The truth is, there is much more uncertainty about de-criminalizing or legalizing marijuana that most people like to admit. Our current national regime clearly makes no sense, but just what might be the consequences of full legalization are far from known. That said, for the moment, Colorado definitely seems to have a smart regulatory regime. Tony Dokupil describes both how things work in Colorado and the great uncertainties with full legalization in a great Fresh Air interview. And he nicely lays out the latter in the Daily Beast as well:
The case against legalization begins with a defense of its opposite: the benefits of prohibition. Reformers sometimes say prohibition is pointless, because everyone who wants to use pot already does. But as state laws have softened, pot use has risen sharply. More than three million people started smoking it regularly in the past five years, and the rate of high-school experimentation is at a 30-year high. One in 15 high school seniors are smoking daily or near daily. And when a kid first lights up at about age 16, it’s usually not with a cigarette.
Prohibition prevents an even more tremendous uptick, according to “Marijuana Legalization.” Remove it and you can expect a doubling or even tripling of the existing market, a spike to levels far surpassing any on record, and this in a country that already consumes the plant at three times the global average. What would be the health and welfare cost of such an explosion? The honest answer is: we don’t know. No one actually knows what legalizing marijuana will do to adult use, teen experimentation, and public health and safety overall. No one knows because no modern society has ever tried it.
We know enough, however, for serious concern. The mantra of marijuana legalization is “Safer than Alcohol,” which—to be fair—is generally true. But safer than alcohol is not the same as “safe.”…
But at least pot isn’t addictive, right? Wrong. More than 4 million people self-report behavior that meets the clinical criteria for marijuana dependency or abuse. The “capture rate,” as scholars call it, was once about 9 percent, according to one study, but for people who start before age 25—as almost everyone does today—it jumps to 15 percent, the same capture rate as alcohol and just a percentage point less than cocaine.
That said, he’s no prohibitionist, just not in favor of full legalization, but rather a far more incremental approach:
In fact, of all the available options the status quo of arresting hundreds of thousands of people—most of them nonwhite, poor, and in for a world of collateral damage as a result of their arrest—is probably the least attractive choice, worse only than full legalization. The better decision is incremental reforms at the state level and a hands-off approach from the feds. Let people grow pot, and sell it, but not for profit, and without advertising, and in a tightly regulated marketplace. Tinker every year, adding new provisions and privileges as much needed new research comes in. And always update the law with a sunset provision. That way the process can’t be hijacked by lobbyists and special interests—and only one thing goes up in smoke.
Of course, much of the research Dokupil relies on comes from criminologist (and my personal guru when it comes to all things criminal justice policy related) Mark Kleiman. Kleiman makes the case that the feds should lay off Colorado and Washington (and I think they will) so we can learn these unanswered questions on a safer, smaller scale:
But those of us who try to study the issue scientifically find ourselves in a world of doubt. How much lower would legal prices be than current illegal prices? If there were heavy taxes, how much evasion would there be? Would buyers in a legal market favor possibly more dangerous high-potency varieties, or would lower-strength products dominate the marijuana market as beer dominates the alcohol market? Would legalization greatly increase problem marijuana use? Use among teenagers? (That might depend on the price.) Would there be an increase in auto accidents due to stoned driving? Would problem drinking decrease – or increase – as result?
All of those questions matter. None of them can be answered by abstract reasoning, or by studying small variations in marijuana policy such as decriminalization of possession for personal use. The only way to find out how legalization would work in practice is to actually try it.
But actually trying it on a national basis carries heavy risks. If it goes badly – if, for example, heavy use and use among teenagers quadrupled – it would be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. All those new users would become potential customers for an expanded illicit market if the drug were re-prohibited.
So the obvious way to learn something about marijuana legalization would be to try it out one state at a time: relying on what Justice Brandeis called “the laboratories of democracy.” If Colorado’s legalization went badly, that would be a much easier problem to correct than if the mistake had been made on a national basis…
So why shouldn’t the federal government cut Colorado and Washington some slack? As long as those states prevent marijuana grown under their laws from crossing state lines and thereby subverting marijuana prohibition in the rest of the states, the Justice Department could step back and let the consequences of the new policies play themselves out. They might succeed, or they might fail. In either case, the rest of us could learn from their experience.
I’m not always the biggest fan of federalism (the fact that Mississippi does most everything so much worse than Minnesota or Massachusetts, or heck, any other non deep South state seems just wrong), but I do think the “laboratory of federalism” really is a great principle and the key recommendation of a federalist form of government. States really can– and do– learn from the policy successes and failures of other states. That’s a great thing and a perfect arena for marijuana policy to play out given the many unknowns.