'Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs To Know' Authors Discuss Risks And Rewards Of Legal Weed

The Risks And Rewards Of Legal Weed

The states of Colorado, Washington and Oregon are all considering marijuana legalization ballot measures this November which, if passed, could effectively end pot prohibition in each state.

In Colorado, voters will decide on Amendment 64 which seeks to legalize marijuana for adult use, regulating and taxing it similar to the way alcohol is currently regulated. The measure appears to be popular -- a recent poll from Rasmussen showed that 61 percent of likely Colorado voters are in favor of legalizing marijuana if it is regulated the way alcohol and cigarettes are currently regulated.

Politically, the measure has received support from both Democrats and Republicans in Colorado, the NAACP recently backed the measure as well as more than 100 professors from around the nation.

There's also strong evidence that if legalized, marijuana would be an economic boon for the state producing upwards of $60 million a year in revenue.

But, marijuana legalization is a complex subject. So, to help better understand the issue, The Huffington Post recently chatted with the four authors of "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know," a book that details the research and conclusions of its four authors: Dr. Jonathan P. Caulkins (Stever Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University), Dr. Angela Hawken (Associate Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University), Dr. Beau Kilmer (Co-Director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center), Dr. Mark Kleiman (Professor of Public Policy at UCLA). The four authors answered the following questions collectively:

When did marijuana prohibition begin?

The usual dating of the federal ban is 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, although 29 states had already prohibited by 1931. California was among the first movers, banning marijuana in 1913.

Define the various kinds of legalization and what kind of legalization is Amendment 64 seeking?

The term legalization without any qualification means that the substance would be treated more or less like any other article of commerce, with substance-specific regulations seeking only to shape the behavior of producers and consumers, not to eliminate market activity. So, alcohol is legal even though it can only be purchased by those over the age of 21, and automobiles are legal even though manufacturers selling in the U.S. have to meet a range of regulatory requirements, including those pertaining to emissions, fuel economy, and crash safety.

Decriminalization refers to reducing sanctions only for those possessing quantities suitable for personal consumption. For marijuana, that is often interpreted to mean an ounce or less.

Amendment 64 seeks to legalize marijuana in the first, more sweeping sense of allowing large-scale commercial production and distribution for profit and not just for medical use. Its Section 3 pertains to legalization of personal use, but the subsequent sections legalize – with respect to state law – commercial production and sale.

What is the precedent for legalization in Colorado, i.e. What other states/countries have come close? Is there a model that we can look to of legalization that might mirror Colorado's or, if passed, would Colorado's style of legalization be the first of its kind globally?

Colorado would be the first to remove the prohibition on commercial production of marijuana for general use. Everyone else would get to learn from its successes and failures.

A common error is to believe that the Netherlands has already legalized cannabis (the preferred term for marijuana in Europe). What has been de facto legalized is only the retail sale of 5 grams (about a sixth of an ounce) or less. Production and wholesale distribution is still illegal, and that prohibition is enforced, which is largely why the price of sinsemilla in the “coffee shops” isn’t much different than the price in American dispensaries.

Why is marijuana considered a "Schedule 1" drug and is that a fair assessment of the drug by the federal goverment?

"Schedule I" doesn't mean that a drug is especially dangerous, only that it has no "currently accepted medical use." If someone runs the clinical trials to show that some version of marijuana is "safe and effective" for some condition in some group of patients, that product can move to Schedule II or Schedule III, as happened with pure THC, the principal psychoactive constituent of marijuana, marketed as Marinol. The federal government has decided to make that unnecessarily hard by refusing to give licenses to competitors to the single lab now allowed to produce marijuana for research.

There are numerous studies, many of which have come out of California, that point to marijuana's medical benefit. But why does the federal government still stand in the way of any form of federal legalization in the face of legitimate science?

"Marijuana" is the name of a plant, not the name of a drug. A drug needs to have a reproducible profile of active ingredients. GW Pharma has a drug, Sativex, extracted from marijuana that’s roughly 50% THC and 50% CBD (cannabidiol, another major constituent of marijuana). It's approved elsewhere and will probably be approved here sooner or later.

Is marijuana addictive?

The research finds that roughly 9% of people who use marijuana, and more than that among those who start as adolescents, eventually meet clinical criteria for dependence. That's not as bad as being an alcoholic or a heroin addict, but it's plenty bad enough to worry about.

Does marijuana use lead to a higher likelihood of cancer or any other diseases?

Smoking isn’t good for anyone, whether it is tobacco, marijuana, or maple leaves.

A point we hammer home in the book is that there are multiple ways to consume marijuana—smoking is only one method. A number of medical marijuana patients use vaporizers which heat the marijuana to produce a vapor without many of the carcinogens. There are also marijuana-infused edibles, teas, and lotions.

The evidence on marijuana and lung cancer is mixed. It is hard to establish causality in epidemiological studies, but a particular complication for marijuana use and cancer (or, for that matter, pulmonary disorders) is that many people who smoke marijuana regularly have also smoked tobacco at some point in their lives.

Findings with respect to mental health depend on the disorder and symptoms being considered, and we refer readers to Chapters 5 and 7 of our book for a discussion of these studies.

Has anyone to your knowledge ever died from marijuana usage? i.e. Can someone overdose, either fatally or otherwise?

There are many non-fatal overdoses: panic attacks or even psychotic symptoms leading to trips to the emergency room. There's no evidence of fatal acute overdose. But that doesn't mean no one has ever died from marijuana use. People get stoned and wrap their cars around trees: not as often as with alcohol, but the victims are just as dead. No one has ever died of an acute tobacco overdose, either; that doesn’t mean cigarette smoking is harmless.

What are the benefits of smoking marijuana, both medically and for recreational use?

We know surprisingly little about marijuana, given its widespread use, because it is difficult to obtain marijuana for research purposes. Benefits and risks are likely overstated by advocates and opponents of legalization, but we won’t know for sure until we can do the studies. Legalization might have the ancillary benefit of fueling the research needed to settle these debates.

Many millions of people like to use marijuana, whether for therapeutic benefit or pleasure. Pleasure should be tallied in the benefits column when we discuss legalization.

Another myth is that marijuana's potency today is much higher than it was in say the 60s and 70s when marijuana began to bubble up into the mainstream culture. Are these true?

The hard data on potency from the 1960s are scanty, but it is clear that potency of seized marijuana has increased over the time period for which there are abundant data (from about 1980 forward). The increase takes two forms: increased potency within a particular “type” of marijuana (e.g., commercial grade marijuana today is more potent than it was in the past) and shifts in market share (e.g., the market share of sinsemilla has been growing at the expense of commercial grade). The extent of the increase has been exaggerated in some sources, but the actual increases are substantial: at least a factor of two, maybe more.

The other notable change between the 1960s and subsequent periods is the age of users, and their socio-economic class. In the 1960s, marijuana use was associated with college students. By the 1980s, the median age of initiation had fallen substantially, so initiation is more of a middle-school and high-school phenomenon. College graduates are also now a modest subset of the market, accounting for perhaps one-seventh of consumption. The majority of demand among adult users comes from those with a high-school education or less.

What other marijuana myths that you know of are true or untrue?

The claim that marijuana accounts for 60% of the drug export revenues for the Mexican drug trafficking organizations is false. This number was published in the White House’s 2006 National Drug Control Strategy, but the Obama Administration has repudiated this figure. Research by RAND found that most of the Mexican traffickers’ drug export revenues come from cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. Marijuana’s share was in the ballpark of 20%, which is at most a few billion dollars, but it doesn’t account for the majority of their drug export revenues. And their drug export revenues are only a part of their total revenue stream: they also make money from domestic drug dealing in Mexico and from extortion and kidnapping.

The claim that marijuana is the top U.S. cash crop is unfounded. Marijuana advocates and law enforcement have an incentive to inflate the value. For the advocates, plumping up the numbers leads to higher predicted tax-revenue estimates from legalization, currying favor from cash-strapped states. For law enforcement, a higher number makes seizures seem more impressive. A more-reasonable valuation would put marijuana around 15th in the rankings (closer to potatoes and almonds than to corn or soybeans).

If legalized, is there concern that marijuana use could increase harder drug use?

We don’t know. We address the controversial “Gateway Effect” in our book. Advocates make bolder claims than the data justifies. There is no consensus in the professional literature, and both sides of this debate offer plausible arguments. People who use marijuana (particularly those who initiate at a young age) are more likely to use hard drugs than people who don’t use. But that doesn’t mean that the marijuana use caused the hard drug use. It is plausible that marijuana use might be an indicator of underlying differences in susceptibility to hard drug use. It is also plausible that marijuana use increases the overall taste for mind-altering substances. The jury is out.

An equally important question, which receives much less attention, is the likely effect on alcohol consumption. Alcohol kills more people than all the hard drugs combined. Whether marijuana legalization caused an increase or decrease in alcohol consumption would dramatically change predictions about the costs and benefits of legalization.

How will the legalization of marijuana benefit the people of Colorado?

The benefits (and costs) of legalization will vary from person to person. Effects on heavy users are different than effects on sellers, which in turn are different than effects on parents of teenagers. One chapter of our book consists of a series of questions – “How will legalization affect me if I’m a ___” – with the blank filled in for many different groups.

How does legalization lead to more effective drug policy for marijuana-based crime? Or does it not?

It’s important to distinguish two types of marijuana-based crime: (1) violation of marijuana laws and (2) other crimes (burglary, assault, arson, etc.).

Amendment 64 would eliminate most violations of Colorado state marijuana laws (most, not all, because underage possession, sales to minors, and driving under the influence would still be illegal, and there would be civil penalties for producers who violate regulations). Amendment 64 would have no effect on the legality of marijuana-related activities with respect to the federal Controlled Substances Act. The DEA could still arrest anyone, even a user with a single joint. Traditionally the DEA has focused its efforts on larger producers and distributors (typically those possession hundreds of pounds), but it is not clear how the DEA or the federal government more generally would react to passage of Amendment 64.

Amendment 64 would have very little effect on burglary, assault, etc., simply because such a small proportion of those crimes have anything to do with marijuana. The “expensive” big three (cocaine/crack, heroin, and meth) do create a lot of non-drug crime, so legalization of them might affect crime rates substantially, but legalizing marijuana would likely not.

Do you think legalization will affect prices? Will they be driven drastically up or down, or neither?

The price of basic “unbranded” marijuana will tend to go down very substantially over time as the industry transforms and expands.

Producing legal marijuana could be cheap if the federal government does not step in to replace state and local enforcement efforts: 10-20% of current illegal prices if the product were legal at the state level only, and closer to 1% of current illegal price if it were legal nationally as well. How much of that decrease gets made up by taxation is a policy choice. Amendment 64’s choice is “not much” – with excise taxes limited to 15% of the wholesale price through 2017, and only for non-medical marijuana. But if you impose heavy taxes, you're going to need to enforce them.

Legalization may well also bring product differentiation, in part as producers try to evade the classic problem of commodity prices being bid down close to the cost of production. Godiva sells its chocolates for much more than its production costs, in part because it has invested in enough advertising to create a cachet associated with its brand. Similarly, some marijuana sellers might target the affluent and “discerning” market segments with higher priced forms. So there might be a wide range of prices. But the basic cost per hour of intoxication for people who just want to get high would likely fall substantially over time. How long it would take for prices to reach that new equilibrium is anyone’s guess. If Colorado were an island, it might take only a few years, but the marijuana market does not respect state borders; as prices in Colorado began to fall, some of that lower priced marijuana would leak out to other states. Since Colorado is now a very minor producer relative to the national market, it might take quite a few years for its production to ramp up enough to reach a new equilibrium at the new, long-run prices for the national market. And we may not ever reach that equilibrium, because by then other states may have legalized or there might be other structural changes.

If marijuana is legalized in the state, what are the expected responses from the federal government?

No one knows, and it makes all the difference in the world. If Colorado legalized, and the federal government stepped in and started making exactly the same number of arrests as Colorado state and local police had been making before (and arrested anyone who tried to get a license under Amendment 64), we wouldn’t expect to see a big effect on marijuana prices or use; the major effect would be that the cost of enforcing the prohibition would be shifted to a larger tax base, and people arrested would be prosecuted under federal, not state, statutes. And even that financial win for Colorado could disappear if Congress decided to “punish” Colorado by withholding federal highway funds, for example, in an amount equivalent to the federal government’s increased enforcement cost. (Recall that the Reagan Administration used the threat of withholding highway funds to goad states into raising the minimum legal age to purchase alcohol.)

At the other extreme, if the federal government were to abstain from enforcing federal laws against anyone who was complying with Colorado law, then Colorado producers could enjoy the full economies of scale that would otherwise only come from national-level legalization. This scenario seems exceedingly unlikely, if for no other reason that markets in neighboring states would be affected by spill-overs. But the larger point is that forecasting the consequences of a state legalizing always comes with a giant question mark concerning the unpredictability of the federal response.

With the federal government in mind, how can a state-wide marijuana industry operate without the support of banks, who due to their federal regulation cannot offer business accounts to marijuana businesses?

Marijuana production is not a terribly capital intensive business, certainly not relative to manufacturing or mining. Given the profit margins that could be enjoyed until production expanded enough to bid prices down, informal start-up funding plus retained profits could fuel its growth – albeit slower perhaps than if entrepreneurs had ready access to large commercial loans.

Bear in mind that one set of entrepreneurs Colorado can expect to be interested in Amendment 64’s legal protections will have no shortage of start-up funding. That is people who are now producing in other states and neighboring countries. Indoor production is footloose; it can be done in any state. So Colorado might have operations that participate in the legal Colorado market just enough to obtain a license as a front for larger scale, purely illegal production intended for export to other states. The appeal of Amendment 64 for such organizations is that unreported production by licensees would amount to a violation of regulations – punishable only by civil penalties, not the criminal penalties these operations now face where they currently operate. Such established marijuana producers would presumably not be bothered by the difficulty of obtaining bank loans, since their usual problem is not obtaining cash, but laundering it.

Why should a voter who is not a marijuana user come out and vote in support of this measure?

We have no intention of telling people how to vote. There are arguments on both sides.

Supporters point to various hoped-for goods, including potential tax revenues, reduced enforcement costs, and the potential for elimination of racially discriminatory enforcement practices. Opponents worry about increased use and increased problem use and dependency, especially among teenagers. Both could be right. How a voter should strike the balance between gains and losses is a matter of values on which we don’t have an expert opinion to offer.

In terms of how people will vote rather than how we think they should vote, current users are indeed more likely than non-users to support legalization. Parents, and especially the parents of teenagers, tend to view legalization less charitably.

In your opinions has the drug war been a failure or a success when it comes to marijuana, or a little of both, and why?

We dislike the term “drug war.” War is a terrible metaphor for social policy. And we don’t think social policies pertaining to complicated problems are best evaluated in terms of success or failure, wins and losses. There are advantages and disadvantages of current policy; there are advantages and disadvantages of alternatives, including legalization.

If Amendment 64 passes, what do you expect the economic impact of legalized marijuana in Colorado to be?

The macroeconomic impact will probably not be large. The gross state product for Colorado is on the order of $250 billion a year. The current Colorado marijuana market is well under $1 billion a year, and Colorado’s domestic market value will shrink with legalization if consumption increases by less than price falls.

Colorado’s best chance for a substantial macroeconomic boost would be from exports to other states. (Exporting would be illegal of course, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen or that it wouldn’t generate employment for people living in Colorado.) Profiting from exports might be tricky, because exports may be exactly what elicit an aggressive federal response. But if Colorado can use a time window when it alone has legalized to outcompete traditional producing regions in Mexico, British Columbia and California, to bring the industry and its “supply chain” within Colorado’s borders before a general, nationwide legalization occurs, then perhaps Colorado could retain the higher-value-added processing stages, even if national legalization turns cultivation itself into a minor farm crop with no special economic advantage.

The other opportunity is drug tourism. If Colorado can become a vacation destination for marijuana enthusiasts flying in from elsewhere in the U.S. or around the world, then the money those additional tourists spend on hotels, rental cars, and restaurants would also count as an economic benefit of legalization. Given that Amendment 64’s excise tax cap is so low (through 2017), it is not implausible that sales taxes on these drug tourists’ conventional spending might not be negligible compared to the marijuana excise taxes themselves. But Coloradans should be careful what they wish for; pot tourism might be a nuisance.

What does the legal marijuana market look like, as you see it (cafes, shops, will it resemble Colorado's craft beer movement?) What about the industrial hemp side of the market, how will Colorado farmers/business people benefit from hemp?)

Industrial hemp is mostly a red herring. A number of European countries as well as China and Canada have legal industrial hemp production, yet the industry there remains stalled at relatively small scale. It is not clear why farming hemp in Colorado would outcompete Canadian farmers or European farmers (who are subsidized), and none of those countries competes effectively with China (which dominates global production).

From a practical perspective, other materials are simply better than industrial hemp for most applications. Manila hemp (a different genus from cannabis) had already largely displaced cannabis hemp even before synthetic materials came on the scene in the 20th century. Industrial hemp’s greatest asset is often its “hempness,” which can induce some people to pay a premium for a T-shirt made with hemp, akin to the way that some people once happily paid more for a shirt whose label said “Union Made” or “Made in the USA.”

With national legalization, one would expect to see a differentiated market, with cafes, shops, and the analogs to craft beers, as well as plain-vanilla intoxicant competing on price and sold at much lower prices. Which segments of that market would get impeded by the ongoing federal prohibition would depend on the (unknown) federal response to passage of Amendment 64. One might guess, though, that place-based institutions would be the most vulnerable, because they would have real assets that are vulnerable to seizure. E.g., if the federal government targets landlords, one might be more likely to see home delivery or the equivalent of marijuana food trucks, not marijuana microbreweries.

If the amendment passes, do you think some kind of DWI bill should also be introduced in the wake of legalization? The opposition "No on 64" says that marijuana increases the likelihood of impaired driving? Is this true? If not, why is this misleading?

No one wants to be on the road with someone who is intoxicated. Research shows that driving stoned increases the risk of accidents, but it is not as risky as driving drunk. What is especially risky is when a driver is under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana.

Recent statistics indicate that marijuana use amongst teens is on the rise, while alcohol and tobacco use is going down. However, in Colorado, where there is a regulated medical marijuana market, stats indicate that teen use appears to be going down. Does regulation help curb use?

The nationwide statistics on the decline in youth alcohol and tobacco use, and the absence of a decline in marijuana use, are striking. Over the last two decades, the proportion of 13 year olds who report trying alcohol fell from 33% to 21%, the proportion reporting having tried cigarettes fell from 24% to 10%, while the proportion trying marijuana was little changed (increased from 7% to 8%).

The big change in marijuana consumption over the last half dozen years does not pertain to youth. Rather, it is the very substantial increase in the number of adults who use marijuana daily or near daily.

As for inferences about how any of these trends are influenced by changes in state’s policies – that is tricky, and best done with a comprehensive statistical analysis that controls for other factors, not by selectively citing before and after statistics from certain states. The academic literature would support a conclusion that “decriminalizing” marijuana use does not appear to have large effects on use; the responsible position vis-a-vis “legalize and regulate” is agnosticism, since there are effectively no historical precedents for what Amendment 64 would do.

If you didn't address it above, does marijuana increase or decrease the use of alcohol amongst adults?

A crucial question, and one impossible to answer under current conditions; there's simply no way to make observations while marijuana is illegal that tell you about its impact on alcohol use if it were legal. Heavy drinking could go up or down, and anyone who tells you he knows which is going to happen - or that there will be no effect at all - is just bluffing. That's one reason why we're not dogmatic about whether legalization of marijuana would be a good idea or not: too many unknowns.

Is marijuana more or less dangerous than alcohol and/or cigarettes?

Clearly less dangerous than alcohol; less dangerous to health than tobacco by a huge margin, but dangerous in ways that tobacco is not. (Tobacco doesn't produce intoxicated behavior.) But since we all think that both alcohol and tobacco are currently under-taxed and under-regulated, we're not willing to use those policies as benchmarks for marijuana policy.

If the amendment passes, how will trafficking be curtailed? i.e. Should voters be concerned about Colorado becoming a hub for legal growing that turns into illegal trafficking? Why is that unlikely or likely?

Trafficking for the adult Colorado market would disappear; that is the big upside of legalization.

There will of course continue to be a black market serving the other 49 states, and that production has to locate somewhere. As mentioned above, Colorado should worry that those producers might infer – rightly or wrongly – that Colorado is a congenial place to produce for sale in those other markets. But if one knew that national legalization were coming in another five or 10 years, then there might be long-term economic benefits to the state if it can get that soon-to-be-respectable activity moved from its current locations into Colorado.

What are your individual personal feelings on legalization? Do you want it legalized or to remain illegal?

None of us thinks it would be a panacea, and none of us thinks it would be an unmitigated disaster. It would have some good consequences and some bad ones, to an extent depending in part on the details of the new legal regime and in part on unknown factors. Each of us offers our personal opinions about marijuana policy at the end of our book.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America’s failed war on drugs Sept. 4 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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