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Patt Morrison Asks

Mark Kleiman, pot's go-to guy

The UCLA professor of public policy has become an expert on the issues that crop up when states make marijuana legit.

December 04, 2013|Patt Morrison

Come New Year's Day, in Washington state and Colorado, marijuana will be legit, courtesy of two ballot initiatives. How do you create a legal business out of an illegal one? After 13 years of Prohibition, the country at least had an earlier legal liquor market to refer to. That's where Mark Kleiman comes in, the go-to expert on these matters. A UCLA professor of public policy and author and coauthor of books like "Marijuana Legalization," he's heard all the jokes about "hemperor" and "your serene high-ness." He was consulted by Washington state's liquor control board, which has to come up with the nuts and bolts for the new law and which asked him for, well, the straight dope.

What did Washington want to know?

They really wanted numbers from us: How big is the market? How do we allocate stores across the counties? What impurities should be tested for? What are the environmental impacts of cannabis production? If we limit the amount produced, what should we use as the basis? Ounces? Grams? Production space?

Didn't the initiative make provision for all that?

As far as I know, nobody who wrote that initiative consulted with anybody in public administration, or about the supply chain or any of the other stuff that goes into this. I once tried to make a list of the disciplines you would have to know to make good drug policy, and I stopped at 25. Medicine, psychology, pharmacology, law, international law, social psychology — there was no way people writing an initiative would have gone through the full analysis.

Washington is taking applications and will be issuing licenses. I think there was hope that stores would be open Jan. 1. I think we're looking at late winter or early spring.

What advice did you offer?

We didn't really make recommendations; we were providing facts and options. [Personally], I wanted to allow home delivery instead of stores. Washington had had a long fight about home delivery of liquor — they were worried they couldn't control it.

I was pushing for something fairly elaborate in the way of vendor training. This started out as a question of what to require on the label. Do you just want chemical analysis? Or do you want something that'll tell the consumer what this is likely to do to them?

You've got at least two chemicals that matter — THC and cannabidiol — and another 60 that might matter. At least you'd want those two numbers, or a potency rating. I was ready to find out [the data], and the papers weren't there. You can't do that research in the U.S. because you can't get the pot. I keep saying we don't know nearly as much about cannabis as Pillsbury knows about brownie mix.

You know the "slow" sign on the highway? To have a label that says "go slow" on any package with more than 6-to-1 THC to CBD, we couldn't find the science.

We haven't tried it on a thousand different consumers in different ratios to see what happened. There's no place that this stuff is [fully] legal. Even in the Netherlands, it's illegal to grow. As I kept saying, we're figuring out how to issue state licenses to commit federal felonies.

Were the bureaucrats flummoxed?

They weren't flummoxed. They were terrific to work with. Washington is probably the best-governed state in the country. Politics is regarded as honorable; it's not disgraceful to be a public servant. Nobody on the liquor board knew anything about this going in; by the time we got there, a couple of them had made themselves serious experts. They acknowledged the complexity, then said, "OK, how much of this complexity can we deal with and still get our regulations [written]? We know they're not going to be perfect, so we're going to monitor what actually happens and modify it."

You say legalization will require more law enforcement at first, not less.

The initiative allocates money from the cannabis tax to education, healthcare and drug treatment. What did I just leave out? Law enforcement. None was allocated to law enforcement. That reflects the politics of the people who do marijuana legalization initiatives.

Law enforcement doesn't get money [specifically] to arrest burglars; they arrest burglars because it's part of their job. Still, I can understand their resentment. They're undergoing budget cuts and here's this initiative that puts more work on them, and the [tax] money goes to everybody else.

Washington is going to have privately owned stores. Why couldn't it run the operation itself?

The law didn't provide for state-run stores. Here's another rub: Washington requires every official to take an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, which includes the supremacy clause [acknowledging federal authority]. I don't think you can have state officials selling marijuana, which is illegal under federal law.

How do you think it's all going to shake out?

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