Why all sides in Congress can get behind Rep. Gabbard’s new cannabis legislation

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Leah Millis - RC13737E70C0

On Tuesday, Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) introduced the Marijuana Data Collection Act. In an environment in which members of Congress are racing to introduce the newest, widest-reaching cannabis legalization legislation, this bill is different. The legislation itself takes no position on cannabis reform and instead, seeks to encourage research on existing and future state legalization programs so that policymakers can better understand the impact of those state laws. Gabbard’s bill takes a step that more people in Congress should consider: using data to inform policy.

In the process, this legislation offers an opportunity that all sides can support. In our current hyper-polarized politics, “sides” mean parties; however, on the issue of cannabis, party labels are terrible proxies for understanding one’s views on cannabis reform. While most Congressional Democrats support cannabis legalization and most Congressional opponents of cannabis legalization tend to be Republicans, there is significant bipartisan agreement on many pieces of cannabis-related legislation. This bill is a prime example. Reps. Gabbard and Curbelo have come together to support and co-sponsor this legislation, even though on all legislation in the current Congress, they have voted together only 37 percent of the time.

In this case, “both sides” includes those in favor of cannabis reform and those opposed to it. How does this legislation bring those groups together? It’s actually quite simple. Like with most policy issues, individuals stake out positions because of their perceptions of the effects of cannabis reform. Supporters believe cannabis reform will improve equity in the criminal justice system, deliver revenue to government coffers, and reduce youth access to the drug, while having minimal, negative impact on public health and safety. Opponents of cannabis reform argue that legalization facilitates youth access, will contribute to addiction problems, can have short- and long-term health effects, and will create social problems not worth the tax revenue.

Too often in the debate over cannabis, answers to those questions and the analysis of data around these issues are politicized—and both proponents and opponents of reform are guilty. Pro-reform advocates often cherry-pick studies that conform to their views to shout from the rooftops, while remaining silent about legitimate studies that undermine their position. Anti-reform advocates also treat information selectively, with some even passing off rudimentary data analysis as rigorous scientific inquiry to arrive at conclusions they prefer. The Marijuana Data Collection Act combats these challenges by charging a non-partisan, independent entity—the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)—to collect and analyze data and work with states to improve data analysis.

The data produced by this bill would be comprehensive. First, it would include all tax revenue that states receive because of cannabis legalization; in addition to raw tax receipts, it would also involve an accounting of how those monies were spent and what their relative impact was on the state’s budget. This level of detail is obviously crucial to understanding whether states are getting a good deal where cannabis is concerned: are the financial benefits worth any drawbacks that emerge? In particular, the allocations can demonstrate the relative cost of maintaining the legal cannabis program itself versus the amount that flows into the state budget to pay for education and other public goods.

Another economic indicator on which the NAS would collect data is employment: how many jobs were created directly within cannabis businesses, and how many came about indirectly from businesses serving the cannabis industry. Conversation among cannabis reform advocates focuses on the jobs boon that legalization creates. This analysis will show whether that is an economic reality or an oversold basket of goods.

On the public health side, the NAS would investigate who is using medical cannabis and why. Knowing which patients with access to medical cannabis are disposed to use it and what trends exist across the country would be extremely useful data for researchers. The bill also calls for collecting basic data on opioid addiction—a policy problem that many hope can be addressed, in part, through medical cannabis. Importantly, the bill does not require the NAS to draw conclusions about the links between opioids and medical cannabis, or to analyze the efficacy of medical cannabis treatment for any condition. Rather, the legislation specifies that NAS will collect information on opioid abuse treatment and overdoses, crimes involving opioids, and opioid prescription rates. Data at that level could point medical researchers toward promising populations and questions for further research that is badly needed.

Public safety and criminal justice are also significant concerns both for pro- and anti-reform advocates. The legislation calls for the NAS to report arrest rates, including demographics and under which jurisdiction, state or federal. This information would be useful for a range of purposes. Those concerned about underage use of cannabis could refer to the arrest rate among teenagers. Arrests for driving under the influence of cannabis—a major concern for anti-reform advocates—would also be reported, along with data for all DUIs. Arrests, imprisonments and court proceedings all have a price tag, which the NAS would report for each state. While data around the impact of legalization on public safety has often, but not always, been politicized, the NAS is well-positioned to provide comprehensive and rigorous analysis of these data.

The scope of data collection and the inevitable idiosyncrasies between states will undoubtedly make this a heavy lift. But the legislation builds in a process for the NAS to work with states on improving their data collection practices. Standardized data across reporting entities makes meaningful comparisons between states possible.

Each side of the cannabis policy debate should embrace the approach put forth in the Gabbard-Curbelo bill. If you support legalization and you believe it to be a positive policy outcome, you should applaud this effort because the findings of research should demonstrate the value of your position. Alternatively, if you oppose legalization and think that such reforms will lead to a panoply of societal problems, you should be thrilled at the prospect of the NAS providing evidence to support your claims. Ultimately, no one in the policy conversation should fear the independent analysis of data, and those who do are illegitimate policy practitioners too stubborn to allow data to inform legislative decision making.