The morning after Election Day, California appeared to be on a very different path than much of the nation. But in voting to legalize recreational marijuana, Californians were very much in step with the rest of the country. In addition to California’s Proposition 64—which passed relatively easily, with 56% of the vote—measures were passed in Nevada and Massachusetts that legalized recreational marijuana. Measures that legalized or expanded medical marijuana passed in Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota, and Montana. So far, Arizona is the only state to have rejected a recreational marijuana measure. Maine also passed a measure legalizing recreational use, though the vote was close and is subject to a recount.
While marijuana remains illegal under federal law and continues to be classified as a Schedule I drug (meaning it has a high risk for abuse and has no accepted medical value), 63% of Americans now reside in states that have medical or full legalized use, including 21% with legalized recreational use.
Now comes the difficult part. Proposition 64 sets in motion a number of steps and procedures designed to create a regulated market for recreational marijuana. Many of these can be modeled on last year’s legislation regulating California’s medical marijuana market. And the states that have legalized marijuana so far have created a competitive but regulated market structure. But regulatory experience—in California and other states—is in short supply. As one state regulator opined at a recent PPIC event, “Right now, science is lagging policy.”
Marijuana regulation cuts across many areas. Earlier this year, we outlined several key regulatory areas, including cultivation, production, and processing; sales, consumption, and possession; taxes and finance; and public health and safety. The challenge facing California and other states is to implement regulations that can achieve multiple, sometimes conflicting policy goals: limiting the impact of the illegal market, preventing youth drug use, reducing harm to public health and safety, preventing diversion of legal marijuana into illegal markets, and raising revenue. This requires a comprehensive regulatory approach that would document and control the cultivation, production, processing, and sale of legal marijuana.
Our report recommended that California err on the side of caution and adopt a relatively restrictive regulatory model for both the recreational and medical markets. We still maintain that a tight, single market will make marijuana laws easier to enforce and reduce diversion to under-age Californians and to other states. To be sure, a highly regulated legal market will be accompanied by a robust illegal market. But it will be easier to loosen a tight market than to tighten a loose one.
Given the apparent national interest in legalizing marijuana—and the lack of knowledge about this new industry—California is positioned to be a leader in answering difficult questions about how best to regulate it. To play a leadership role, California regulators should collect data on marijuana sales, prices, revenue, and use. Basic market information would play a significant role in closing this knowledge gap and inform better future policy for both our state, and the rest of the country.
Finally, we should note that there is some uncertainty about the future of marijuana regulation across the country. As noted above, federal law still classifies marijuana as an illegal substance. The relatively benign approach that the federal government has taken to enforcing federal law regarding marijuana has been based on three memos written by second-tier cabinet members and some language in an annual appropriation bill. Though President-elect Trump has not explicitly stated his policy on marijuana, it would be relatively simple for the new administration to alter the current federal approach.
Read the report Regulating Marijuana in California