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Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Should Know

The best way to experiment with legalization may be to try a small amount, and then wait and see how society feels.

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This fall, three states — Colorado, Washington, and Oregon — will vote on different flavors of marijuana legalization, and the results could potentially deliver a massive blow to the 75-year-old prohibition on the drug in the United States.

And just in time for this national debate comes Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, co-authored by Oakland-based researcher Beau Kilmer, who is the co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corporation. Kilmer researched and wrote the 266-page analysis with Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor Jonathan P. Caulkins, Pepperdine University public policy professor Angela Hawken, and UCLA public policy professor Mark A.R. Kleiman.

Drawing upon the latest empirical research and organized into fifteen chapters based on frequently asked questions about cannabis legalization, the book is an essential read, and is destined to become indispensable in the field of drug policy research.

Kilmer was one of the authors who appeared at "Home Grown Author Night," a free event held at Oaksterdam on July 21 that I hosted and the Express sponsored. Kilmer appeared alongside Blood Diamonds and Pot, Inc. author Greg Campbell; Isaac Campos, a historian and author of Homegrown; and esteemed grower and author Ed Rosenthal.

During his talk, Kilmer emphasized that drug warriors and reformers need to define their terms when they talk about "marijuana legalization" — an idea that includes a spectrum of approaches, from national pot legalization with no limits on possession, cultivation, manufacture, sales, and marketing to incremental state-level reforms like "decriminalization" — the removal of penalties for personal possession of pot. "Definitions matter. The devil is in the details," Kilmer said. "Legalization is more than a binary proposition. It's not just yes or no."

For example, Washington's ballot Initiative 502 would legalize weed possession for adults over 21, and set up a system to tax and regulate its growth and sale. But the details have split the marijuana-law-reform community in Washington, said Vivian McPeak, organizer of the annual Seattle Hempfest, which attracts some 250,000 people.

Just like with Proposition 19 in California in 2010, full-throttle legalizers in Washington have allied with drug warriors to denounce Initiative 502, noting that it criminalizes adults under 21, and contains onerous provisions about driving with THC in one's system.

Sober drivers with any THC in their system will likely be imprisoned under the initiative's zero tolerance provision for those under 21. The initiative also limits adults over 21 to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, a limit that critics note will likely imprison some regular cannabis users who are driving sober, but still have remnants of the drug in their bodies. Medical tests have shown that regular users who are sober may have five nanograms or higher of THC per milliliter of blood.

Seattle Hempfest has taken a "neutral" position on 502, McPeak said.

Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know uses short chapters titled as questions like "What Is Marijuana and What Would It Mean to Legalize It?" to define the murky terms of the debate and explore their ramifications. The argument often boils down to personal values. "Some people are morally opposed to intoxication," said Kilmer. "Others are morally opposed to having the government tell them what do with their bodies."

All four researchers agreed on the answers to the questions posed in the first fifteen chapters. For example: "Can Industrial Hemp Save the Planet?" Nope. Also: "What Are the Risks of Using Marijuana?" Well, on average, a person will be arrested just once for every 4,000 days of use — so not that much. But the researchers diverged in the final chapter: "What Do the Authors Think About Marijuana Legalization?"

None of them agree with the current policies, but their prescriptions differ. Hawken wrote: "I think it's pretty clear the cost-benefit balance is in favor of loosening the reins on marijuana." She advocates for the right of states to experiment with a "loosening-the-reins" approach combined with strict penalties for problem users. On medical pot, Hawken wrote, "I would rather we stop playing this game."

Caulkins supports "middle-path" options like decriminalization plus allowing home growing and sharing, but not allowing commercial production and sale.

Kleiman is more liberal, supporting personal growing, use and sharing, but not sales. He supports consumer-owned co-ops, taxes to keep prices high, and a ban on advertising anything except simple statements about prices and the chemical content of the product. Kleiman also supports a state monopoly to do the same job of "making marijuana legally available without making it cheap or allowing it to be heavily promoted."

Kilmer, meanwhile, frets over the potential influence of a legal marijuana lobby, given the alcohol lobby's enormous clout. "Private interests prioritize profit, not public health or public safety," he wrote. He's also a strong advocate for a "sunset provision" to any legalization measure, as a way to short-circuit the power of a potential pot lobby.

Given all the variables in legalization, Kilmer is fundamentally an incrementalist, arguing that we should not go from full-throttle prohibition to full-throttle legalization. Smaller-scale approaches are "inherently less risky," he wrote.

Much like smoking pot, the best way to experiment with legalization may be to take one small puff, then wait a while and see how society feels.

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