The Washington State Liquor Control Board took a critical step required to implement our new legalization law last month: admitting they're not pot experts. So they selected Professor Mark Kleiman, a public-policy analyst at UCLA who has focused on drug policy research for more than 25 years, to lead a team of consultants advising state officials on figuring out everything from how much pot we'll smoke to the price we'll pay for it.
The media quickly dubbed Kleiman our new "pot czar," but I want to avoid that title. He's nothing like the nation's "drug czar," a political appointee whose job is largely to oppose legalization. Kleiman's job is the dead opposite: figuring out how to make legalization work and keep the Feds off our back.
I called Kleiman to ask about the challenges we face. He was candid in estimating that legal pot wouldn't be available until mid-2014, even though permits are supposed to be issued by this December, and he acknowledges our legalization experiment could go terribly wrong with more "heavy drinking," "a massive increase in use by minors," or "carnage on our highways."
In our interview, Kleiman also addressed his critics. Many are still annoyed that he wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times opposing California's legalization initiative in 2010. Others dislike comments he made in January lambasting a recently convicted grower, saying, "If you're growing 2,000 plants at a time, and making money at it, you're precisely the sort of large-scale, for-profit operator [US attorney general] Eric Holder promised to go after."
But most folks, including myself, seem willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, saying that he is an intelligent researcher who ultimately favors legalized marijuana, and that a skeptical legalization consultant might be more effective at mitigating federal concerns than an in-state cannabis cheerleader.
What are you doing for the state liquor board?
We're going to provide them with information. What's the current consumption level? How's that likely to change after the new regime goes into effect? Some of it is straight factual stuff, and some of it is choices they can make and the advantages of one choice versus another. My understanding is that we're not going to be making recommendations. We're going to be making factual statements—or as close as we can make them to factual.
The contract says you need to estimate the amount of pot we'll smoke. How do you plan to calculate that?
The question we want to answer is how much cannabis will be sold through licensed outlets in 2014, 2015, 2016? There's not going to be anything for sale until probably the middle of next year. Then it will take some time for people to switch from their illicit supply to a licit channel. You have to increase that by the consumption of new users. You have to modify that by changes up or down by existing users. And that's recursive—that's dependent on decisions the board is making.
What is the biggest challenge?
A very early one to think about is price. What price would you like? A little bit above the illicit price or below it? A lot below it? How do we arrange for a system that, as completely as possible, displaces the illicit market in Washington?
What about the Feds?
Any advice we give the board has to take into account likely federal actions. We can document what the Feds are likely to do and how will X or Y work out. We could propose some brilliant system that falls apart with a letter from the US attorney. Anyone in this situation has to take into account the robustness of what they do in the face of possible federal actions.
What about the children?
It used to be that a quarter of the marijuana sold was consumed by people under 21. None of them can buy legally in Washington. Are they going to be provided by illicit growers, or is this going to be like alcohol? Kids are getting brand-name beer sold in grocery stores, purchased either by adults or by minors with fake IDs. What would you like? Do you really want juveniles served by strictly illicit growers? This is not an easy question.
How will our success be measured?
First, does it work? Do you actually have a system as intended, where most of the pot smoked in Washington State is produced, processed, and sold by these entities licensed by the board and paying their taxes? Mechanically, did they manage to set up a system that created the availability of legal cannabis for adults?
Second, what were the outcomes? The promised outcomes of cannabis legalization are reduced criminal enterprise, reduced arrests, reduced incarceration, reduced enforcement expenditures, availability of product in safer and known forms, personal liberty gains to consumers and potential consumers. The downsides are increased drug abuse, other kinds of illicit enterprise—especially stuff going out-of-state—possibly increased availability to and use by minors, bad results in terms of traffic accidents.
What might cause you to think we failed?
The board could set up the most sensible regulatory scheme possible within the constraints of the law and we could still get a bad result. What if it turns out that cannabis and alcohol are complements, that making cannabis available increases the consumption of alcohol and increases heavy drinking by adults? If that is the case, it's very hard for me to see all the other gains are worth it.
In that case, I would say we ran an experiment and we learned something important. In that case, it was a gain. Nobody really knows what the outcomes are. This is a first in the world. There's clearly a political movement to legalize cannabis, and independent of my view of whether that's a good idea or not, everybody ought to want this to be a good shot.
If Washington does this right, we'll learn something. If they do it in some sensible way and it crashes and burns—the system doesn't work at all, we get a massive increase in use by minors, carnage on our highways—then we've also learned something about the cannabis-legalization experiment that the next person might learn from. You should want Washington to do a good job at this, and you should want the Feds to back off and let it run.
Did you find your team at the liquor board bidders' conference?
It's true that the drug policy side of this is the people I've worked with for years. The chemical testing and production side is mostly people that our core group didn't really know. During the bidding period, we did an enormous amount of outreach. The board made it clear in the [request for proposals] that they wanted to make one award, not four. I was pleased to discover that even as a freshly assembled team, we managed to beat all the competition, according to all the reviewers.
Do you think it's wrong for adults to use marijuana?
That's not a judgment I make for other people. I'm not easily able to wrap my head around the notion that drinking is good and pot smoking is bad. And I know several things about it that make it safer. I'm certainly not morally horrified by pot smoking.
Do you still think home growing is preferable to the system we're proposing, which allows people to purchase marijuana only from licensed outlets?
This is complicated. I was imagining a national system that was fully legal, not a state system embedded in a national system of illegality. Colorado has home grow—essentially unregulated home grow. In all the surrounding states, it's strictly illegal. If I were advising Colorado and not Washington, I would say, "What are you going to do to keep Colorado from being the new Mexico?" I still like home grow as an end solution.
What changed since you editorialized against Proposition 19, the legalization proposal in California a few years ago?
That was with specific reference to California. It was clear the Feds would not stand still for what was going to happen in California. If someone had showed me the Washington initiative in 2010, I might have said otherwise. Ultimately, my views are irrelevant. Nobody asked me whether it was a good idea.
Do you think Washington's pot initiative was a good idea?
Assuming that the board does a good job, and assuming that the Feds step back and let the system operate, ask me in five years and I'll know, or at least I'll have a good opinion.