A conversation with Mark Kleiman on February 10, 2014


Note: These notes give an overview of the points made by Professor Kleiman in the conversation.


Mark Kleiman is a Professor of Public Policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs.

Professor Kleiman spoke to Good Ventures about his view that marijuana should be legalized with careful regulation, as well as about the Washington Office on Latin America's Drug Policy Program and the Brookings Institution's marijuana policy research.

GiveWell and Good Ventures had previously spoken to Professor Kleiman on two occasions (notes here and here) about topics including opportunities to fund research on criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization.

Marijuana legalization with careful regulation

Professor Kleiman recently wrote in the Washington Monthly about the form that marijuana legalization should take. The US is moving quickly towards alcohol-like commercial legalization of cannabis with loose regulation and light taxation. Professor Kleiman would guess that if marijuana is legalized in this way, then in 15 years, around three times as many Americans will abuse cannabis as at present. Marijuana prohibition likely causes more harm than loose regulation of marijuana would cause, due to the impact of illicit markets, arrests, and prison terms for marijuana-related offenses. However, it would be better to legalize cannabis with tighter government control and to maintain a high price for marijuana, since most of the negative effects of alcohol-style legalization could thereby be avoided.

Professor Kleiman advocates in the Washington Monthly piece for marijuana stores to be operated by the government. The government could set up public-benefit corporations with public health representation on their boards to sell cannabis. This would allow the government to keep prices high and avoid aggressive marketing. However, government-run stores are unlikely to be politically feasible. Consumer co-ops may be a more practical solution.

Government-run stores (a.k.a. state-monopoly retailing) are one idea; non-profits, including consumer co-ops and public-benefit corporations, are a different idea. Note that state-monopoly retailing is legally — not just politically — infeasible while the current federal laws are in place. The Supremacy Clause would not allow state officials to violate federal laws as part of their duties. Licensing private activity — for-profit or not-for-profit — doesn’t present the same problem.

Legalization with careful regulation could be instituted in states via ballot measures, though it is difficult to craft ballot measures with the necessary level of nuance that could get the necessary organizational support and a majority of the votes. The US Congress could enact a policy to tolerate state legalization only if the state enacts certain regulations. Congress could require the state legalization law to contain a plan for minimizing the increase in cannabis abuse and interstate trafficking. That plan might have to be certified by the federal Secretary of Health and Human Services and/or the Attorney General.

It is important to impose restrictions on legalization soon, because the power of the marijuana industry will grow as more states legalize cannabis. Soon, the industry will be powerful enough to make restricting it politically difficult.

Advocacy for centrist marijuana policy

Most people involved in marijuana policy seem to favor either alcohol-style legalization or complete prohibition, rather than a middle way. A centrist cannabis policy group should be formed to advocate for legalization with tight regulation.

Currently, there is no strong political force for centrist marijuana policy. However, the following people and organizations might plausibly be interested in forming such a movement:

The Washington Office on Latin America's Drug Policy Program

Professor Kleiman thinks highly of the marijuana legalization and regulation initiative of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), which has been working closely with the Uruguayan government to craft what seems likely to be a tighter control regime than either Colorado or Washington can boast. John Walsh, Senior Associate for Drug Policy and the Andes at WOLA, it among the thoughtful and evidence-driven people in the broader “drug policy reform” movement.

Brookings Institution marijuana legalization research

Professor Kleiman thinks the Brookings Institution is conducting research on important topics in marijuana legalization, and that Brookings is a good forum for discussion of marijuana legalization amongst a wide audience of stakeholders. A Brookings report on public opinions on marijuana legalization is the standard reference on the topic. Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings who works on marijuana legalization, is very thoughtful about marijuana legalization, though he was not trained as an expert on drug policy.