Legal weed in Colorado & Washington sets the new global standard

A woman holds a sign at a pro-marijuana rally at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado April 20, 2012. (Reuter/Rick Wilking)

Much has already been made of the marijuana ballot measures that passed in Colorado and Washington this week. Both set a new bar for marijuana laws in the U.S., but open the states up to a thorny relationship with federal drug enforcement agencies.

Colorado and Washington are now stepping into unknown territory. No modern jurisdiction — anywhere in the world — has removed prohibitions on production, distribution and possession of marijuana.

“There is no comparison,” says Peter Reuter, a professor in the School of Public Policy and the Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland. “It’s illegal everywhere, including the Netherlands. That’s true in every country.”

As Colorado and Washington roll out new policies on marijuana, both states must do a delicate dance. They must allow the public to smoke more freely without dramatically increasing consumption or lowering the price of weed. But they also have to avoid transmogrifying into North America’s new cannabis capital.

More liberal than Holland?

Most of us think of Holland when we think of legal marijuana. But this former global leader in liberal marijuana policies now takes a back seat to Colorado and Washington, at least on paper.

Holland is not quite as open to smoking grass as you might think. In legal terms, cannabis policies in the northern European country are actualy quite restrictive.

“The Dutch decided that international [drug treaties] would not let them fully legalize,” says Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “So they wound up with a strange hybrid system.”

The effective result, Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland explains, is a policy of non-enforcement on small transactions. Dutch can purchase marijuana at coffee shops with little risk. Those who grow and distribute ganja, however, still can and do go to jail.

“You can buy it at the front door legally, but it comes in the back door illegally,” says Reuter.

Many states have a hybrid system as well, though not like Holland’s. Marijuana has been decriminalized in 14 states, but that doesn’t mean marijuana is legal there. Until now, decriminalization policies in U.S. states have meant that a person can receive a fine, not jail time, for possession of a limited amount of marijuana. Production and distribution still carry a heavy risk of jail time in those states. And any possession is still illegal federally, meaning you can still be in hot water with the feds if you’re caught with pot in a state that has decriminalized it.

Colorado and Washington’s new voter-approved laws are completely novel: in these states it is now legal, under state supervision, to grow, distribute, possess and smoke (or bake into brownies, if that’s your thing) marijuana.

(Un)necessary risk

Colorado and Washington do have an important lesson to learn from the Netherlands, though. Complete legalization could mean easy access; easy access could slash prices, thereby bringing down prices in the black market; cheap, easily accessible weed could mean increasing use and abuse of the drug.

Employee Stephen Young restocks the shelves behind bullet-proof glass at Northwest Patient Resource Center — a medical marijuana dispensary — in Seattle, Washington, January 27, 2012. (Reuters/Cliff DesPeaux)

But a gram of marijuana at a Dutch coffee shop is just as expensive as a gram from a sketchy guy in a Dutch alley. Why? Risk.

It costs relatively little to grow marijuana. But when you buy marijuana on the black market, says Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, “You are compensating everyone on the production line for the risk of incarceration.” Growers, distributors and sellers all mark up their prices because of the risky nature of the work they do.

If the price of marijuana in Colorado dramatically lowers, a drug dealer in California could drop his distributor in Mexico — high-risk, high-price weed — for a new dealer in Colorado — low-risk, low-price weed. So Colorado and Washington must find a way to exhibit some kind of “black-market pressure” on their legal marijuana industry; that is, if those states want to avoid becoming North America’s new drug capital.

“The way this will play out in Washington and Colorado will depend on two decisions,” Kilmer says. “One: the decisions the states make about the type of production allowed. Are you going to allow three producers or 300 producers? Two: how the federal government responds. If the federal government puts pressure on the states, that will increase the risk to those sellers. “

But, Kilmer says, it’s very hard to project how drug economics and consumption might change in these states. For now, both states plan to regulate cannabis similarly to the way they regulate alcohol, and both states are currently figuring out what their pot industry will look like.

As Colorado goes, so goes…Uruguay?

Colorado and Washington will now establish a new and likely tense relationship with federal drug enforcement. The Justice Department already warned that its enforcement “remains unchanged,” and the governor of Colorado issued a stern(ish) warning to residents: “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”

But foreigners are already taking notice. Activists in British Columbia, the Canadian province neighboring Washington, are pushing for legalization.

“We’re both affected by the drug violence and the trade that goes across the border,” says Canadian activist Jodie Emery. “And if Washington is going to legalize it — well it’s our turn to do it next.”

But if Colorado and Washington cause a sea change in international drug policy, it’s more likely to happen to the south, not the north.

The conventional wisdom once assumed drug supply from Latin American fueled problems in the U.S. But now, with Mexico’s protracted, bloody drug war, experts argue that the problem is U.S. demand.

Peter Reuter says that the U.S. is now in an awkward position on the global stage. The U.S. is traditionally a hawk on enforcing international treaties on distribution of marijuana. But now American states are allowing just that.

Mexican soldiers stand at attention as a pile of marijuana and other drugs is being incinerated at the 7th Military Zone on the outskirts of Monterrey, Nuevo León November 1, 2012. More than a ton of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and psychotropic pills were incinerated as part of the Nuevo Leon-Tamaulipas anti-drug operation, according to local media. (Reuters/Daniel Beceriil)

“I think the Latin Americans who are very angry about the cost they bear for dealing with the U.S. drug problem…will say, “How can you push us to be tough on drugs?”

As McClatchy Newspapers reports, Uruguay is already close to legalizing marijuana — unprompted by the American ballot measures — and Chile and Argentina could follow suit in the coming years.

“Experts said the [Colorado and Washington ballot measures] were likely to give momentum to countries such as Uruguay…to undercut Mexican criminal gangs and to embolden those who demand greater debate about how to combat illegal substances,” McClatchy reports.

All of these changes ride on the coat tails of altering public perceptions of marijuana. Mark Kleiman of UCLA points to data that indicate a rapid increase in approval of marijuana.

“It’s not just a generational change,” says Kleiman. “It’s not millenials versus the World War II generation. We’re seeing these changes across age groups.”

Just this week, Massachusetts voters approved a measure to make the Bay State the 18th to legalize medical marijuana, which is also legal in the District of Columbia.

Kleiman says the social stigma against smoking pot is dissipating like the one against homosexuality.

“People were ashamed 20 years ago and lived in the closet,” he says. “If people start to come out of the closet, suddenly you realized that your dentist is gay, the captain of your football team is gay, your math teacher in high school is gay. Suddenly it’s not so threatening. Some of that is going on with marijuana.”

And if this year’s ballot measures around same-sex marriage are any indication, we’ll likely be seeing the cloud of doubt around marijuana use lift too.