Recreation on the Grass

Graham Boyd i Alison Holcomb from Drug Policy Alliance tell about roads to marijuana legalisation in Colorado and Washington states.

Joanna Tokarz-Haertig, Jakub Dymek: Of all the aspects of your campaign, the public opinion research, the educational approach, for example, which did you find to be the most important it? In other words, which messages did you pick to focus on, and why did you pick them?

Graham Boyd: Over the past decade, the drug policy reform movement in the United States has grown from making arguments that we feel passionately about, and that are true, to also making arguments that are persuasive to people who don’t necessarily agree with us. This has been a somewhat a painful process. There is a purity to speaking from your heart and with passion about something you care about. But that doesn’t necessarily convince someone who either doesn’t care about your issue or else harbors a number of false assumptions or has been fed misinformation. This has been a process of becoming ever more pragmatic, of trying to find arguments that will actually be persuasive – even if they are not our favorite arguments. This process has required a good deal of research. This has included focus groups which disclose a broad, subjective view of what a variety of people think about a subject. But it has also included the more objective research of surveys where hundreds of people are asked the same question, allowing you to start to see statistically valid patterns. In a sense, we have transformed ourselves from proselytizers to scientists, transitioned from speaking from our hearts to being a little more analytical and results-oriented. And there’s been a payoff. It seems to be working, to be making a difference, so that we are seeing public opinion shift and are actually winning elections.

Alison Holcomb: In Washington we learned that most people don’t have favorable thoughts about marijuana, but that at the same time most people think that our marijuana laws aren’t working. So what we focused on in the Washington state initiative campaign was trying to talk to people not about marijuana but instead about the failings of the marijuana laws. We found that the messages which resonated most strongly with voters were the ones that focused on better uses of police resources, generation of new tax revenues for funding those public programs, like education, which voters support, and also punishing criminals in a new way. This last involves a shift from thinking that arresting and locking people up is going to achieve results, to thinking about taking away the money currently being funneled to the black market for marijuana. Those were messages that people could support, and were reasons people could vote to legalize and regulate marijuana even if they didn’t like marijuana itself.

To clarify what, exactly, the situation is now in US: if I understand correctly, Washington and Colorado have legal, regulated marijuana, and twenty-two states have legal medical marijuana?

Alison Holcomb: Medical marijuana is legal in twenty states plus our nation’s capital, Washington D.C., and it’s been one year since Colorado and Washington voted to legalize and regulate marijuana.

And what about the implementation of those regulations?

Alison Holcomb: The implementation won’t happen until the beginning of next year. For Colorado, that means taking the preexisting medical marijuana industry and giving them the first right to opt into a fully legal recreational market. In this way, the current medical marijuana growers and dispensaries can become fully legal recreational suppliers. In Washington our medical marijuana law was very messy, and did not have a regulated system of growth and distribution (however medical marijuana has been legalised in 2011). We are just next week beginning the process of accepting applications to begin licensing growers. So we will probably have our licenses issued and our stores beginning to open a little while after Colorado. But both states will begin to see how this economy and industry matures in the spring. I think the year ahead of us will probably be the most education for us all.

Graham Boyd: I would just like to add that this is going to be a work in progress for many years to come. No one pretends that we have figured out how to create an ideal regulatory system for this product that has been criminalized for over a century. I think a very intelligent first step is being taken in both Colorado and Washington. But there are some differences between the two states. I think there will be continual changes from month to month or year to year, at least in Washington where the legislature can change the law , which is harder to do in Colorado. But the regulators can make changes and there will be a period of adjustment to find out what the ideal set of rules is for creating the most good and preventing the most harm.

Is it the case that pushing of the legal boundary further, in terms of legalization, in one state would have an immediate effect on the other? Have you observed such an effect, or is it too simplistic to assume that there is such a process?

Graham Boyd: One thing that you can observe over the last eleven months is that public opinion in multiple states has shifted dramatically in favor of following the example of Washington and Colorado. We’ve done polls in a number of different states and find that to be true. What’s interesting is that the growing support for regulating and taxing marijuana over the last year has come primarily from more conservative and older voters – in other words, from people who generally don’t like marijuana. But it’s almost like a light bulb has gone on, and people realize there’s a different way than just arresting people and think that maybe we should try that also. So I think it’s fair to assume that this will happen in other states. It’s already moving forward for the 2014 ballot in Alaska and Oregon, and there are serious conversations about doing it in the very near future in at least another six or seven other states. I see this as a trend that is likely to accelerate.

As you mentioned, an important argument for many people has been to not lock up people – for reasons of cost effectiveness – but why not stop locking up people, not spend that money, and stay there? How did you manage to go from a situation where marijuana is not only decriminalized to one in which there is a fully regulated market?

Alison Holcomb: I think in Washington the push to go past decriminalization and all the way to a fully regulated market was probably animated by more than one motivation. There was the argument that we don’t want to continue letting tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars flow to a black market that is compromising public safety. Secondly, people like generating new tax revenues, especially when these are taxes that only marijuana smokers have to pay. If I don’t like marijuana then I don’t have to pay those taxes but somebody else will be generating a lot of new tax revenue for our state. And I think there is, finally, also a cultural aspect. The war on drugs in the United States has precipitated the creation of a new culture of marijuana criminality, where being arrested for it almost has its own badge of honor. At one point, the whole culture of use was that of the hippies. Now it’s become the hip hop culture and the snowboarder culture, but whatever it’s looked like, it has always been an anti-authoritarian culture. And so I think that part of the attractiveness of the regulatory scheme and the tight controls to the conservative voters who voted for Initiative 502 was to take that away, to make it not cool anymore, to bring it under control, to take away the power of marijuana as an anti-social and anti-authoritarian symbol.

How do you think the prevalent anti-government sentiment represented in phrases like “Governments keep your hands off my business” and “This is my freedom, this is my authority to do whatever I want” can be channeled into policy change, into something tangible in terms of politics?

Graham Boyd: That is a really complicated question, with a complicated answer. The argument for passing the Washington and Colorado laws is not primarily a libertarian argument. This is about regulation. There is a real debate within the marijuana reform community, about whether this plant is more like a tomato, or more like alcohol. If it’s a tomato, then anyone can grow it and the government has no role at all – go away, government. This view would appeal to a more philosophical libertarian. But the argument put forward in Washington and Colorado is that it’s more like alcohol. It’s a substance that can be used responsibly by adults, with limitations such as not driving while you’re under its influence, not showing up to work incapacitated by it, keeping it away from children, and taxing it. There are a number of rules here that don’t exactly fit into the libertarian mode. That’s all on the one hand. On the other hand, we have a federal system of government where states have some areas of sovereignty, the national government has some, and there are a number of areas of shared sovereignty. Drug control is one of those shared areas. So when a state like Washington decides to not only withdraw from criminalization but to actually affirmatively create a regulatory structure, this is actually a kind of challenge to the federal government. What are you going to do, federal government, are you going to step in and assert your authority to shut this down, or not? There is almost a cognitive dissonance to be found among some on the political right. On the one hand they’ve become accustomed over many years to be tough on drugs, so they should be against legalization. On the other hand, they’re also quite attached to the idea that, as Romney put it when he was running for president, the solutions don’t always come from Washington D.C. Sometimes they come from the states. So what do you do as a politician on the right when a state is coming up with a solution, but it’s a solution that you may not entirely like? I’m happy to say that it seems that at the present moment, this balance has largely fallen on the side of tolerance, of the federal government saying it is going to let these states conduct their experiments, to see if they can do a better job of controlling the potential harms of marijuana misuse through regulation. And if that doesn’t work out, then the federal government says it will step in and impose its own solution, using the criminal laws. It’s an interesting mix of politics and policy.

The war on drugs, which has lasted for three decades now, has generated not primarily regulations but interventions, very concrete interventions not only within the US but also outside the states’ borders. I would expect that this would be universally opposed on the right, as too much intervention, as bad laws requiring too much government involvement in matters that should, perhaps, be internationally governed and managed. Is this a sentiment that can be used against intervention, as a means of political action?

Alison Holcomb: I think that the reason you don’t see more push-back on intervention from the politically conservative – not so much the libertarians, but the Republicans, for example – is that it has been framed as a moral issue. The use of drugs and the deliberate alteration of your mood are perceived as anti-social behavior, as self-debasement. This touches on core moral values held by politically conservative individuals, and those feelings are almost as strong as the “Government stay out of my business” sentiment. It is precisely when individuals engage in deviant behavior that it’s A-OK for the government to intervene, and not to regulate but to punish and ostracize that person who has engaged in this anti-social behavior. This ties right back to marijuana being a symbol of anti-authoritarianism. On the one hand, President Nixon absolutely hated the hippies and hated marijuana because it was a symbol of opposition to his Vietnam war. On the other hand, he also created the first nationwide treatment-on-demand system for heroin addicts, not out of compassion but out of pragmatism, because he didn’t want the heroin addicts who were creating all the theft and crime in Washington, D.C. to wreck his reelection chances. You see that sort of internal inconsistency even within presidential politics and during the commencement of the war on drugs.

The tax that you mentioned taxes only the users. In English you actually call it a “sin” tax, a term which could equally be applied to tobacco and alcohol. But from the Polish perspective, it’s not about taking money from the sinner but about punishing them. We take a more Catholic approach where they should suffer and apologize for their sin, as opposed to the more Protestant approach where you just tax it, and say let’s get money we can spend on other things.

Graham Boyd: But could you imagine Poland starting to criminalize anyone who wants to use alcohol, or anyone who wants to smoke tobacco?

No, you were there once but we never have been!

Graham Boyd: Today it’s very similar in the United States. It’s hard to explain why it is the case that there are intoxicants that lead to the same behaviors, some of which one judges or condemns, and others which one does not, that you draw a line between them and punish the one and not the other. I do have some insight into why that might be true, but it’s baffling on the face of it. Perhaps that contradiction is one of the ways, in both Poland and the United States, and in many other countries, that you can start to engage people in the argument.

Is it true that in Washington state the money spent on prophylactic or preventative measures has been raised from several thousand dollars to one million dollars?

Alison Holcomb: Yes, through Initiative 502 we dedicated significant percentages of the sin tax, of the new marijuana excise tax, to prophylactic measures. Specifically, prevention programs, public education programs like we’ve had for tobacco, also treatment, education, research, and monitoring of youth attitudes. Every other year the state has a Healthy Youth Survey that monitors youth attitudes about a whole range of risky behaviors, and Initiative 502 will dedicate money to that. So we can watch what happens to youth attitudes going forward. There will also be robust cost/benefit evaluations conducted periodically to measure a range of impacts that might result from the implementation of Initiative 502, with the idea being that this is a flexible policy, that it will need to be changed, and we need to learn and pay attention as we go.

I understand that for now we don’t have the data because it has not yet been implemented, but did you make some kind of evaluation, of how much the tax revenue might be?

Alison Holcomb: Trying to guess the amount of tax revenue is an interesting exercise. We did try to structure the tax within Initiative 502 to achieve a specific amount of revenue, but we based our calculations on others that had been conducted by the Washington state Office of Financial Management when it reviewed a different proposal introduced the previous year in our state House of Representatives. We had initially thought that the revenue would probably be somewhere between 260 to 300 million dollars per year. Then after the initiative was filed, the Washington state Office for Financial Management did its own independent evaluation and estimated that Initiative 502 could produce up to 560 million dollars a year in new tax revenue. But to arrive at that estimate, they used current black market prices as the base assumption. Furthermore, it’s pretty much a guess as to what actual consumption levels are. We have government surveys that suggest how much marijuana might be being used in Washington state on an annual basis, but most researchers suppose that those surveys underestimate use by 20-40% because, of course, most people engaged in illegal behavior don’t want to be entirely forthcoming about it when they answer government surveys. So it’s really impossible to know, and I don’t think that we will know until Initiative 502 has been implemented for a couple of years. Even then, the revenue’s driven by the price, the price is driven by the market, and until marijuana is legal across the nation, or at least in several other states, there will still be some black market inflation, and it will still be a commodity fetching a higher price simply because it’s not widely available.

Can other economic factors be estimated with more accuracy than tax revenue? Perhaps jobs? This has been an important factor when we’ve talked about decriminalization in Poland, when people talk more in terms of individual profit and jobs than tax revenue.

Alison Holcomb: There has not yet been an estimate of jobs. We have just learned very recently the number of stores that the liquor control board intends to license. But I don’t think at this point that they have a good sense of what that means in terms of staffing. They’re not entirely sure how much marijuana will flow through each store yet. They’ve set an initial cap on marijuana production of eighty million metric tons, which they think is only a small share of what the eventual market will be. They’re starting out conservatively and building out. I don’t think that they know how many people are necessary for each square foot of product produced. But they will start to get that data in the next year or two, and we should have initial evaluations of what the market looks like by July 1, 2015, when the first evaluation is due from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Graham Boyd: One thing to add in terms economic impact is that the jobs aren’t just for the people growing or selling the marijuana. I mean, this is an entire commodity market existing off the books right now. The inputs to the product include the lights, the soil, the fertilizer, the greenhouse or the field. There are people who have to make all of those things, and who have to transport it. There are the financial institutions attached to it. This money is now all underground, so there actually will, we hope soon, be banking accounts and insurance. There is a whole set of secondary and tertiary inputs into a commodity market, all of that will now be brought above ground. It’s going to be very interesting to quantify that in terms of jobs and other economic activity that actually go to benefit broader society instead of being funneled into organized crime, to support other kinds of dangerous, violent, harmful activity. That kind of benefit will be huge, and is part of the reason why it’s making sense for people.

And as far as I understand, all the supply in Washington will come from Washington? So marijuana cannot, for example, travel between Colorado and Washington – of course, the distance between Colorado and Washington is too great, but if there were be also neighboring states with a regulated marijuana market, would they also have to have a separate supply? I wonder if it was happening in Poland as, how fast other channels would appear.

Alison Holcomb: That’s right, the stores will only be able to sell marijuana that’s been grown by Washington-licensed producers and processed by Washington-licensed processors. So much of the drafting, and the entire issue of controlling the source of the marijuana, was due directly to the federal prohibition. Initiative 502 was drafted with two goals. One was to pass. The second was to convince the federal government to let us implement it. Both of those considerations led us to devise all the particular features of the initiative.