana as less harmful?

They’re more familiar with it. Fifty percent of every birth cohort uses pot and only a couple percent use cocaine.

So what exactly are you charged with doing in Washington?

We’re still negotiating that.  The contract is to provide advice to the board and staff in the process of developing regulations that are supposed to be issued by December 1st.

MORE: Marijuana Not Linked with Lung Damage

And what are your goals?

The goal is make our knowledge of the topic available to the board in a form that lets them make choices according to their values. So for each choice they have to make, we’ve identified  six options and here are eight outcome dimensions you might care about and here’s the likely consequences of each of those choices on each of those dimensions.

That sounds overly complicated…

It’s policy analysis. We’re not going to decide whether we’re for craft beer marijuana or Big Marijuana. [It’s more like] if we have 10 licenses to grow,  here are the consequences.  If we have 500, here are the consequences and  which bundle of consequences do we prefer?

What consequences will you be balancing?

Revenue and the size of the illicit market and that has three aspects. One is people in Washington who are growing and selling illegally. The second is sales to minors which are banned and the third is export.

The higher the licit price in Washington, the bigger the problem will be with an internal black market and the smaller the problem will be with exports.  We’ve got to find a Goldilocks point: not too high, not too low but just right.

And they’re not [actually] setting prices. They’re setting a bunch of regulations that will determine price in an unknown market. The other thing we’re emphasizing is that we’re going to help put together the best set of regulations by December 1st.  This is an unprecedented task.

There’s an infinite space of possible choices and the probability of finding the optimal point on the first try is [extremely low]. Even if we had the optimal set of regulations, then changes will happen and we’ll learn things and therefore they should plan for change.  Part of what we’re emphasizing here is ‘Let’s set up a system that learns and helps the industry and consumers learn.’ So can we nudge people to use in less dangerous forms.

MORE: Marijuana Linked to Increased Stroke Risk

What are the main harms that concern you?

Dependence.  There are 3 million people [nationally] who report that their lives are seriously interfered with by pot smoking and that’s particularly problematic for juveniles. Six percent of high school seniors are daily smokers and that can’t be good for their education.

You are working with the Washington state liquor authority to create these regulations.  Do you think marijuana will become a substitute for alcohol, which is a more dangerous drug, or be used in addition to it?

That’s the biggest question: whether marijuana turns out to be a substitute or complement among heavy drinkers and the answer is we don’t know.  And maybe there are ways to craft policies to make it more likely to substitute rather than complement. For example, Washington will forbid sales in anything but marijuana stores. They aren’t going to be bars.

I think we’re going to find out [the answer].  I’ve looked at it hard. If you really pushed me, I’d say it probably [mostly] substitutes. But that’s an intuition about individual behavior. I think people are likely to use one or another tonight, though the drunk driving data suggests people do use both. The main question is what being a heavy pot smoker at age 16 does to your chances of being [an alcoholic] at 30. I think it’s how it balances out that matters and I think anyone who has a strong view is bluffing.

MORE:  Study Confirms that Portugal’s Decriminalization Policy Is A Success

There’s also the issue of whether it’s trendy to do them together or separately, which can change…

When people ask me to predict drug trends, I say if I knew how to do that, I’d be designing ladies’ clothing, not working as a drug policy analyst.

What do we know about how price affects the rate of drug use?

We don’t know as much as we ought to. Logically, it’s going to be heavier on heavier users and poor people.

Most people would think it would affect light users more because heavier users are probably addicted… 

It’s clearly elastic [we know from studying alcohol that this is how price influences use]. That in my view is a strong reason to keep the price high as you can.

My parents got the New Yorker when I was growing up and there was often a Johnny Walker Black ad on the back page. My favorite one said, “If the difference between the price of  Johnny Walker Black and ordinary scotch matters to you, you’re drinking too much.” My first rule of drug policy is to raise alcohol taxes. But that’s not part of this assignment.

If the federal government doesn’t intervene, do you think legalization will spread to more states?

No legislature has taken that step yet and I don’t think any will, at least not soon. I think looking at [ballot] initiatives, it’s pretty unlikely that the off- year electorate will be receptive so I think we’re looking at 2016. And by then, we’ll get some results from Washington and Colorado and yeah, if there’s not a train wreck, I’d expect some additional states to go for it.

Colorado and Washington are pretty much the perfect storm. In California, you’ve got a billion dollar [medical marijuana] industry under threat [if recreational use becomes legal].  It’s ironic that medical marijuana really was a stalking horse for full legalization but it may now be the barrier.

MORE: Is Medical Marijuana Safe for Children?

What else do you expect to see?

We’ll certainly learn stuff unless the feds shut it down. We’ll learn more if it’s done skillfully rather than unskillfully.  People on both sides of the equation ought to want Colorado and Washington to do it as well as possible and for the feds to butt out and let them do it. We’ll learn something if it’s done reasonably well.

And what do you think that might look like?

It’s doing it in full awareness of likely consequences and then fine tuning it. The main thing is setting up a system that learns.

MORE:  A Marijuana Plant Without The High?  It Could Be Good Medicine

13 comments
RamKumar1
RamKumar1

Matt Rens was the Hemp King of America.  He reigned from 1914 when he began producing hemp for World War I until his death in 1950, while his industry was being shut down by governmental red tape.   Rens was one of the first to bring hemp into the modern age.  The Rens family's history has now been preserved by Matt's grandson, Dennis Rens, who compiled family memories, photographs and the historical record into this important documentation.   Dennis Rens has also released an accompanying video tape of home movies of the growing and processing of hemp taken by his uncle, Willard Rens, during America's last hemp heyday.
        Matt Rens started growing hemp in 1914 in response to an initiative led by the University of Wisconsin.  He realized that in Wisconsin, the crop could not economically be processed with the old Kentucky methods, by hand in the field.  The variations in Wisconsin weather, especially humidity, required that hemp be dried and processed indoors.  Rens invested in building a decortication mill that at its peak, processed four million tons per year of finished hemp line fiber.  Rens spent his life perfecting the methods of economically processing hemp and developed the Matt Rens Hemp Company into America's largest hemp processor.
        The manuscript documents how the hemp industry was prone to alternating booms and busts.  The booms coincided with the two world wars.  Matt Rens proved himself an excellent businessman by the way he weathered the cyclical depressions and invested ahead of the times of peak demand.  In his best stroke of genius, he sold his entire operation to a "slick Chicago businessman" just weeks before the crash of 1929.
        The manuscript misses one crucial phase of the Rens family history.  Matt Rens tried his best to prevent passage of the 1937<b><a href="http://www.king-of-pot.com">Marijuana </a></b> Tax Act.  He traveled to Washington and testified before the House Judiciary Committee about his company and industrial and military demand for hemp.

        Rens' lobbying effort was successful, at least on a temporary basis.  Hemp stalks and fiber were excluded from the definition of Marihuana and farmers were only required to pay one dollar for a federal license.   But soon the bureaucrats started hassling Rens and others going so far as to demand that every last leaf be removed from the retted stalks before they could be transported to the mill.  In 1945, Rens again traveled to Washington to testify, this time before a Senate Finance sub-committee.  The federal demands became too much for any farmer and by 1957 the entire industry was lost.
        The prohibition against hemp cultivation caused a break in our generation to generation passing of farm sense.  Ten thousand years worth of human experience with hemp is quickly being lost with the passing of our elders.   Dennis Rens says he did not write this manuscript for publication, but solely as a project to preserve his family history.  More of us need to follow this example and document the knowledge preserved in the memories of our senior citizens before it is forever lost.

MalcolmKyle
MalcolmKyle

Kindly google "Kleiman is a prohibitionist" and you'll see articles going back decades.

"Third, even on those rare occasions where Kleiman does not endorse prohibitionist policy, his analysis is infused with a prohibitionist morality. In his often superb chapter on marijuana, his evidence forces him to consider alternatives. Yet he is reluctant at every turn. He brings himself to admit that the costs of the current prohibition (e.g. each year 350 000 arrests and up to 10 billion dollars in enforcement costs and lost revenue) are probably too great for the 'benefits' received. But he still conceives of the alleged deterrent value of prohibition as a benefit, and again implies that he believes marijuana use is in itself somehow 'bad'."

—Prohibitionism in Drug Policy Discourse by Craig Reinarman, University of California, Santa Cruz,

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF DRUG POLICY, 1994. VOL 5 NO 2.

"He also bases his support for prohibition on the fact that the criminal justice system does not do a good enough job of preventing drug-related crime. Most informed observers, however, trace many of the problems in our criminal justice system to the burden and corruption placed on it by narcotics prohibition. Finally, I would note that even Mr. Kleiman realizes that only a small percentage of the population develops abuse problems with any specific drug and that we do not know what makes a given person have an abuse problem with a given drug. Why then does he recommend a nationwide policy that is oppressive, impersonal, and ineffective?

—Mark Thornton, Auburn University.

A Review of Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results, 1992. 

Michaelmrw
Michaelmrw

@TIME @TIMEHealthland "A Human mind is a terrible thing to waste" Marijuana is most effective N accomplishing flat bliss preceding flat line

E_OFlan
E_OFlan

@TIME Washington resident here. I haven't noticed a real difference.

DavidWarrington
DavidWarrington

speaking as a hibitual user smoking every houer im awake if the price ant right ther is no insentive to by legle plane and simple why go to the store using gas time energy to by leagl if i can have the black market show up to my door and sale it to me for less and face it washington dont stand to make money of the casual user just like tabaco and alcohal its the addicts that suport the industy and if you want you indastry to servive you need to suport you users right now i can get 3.5 grams for 40 any whare i want oregon washington dont matter i can get a homie hook up from medical growers for 14 grams for 80 if i can get those prices why would i go to a store and its not like any one knows if the weed i have is leagle or not even if you do a tax stam on the packedg ther is nothing stoping me from just reuseing the packeg and no one can tell without testing it and thats to much work to try and find out who has leagle or not the high psice of alcohal is why ther is still a black market for moon shine and its the same reason thers a black market for tobaco so price drives the black market and you need to fined that line whare its not profetable for them to sale but not whare you dont make money your self the war on drugs did one good thing for the addics like me when every thing aroun is rasing in price tobaco alcohal medasen food the price of weed has stade the same for as long as i have ben smoking i started when i was 12 im 30 now and i dont want to see kids get hoked like i did at such an erly age i dont want to see pot im walmart i would prefer to not see tobaco or alcohal ther eather i do think weed needs bars just like alcohal cus face it weed is a sotal drug ppl smoke when thy are together we pass the pipe like if we were having a pow wow we talk laugh and have a good time i just hope my states government is smart enuff to see the opertuity thy have hear to drive the black market down cus it will not go away unless every one is alowed to grow as much as thy want (i dont want to see a plant in every yard) but i do want to help my state but as i sed if i can get it cheaper from els whare i will cus that dealer will not ask me for id will not add tax and i know it will be 40 for 3.5 thy dont need to win my bissnes the state dose and i dont see it hpening with all the talk im hering about rasing prices of licnses which will rase price of weed 

roykaufmann
roykaufmann

%s gr8 intvw w\/%sn, but let's be done w\/ lexicon of faile%sar. Toss out the "cz word". Neologism time!

DavidWarrington
DavidWarrington

@MalcolmKyle @DavidWarrington i dont drink or smoke cigerets only drug i like is weed im no troll i am the end user the market this inititive is amed at i would love to suport my state but if the price is not right i will still go the rout i go now so i can pay them who ever thy may be or i can pay my state ther chose