Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Latest polling data in Colorado and Washington continue to show strong support for legalization

As reported in this new Huffington Post piece, headlined "Pioneer Pot States Did The Right Thing, Polls Show," recent polling in the two states to lead the modern marijuana legalization movement indicates that three years of experience with legalization has not diminished support for these reforms.  Here are the basic details:

Support for legalized marijuana seems to be growing in Colorado and Washington state, which became the first U.S. states to regulate the weed for recreational use two years ago.

A survey released Wednesday from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling shows that 56 percent of voters in Washington state approve of their state's recreational marijuana laws, while 37 percent are opposed. The opposition is lower than that in the 2012 vote to approve legalization, in which 56 percent supported the measure, and 44 percent disapproved. Moreover, a majority of Washington voters -- 77 percent -- say the marijuana laws have either had a positive effect or no effect on their lives, according to the poll.

A Qunnipiac poll last month tells a similar story in Colorado. Sixty-two percent of Colorado voters support reformed marijuana laws, the poll shows. That's an increase of 7 percentage points over the margin of support when voters approved Colorado's legalization in 2012....

Colorado became the first U.S. state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, quickly followed by Washington. The first retail shops opened in 2014. By the end of last year, voters in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., approved recreational marijuana legalization measures. By 2016, as many as 10 additional states are likely to consider reforming marijuana laws.

May 21, 2015 in History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Initiative reforms in states, Polling data and results, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"How D.C. pot legalization has become ‘the dealer-protection act of 2015’"

The title of this post is the headline of this fascinating recent Washington Post article.  Here are excerpts:

Not long ago, a man who had covertly dealt pot in the nation’s capital for three decades approached a young political operative at a birthday party in a downtown Washington steakhouse. He was about to test a fresh marketing strategy to take advantage of the District’s peculiar new marijuana law, which allows people to possess and privately consume the drug but provides them no way to legally buy it for recreational use. Those contradictions have created a surge in demand and new opportunities for illicit pot purveyors.

“Do you like cannabis?” asked the dealer. “Yes,” answered the man, who had recently left his job as a Republican Senate staffer.

So, the dealer recalled, he handed his new acquaintance a tiny plastic bag that contained half a gram of “Blue Dream,” a sweet and fruity strain of marijuana. With the bag he also presented a business card and an offer: If you like what you try, call me. Within days, the man — now a lobbyist — picked up the phone.

The dealer — who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because what they do remains illegal — said he has used that same in-plain-sight sales pitch at similarly upscale D.C. settings, collecting three new buyers and a pair of new suppliers. The new business is all thanks to the quirks of the District’s legalization, which has boosted the appetite for marijuana as more people become comfortable acquiring it through the black market. “It’s the dealer-protection act of 2015,” he said. “This was a license for me to print money.”

Who is responsible for this unintended consequence depends on whom you ask. In November, Washington voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative that made it legal to possess and grow marijuana, but the following month, Congress enacted a spending prohibition that barred the city from creating a system through which pot could be lawfully bought, sold and taxed.

That means there are only three ways for people in the District to legally obtain marijuana. Someone can give it to them, though the donors, of course, must find their own original source. Residents can each grow as many as three plants to maturity at one time, though that process is complicated, expensive and time-consuming. And with a doctor’s approval, people can get medical-marijuana cards, though supply remains dismal.

“The black market is the obvious choice,” said a 24-year-old government contractor who deals part time. “It’s awesome.”

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who has led Congress’s charge to thwart the legalization, blamed city leaders, insisting that they should have forbidden possession when he and other lawmakers prevented Washington from creating a controlled marketplace. “There’s no question that demand will go up, and there’s no legal source of supply,” he said. “Clearly, this was not thought out rationally by the city government, which chose to go forward with legalization without regulation.”

John Falcicchio, chief of staff for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), sharply countered that assertion. “In D.C., it shouldn’t be called the black market. It should be called the Harris market,” he said. “If there’s any uptick in the black market, it’s thanks to Harris.”...

That boost in demand, supporters of legalization say, helps explain why lawful use in the District must be paired with lawful sales.   “If you’re going to legalize marijuana, you also have to legalize the supply because you want to get rid of the black market or at least limit the black market,” said Keith Stroup, founder of NORML.  “Right now, they’ve done the exact opposite.”

Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police, said a regulated market would have “pulled the teeth out of the illegal drug trade” and eventually wiped out the violence associated with it.

Jeffrey Miron, an economics teacher at Harvard University, compared marijuana’s potential evolution to that of alcohol after prohibition ended in 1933.   “People seem to prefer going to a legal supplier rather than making beer in their basement,” said Miron, director of economic studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, which supports the legalization of all drugs.

He and others who have studied the topic don’t suggest that illicit sales would disappear overnight, but after several years — even a decade — they argue that the black market could not compete with a controlled market.

Rep. Andy Harris rejected those arguments.  “I think there’s value in keeping the supply chain illegal at this point,” he said, maintaining that it provides “a check on the system.”

The longtime District dealer who now markets his product at chic D.C. gatherings has already considered what he would do if the city regulated pot sales.  He and his friends, he said, would open their own dispensary.  They’d go legit.

May 19, 2015 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"New Challenge for Police: Finding Pot in Lollipops and Marshmallows"

Images (5)The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times article, which includes these excerpts:

After nearly 20 years on the job, Jim Jeffries, the police chief in LaFollette, Tenn., has seen his share of marijuana seizures — dry green buds stashed in trunks or beneath seats, often double­bagged to smother the distinctive scent. But these days, Chief Jeffries is on the lookout for something unexpected: lollipops and marshmallows.

Recently his officers pulled over a Chevy Blazer driven by a couple with three children in tow. Inside, the officers discovered 24 pounds of marijuanalaced cookies and small hard candies shaped like gingerbread men, plus a tub of pungent marijuana butter perfect for making more. The bags of Kraft marshmallows looked innocent enough. But a meat injector was also found in the car. After searching the Internet, Chief Jeffries realized that the marshmallows probably had been infused with the marijuana butter and heat­sealed into their bags....

Across the country, law enforcement agencies long accustomed to seizures of bagged, smokable marijuana are now wrestling with a surge in marijuana­-infused snacks and confections transported illegally across state lines for resale.

Pot edibles, as they are called, can be much easier to smuggle than marijuana buds: They may resemble candy or home­baked goodies, and often have no telltale smell. And few police officers are trained to think of gummy bears, mints or neon­colored drinks as potential dope.

Some experts worry that smuggled pot edibles will appeal to many consumers, particularly adolescents, who are ill prepared for the deceptively slow high. Impatient novices can easily eat too much too fast, suffering anxiety attacks and symptoms resembling psychosis. Already, young children have eaten laced sweets left within reach. Many live in states where there has been no public education about responsible consumption of marijuana.

“Citizens in nonlegalization states are far less likely to be receiving those messages, so their risks are probably greater,” said Robert J. MacCoun, a professor of law at Stanford who recently co­wrote an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine urging stronger regulation of pot edibles.

There are no hard numbers for the amount of pot edibles being trafficked interstate, but police departments in a variety of jurisdictions without legal sales report seizing increasing amounts in the past year. The quantities suggest the products are intended to supply a growing demand, law enforcement officials say....

The popularity of confections laced with marijuana has caught many health officials by surprise. Pot edibles took off in 2014, the first year of recreational sales in Colorado, when nearly five million individual items were sold to patients and adult users. Demand in Colorado and Washington State has spawned a stunning assortment of snacks and sweets, from Mondo’s sugar­free vegan bars to Dixie Edibles’ white chocolate peppermint squares.

Today consumers 21 and older can legally buy pot edibles in those two states; soon adults in Oregon and Alaska will join them. Pot edibles are available to medical users in at least a half dozen of the 23 states with medical marijuana programs.

Edibles make sense for marijuana entrepreneurs. In the past, marijuana buds were sold, and the rest of the plant was usually discarded. But with an extraction machine, makers of edible products can use the entire plant. “In a world where THC becomes inexpensive, you would like to differentiate your product from other people’s products in ways that allow you to maintain a higher profit margin,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a co­author of “Marijuana Legalization,” who has studied black markets for cocaine and marijuana. “Edibles offer some opportunities for that.”...

The manufacturers themselves say they receive constant requests for outof­state shipments. James Howler, the chief executive of Cheeba Chews, based in Denver, said his team fields emails from people nationwide — from epilepsy patients in Iowa to a retired mechanic in Florida, all of whom would rather snack on marijuana than smoke it.

“The needs and curiosity from around the country can be overwhelming,” he said. Still, Mr. Howler said, he declines them all. “It is highly illegal, and stupid to think we would risk everything,” he said.

May 17, 2015 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Notable Ohio county prosecutor calls pot prohibition a "disastrous waste of public funds"

Images (9)As reported in this Cincinnati Enquirer article, headlined "Prosecutor Deters OK with legalizing pot," a high-profile prosecutor in Ohio is now publicly getting involved with efforts to reform the state's marijuana laws. Here are the details:

The campaign to legalize marijuana in Ohio found an unlikely friend Monday in Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters.

Deters, a life-long Republican and law-and-order prosecutor, said he agreed to lead a task force on the potential impact of legalization in part because he's been unhappy for years with the state's marijuana laws. He said they waste taxpayer dollars and target people who typically are not much of a threat to society.

"I think they're outdated and ludicrous," Deters said of marijuana laws. "I don't use marijuana, but I know people who do use marijuana, and I'd rather deal with someone who smoked a joint than someone who drank a bottle of vodka any day of the week."

When asked if he favors legalization, Deters told The Enquirer: "I don't have any problem with it at all."

ResponsibleOhio, the group of wealthy investors campaigning for legalization, asked Deters to lead the task force. Deters said he's not being paid for his work on the task force and agreed to do it because he's interested in the issue and the potential impact on law enforcement.

He said finding an affordable and efficient way to test drivers who are suspected of being impaired by marijuana use is one of his concerns. "There is a public safety element to this," Deters said. His goal is to produce a report on the impact of legalization within a few months....

Deters said he doesn't buy the argument that prisons are filled with low-level drug offenders, but he does think the time and money devoted to marijuana enforcement could be better spent elsewhere. "It's been a disastrous waste of public funds," Deters said....

Deters said he's not taking a position on ResponsibleOhio's proposed business model, but he said it makes sense for the state to regulate and tax marijuana. "You can walk outside your building and buy marijuana in 10 minutes," Deters said. "The question is, do we want schools and local governments getting the money or the bad guys?"

He said it's also wise for the state to prepare for legalization, whether or not ResponsibleOhio succeeds, because voters seem more willing to support it and other states are adopting similar measures. "The days of 'reefer madness' are gone, because that's not the reality," Deters said, referring to the 1950s-era movies that vilified marijuana and those who used it.

He said he's reaching out now to academics, elected officials and law enforcement to participate in the task force.

I have long known and respected the work of Joe Deters, even though we have sometimes disagreed on various professional matters through our work on the Ohio Death Penalty Task Force and in other settings.  I had heard from various folks involved with the ResponsibleOhio campaign that they were seeking to have a prominent, knowledgeable person running a task force to examine these important marijuana reform topics, and I am especially pleased to see that Joe Deters is now officially and publicly at the helm.

May 11, 2015 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Initiative reforms in states, Political perspective on reforms, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Why Washington state is extinguishing medical marijuana" ... while the black market endures

The title of this post adds to the headline of this notable Mashable piece discussing notable marketplace developments in one of the first two states that legalized recreational marijuana via initiative votes in 2012.   Here are excerpts:

For the past 10 months, three marijuana markets have been operating simultaneously in Washington state: the street market, the medical market and the recreational market. In the future, however, there will only be two. And contrary to some people’s expectations about legal recreational pot making drug dealers obsolete, it’s the medical dispensaries that will disappear first.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill in April that will overhaul medical marijuana and reconcile the two legal markets into one. Medical marijuana dispensaries as they exist now will either close or seek licenses in the regulated industry. In the future, medical customers will have to look to “medically endorsed” recreational marijuana stores for their supply.

Washington's medical marijuana market has always been "looser than anywhere in the country,” says Rick Garza, head of the state Liquor Control Board, the agency that oversees the marijuana industry.

"With I-502 (the recreational market), you have a tightly regulated business that has to make a big investment and pay taxes and fees," says Garza. And while medical marijuana is legal, it has become somewhat of a "gray area" because the "vast majority" of users served by the dispensaries are truly recreational users anyway, says Garza. "You have this unregulated and untaxed [medical] dispensary that's competing directly with the regulated market." "You have this unregulated and untaxed [medical] dispensary that's competing directly with the regulated market."

It's hard to measure the size of each of these markets, but to get a general idea I talked to a budtender and an illegal street dealer to get their perspectives on the state of Washington pot. Regardless where the lines of legality are drawn (and redrawn), there's a lot of pot floating around the Evergreen state. A study by the RAND Corporation found that marijuana consumption in Washington during 2013 was between 135 and 225 metric tons (that’s 297,624 to 464,040 pounds).

Garza guesses the recreational stores have so far only captured 3-5% of the total marketplace. And seeing as how the recreational market has generated $168 million in sales in the 10 months it has been operational in Washington, that gives you an idea of the size and potential of the industry as a whole.

A male pot dealer in his early twenties, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has been selling weed in the state for the past couple of years while finishing a degree. He sells primarily to college kids, so he didn’t expect business to change, but says he doesn’t see a drop in sales for dealers who sell to older demographics either. “People don't realize just how big the street market is,” he says....

The Liquor Control Board guesses the medical industry has captured 40-50% of the market, but it’s impossible to say how big the medical marijuana population is because Washington has never required a patient registry or ID cards like other states with medical systems do.

Since the state’s first recreational stores opened in July 2014, about 134 retail locations have opened alongside some 1,100 medical dispensaries in the state. However, the Liquor Control Board calls the estimated number of dispensaries “conservative.”

Pricing at medical dispensaries has remained cheaper than that of recreational stores because they aren't subject to the same high taxes. A gram of weed at a dispensary generally costs around $10-12 versus $12-16 on average at recreational stores. Weed on the street, however, remains at a pretty steady $8-10.

"The street can always offer prices that are below that of the stores," says the dealer I spoke with. And while street products may lack the variety of brick and mortar stores, they have added convenience because dealers can move around. "The street can more effectively distribute, because people don't have to come to you."

For some people illegal pot sales are more simple (and familiar). Text your dealer, meet up, trade cash for whatever weed they have and part ways. At recreational stores, customers have to be 21, visit at set hours and locations, and sort through a dizzying array of products. Some people find it more complex to buy legal marijuana.

May 7, 2015 in Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

New poll indicates over 60% support for marijuana legalization

This new Daily Caller piece, headlined "Poll: 61 Percent Of Americans Want Marijuana Legalization, Smashing Previous Records," reports on some details of a notable new poll about American opinions on marijuana reforms. Here are the basics:

A new poll has found that 61 percent of American voters agree with legalizing recreational marijuana, shattering previous records. The poll was released by the Benenson Strategy Group (BSG), while the old record of 58 percent supporting was done by Gallup in 2013.

Republicans still haven’t crossed the halfway point. According to the BSG survey, 48 percent agree with legalization, while 52 percent still oppose. A slightly wider gap exists for conservatives, with 45 percent supporting legalization and 55 percent opposing.

A total of 72 percent of voters think that jail time for marijuana possession doesn’t make sense. Instead, these voters believe that the punishment should be reduced down to as low as $25 dollars and as high as $100 dollars. Although Republicans are traditionally opposed to marijuana legalization, this is a measure they’re friendlier towards, as 68 percent agree with the proposal. Of conservatives, 63 percent agree with reduced penalties.

BSG relied on a sample size of 1,032 registered voters to create a nationally representative survey. The survey was conducted from Feb. 26 to 27. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 points.

This new Huffington Post piece provides a few more details and more background concerning this latest poll and prior polls on similar topics.

March 19, 2015 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Polling data and results, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Lots of official new Colorado data about state's marijuana realities showing lots of job growth

As detailed in this local article, headlined "Colorado releases trove of marijuana data," the Colorado Department of Revenue today released this 40-page "Annual Update" report that "may very well be largest collection of data about marijuana use ever released in human history."  Here is a partial summary of some of the data cite the press report:

74 tons of marijuana flower were sold in the state, of which only 19 tons were sold as "recreational," telling us medical patients used more than twice as much marijuana flower (buds) as did recreational customers....

Conversely, recreational users consumed vastly more edible marijuana products in 2014 than did medical marijuana patients.  1.96 million units of medical edibles were sold. 2.8 million of them were sold to recreational buyers.

That means a total of 4.8 million edible marijuana products like cookies, candy bars and drinks sold in 2014. That's equal to almost one edible to every resident of Colorado....

The state of Colorado was cranking out almost 17,000 new plants each day at the end of 2014....  At year's end, Colorado recreational pot growers were cultivating more than 200,000 new plants each month to support their businesses, compared to just 25,000 in January, the first month of legal sales.

Plants need to be designated as either "retail" or "medical" when they are potted. By contrast, growers cranked out more than 300,000 new medical plants in all but two months of the year.

Each plant is tagged with an RFID chip, which is tracked through each step of cultivation and preparation for sale.  The state tracking system logged 37 million "events," including new cutting planted and plants processed into various products.

Denver is the undisputed capitol of the marijuana trade in Colorado. 60 percent of all the recreational buds sold in the state were sold in Denver, 11.5 tons.  The next nearest competitor, Boulder County, looked paltry by comparison with 2.5 tons.

Denver is also tops in medical pot with 31 tons sold compared to just 11 tons in El Paso County. By a 5-1 margin, the Denver County's recreational sales of infused products outpaced its next nearest competitor with 1.3 million units sold.  About 2.6 million edibles sold in Denver.  A half million sold in Boulder....

The data reveal that 9,400 jobs were created above-board in Colorado's marijuana sector with the dawn of recreational sales.  There were 6,600 state badges issued to workers in the medical pot industry as 2014 began.  By year's end, the figure mushroomed to 16,000.

833 brand-new recreational marijuana facilities opened in Colorado in 2014, including 322 retail stores.  At year's end there were 1,416 medical marijuana facilities, a slight increase over 2013.  State regulators suspended 30 licenses for violations over the course of the year. An additional 153 agreed to corrections or shut-downs.

Though there is a lot of data to take in and assess, the economic development story in the form of jobs created strikes me as a hugely significant factors for the future of marijuana reform.  This other official Colorado document seems to indicate that total job growth in Colorado numbered 80,000, which suggests that perhaps as much as 25% (if not more) of the job growth in Colorado can and should be fairly attributed to Colorado's marijuana sector.

February 27, 2015 in Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Notable Colorado figures for marijuana tax revenues for 2014

This new AP article, headlined "Colorado collected about $76 million in recreational and marijuana pot revenue in 2014," reports on the latest official reporting of tax revenues collected on legal marijuana sales in Colorado for last year. Here are some of the details and some context for what they mean:

Marijuana makes money. But legalizing it doesn't eliminate the black market or solve a state's budget problems. Those are the lessons from Colorado's first full year of tax collections on recreational pot. The year-end report, released Tuesday, tallied about $44 million in new sales taxes and excise taxes from recreational pot.

Add fees and pre-existing taxes from medical pot, which has been legal since 2000, and Colorado's total 2014 pot haul was about $76 million....

Colorado started selling recreational weed on Jan. 1, 2014. But its first month of sales resulted in only $1.6 million for the state. By December, that figure was $5.4 million. The reason for the increase? Regulatory delays. Red tape meant stores opened slowly, with many municipalities waiting months before allowing pot shops to open....

But legal weed isn't an overnight flood of tax money. "Everyone who thinks Colorado's rollin' in the dough because of marijuana? That's not true," said state Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat and one of the Legislature's main budget-writers....

Colorado's pot regulators have struggled to establish a wholesale pot price to collect excise taxes. "Taxing a percentage of price may simply not work," said Pat Oglesby, a former congressional tax staffer who now studies marijuana's tax potential at the Chapel Hill, N.C., Center for New Revenue. He pointed out that the two latest legal weed states -- Alaska and Oregon, both still working on retail regulations -- will tax marijuana by weight, similar to how tobacco is taxed.

Every state in the union, liberal to conservative, has a market for marijuana. And making pot legal doesn't guarantee those consumers will leave the black market and happily sign up to start paying taxes. In Washington state, medical marijuana isn't taxed. It is in Colorado, but all adults are allowed to grow up to six plants on their own. That means the states' new marijuana markets had legal competition from Day One. And that doesn't account for the black market, which of course is completely free of taxes and regulations.

Lawmakers in both Colorado and Washington are looking for ways to drive pot smokers out of the lower-taxed medical pot market and into the recreational one. But obstacles are stiff. "If there is untaxed medical pot, the taxes are voluntary. When you make it voluntary, people won't necessarily pay," Oglesby said.

The marijuana market is far from settled. Colorado benefited from first-in-the-nation curiosity and marijuana tourism. As more states legalize, Colorado and Washington will face competition. "Colorado is probably kind of a best-case scenario" for pot tax collections, said Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard University economist who studies the drug market. "If a number of other states legalize -- and two of them already have -- then bit by bit, Colorado revenue is likely to decline."

There's an even bigger uncertainty looming for states considering legal weed -- a new president in 2016. "The huge unknown is still federal policy," Miron said. "A new president can radically change state policies toward legalization."

I believe that Colorado's official year-end accounting can be found in this link/document, and I notice that there appears to be no column for state (or federal) income taxes paid by persons now working legally in the state-legalized marijuana market. Though certainly direct taxes on marijuana manufacturing and sales is the most tangible and measurable consequences of marijuana reform, I tend to think the biggest long-term economic impact for a state comes from creating a (huge?) industry with collateral businesses all of which will provide lots of jobs for individuals who will pay (lots of?) income tax on what they make in this new industry.

February 11, 2015 in Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Taxation information and issues | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Can and should recent Rand report for Vermont inform all reform debates in all states?

As highlighted in this prior post, earlier this month the RAND Drug Policy Research Center released this big policy/research report on marijuana reform titled "Considering Marijuana Legalization: Insights for Vermont and Other Jurisdictions."  This report was produced in response to specific Vermont legislation and expressly "aims to inform the debate in Vermont."  Nevertheless, the report's summary ends by asserting that the report's "general themes should be useful to any jurisdiction considering alternatives to marijuana prohibition."  

I am certain policy-makers and advocates for and against reform will find this RAND report "useful" in various ways, and I have already required students in my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform seminar to review the RAND report with an eye on how its analysis might impact consideration of various marijuana reform proposals emerging in Ohio.  But I continue to wonder if (and worry that) there is ultimately a strong disaffinity among most marijuana advocates to seriously engage with the kind of "wonkish" cost/benefit analysis that the RAND report represents.

 I sense that supporters of marijuana reform are often eager to deny that there are any significant costs likely to result from reform, and likewise that opponents of marijuana reform are often eager to deny that there are any significant benefits likely to result from reform.  Consequently, I suspect (and fear) that the most ardent participants in policy debates on both sides may not want something like the RAND report at the center of reform discussions because it presents a more nuanced account of costs and benefits than advocates may want to acknowledge.

January 26, 2015 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Colorado trying to cope with unexpected cannabis combustion problems

The front-page of today's New York Times has this notable lengthy article about a notable problem increasing in Colorado since marijuana legalization. The piece is headlined "Odd Byproduct of Legal Marijuana: Homes That Blow Up," and here is how the article starts:

When Colorado legalized marijuana two years ago, nobody was quite ready for the problem of exploding houses. But that is exactly what firefighters, courts and lawmakers across the state are confronting these days: amateur marijuana alchemists who are turning their kitchens and basements into “Breaking Bad”­style laboratories, using flammable chemicals to extract potent drops of a marijuana concentrate commonly called hash oil, and sometimes accidentally blowing up their homes and lighting themselves on fire in the process.

The trend is not limited to Colorado — officials from Florida to Illinois to California have reported similar problems — but the blasts are creating a special headache for lawmakers and courts here, the state at the center of legal marijuana. Even as cities try to clamp down on homemade hash oil and lawmakers consider outlawing it, some enthusiasts argue for their right to make it safely without butane, and criminal defense lawyers say the practice can no longer be considered a crime under the 2012 constitutional amendment that made marijuana legal to grow, smoke, process and sell.

“This is uncharted territory,” said State Representative Mike Foote, a Democrat from northern Colorado who is grappling with how to address hashoil explosions. “These things come up for the first time, and no one’s dealt with them before.”

January 18, 2015 in Current Affairs, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

RAND produces big new policy report: "Considering Marijuana Legalization: Insights for Vermont and Other Jurisdictions"

Vermont275As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "RAND study: Marijuana legalization could be big bucks from sales, tourism," the RAND Drug Policy Research Center has just released a big new report on marijuana reform with a focus on Vermont.   The AP piece provides an effective summary of the basics of the RAND report and local political recaction in Vermont:

Vermont could reap hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue if it were to legalize marijuana, but only if nearby states didn't also jump on the bandwagon, according to a study released Friday.

The study comes as states across the country increasingly explore the potential budget boost from taxing an underground industry, even while the nascent legal pot business in Colorado and Washington experiences growing pains.

In Vermont, the Rand Corporation found that revenue from marijuana consumers could generate between $20 million and $75 million a year for the state.  The larger figure could be reached through what the report calls "marijuana tourism and illicit exports."  It also found that nearly 40 times as many marijuana consumers live within 200 miles of Vermont than live in the state.

The preface to the report, which doesn't make a recommendation about whether the state should legalize marijuana, says it's meant to "inform the debate." While it was prepared for Vermont, it says its conclusions could be useful to other states considering marijuana legalization.

Such high revenue is by no means assured, the report said. "If the federal government intervened to stop such cross-border traffic or if another state in the Northeast decided to legalize marijuana and set lower tax rates, these potential revenues might not materialize," it said.

Vermont allows the use of medical marijuana, and the possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized. Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he believes the state will follow Washington and Colorado in legalizing it, but he wants to see how it plays out in other states before easing laws. "I continue to support moves to legalize marijuana in Vermont but have always said that we have to proceed with rigorous research and preparation before deciding whether to act," Shumlin said. "This report will help us do that."

The price of marijuana in Washington has plunged since the sky-high prices when pot shops opened six months ago, and now growers complain the state isn't properly regulating supply. Regulators in Colorado have capped production to deter weed from spilling into nearby states, but that has meant more demand than supply.

Last spring, the Vermont Legislature passed a law requiring Shumlin's administration to produce a report about the consequences of legalizing marijuana. No proposals to legalize marijuana have been introduced in the Legislature. After the Friday presentation by the report's authors, portions of it were recounted during a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee. "It seems to me the big question is do we go forward with this," said Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais. She said the question on how to tax it is complicated.

The report provided few hard answers. It said that many questions can't be answered in advance, such as whether easing marijuana laws would increase abuse and how to keep it from minors and out of other states. "There is no recipe for marijuana legalization," the report said, "nor are there working models of established fully legal marijuana markets."

Here are links to the full report and materials that RAND released with this report:

January 17, 2015 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Taxation information and issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Losing marijuana business, Mexican cartels push heroin and meth"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable lengthy new Washington Post article.  Here are excerpts:

Mexican traffickers are sending a flood of cheap heroin and methamphetamine across the U.S. border, the latest drug seizure statistics show, in a new sign that America’s marijuana decriminalization trend is upending the North American narcotics trade.

The amount of cannabis seized by U.S. federal, state and local officers along the boundary with Mexico has fallen 37 percent since 2011, a period during which American marijuana consumers have increasingly turned to the more potent, higher-grade domestic varieties cultivated under legal and quasi-legal protections in more than two dozen U.S. states.

Made-in-the-USA marijuana is quickly displacing the cheap, seedy, hard-packed version harvested by the bushel in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. That has prompted Mexican drug farmers to plant more opium poppies, and the sticky brown and black “tar” heroin they produce is channeled by traffickers into the U.S. communities hit hardest by prescription painkiller abuse, off­ering addicts a $10 alternative to $80-a-pill oxycodone.

“Legalization of marijuana for recreational use has given U.S. consumers access to high-quality marijuana, with genetically improved strains, grown in greenhouses,” said Raul Benitez-Manaut, a drug-war expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “That’s why the Mexican cartels are switching to heroin and meth.” U.S. law enforcement agents seized 2,181 kilograms of heroin last year coming from Mexico, nearly three times the amount confiscated in 2009.

Methamphetamine, too, has surged, mocking the Hollywood image of backwoods bayou labs and “Breaking Bad” chemists. The reality, according to Drug Enforcement Administration figures, is that 90 percent of the meth on U.S. streets is cooked in Mexico, where precursor chemicals are far easier to obtain.

“The days of the large-scale U.S. meth labs are pretty much gone, given how much the Mexicans have taken over production south of the border and distribution into the United States,” said Lawrence Payne, a DEA spokesman. “Their product is far superior, cheaper and more pure.” Last year, 15,803 kilograms of the drug was seized along the border, up from 3,076 kilos in 2009....

Mexican cartels continue to deploy people as “mules” strapped with 50-pound marijuana backpacks to hike through the Arizona borderlands and send commercial trucks into Texas with bales of shrink-wrapped cannabis so big they need to be taken out on a forklift. But the profitability of the marijuana trade has slumped on falling demand for Mexico’s “brick weed,” so called because it is crushed into airtight bundles for transport across the border. Drug farmers in the Sierra Madre say that they can barely make money planting mota anymore....

The cartels, and consumers, are turning away from cocaine, too. Last year, U.S. agents confiscated 11,917 kilograms of cocaine along the Mexico border, down from 27,444 kilos in 2011. This reflects lower demand for the drug in the United States, experts say, as well as a cartel business preference for heroin and meth. Those two substances can be cheaply produced in Mexico, unlike cocaine, which is far pricier, and therefore riskier, because it must be smuggled from South America....

Heroin and meth are far easier to transport and conceal than marijuana. Especially worrisome to U.S. officials is a growing trend of more border-crossing pedestrians carrying the drugs strapped under their clothing or hidden in body cavities. “The criminals are trying to blend in among the legitimate travelers, who are 99 percent of the individuals crossing through here,” said Aki, the San Ysidro port director. “That’s the hard part for us.”...

In recent years, Mexican cartels also have begun producing higher-value “white” heroin, typically associated with traffickers from Colombia or Asia, according to DEA officials. “The Mexicans are evolving in their production abilities and getting more sophisticated,” said Payne, the DEA spokesman. “It’s not just black tar anymore.”...

The United States has an estimated 600,000 heroin users, Payne said — a threefold increase in the past five years. But that number is dwarfed by the estimated 10 million Americans who abuse prescription painkillers. Those addicts are the prime target for the booming heroin business. A U.S. crackdown on prescription opiates has driven up the price for drugs such as OxyContin and Percocet, enticing desperate addicts to switch to cheap heroin to fend off withdrawal symptoms.

The profile of U.S. heroin addiction is also changing, said Phil Herschman, chief clinical officer with the CRC Health Group, which operates 170 treatment centers in 30 U.S. states. “Now, we’re seeing housewives coming in who had been addicted to Vicodin for two or three years before switching to heroin, or adolescents who got hooked by snorting it, thinking it was safe, only to end up injecting themselves,” he said.

Advocates for marijuana reform frequently assert that legalization could and would help eliminate the profits reaped by drug cartels and the black market from illegal marijuana production and distribution. This article certainly provides support for this assertion.

January 12, 2015 in History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, International Marijuana Laws and Policies, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 5, 2015

SAM releases "short report" stressing perceived harms from legalization in Colorado and Washington

The leading anti-marijuana reform group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), today released this brief report titled "Lessons After Two Years of Marijuana Legalization - Short Report." According to this press release, SAM believe that the "report outlines both what data we know - and what we need to know - to accurately evaluate the consequences of marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado."

Unfortunately, the report is not anywhere close to a review of relevant data about legalization and it is entirely focused on stressing what SAM thinks is evidence of problems since legalization.  For example, here is some of what appears in a section under the heading "DENVER CITY AND COUNTY CRIME IS UP":

In the city and county of Denver, overall crime is slightly higher through November 2014 than it was during that same time period in 2013. Most crime categories are up, like simple assault and criminal mischief; but some categories show reductions, like sex offenses, kidnapping, and motor vehicle theft....  It's possible that crime statistics have little to do with marijuana law changes, but rampant media reports of “legalization linked with a crime drop” are unsubstantiated.

Most critically, the report say nothing about the metrics and factors stressed by those who push for marijuana reform such as (1) avoiding harms/costs that result from (racially skewed) arrests and enforcement of low-level marijuana criminal laws, (2) generating revenues from marijuana taxes, licenses and fees (3) allowing police to focus on more serious crimes, and (4) increasing monies available for drug prevention and addiction programs, (5) creating jobs/incomes from a new regulated legal industry and taking jobs/monies away from drug cartels and gangs involved in the black market.

In addition, though the title of this short report promises to provide "Lessons" from legalization, I struggled to draw any lessons from this report (other than that SAM is mostly interested in trumping up existing data to claim legalization is problematic when the extant evidence is anything but clear).  That all said, this report merits credit for noting and lamenting that "no robust public tracking system by federal or state authorities has been implemented" and for noting that "more sophisticated data are sorely lacking with respect to marijuana in Colorado and Washington."

January 5, 2015 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, January 2, 2015

"Legal weed brings modest tax boosts in Colorado, Washington"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new AP article, which includues these passages: 

To see the tax implications of legalizing marijuana in Colorado, there's no better place to start than an empty plot of land on a busy thoroughfare near downtown Denver. It is the future home of a 60,000-square-foot public recreational center that's been in the works for years.

Construction costs started going up, leaving city officials wondering whether they'd have to scale back the project. Instead, they hit on a solution — tap $3.2 million from pot taxes to keep the pool at 10 lanes, big enough to host swim meets.

The Denver rec center underscores how marijuana taxation has played throughout Colorado and Washington. The drug is bringing in tax money, but in the mix of multibillion budgets, the drug is a small boost, not a tsunami of cash.

Much of the drug's tax production has been used to pay for all the new regulation the drug requires — from a new state agency in Colorado to oversee the industry, to additional fire and building inspectors for local governments to make sure the new pot-growing facilities don't pose a safety risk....

In Colorado, where retail recreational sales began Jan. 1, 2014, the drug has a total effective tax rate of about 30 percent, depending on local add-on taxes. Through October, the most recent figures available, Colorado collected about $45.4 million from sales and excise taxes on recreational pot sales.

That puts the state on pace to bring in less than the $70 million a year Colorado voters approved when they agreed to a statewide 10 percent sales tax and 15 percent excise tax on recreational pot. Voters set aside the first $40 million in excise taxes for school construction; so far that fund has produced about $10 million.

But adding fees and licenses and the taxes from medical marijuana sales, Colorado had collected more than $60 million through October. Local governments can add additional taxes, too. That's what led to additional revenue streams like Denver's $3.2 million for a bigger pool at its rec center.

In Washington, where recreational pot sales began in July, recreational weed is taxed on a three-tier system as the plant moves from growers to processors to retailers. The total effective tax rate is about 44 percent. State tax officials are just getting a look at the first few months of pot taxes, and the money is coming in slowly because there aren't many stores there yet. State economists have predicted pot sales will bring in $25 million by next July.

The state anticipates a $200 million increase by mid-2017, and about $636 million to state coffers through the middle of 2019.

January 2, 2015 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Taxation information and issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reviewing a year of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado

The Denver Post has a notable series of articles taking stock of the experiences and perceptions of Colorado through the year-long experience with legalization recreational sales in the state.   This main article, headlined "Colorado's cannabis experiment puts it into a global spotlight," includes these excerpts:

Only one year in, Colorado's unprecedented jump into marijuana legalization has become the stuff of legend.  For opponents and supporters, the state comes up repeatedly in the evolving discussion about marijuana.  It is perhaps the most underappreciated consequence of legalization.  By becoming the first place in the world to actually legalize commercial sales of marijuana to anyone over 21, Colorado made the worldwide debate over pot more vibrant than it has ever been.

Those in favor of legalization now think of Colorado — and, to a lesser extent, Washington state, which debuted a smaller marijuana market later in the year — as a kind of political homeland.  The states' campaigns and resulting industries were the inspiration for pro-pot successes in two more states this fall and are the blueprints for coming 2016 campaigns in as many as a half-dozen states.  They helped foment never-before-seen congressional rebellion against federal enforcement of marijuana laws....

Those opposed to legalization, though, see Colorado as a cautionary tale — hard evidence of the kinds of dangers that they previously had been able to warn of only in the abstract.  In speeches in states and countries considering legalization, marijuana opponents now talk about accidental pot ingestions, lower-than-predicted tax revenue, gaudy industry advertising and even deaths. They cite examples of each from Colorado's first year of legalized sales....

The on-the-ground reality, of course, has been less stark than either side's version. Marijuana legalization has changed Colorado.  It's just tough to say exactly how.

Marijuana is more available in Colorado than ever before, but it's unclear whether marijuana consumption has risen as a result.  Teens are less likely to think that marijuana is harmful, and marijuana arrests at Denver schools are up, but that hasn't yet translated into measurably increased use.  More people may be driving stoned, but traffic fatalities are down....

Tourism to the state hit record levels this year. But how much of that has to do with marijuana?

 After a full year, legal marijuana sales are an experiment still very much in progress. "People are trying to jump to conclusions much faster than the data allows," said Andrew Freedman, the man in charge of coordinating Colorado's policy efforts on marijuana legalization.

The jumps are even bigger because of Colorado's data-collection woes.  The state lacks systems for quick, accurate measurements of youth use, marijuana-related incidents at schools, stoned driving and many other questions.  State officials this year commissioned a 74-page report titled "Marijuana Data Discovery and Gap Analysis" just to address the problem.  One person in the Department of Public Safety is now in charge of coordinating data-collection efforts for 2015....

Even when there are numbers to measure legalization's impacts, they often tell unexpected tales. For instance, state tax revenues from recreational marijuana once were predicted to top $100 million in the current fiscal year. They're on pace for a little more than half that. And, aside from the dollars constitutionally mandated to go to school construction, state officials haven't seen the revenue as a budgetary windfall. They've instead proposed the money all go toward marijuana-related issues.

In 2014, police said marijuana legalization would cost more for them to enforce than marijuana prohibition. Employers tightened their drug-testing policies, even though it was legal for their employees to use marijuana. More people became registered medical marijuana patients, despite the presence of a less-restrictive recreational market. "The big assumption here was that human behavior is a light switch," said Skyler McKinley, Freedman's deputy, "that you legalize marijuana and everything changes overnight."

That resiliency of old ways proved a boon to state regulators trying to implement legalization. Because Colorado already had a robust medical marijuana industry — and because the recreational marijuana industry initially was restricted to people who already owned a dispensary — the transition into legal sales was more of an evolution than a revolution....

Toni Savage, the owner of 3D Cannabis Center, said the most she ever grossed in a single year operating a medical marijuana dispensary was $400,000. This year, she's on track to top $3.5 million in sales — with more than half of those coming from out-of-state tourists.

But bigger sales means bigger tax bills. Not only is she paying nearly $100,000 a month in state and local taxes, she also expects to have a $500,000 federal tax bill because she can't deduct business expenses in the same way that stores that aren't illegal under federal law can. "I made a ton of money," she said, "but I owe more than I have."

The situation could get even tougher in 2015 because the state has started to allow newcomers into the recreational marijuana business. Savage said stores fear a glut of marijuana, which could drive down prices that have budged only slightly since the beginning of 2014. "If you're in the business, it's going to get really ugly," she said.

It's the change in the amount of attention Colorado has received from outside the state that defines the first year of legal marijuana sales. This was the year a New York Times columnist got stoned in a Denver hotel room, hallucinated that she had died, then wrote about the whole experience. Snoop Dogg recorded a theme song for a Colorado gubernatorial candidate, and Bill O'Reilly, upset over legalization, mused about running for the same office.

December 31, 2014 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Legalization leading to increased marijuana use (or just admissions of use?) in Colorado

This Denver Post article reports on some new marijuana use data that suggests Colorado marijuana consumption has gone up considerably in recent years.  But, as the title of this post highlights, I cannot help but wonder if legalization has really led to marijuana use spiking up or just honest reporting of use going up.  Here are the data:

As marijuana legalization took hold in Colorado, the estimated percentage of regular cannabis users in the state jumped to the second-highest level in the country, according to new federal data.  When asked, roughly one out of every eight Colorado residents over the age of 12 reported using marijuana in the previous month. Only Rhode Island topped Colorado in the percentage of residents who reported using marijuana as frequently.

The results come from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and represent the average of estimates gathered in 2012 and 2013.

The numbers are among the first measurements of marijuana use in Colorado to be released after it became legal in late 2012 for people over 21 to use and possess marijuana in the state.  But because they do not include data from this year, the numbers aren't able to answer the question experts have watched Colorado closely for: How will widespread commercial sales of marijuana impact use?

"This is not surprising, given what's going on on the medical side," Mark Kleiman, a University of California-Los Angeles professor who studies marijuana policy, said of the increase, referring to the uptick in medical marijuana patients in Colorado in the same period.  "I don't think this tells us about the long-term impacts of legalization."

State-specific data from the survey are averaged over two-year periods to compensate for relatively small sample sizes.  For the 2011-12 period, 10.4 percent of Coloradans 12 and older reported using marijuana in the month prior to being surveyed.  That placed Colorado seventh in the country for monthly marijuana use.  Monthly use in Colorado jumped to 12.7 percent — a 22 percent increase — in the 2012-13 data.  The result means the survey estimates about 530,000 people in Colorado use marijuana at least once a month.

Nationally, monthly marijuana use by people 12 and older nudged upward by about 4 percent to 7.4 percent.  In Washington state — which, like Colorado, in 2012 legalized marijuana use and limited possession for adults — monthly marijuana use rose by about 20 percent to 12.3 percent....

Monthly marijuana use increased across all age groups in Colorado, according to the new survey numbers.  The number of people who reported using marijuana in the past year also increased in Colorado in the 2012-13 data, but the state ranked only sixth nationally in the measurement. Measurements for alcohol consumption and illicit drug use increased, as well.

This month, a different federally funded survey found that teen marijuana use had not increased nationally, despite marijuana legalization.  A Colorado survey released this year found no increase in marijuana use by high schoolers in 2013.

December 27, 2014 in Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"Survey: Teen marijuana use declines even as states legalize"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new USA Today article reporting on new data that seems likely to be trumpted by those advocating for continued reform of marijuana laws.  Here are the basics:

Marijuana use among teens declined this year even as two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized the drug for recreational use, a national survey released Tuesday found. University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study, now in its 40th year, surveys 40,000 to 50,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grade in schools nationwide about their use of alcohol, legal and illegal drugs and cigarettes.

"There is a lot of good news in this year's results, bu the problems of teen substance use and abuse are still far from going away," Lloyd Johnston, the study's principal investigator, said.

After five years of increases, marijuana use in the past year by students in all three grades declined slightly, from 26% in 2013 to 24% in 2014. Students in the two lower grades reported that marijuana is less available than it once was, the survey found. Among high school seniors, one in 17, or 5.8%, say they use marijuana almost daily this year, down from 6.5% in 2013.

Synthetic marijuana, chemical concoctions meant to simulate a marijuana high and sold at convenience stores and gas stations, have also fallen out of favor. In 2011, when the survey first asked about the drugs, known as K2 and Spice, 11% of 12th graders said they had used the drugs in the past year. In 2014, that number had dropped to 6%. "Efforts at the federal and state levels to close down the sale of these substances may be having an effect," Johnston said.

Abuse of all prescription drugs, including narcotic painkillers, sedatives and amphetamines, declined from 16% in 2013 to 14% in 2014 among 12th graders, the survey found. Narcotic painkiller use, in decline since 2009, dropped again from 7% in 2013 to 6% in 2014. Heroin use, which has grown among adult populations, remained stable for teens.

Teens considered narcotic pain relievers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, safer than illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine, because they are prescribed by doctors, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said. "There's a very strong and aggressive campaign about educating the public on the risk of opioid medications as it relates to overdoses and deaths," Volkow said. "That has made teenagers aware that they are not so safe as they thought they were."

Teen use of both alcohol and cigarettes dropped this year to their lowest points since the study began in 1975, the survey found. Teens may be trading conventional cigarettes for e-cigarettes. In 2014, more teens used e-cigarettes than traditional tobacco cigarettes or any other tobacco product, the study found. "E-cigarettes have made rapid inroads into the lives of American adolescents," Richard Miech, a senior investigator of the study, said....

Alcohol use and binge drinking peaked in 1997, when 61% of the students surveyed said they had drunk alcohol in the previous 12 months. In 2014, 41% reported alcohol use in the previous year, a drop from 43% in 2013, the survey found. Since the 1997 peak, "there has been a fairly steady downward march in alcohol use among adolescents," Johnston said....

"Even though the indicators are very good news, at the same time we cannot become complacent," Volkow said. "This is a stage where their brains are most vulnerable. We need to continue our prevention efforts."

December 16, 2014 in Current Affairs, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Can we effectively quantify the benefits (and any costs) of reduction in marijuana arrests?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Reason commentary by Jacob Sullum, which is headlined "A Cannabis Crackdown Contracts: After rising dramatically, marijuana arrests are falling and the trend seems likely to continue."   Here are some data and context from the piece: 

In 1992, when Americans elected a president who said he had smoked pot without inhaling, the number of marijuana arrests in the United States began a steep climb.  It peaked in 2007, during the administration of a president who refused to say whether he had smoked pot because he worried about setting a bad example for the youth of America.  Since 2009, when a president who "inhaled frequently" because "that was the point" took office, the number of marijuana arrests has fallen steadily — a trend that continued last year, according to FBI numbers released this month.

It's not clear exactly why pot busts exploded during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, when the annual total rose from fewer than 288,000 to almost 873,000 — a 200 percent increase.  There does not seem to be any consistent relationship between the level of marijuana consumption and the number of arrests, the vast majority of which (nearly nine out of 10 last year) involved simple possession rather than cultivation or distribution. Judging from survey data on marijuana use, arrests did not rise in response to increased consumption; nor did the cannabis crackdown have a noticeable deterrent effect.  The risk of arrest for any given pot smoker rose substantially between 1991 and 2007 but remained small.

In 1991, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), about 15 million Americans smoked pot.  That year there were about 288,000 marijuana arrests, one for every 52 cannabis consumers.  In 2007, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (successor to the NHSDA), about 25 million Americans smoked pot.  That year there were about 873,000 marijuana arrests, one for every 29 cannabis consumers.

Although the overall risk of arrest is small, it is decidedly higher for blacks and Latinos. In 2010, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks were nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, even though survey data indicated they were no more likely to smoke pot.  In some jurisdictions the black-to-white risk ratio was even higher.  It was 8 to 1 in the District of Columbia, which helps explain the dramatic turnaround in black Washingtonians' opinions about marijuana legalization.

The good news is that the downward trend in marijuana arrests since 2009 seems likely to continue, helped along by the spread of decriminalization and legalization.  In recent years California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington have changed their marijuana laws so that people caught with small amounts are no longer arrested.  That change has eliminated tens of thousands of marijuana arrests each year — more than 50,000 in California alone. Under ballot initiatives approved this month, Alaska and Washington, D.C., will eliminate all penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. (Possessing up to an ounce was already a citable offense in Oregon, where voters also approved marijuana legalization this month.)...

Even in New York City, where the cannabis crackdown has been especially noticeable, police are arresting fewer pot smokers, a trend that is likely to accelerate as a result of a policy change that took effect last week.  Low-level marijuana possession arrests by the New York Police Department (NYPD) skyrocketed from about 3,000 in 1994, when Rudolph Giuliani took office as mayor, to more than 51,000 six years later.  The crackdown continued during Michael Bloomberg's administration, when the NYPD arrested an average of nearly 39,000 pot smokers each year, compared to 24,487 under Giuliani, 982 under David Dinkins, and 2,259 under Ed Koch, according to data gathered by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine.

As the question in the title of this post highlights, I am eager to attach some kind of benefit (and perhaps cost) metric to these data about reduced arrest. In the context of incarceration changes, we know each prison year served costs the government about $30,000 taxpayer dollars (while also potentially preventing some criminal activity which is much harder to quantify). I am inclined to speculate that there must be $100 in administrative costs associated with formal arrests, which would mean that every 10,000 fewer marijuana arrests benefits taxpayers with about $1,000,000 in savings.

November 28, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Congressional Research Service analyzes federal proposals to tax marijuana

A helpful reader helpfully alerted me to this notable new Congressional Research Service report titled "Federal Proposals to Tax Marijuana: An Economic Analysis." Here is the detailed report's summary:

The combination of state policy and general public opinion favoring the legalizing of marijuana has led some in Congress to advocate for legalization and taxation of marijuana at the federal level.  The Marijuana Tax Equity Act of 2013 (H.R. 501) would impose a federal excise tax of 50% on the producer and importer price of marijuana. The National Commission on Federal Marijuana Policy Act of 2013 (H.R. 1635) proposes establishing a National Commission on Federal Marijuana Policy that would review the potential revenue generated by taxing marijuana, among other things.

This report focuses solely on issues surrounding a potential federal marijuana tax. First, it provides a brief overview of marijuana production. Second, it presents possible justifications for taxes and, in some cases, estimates the level of tax suggested by that rationale.  Third, it analyzes possible marijuana tax designs.  The report also discusses various tax administration and enforcement issues, such as labeling and tracking.  

Economic theory suggests the efficient level of taxation is equal to marijuana’s external cost to society. Studies conducted in the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada suggest that the costs of individual marijuana consumption to society are between 12% and 28% of the costs of an individual alcohol user, and total social costs are even lower after accounting for the smaller number of marijuana users in society. Based on an economic estimate of $30 billion of net external costs for alcohol, the result is an external cost of $0.5 billion to $1.6 billion annually for marijuana. These calculations imply that an upper limit to the economically efficient tax rate could be $0.30 per marijuana cigarette (containing an average of one half of a gram of marijuana) or $16.80 per ounce. An increased number of users in a legal market would raise total costs, but not necessarily costs per unit.

Some could also view excise taxes as a means to curtail demand, particularly as the price of marijuana can be expected to drop from current retail prices of up $200-$300 per ounce to prices closer to the cost of production at $5-$18 per ounce, if broadly legalized. The demand for marijuana is estimated to be relatively price inelastic, meaning that consumer demand is relatively insensitive to price changes.  Although previous studies of marijuana demand largely examine consumers willing to engage in illegal activities, it appears that higher tax rates would have a minor effect on reducing demand. With this said, tax policy, coupled with adequate law enforcement, could be an effective tool to limit marijuana consumption among youth, as empirical studies indicate that their demand is more sensitive to price than non-youth.

Excise taxes on marijuana could also be levied primarily to raise revenue, as has been historically the case with tobacco and alcohol. As an illustration, assuming a total market size of $40 billion, a federal tax of $50 per ounce is estimated to raise about $6.8 billion annually, after accounting for behavioral effects associated with price decreases following legalization.

The choices in administrative design could affect consumer behavior, production methods, evasion rates, or the tax base of a federal marijuana excise tax. Some of the more significant choices include whether to exempt medicinal uses or homegrown marijuana from tax.

November 20, 2014 in Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Taxation information and issues , Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Notable new Cato working paper examines "Marijuana Policy in Colorado"

Dr. Jeffrey Miron, who is director of economic studies at the Cato Institute and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, has just produced this significant new Cato working paper titled "Marijuana Policy in Colorado."  The paper is relatively short, though it includes lots of data, and here is its Executive Summary and its closing paragraphs:

In November 2012, voters in the states of Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives that legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.  Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia are scheduled to consider similar measures in the fall of 2014, and other states may follow suit in the fall of 2016.

Supporters and opponents of such initiatives make numerous claims about state-level marijuana legalization.  Advocates believe legalization reduces crime, raises revenue, lowers criminal justice expenditure, improves public health, improves traffic safety, and stimulates the economy.  Critics believe legalization spurs marijuana use, increases crime, diminishes traffic safety, harms public health, and lowers teen educational achievement.  Systematic evaluation of these claims, however, has been absent.

This paper provides a preliminary assessment of marijuana legalization and related policies in Colorado.  It is the first part of a longer-term project that will monitor state marijuana legalizations in Colorado, Washington, and other states.

The conclusion from this initial evaluation is that changes in Colorado’s marijuana policy have had minimal impact on marijuana use and the outcomes sometimes associated with use.  Colorado has collected non-trivial tax revenue from legal marijuana, but so far less than anticipated by legalization advocates....

The evidence provided here suggests that marijuana policy changes in Colorado have had minimal impact on marijuana use and the outcomes sometimes associated with use.  This does not prove that other legalizing states will experience similar results, nor that the absence of major effects will continue.  Such conclusions must await additional evidence from Colorado, Washington, and future legalizing states, as well as more statistically robust analyses that use non-legalizing states as controls.

But the evidence here indicates that strong claims about Colorado’s legalization, whether by advocates or opponents, are so far devoid of empirical support.

October 27, 2014 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)