Believe me, I’ve heard all the pot jokes, and some of them are true. Public support for legalizing marijuana use is at an all-time high. Some state-level marijuana laws are going up in smoke. And yes, Washington and Colorado are embarking on a historic joint venture.
Puns aside, discussions about marijuana legalization are getting serious. In November, voters in Colorado and Washington made the unprecedented decision to allow commercial production, distribution and possession of marijuana for nonmedical purposes. Not even the Netherlands goes that far.
Policymakers in both states are confronting some new and tricky issues that have never been addressed. For them, and for anyone else thinking about changing their pot laws, here are seven key decision areas that will shape the costs and benefits of marijuana legalization:
1. Production. Where will legal pot be grown — outdoors on commercial farms, inside in confined growing spaces, or somewhere in between? RAND research has found that legalizing marijuana could make it dramatically cheaper to produce — first because producers will no longer have to operate covertly, and second because suppliers won’t need to be compensated for running the risks of getting arrested or assaulted. After lawmakers decide how it will be grown, production costs will be shaped by the number of producers and other regulations such as product testing.
2. Profit motive. If there is a commercial pot industry, businesses will have strong incentives to create and maintain the heavy users who use most of the pot. To get a sense of what this could look like, look no further than the alcohol and tobacco industries, which have found ingenious ways to hook and reel in heavy users. So will private companies be allowed to enter the pot market, or will states limit it to home producers, non-profit groups or cooperatives? If a state insisted on having a monopoly on pot production, it could rake in a decent amount revenue — but for now, that possibility seems far off in the United States since marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
3. Promotion. Will states try to limit or counter advertisements in the communities and stores that sell marijuana? U.S. jurisprudence against curtailing what’s known as “commercial free speech” could make it tough to regulate the promotion of pot. While a state monopoly system could help control promotion, those advertisements you see for state lotteries should give you pause.