August 25, 2014
By Philip A. Wallach, Fellow, Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution
On November 6, 2012, voters in Washington and Colorado made the momentous and almost entirely novel choice to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana. While many places around the world have tried out forms of marijuana decriminalization or legalized medical uses, none had ventured to make the production, distribution and recreational use of the drug legal, let alone erect a comprehensive, state-directed regulatory system to supervise the market. In spite of the lack of experience, and in spite of a clear conflict with federal drug law, solid majorities in Washington and Colorado decided that their states should lead the way through experimentation. (In 2013, Uruguay would follow.) The opening of state-legal marijuana shops has been a reality in Colorado since January, and has finally come to pass in Washington as of July 8.
While Colorado is justifiably garnering headlines with its ambitiously rapid (and, in many respects, impressive) legalization rollout, there is a case to be made that Washington is undertaking the more radical and far-reaching reform. It is, in effect, attempting not just to change the way the state regulates marijuana, but also to develop tools by which to judge reform and to show that those tools can be relevant amid the hurly-burly of partisan political debate. Washington has launched two initiatives. One is about drug policy; the other is about knowledge. In the world of drug policy, and for that matter in the world of public administration more generally, this is something fairly new under the sun.
This second reform, though less heralded than the attention-grabbing fact of legalization, is in many ways just as bold. Washington’s government is taking its role as a laboratory of democracy very seriously, tuning up its laboratory equipment and devoting resources to tracking its experiment in an unusually meticulous way. Several innovative features are especially noteworthy:
- A portion of the excise tax revenues from marijuana sales will fund research on the reform’s effects and on how its social costs can be effectively mitigated. In effect, the state has built test equipment into its policy reform from day one, with a dedicated funding stream to provide continuity and political independence.
- Coordination of research efforts is taking place across multiple state agencies, including the Department of Social and Health Services, the Department of Health, and the Liquor Control Board. Instead of relying on just one point of view or information source, the state is focusing many lenses on the issue, attempting to create a multifaceted picture.
- A cost-benefit analysis is to be conducted by the state’s in-house think tank, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), and will be nearly unprecedented in its scope and duration. If well executed, this effort will provide a yardstick for success that can help focus and discipline the political debate.
By combining these techniques, Washington’s policymakers seek to empower themselves not only to proactively regulate legal marijuana but to proactively inform and influence the informational battles that will surround legal marijuana. That is no mean feat in a policy area so full of passionate, and often intemperate, advocates. As the battle lines harden in the information wars between legalization’s champions and critics, the state’s knowledge-building efforts offer its officials the chance to transcend the breathless rhythms of the news cycle and set their sights on more consequential time horizons. Reformers across the country—in marijuana policy and beyond—would do well to learn from this second experiment as much as from the first.
This paper outlines Washington’s side-by-side experiments: the marijuana experiment and the knowledge experiment. It will weigh the potential and the pitfalls of the state’s knowledge experiment. And it will offer some thoughts on how to get the most out of Washington’s innovations—both for those who care about drug policy and for those who care about making policy reform of any sort work better.