March/ April/ May 2014 It’s All in the Implementation

Why cannabis legalization is less like marriage equality and more like health care reform.

By Jonathan Rauch

Here again, marijuana legalization faces some of the same challenges as Obamacare. Voters in Colorado and Washington were told that legalization would produce new gushers of revenue for education and public safety; many experts at the time warned that the revenue claims were unrealistic. Similarly, legalization was touted as a public safety measure, redirecting policy resources toward more serious forms of crime, but experts say that suppressing the black market as it fights for market share may initially require more law enforcement resources, not fewer.

The public safety and revenue arguments for legalization are entirely legitimate and, over the long run, likely to prove valid. In the short run, however, the best way to avoid an Obamacare-style collision with reality is to tailor expectations by making clear to the public that legalization is a journey, not a destination, and that magical results won’t come overnight.

4. Avert zero-sum politics.

Obamacare would have been a lot easier to launch and fix if the Republican half of the country did not feel invested in its failure. Zero-sum politics—which scores any Obamacare success as a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans, rather than as a win for the country—has proved toxic to the environment for reform.

The same has not quite happened for marijuana legalization, but it could. Drug warriors vigorously object to legalization; many expect legalization to fail and hope to nip it, excuse the pun, in the bud. But many are also cognizant that the old approach was unsustainable and unsuccessful. Partly because marijuana legalization has usurped the limelight, the Obama administration’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has received too little notice and credit for steering federal antidrug policy away from criminalization and toward prevention and treatment; even drug warriors increasingly speak of addiction as a disease and accept that we will never incarcerate or zero-tolerate our way out of the problem.

To these drug warriors of good faith, responsible proponents of marijuana legalization need to address a message. What Colorado and Washington are doing is conditional legalization, wrapping marijuana within a regime of regulation that uses both carrots (legitimate profits for those who follow the rules) and sticks (punishments for those who don’t) to better control the marijuana market and more effectively deploy public resources. The alternative, should regulated legalization fail, might be chaotic legalization or policy drift, which would be worse, even from a drug war point of view. So drug warriors have a stake in helping Colorado and Washington and other states find new paths toward an effective drug-control framework—just as liberalizers have a stake in keeping a regulatory handle on marijuana markets.

To avoid the zero-sum mind-set and all the counterproductive friction that goes with it, that message is politically essential. It has the additional advantage of being true.

Return to “Saving Marijuana Legalization.”

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


(You may use HTML tags for style)

comments powered by Disqus