Earlier this week, Brookings Fellows John Hudak and Phil Wallach answered questions in a Reddit AmA on the future of marijuana policy. The pair have researched the experiences of both Washington and Colorado with legalized recreational marijuana systems, and they are watching closely the ballot initiatives upcoming in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. They received enthusiastic responses with a wide array of questions. Below are some of the most interesting. Visit the AmA page for the complete conversation and to find out if they answered any questions you would have asked.
On drug-testing for employment
In both Colorado and Washington there was a concern for how legalization would affect company drug testing policies. This debate threw the federalism conflict inherent in legalization into sharp relief. It is not at all clear how companies with branches in different states would adapt their policies in states with legalized recreational marijuana, or even more broadly, how legalized recreational marijuana would affect the state’s economy generally.
Good morning gentlemen – as drug-testing prior to a formal job offer is the norm for many companies these days, can you fail the drugs test (and not get the job as a result) if you have just come back from, say, Colorado?
So, this is an interesting question and one that is unfolding right now in Colorado. The state Court of Appeals has rules in a case involving Dish Network’s decision to continue to enforce drug testing policies that Colorado businesses can set rules around drug testing in the workplace, even for marijuana.
The challenge is that you can test positive for cannabis (THC) and not be under the influence for a longer period than would be the case for say alcohol. However, the state is giving businesses the power to enforce workplace standards, regardless of rules regarding recreational behaviors out of the work place. For the worker–and future workers–dealing with this issue, there is little recourse in federal courts where marijuana remains illegal under the Controlled Substances Act.
Ultimately, the Colorado Supreme Court will rule on this case and set the standard for the state. Keep a lookout for their ruling.
On medical regimes and black markets
There was broad concern over how legalization would affect both pre-existing medical regimes and the marijuana markets in states. Some questioners wondered about the intent of medical regimes in the first place, while others were curious about how the traditional black market would be affected. The questions about new laws, regulations, and market actors revealed an interesting mix of enforcement and opportunities.
I’m a business reporter–I’m wondering what we know about the role of black market/illegally produced-and-distributed marijuana in the new legal marijuana states? Prices are presumably higher in licensed stores than ‘on the street’; that’s partly taxes, partly overhead, partly quality/transparency of contents and qualities. And, the premium customers are willing to pay for a legal product. Is legal marijuana squeezing illegal growers, cartel and indie distributors/dealers, etc.?
Mitchell, thanks for the question. This is a challenge to get good data to assess the question because information about the black market is understandably a challenge to get in an valid and reliable way. That said, there are surely individuals who are accessing the legal market now and not the illegal market. At the same time, some outlets argue that there are serious social divides between who is access legal marijuana and who is remaining in the illegal market.
Any time there is an influx of market actors, you can be certain that it will put a strain on existing producers–in this case black market producers and sellers.
One other item, in Colorado in particular, that is a challenge for the black market involves Coloradans new constitutional right to grow marijuana at home. That allows individuals, particularly those in municipalities and counties that have opted out of marijuana, to have access to it–and for fairly cheap. That may actually present a bigger threat to the black market sellers, cartels, etc. than the legalized market.
It’s a good question; people sometimes imagine that legalization means an end to enforcement, but actually if a state is determined to drive the black market out of existence it may require more enforcement, at least in the near-term.
Just in the news today, CO police and the DEA are cooperating to crack down on illegal grows in Denver:http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/denver-police-federal-agents-conducting-large-scale-raids-on-suspected-illegal-marijuana-grows
Legalization’s impact nationally and internationally
Beyond the two states that have already enacted recreational legalization regimes, one of the AmA participants’ most pertinent concerns was the pace and direction of policy changes in other U.S. states and even internationally. The unifying theme among these questions was a curiosity over the opposition to and lethargy around changing policy.
The list of reasons is long, but what would you say is the number one thing standing in the way of legalization on a national stage? We know from polling that it isn’t public opinion. What is the first domino that will cause them all to fall?
Inertia–which is a powerful force in US politics. There is a huge bureaucracy devoted to treating marijuana as a criminal matter, and so changing directions quickly is difficult. In terms of retail legislative politics, there has long been a fear of looking soft on crime of any sort; and there is still plenty of parental fear of having marijuana or other drugs become more accessible to their children, so that means that supporting reform seems like a political risk. But, as I said elsewhere, it does seem like the political environment is changing.
Broader implications of marijuana legalization
Many redditors were interested in how marijuana fits into the broader policy picture. A constellation of law enforcement issues from prison sentencing and overcrowding, to differential enforcement, to basic concerns over health and civil liberties, are all connected in some way to marijuana policy. Thus, questions extended deeply into moral and philosophical realms.
How connected to efforts to reform the US prison system is the MJ legalization movement? Huge numbers of Americans are in the penal system for drug offenses, many non-violent.
Does legalization (perhaps particularly in states with heavy levels of incarceration) have a broader social-welfare implication? Has your research revealed any novel or interesting correlations?
There are a lot of reasons advocates are giving for why marijuana should be legalized. Different arguments appeal to different groups. Particularly in minority communities/economically struggling communities, the arguments about civil rights/liberties and incarceration rates have real appeal to get traction in ways that may not have as much appeal in white communities or wealthier communities.
The targeting and diversification of these arguments to specific demographic groups shows a real maturity in the pro-legalization movement to understand what the politics around this issue are. Very talented political and legal minds worked on this issue in Colorado and Washington. It flies in the face of the idea that supporters of the movement are a bunch of stoners. I talk about this concept in my report on implementation in Colorado. See it here: https://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2014/07/colorado-marijuana-legalization-succeeding
Benjamin Huber contributed to this post.