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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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