The good bits about moving slowly

There’s no doubt that the rollout of I-502 has frustrated consumers with high prices, shortages and random store closures.

But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud – Washington’s efforts to fully study and research the progress of legalization should be a big help as other states push forward with their own legalization efforts.

A report released this week by the Brookings Institute looks at that aspect, which author Philip Wallach says Washington has done better than Colorado.


I have a story about the report out today (which is attached below) – but I thought I share a few more excerpts from the report here on the blog.

Wallach also did a Q&A today with the Institute: Innovative Policy Experiment in Washington Will Grow Marijuana Knowledge

The full report is certainly worth a read as well, if you have time.

Here are a few highlights:

“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.”

More specifically, he said:

“(1) A portion of the excise tax revenues from marijuana sales will fun 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.
(2) 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.
(3) A cost-benefit analysis is to be conducted by the state’s in-house think tank, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, 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.”

He also gives a good rundown of what happened to medical marijuana here, and he had this to say about issues over I-502 licensing:

“Licensing an appropriate number of producers and sellers has turned out to be a more difficult task than the LCB anticipated, with the result that the rollout of the 502 system has been messy. Confronted with far more applications to grow than anticipated, LCB abruptly told grower applicants that they would be licensed for only about a quarter of the canopy space that was originally announced, leaving many entrepreneurs with leases on larger areas than they could use. A flood of applications for retail licenses led to a shakily stage-managed lottery process to assign just 334 retail licenses. Many applicants felt they were wrongly disqualified with no legal process in place for redress, which has left a hangover of lawsuits against the LCB. Meticulousness in criminal background checks and location requirements for stores (to keep them away from schools, parks, etc.) has slowed the process to a crawl. Moreover, unlike Colorado, which initially restricted market entry to pre-existing regulated medical marijuana enterprises,10 Washington opened its licensing process to all comers, many of whom have not been ready for the rigors of the process. This has absorbed a great deal of LCB staff time and energy. And even once the LCB manages to give out all of the licenses it has allotted, many people — from potential customers to Seattle’s pro-502 city attorney, Pete Holmes — fear that far too few people will have been given access to the market to make it work effectively.”

“The causes for pessimism about Washington’s slow-developing system are thus clear. But there is a case to be made that the longer-term outlook is better, with skeptics overly preoccupied with inevitable growing pains and insufficiently appreciative of the benefits of moving slowly. From the LCB’s perspective, gaining ground slowly and fully controlling ground once gained is far more important than moving quickly; the board is happy to grant
that the 502 system is not really ready for prime time as the first sales begin, but it argues that its cautious approach allows it to move more effectively to a system that excludes criminals, prevents diversion, provides for serious testing and labeling, facilitates empirical understanding of the legal market’s effects, and maintains an appropriate price for legal marijuana several years down the road.”

Why research is important:

“Washington’s various researchers have a chance to structure the contours of the state’s legalization debate by forcing both supporters and opponents to base their claims on high quality empirical evidence. Without such evidence, the most likely outcome would be a familiar pattern of polarization along the battle lines of the culture wars, with the two sides expending as much energy trashing each other’s motives as actually paying attention to the facts on the ground.”

“Over the years, drug warriors have relied on an exceptionally flawed (and often outright false) canon of claims about the effects of drugs — and so, to a lesser extent, have legalizers, some of whom tout unproven and often dubious benefits of consuming marijuana while pooh-poohing all worries about adverse health effects. A fair number of these policy advocates have developed the trappings of methodological sophistication, presenting their arguments in the clothing of responsible social science. Without institutional support for a less biased group of researchers, “facts” injected into the debates by these sources become the standard points of reference for media, politicians, and citizens trying to make sense of these issues.”

There’s a lot more in there, but I’ll let you read the rest yourself. In the meantime, my story from today is below.

-SueVo (sue.vorenberg@columbian.com)

State’s slow approach on pot yielding bounty of data

By Sue Vorenberg
Columbian features reporter

When it comes to marijuana legalization, lessons from the slow, clunky rollout in Washington may end up being more helpful to other states than lessons from Colorado’s relatively smooth launch.

That’s because research mandated by the Washington law should provide a wealth of knowledge about how implementation realistically impacts the public, according to a new report by the Brookings Institute.

“My impression is that Washington is on the cutting edge” of marijuana social policy research, the report’s author, Philip Wallach, told The Columbian. “It really is a pretty foundational shift in the place of this drug in Washington’s legal structure.”

The report, “Washington’s Marijuana Legalization Grows Knowledge, Not Just Pot: A Report on the State’s Strategy to Assess Reform,” notes that the state has intentionally moved slowly to track several aspects of the new law and how it works.

Parts of Initiative 502, which Washington voters approved in 2012, include funding for research on social and youth impacts, prevention and treatment studies, and a cost-benefit analysis by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

While several national studies exist about illegal use and distribution of marijuana, there really isn’t much out there at all about legal use. And it may still be a few years before much is known about the successes and failures of legalization in Washington, Wallach said.

“Some studies started shortly after I-502 was approved in Nov. 2012, and there’s a small amount that you can start to measure now, but I think we’ve got to be a little patient” while researchers collect data, he said. “I kind of see 2015 as the first full real year of data in Washington, and we won’t see anything from that probably until 2016.”

That doesn’t necessarily negate the frustrations of those who have criticized the state over slow rollouts, product shortages and high prices since the first stores opened in early July.

But it does at least give some perspective on why those things are happening.

“There is a case to be made that the longer-term outlook is better, with skeptics overtly preoccupied with the inevitable growing pains and insufficiently appreciative of the benefits of moving slowly,” Wallach said in the report. “From the (Liquor Control Board’s) perspective, gaining ground slowly and fully controlling ground once gained is far more important than moving quickly.”

The slow process allows for a system that more effectively “excludes criminals, prevents diversion, provides for serious testing and labeling, facilitates empirical understanding of the legal market’s effects and maintains an appropriate price for legal marijuana several years down the road,” the report said.

A few studies have already begun, some attempting to set a baseline of pre-legalization information for future research to be compared with.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy released some of that information in a November 2013 report that looked at the prevalence of marijuana use.

That report, part of a national survey of 70,000 residents age 12 and older, found that 16.6 percent of youth and 9.1 percent of adults said they used marijuana in 2010-2011. That is up from a low of 10.2 percent of youth in 2004-2005 and 5.3 percent of adults in 2002-2003.

As for lifetime use, in the 2010-2011 survey, 31.4 percent of youth and 54.6 percent of adults in Washington reported using marijuana at some point.

Baselines like that will be critical in determining how legalization changes use both for adults and youth, Wallach said.

And once a solid body of verifiable scientific data is available, it should help counter outlandish claims on both sides of the debate over legalization, he said.

“Washington’s knowledge experiment has the potential to decisively rebut and discredit false claims and misleading anecdotes; once there is good information to counter the bad, politicians peddling outlandish claims risk being branded as liars rather than merely purveyors of hyperbole,” the report said.

That said, it will probably be a lot longer before the public sees real scientific research on some of the medical claims about marijuana, both pro and con, Wallach said.

That’s because right now, federal research projects — and federally funded research projects — must use marijuana from a special facility at the University of Mississippi.

Scientists are reluctant to use samples outside of that facility because of limited funding sources and because national science journals are less likely to publish research if the samples aren’t from a federally recognized source.

Eventually, though, Wallach said he thinks there will be more medical studies at universities, especially as more states such as Oregon and Alaska consider legalizing the drug.

And either way, the data gathered in Washington now can help those states make better policy decisions when they implement their own laws, he said.

“Drug policy will always give rise to explosive drug politics, and why not?” Wallach asked in the report. “Drugs, including marijuana, do indeed ruin many people’s lives, and we cannot expect most citizens to feel dispassionate about that fact. But America’s drug war, too, has ruined many lives, and an awakening to that reality has led Washington’s voters to undertake a bold and important policy experiment.”