State initiative to legalize marijuana presents a host of uncertainties

THE OLYMPIANDecember 21, 2011 

Whether the latest initiative to legalize marijuana, Initiative 502, receives the required number of signatures by the end of December, or the federal government intervenes to block its implementation, it does raise a host of intriguing public policy questions.

To what extent will legalization increase marijuana consumption, leading to greater dependence, youth psychosocial impairments, death and injury by driving, and productivity losses? To what extent will legalization reduce the black market, free up law enforcement resources, provide tax revenue that exceeds both direct and indirect costs, and reduce graduation to harder drugs? To what extent would Washington become the world’s destination for marijuana users?

The experts agree that legalized commercial production will increase marijuana consumption by reducing price and social stigma. The question is how much.

Unfortunately, no data exist to guide us. I-502 would be the first state or country law that legalizes the commercial production of marijuana.

The Netherlands has always prohibited production; it also as of 1995 restricted retail sales in licensed coffee shops to only 5 grams – enough for about a dozen joints – as compared to the 28.3 grams – about 68 joints – allowed under I-502.

It seems credible that the costs of production and transportation will dramatically decrease (economist estimates ranged from 75 percent to 350 percent) because legalization avoids the black-market costs of covert growing and smuggling.

Some argue that heavy taxes can make up for the significant drop in production costs. Mathematically that is true, but heavy taxation can backfire by fueling both tax evasion and black markets. I-502 takes a moderate tax approach by providing three separate 25 percent taxes on production, processing, and retail sale. The taxes, however, may not prevent a significant sales price drop and consumption increase if the costs of the production fall as much as some predict.

Legalization will increase youth access to marijuana mostly through friends and relatives over age 21. I-502 may exacerbate this problem by its relatively generous sale amount of 28.3 grams.

Following the Dutch reduction in the size of legal sales from 30 grams to 5 grams in 1995 and associated decline in the number of coffee shops from 1,179 in 1997 to 729 in 2005, use among Dutch youth declined while that of other European countries increased. I-502 does grant the Liquor Control Board the authority to set the number of retail outlets for each county, which it could use to constrain sales to some extent.

Legalization will also reinforce a growing perception among youth that regular marijuana use is not harmful. That perception is at odds with a significant body of scientific literature showing that youth users are especially vulnerable to dependence, permanent cognitive losses, respiratory disease, psychotic symptoms and poor educational outcomes. I-502 would address these concerns by dedicating a significant amount of tax revenues to education and research.

With respect to driving, numerous studies show marijuana use strongly correlates with higher rates of fatality and injury while driving. I-502 seeks to mitigate the driving problem by establishing a low marijuana intoxication standard and education program.

I-502 states that it will free up significant law enforcement funds to deal with more serious crimes. The law would free up resources that would go to small-possession offenders, but those offenders are rarely given jail time and the resources savings are small.

I-502 boldly goes where no law has gone before with a good deal of sophistication. Yet such a bold program to make a civil right of altering one’s state of mind via marijuana could have some very real costs in terms of broken or lost lives, especially of youth. The great uncertainties suggest the need for greater flexibility and caution, such as:

 • Granting state officials the power to reduce strict sale amounts and to prohibit non-resident sales.

 • Sunsetting the law to expire in five years unless the Legislature sees fit to reauthorize it when its costs and benefits are better understood.

Brian Faller, a local attorney, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at brianfaller@comcast.net.

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