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Point/Counterpoint: Legalization of Marijuana

May 1, 2014 09:34 AM

By Kenneth A. Couch, University of Connecticut

Longstanding arguments exist for legalization and regulation of the growth and possession of marijuana. States are taking the lead, again serving as engines of innovation on this policy issue. Some states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, while others have allowed for the production and use of medical marijuana. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have additionally legalized recreational use.

It is too early to be able to gauge the effects of legalized recreational use of marijuana. However, the graduated approach taken across states both in the decriminalization of small amounts of possession and lax enforcement of medical usage and production may be helpful in assessing likely long-term impacts. Here, two teams of leading policy researchers in this area respond to the following questions:

  • In states that have legalized medical marijuana, what have been the most salient positive and negative impacts? Were there unexpected outcomes?
  • As states such as Colorado and Washington move toward more general legalization, how do the policy issues broaden? What do we know from research about likely impacts in these areas?
  • Do you consider the move toward medical and recreational legalization of marijuana as beneficial or are there policy modifications that might be recommended to help reduce associated negative outcomes?

Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Director of the Bing Center for Health Economics and Co-Director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, and Eric Sevigny, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina, provide one perspective. Mark Anderson, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University, and Daniel Rees, a Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Colorado Denver, provide a contrasting viewpoint.

Marijuana Liberalizations Policies: Why We Can’t Learn Much from Policy Still in Motion
Rosalie Liccardo Pacula and Eric L. Sevigny

California legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes nearly 17 years ago, representing a major challenge to the federal government's scheduling of marijuana as a Schedule I drug in the 1970 Controlled Substance Act. As many predicted, California was simply the first. As of May 2013, 19 states and the District of Columbia now provide legal protection to patients, and in many cases caregivers, for possession and supply of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

The Legalization of Recreational Marijuana: How Likely is the Worst-Case Scenario?
D. Mark Anderson and Daniel I. Rees

Last fall, voters in Colorado and Washington approved measures legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. In the near future, residents of these states who are 21 years of age and older will be able to purchase marijuana at retail stores. Although it can be challenging to predict future behavior, Mark Kleiman, a prominent drug policy expert, described what might be characterized as the worst-case scenario.

Natural Experiments in a Complex and Dynamic Environment: The Need for a Measured Assessment of the Evidence
Rosalie Liccardo Pacula and Eric L. Sevigny

While there are several areas of agreement with the points made by Anderson and Rees, we do have a few key points of departure. First, we disagree with their conclusion that much has been learned from “clearly defined natural experiments” of medical marijuana liberalization policies, not because this literature lacks methodological rigor but because it has not adequately accounted for state-level policy heterogeneity and implementation uncertainty.

The Role of Dispensaries: The Devil is in the Details
D. Mark Anderson and Daniel I. Rees

Relying on results from Pacula et al., Pacula and Sevigny argue that medical marijuana dispensaries increase the consumption of marijuana, increase the consumption of alcohol, and lead to more alcohol-related traffic fatalities.


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