Tuesday, March 3, 2015
The event was a huge success. The more than 300 guests nearly overflowed the Orca Ballroom at the beautiful Tulalip Resort, so much so that the fire marshal ordered that no more tables be brought in. There was a mix of lawyers, advocates, policy experts, business people, and (most important) a large number of tribal leaders from around the country.
Doug Berman over at MLP&R did some live blogging during the morning after his opening panel ended. I echo everything he says about the quality of the program. I'm a professor, so I've sat through a lot of conferences in my time, and I've rarely been to one where the quotient of good information per hour of time was higher.
Perhaps the best thing about the event was its practical focus. Marijuana-related events sometimes have a tendency to drop into rah-rah mode, and my sense was that the crowd in the room (based on where the applause came) was generally pro-legalization. But the speakers themselves emphasized over and over that the devil is in the details.
At the lunch session, two veteran marijuana observers, Mark Kleiman of UCLA and Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine, emphasized some basic economic realities: in a legalized world the price of weed won't be anywhere near the current market price, and thus the vision of making several thousand dollars per plant is likely unsustainable. Yes, there's potential profit there, but as in any commodity business it's likely to go to those who are the most efficient producers.
Perhaps the day's most informative panel -- at least for me -- was the one that featured two city attorneys who have been intimately involved in the hard work of making legalization systems work, Thomas Carr of Boulder and Pete Holmes of Seattle. The sheer number of moving parts involved in the process is enough to make tribes wary. Their advice: Plan ahead. Then plan some more.
In my view, the tribes considering marijuana sales face a conundrum. Those who move first into sales will likely make a lot of money, given the current artificially high prices. But they are also the most likely to run into the problems that come from hasty action and are most liable to any shifts in the political winds. Those who take their time and plan carefully will avoid the problems, but by the time they act, increasing competition will have driven much air out of the price, and potential profits will be lower.
One possibility, though, is that in non-PL 280 states, tribes might be able to sell weed without complying with state regulate-and-tax schemes, and thus will continue to have a huge price advantage over potential competitors. Professor Kleiman suggested that this would be "catastrophic," since tribes could thus upend carefully crafted state policies. As I've said before, I don't view it as a bad thing -- it would be nice to see a capitalist industry grow up so that we can examine it in detail before we decide how best to regulate it.
I want to add that I was extremely impressed by the three lawyer-organizers of the event who served on the panels. I'd never met Robert Odawi Porter, but after hearing him there's a reason he's regarded as one of the best in the country at tribal law. And the two young lawyers from Harris Moure who covered business issues in the day's final panel -- Hilary Bricken and Robert McVay -- matched their knowledge of the issues with some thoughtful advice. It's good to see this kind of capable representation growing up in the nascent business.