How Legalized Marijuana Is Also a Long-Term ‘Knowledge Experiment’ in Washington State

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Compared to the relatively rapid and effective implementation of Colorado’s legalized recreational marijuana market, the rollout of legal weed in Washington state has been met at times with groans and complaints over the Evergreen State’s sluggish approach.

But could researchers and other states looking at potential marijuana legalization learn more from the resulting data that will come from Washington state’s regulatory framework?

A new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution indicates that Washington state’s experiment with legal marijuana will be also a long-term “knowledge experiment,” one where the impacts of Initiative 502 will be meticulously studied over the course of two decades with the hopes of having more long-term clarity from a policy perspective.

Compared to Colorado, Washington state had “to start from more or less from nothing,” according to Phillip Wallach, a Brookings Governance Studies fellow who this week published the detailed assessment of Washington state’s regulatory structure.

“That means in studying where Washington is now, it would be rather premature to say one way or another whether their implementation has been a success or failure,” Wallach said in an interview.

There are two critical distinctions between Colorado and Washington state with the regulatory rollout of legalized recreational marijuana.

First, Colorado built its legalized marijuana market upon its existing and highly regulated medical marijuana regulatory framework. In creating its legalized marijuana market, Washington state chose to leave its loosely regulated medical marijuana system, which Wallach described as a “legal mess,” more or less in place.

Second, Washington state has spent considerable time creating a framework where the impacts of legalized marijuana can be studied in depth with funding from the state’s marijuana excise taxes.

“It’s definitely moved more slowly than Colorado and created a lot of frustration when people compare the two and want the system in Washington to be up and running at full steam,” Wallach said.

Washington state voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana in 1998. In November 2012, voters approved Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana in the state. In November 2013, the state’s Liquor Control Board released licensing rules for growers, retailers and customers. The first stores selling legalized marijuana opened last month but many more are anticipated to open by the end of the year.

Beyond the big headlines about Washington state’s rollout of legal weed, there’s a lot more to the regulations that can be easily overlooked.

As Wallach wrote in his report about the social-impact research component of Washington state’s approach:

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, with lessons that extend well beyond drug policy.

We asked Wallach about some of his findings and published excerpts below.

GovExec State & Local: You focus particularly on the other aspects of the regulations that aren’t getting as much attention, which is studying the long-term impacts of the legalized market on the state in terms of law enforcement and public health and things like that. How is the state’s approach working with implementation?

Wallach: It goes along with the pace of the rollout for sure. A big part of why Washington has been slower than some people would have liked is that they are being very deliberate about creating these new regulatory structures in a way that will give them better control in the long run and also the ability to better assess the impacts of legalization.

A lot of that has been setting up structures which will be funded out of the marijuana excise taxes that are devoted to studying exactly what the social impacts are in terms of how it affects communities, how it affects usage patterns, abuse by both young people and adults and youth uptake in general and all sorts of dimensions that they’ll be studying. They also wanted funding structures to apply the best available techniques as proven by empirical evidence for mitigating the harms of marijuana which they very much acknowledge as real and in need of addressing. . . .

GovExec State & Local: Washington state’s in-house think tank, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), is playing a very important role in studying the impacts of legalized marijuana.

Wallach: Yes, it’s a really intriguing model that Washington has the advantage of having.

WSIPP is definitely in a good position to do this work. It’s worth noting that there are some efforts to promote this model for other states, not just for marijuana policy but for all sorts of policy matters to put in some sort of politically neutral and objective institute that tries to assess cost and benefits of policy changes.

I think that’s generally a really good idea and some low-hanging fruit that’s out there for states if they’re willing to make modest investments in that.

WSIPP is definitely being asked to do something that’s never been done before in undertaking this study that’s meant to last over two decades. Usually it’s doing research on a much shorter timescale and it’s generally retrospective work trying to figure out: “What did policy change X accomplish?”

They’re having to do some hard thinking on how to structure their research to put themselves in a position to understand what’s going on. They’re a small operation, they’re just a couple dozen people, I think. They’re going to be aggregating what other researchers are doing than directly undertaking this research themselves. . . .

The timescale is a really important point. The timescale for all of this working at the earliest we’re going to start seeing some results in 2016, maybe, where we have good data from a year of data from full-scale legal recreational marijuana in Washington.

That’s going to require some patience from all sorts of people who are naturally operating on shorter timescales, including journalists and politicians. It will be interesting to see whether those groups are able to have patience knowing that the research is underway and going to produce results.

The people on the Liquor Control Board in Washington aren’t oblivious to all the criticism but their attitude is: “If two or three years from now we’re better off by having gone slow and getting this criticism in the short term, this is going to be worth it.” People aren’t going to remember that for a few months they were angry. It’s definitely a conscious strategy of the policymakers and bureaucrats in Washington.

WATCH: Washington state's first day of legal marijuana sales

(Image via Yarygin/Shutterstock.com)

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