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March 05, 2014 10:04 AM Pot Legalization: Now for the Hard Part

By Ed Kilgore

The overall thrust of the package of articles on cannabis legalization in the March/April/May issue of the Washington Monthly is “curb your enthusiasm and get to work!” That is certainly the message of Jonathan Rauch’s essay on why implementing legal marijuana is going to be a challenge more like Obamacare than marriage equality, for all the latter issue’s similarities as a “cultural issue.”

Marijuana legalization…is like Obamacare in being anything but binary. Changing the law is merely the first step down a long and tortuous road. Colorado, Washington, and any other states that may eventually legalize need to create administrative and bureaucratic structures to regulate the growth, distribution, and sale of marijuana; they also need to coordinate those efforts with continuing law enforcement against illegal sellers. They need to set tax levels high enough to deter heavy use but not so high as to sustain a black market. They need to make all kinds of regulatory determinations, from how marijuana can be marketed to what level of use constitutes impairment; they must defend those rules in court and regroup when they lose. They need to work out a modus operandi with a hostile federal legal regime and a skeptical law enforcement establishment. They need to track outcomes, identify problems, and make adjustments. And not least, as the president so painfully forgot during the fight for Obamacare, they need to make their case effectively to the public all along the way.
As of now, I’m cautiously optimistic that the states’ experiments will be made to work, not perfectly but well enough. But liberaltarians and drug reformers need to get it through their heads that just passing legalization initiatives is not enough. They need to stick around once the vote is over and commit to the hard slog of making the policy succeed.

Rauch goes on to warn that over-promising instantly fabulous results could represent as big a problem for the pot legalization movement as for health care reform. And he strongly urges legalization advocates to find common ground with skeptics in designing a regulatory framework, avoiding the polarization that has bedeviled Obamacare implementation.

In that respect, it’s interesting that Rauch’s piece—and indeed, the whole “pot package” in the new issue of WaMo—got a big shout-out from the influential “conservative reformer” Reihan Salam at National Review yesterday. Intelligent implementation of a legalized pot regime is one cause that really ought to attract some bipartisan interest, and not just from libertarians who want to decriminalize everything other than profiteering.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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