California led the nation in 1996 when it declared that marijuana use for medical purposes would no longer be a crime. Twenty years later, four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use. In November 2016, Californians will be asked whether the state should follow suit.
This report does not consider the wisdom of marijuana legalization. Instead, it takes the view that, if recreational marijuana use becomes legally sanctioned, then the debate must turn to how to design regulations that reconcile important, but differing policy goals. These include, among others, limiting the impact of the illegal marijuana market, reducing harm to public health and safety, and raising revenue for the state.
The report explores the approach Washington and Colorado have taken to regulating recreational marijuana markets. These two states have histories of legal recreational marijuana that, though brief, are the longest in the nation.
What lessons can be gleaned from these experiments? Both states have designed mechanisms to track legal cultivation and production, thereby reducing the diversion of marijuana to the illegal market. They also tax marijuana transactions, collecting tens of millions of dollars in revenue. And it appears that neither overall use nor use by young people has risen dramatically. However, as in California, levels of use were already higher in those states than in the rest of the country.
To limit the impact on public safety, both Washington and Colorado established legal definitions of drugged driving. Since then, in both states, greater numbers of people have been charged with driving under the influence. Nonetheless, it is impossible to determine whether those increases mean drugged driving has become more prevalent or that law enforcement is more vigorous. In addition, the change in marijuana’s legal status challenges drug abuse prevention specialists to develop effective messages.
The short experience with legal recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington and the lack of data on California’s marijuana market make it difficult to derive policy recommendations. However, from a governance perspective, it is possible to draw some general lessons for California. Three in particular stand out: (1) Both Colorado and Washington significantly adjusted marijuana regulation shortly after legalization. We suggest that California approach legalization with an eye toward flexibility. The regulatory process should be designed to facilitate needed changes. (2) Such an adaptable regulatory model will require a mechanism for collecting data on the marijuana market and evaluating the consequences of use. A strong and transparent reporting system will help ensure that future changes are based on solid research and analysis. (3) Finally, this is a venture into uncharted territory, and marijuana remains illegal under federal law. These considerations suggest that California should err on the side of caution and adopt a relatively restrictive regulatory model for both the recreational and medical markets. A tight, single market will make marijuana laws easier to enforce and to reduce diversion to other states and underage users. To be sure, a highly regulated legal market will undoubtedly be accompanied by a robust illegal market. From a political perspective though, it will be easier to loosen a tight market than to tighten a loose one.