Member-supported news for Southern California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support for KPCC comes from:

The Pot Frontier: Navigating legalization, States study each other

Ways to Subscribe
BELLINGHAM, WA - JULY 8: Customers shop for marijuana at Top Shelf Cannabis, a retail marijuana store, on July 8, 2014 in Bellingham, Washington. Top Shelf Cannabis was the first retail marijuana store to open today in Washington state, nearly a year and a half after the state's voters chose to legalize marijuana.  (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
David Ryder/Getty Images
BELLINGHAM, WA - JULY 8: Customers shop for marijuana at Top Shelf Cannabis, a retail marijuana store, on July 8, 2014 in Bellingham, Washington. Top Shelf Cannabis was the first retail marijuana store to open today in Washington state, nearly a year and a half after the state's voters chose to legalize marijuana. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

In states where measures to legalize recreational pot have passed, lawmakers are pressed to forge smart policies in an area with little precedence to draw from.

In states where measures to legalize recreational pot have passed, lawmakers are pressed to forge smart policies in an area with little precedence to draw from.

Public safety and regulating purity must be considered. Where can dispensaries be located? Who is eligible for a retail pot license? Who can grow the plants? How many can they grow? Should medical marijuana policy change at all? And, of course, there's the issue of taxation. 

The first - Colorado and Washington

So far, legal recreational marijuana is a frontier that only two states have really explored - Colorado and Washington. Voters passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana in those states in 2012.

Now - Alaska and Oregon

Tuesday, Alaska became the third state in the US to legalize pot, when a voter initiative takes effect making possession and cultivation of limited amounts of marijuana legal. Alexandra Gutierrez, reporter with Alaska Public Media in Juneau, joined Take Two to talk about legalization in the state.

“The initiative we had on our ballot was very similar to the ones that passed in Washington and Colorado,” said Gutierrez. “With the concept being that you want to regulate marijuana like alcohol instead of having it sold on the black market.”

But unlike other states, Alaska has a legal history with marijuana that stretches back to the 1970s, including a landmark case that made small amounts of marijuana legal within a private home.

“You could already have marijuana in your home before the legalization initiative, there was just no way to aquire it,” said Gutierrez.
 
With that settled, there are other issues springing up, including how pot will be marketed and sold and how officials will respond to concerns from some tribal communities.
 
The next step for the state is to set up a regulatory board that would oversee licensing of dispensaries and other rules around marijuana use. In the meantime, it's still illegal to sell marijuana in the state. 

Oregon voters also passed a similar law to that in Alaska. Marijuana will begin to be legalized there in July.

No doubt, lawmakers there are looking to Colorado and Washington for guidance as well. But the legalization process in those two states hasn't exactly been smooth sailing.

In Colorado, advocates for making recreational pot legal cited a number of reasons, including the economic incentive. But it turns out that their projections for the first year were high.  The state brought in about $44 million in tax revenue from retail pot sales - much less than the $70 million estimated.

But the revenue shortfall doesn't have legalization advocates too discouraged. Adam Orens studies how marijuana policy effects state economies for the Marijuana Policy Group, based in Colorado.  He told Take Two that, despite bringing in lower sales tax revenue than expected, voters in Colorado still back legalization. 

"You know, the sky's not falling out here. Yeah, we didn't make as much money as we thought we would. But...that's it," said Orens.

Other challenges are also surfacing in both Colorado and Washington. For example, retail marijuana sellers have struggled with a tax system they say forces their prices up. And both states are contending with persistent black markets. How will the two states meet these challenges?

Next? - California

That's something that policymakers in California are interested in. There's a strong chance an initiative to legalize recreational pot will be on the ballot in the state again next year.

In preparation, Santa Clara University Law School is offering a "Drug Policy Practicum" class to explore the policy considerations involved.

Professor W. David Ball teaches the class, and he told Take Two that he and his students are studying what's been done in Washington and Colorado. But he says there are many other ways to build policy in uncharted legal territory like this.

For example, Ball's students examine California's experience with regulating alcohol and tobacco. And they look at what was done nationally during the end of the prohibition of alcohol as well.

But legalizing marijuana presents new and unique challenges, especially in California where the black market is so robust and a great number of residents have legal access to medical marijuana.

"A lot of it is going to involve student creativity," said Ball. "And saying, 'Well, if A and B are true, then what about the novel cases of C and D? How can we possibly extend the law or how might we imagine the law might extend to cover these new cases?'"

Ball's students work is posted at Druglawandpolicy.com, where they hope policymakers will go for further study.

Audio of all 3 interviews - with Alexandra Gutierrez, Adam Orens, and W. David Ball - is above.

Stay Connected