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Innovative Policy Experiment in Washington Will Grow Marijuana Knowledge

Bob Leeds, co-owner of Sea of Green Farms, shows some of the marijuana he produces during a tour of his company's facility in Seattle, Washington June 30, 2014. The state is poised on Monday to become the second after Colorado to allow retail sales of recreational marijuana to adults, under a heavily regulated and taxed system that voters approved in November 2012. Stores could begin operations as early as Tuesday, with up to 20 expected to open statewide. Picture taken June 30, 2014.

I recently sat down with Phil Wallach who authored a new report, “Washington’s Marijuana Legalization Grows Knowledge, Not Just Pot.” I asked him a few questions about his research into Washington’s policy experiment and what it means for the broader conversation.

You've recently come back from a close-up look at marijuana legalization in Washington state, and you concluded, "Washington has launched two initiatives. One is about drug policy; the other is about knowledge." What did you mean by that?

As it implements its legalization, Washington is making serious investments in understanding the impact of its reform. Rather than simply accepting the effects of marijuana legalization, come what may, the state is making an ambitious attempt to understand the shape of the market and the best ways to deal with the social costs of the drug.

You also say that "this second reform, though less heralded than the attention-grabbing fact of legalization, is in many ways just as bold." What's so unusual about it?

Analysis of small-bore programs is fairly routine at this point, but it’s quite striking to see Washington try to put into place and fund a research apparatus meant to study a policy reform of this scope and importance. Perhaps remarkably, when our governments (at all levels) implement big policy changes, they rarely take any steps to ensure that they will be able to reliably track their effects or improve them down the road. (That lack of foresight is a prime example of Wallach’s Law, which is that everything is more amateurish than you think, even after applying Wallach’s Law.)

I can see why think-tank scholars might be excited about doing a lot of data collection and research, but how could it make a difference in the real world?

It’s likely to be really important for the ongoing evolution of Washington’s marijuana regulations in the coming years—which in turn will have big effects on producers, users, and skeptical bystanders alike. Legal recreational marijuana really is a brand new frontier, and Washington’s knowledge experiment can help the state navigate far better than if flying blind.

What kinds of indicators will evaluators be looking at?

A really wide range, which isn’t yet set in stone: youth and adult usage rates, patterns, and attitudes; public safety impact, both from use-related crime and from reduction in black market activity; traffic impact; property values near marijuana stores. Ah, and another important one that everyone will have their eyes on: alcohol consumption. If that goes down, it could be a big social benefit of marijuana legalization.

You emphasize that Washington has dedicated a revenue stream to evaluating the effects of legalization. Why is that a big deal?

Well, it’s nice to say that all this research ought to be done, but without the money it’s just an idle wish. The state’s legalization initiative specifically allocated a portion of marijuana tax revenues to research, and it’s that link that’s going to make this knowledge experiment really work. If the state’s legislators ultimately divert that money to other purposes, I’m afraid that researchers will be pretty powerless to deliver.

You also emphasize a built-in program of cost-benefit analysis--over a period of almost 20 years! Is that farsighted planning or wishful thinking?

It’s true that, by normal political standards, that is an almost impossibly long period of time over which to do regulatory planning. But from the standpoint of sober, evidence-based policymaking, it makes really good sense to create such a long assessment window, especially for a policy change that may be accompanied by some deep and slow-moving cultural changes.

You acknowledge that fully assessing reform will take years. At that pace, can fact-finding and analysis make a difference in a fast-moving, polarized media environment?

Well, that’s definitely a legitimate worry. What I see as the (unfortunately plausible) worst-case-scenario for Washington’s knowledge experiment is that the noise generated in the anecdotally driven news cycle will drown out the signal from systematic study. But I’m cautiously optimistic about the environment in Washington. Voters approved legalization by a 56-44 margin, and my sense is that they may be willing to give the new regime some time to prove itself before giving up on it, even if some high-profile stories highlight the downsides.

Washington has a unique advantage, an in-house think tank. What's the significance of that?

Yes, that’s right; the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP, pronounced “wissip”) is a really remarkable resource. It’s an independent but state-chartered think tank that has long experience in conducting program evaluations in light of the best available social scientific evidence. It’s going to have to adapt its normal approach quite a bit to do the wide-ranging study it has been charged with conducting about marijuana legalization, but it has a much better chance of succeeding thanks to its previously existing strong research infrastructure and reputation.

Can other states copy Washington's approach, even without their own WSIPPs?

It may be a little bit harder, but if they are willing to invest some resources to get their own independent research operations going, they can also benefit from the knowledge gains that they will reap. It’s worth mentioning that this is true well beyond marijuana policy—states currently underinvest significantly in learning about and analyzing their policy initiatives, and have a lot to gain with relatively modest expenditures.

One point you make seems paradoxical: the key to making the knowledge initiative work is not to expect too much from it. How so?

Partly this goes back to the issue of timing. Citizens and policymakers alike are going to be very eager to draw some conclusions in the near future, and the truth is that researchers just aren’t going to have very clear conclusions yet, probably not for at least a couple of years. If that isn’t well understood in advance, it may lead to disappointment and a desire to walk away from the knowledge experiment entirely. But it’s also about understanding what research can and cannot illuminate. The understanding produced by Washington’s research efforts should lead to better regulation and a clear sense of legalization’s costs and benefits, but it can’t ultimately deliver what some people may hope for, which is an overall verdict as to whether legalization is right for Washington.

You also say it's important for politicians to keep their hands off the evaluators—and for the evaluators to keep their hands off politics. Why?

That’s exactly right—there need to be some well respected boundaries in both directions. Without them, the knowledge experiment will lose its credibility. There will definitely be pressures to blur lines: politicians will always try to juke the stats, and researchers will be sorely tempted to put their expertise in the service of their own views about legalization (and there are plenty in both directions, it should be noted). One of my main pieces of advice to Washingtonians is to resist those pressures.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. In Washington, D.C., we see a lot of people talking past each other because they can't agree on basic facts. What are the odds that Washington state’s knowledge initiative can surmount this problem?

That’s the $64,000 question for our democracy, both in the Evergreen State and for America as a whole. There’s certainly no guarantee; Washington state’s legislature is fairly polarized, and this is an issue sure to ignite strong passions on both sides. But it’s quite encouraging to me that “the other Washington” is taking some very concrete steps to invest in fact-production, in hopes that it can facilitate a better debate—rather than just wishing it would be so, as we probably do too often here in Beltway-land. The knowledge that the state is seeking to produce—at a very reasonable price—is a true public good, and however the politics or the legalization experiment ultimately play out, we will all benefit from the knowledge experiment.

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