A conversation with the Washington Office on Latin America and the Brookings Institution on February 5, 2014


Note: This set of notes gives an overview of the major points made by the Washington Office on Latin America and the Brookings Institution.


Good Ventures spoke to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Brookings Institution as part of an exploration of funding opportunities in drug policy reform. The conversation covered WOLA's and Brookings' work on marijuana policy reform so far and their plans for future work.

Washington Office on Latin America

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is a human rights research and advocacy organization focused on Latin America. WOLA's drug policy work centers on human rights and harm reduction, meaning reducing harm from drug use and also the harms caused by drug control policies.

WOLA's position is that jurisdictions that are considering switching from marijuana prohibition to regulated legalization should be allowed the flexibility to proceed, with monitoring to track unintended consequences and improve policy design and implementation. Regulated legalization is not risk-free but is worth pursuing.

WOLA has been involved in Uruguay’s recently approved law to legalize and regulate marijuana. Positive and negative lessons from the experience of Uruguay, Colorado, and Washington should be applied to jurisdictions that legalize marijuana in the future.

WOLA has had a significant program on drug policy for many years, mostly funded in recent years by the Open Society Foundations.

The Brookings Institution

The Brookings Institution became involved in marijuana policy research in October 2012, just before the ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington, when Brookings and WOLA cohosted a public event on the possible implications of moving ahead with state-level legalization.

Brookings does not take an institutional position on policy matters.  With this work, scholars are interested in examining changes in state laws and implementation, as well as the federal government’s response to these recent policy changes.  Marijuana policy change represents a significant laboratory for government reform. What Colorado and Washington are trying to do is complicated, and lessons from these experiments are important should other states choose to follow. One specific challenge is the interaction between different levels of government. Legalization in states is at odds with federal policy and international treaties; how will the differences be reconciled?

Brookings recently opened a new center, the Center for Effective Public Management, to study how to improve the functioning of government. The Center is a natural place to house research on domestic policy implementation such as how states design policies and what other states can learn from those states. The Center aims to be a go-to resource for the media and policymakers interested in research on this topic.

WOLA brings an international perspective and their role in the partnership will be centered on international issues, whereas Brookings’ focus through Governance Studies and the Center for Effective Public Management is on domestic policy and implementation.

Progress so far and next steps

A goal of the collaboration between Brookings and WOLA is to bring new people into the discussion around marijuana policy — people who haven't been involved in previously, but who are now considering the issues. In terms of governance, the stakes involved with getting the policy implementation right are high.

Progress so far

Following their October 2012 public event, Brookings and WOLA undertook a round of collaborative marijuana policy work from January through May of 2013, resulting in four papers and four public events.  The papers included an examination of the relationship between the federal government and the states with an assessment of the relevant policy options.  They published an in-depth report about the changing structure of U.S. public opinion on marijuana. The collaboration also included a "frequently asked questions" paper paired with a  briefing on Capitol Hill about how Colorado and Washington were planning to move forward with their regulatory approaches. The meetings WOLA conducted with policymakers at the state, congressional, and presidential administration levels helped shape people's perception of the issue.

The work in the first half of 2013 was intended to help inform policymakers and the public during a period when the Obama administration was contemplating its response to the new Colorado and Washington laws. In August 2013 the U.S. Justice Department announced a position of qualified accommodation of the states’ new laws.

The work so far has helped to normalize the discussion of marijuana legalization in Washington, DC. The involvement of the Brookings Institution has brought a new perspective to the legalization with its focus on governance issues. Producing research papers added weight to the importance of the issue. High caliber people from a variety of fields are staying engaged with and opining on this issue, including Stuart Taylor, William Galston and E.J. Dionne, Jr.

The impact of the work done so far was also evident in the high level of attendance at the public events held by WOLA and Brookings beginning in October 2012  and in the positive feedback received afterward from participants and audience.

Next steps

Brookings and WOLA now want to begin a new round of work focused on real-world implementation of legal marijuana in Colorado and Washington, as well as in Uruguay.  This next phase in the collaboration is intended to launch a long-term program.

Brookings and WOLA are planning to chronicle what's happening as Colorado and Washington work to implement their new marijuana policies. Ideally, residents of other states considering legalizing marijuana will use this new research to identify potential challenges, build on strengths, and avoid committing mistakes made by Colorado and Washington.

Brookings and WOLA try to make sure their research and ideas are getting to the right people. They have systems to track progress their outreach efforts electronically, such as when work is cited or used in the public sphere. They also hear from policymakers and other decision makers about what research has been useful and impactful for them.

The work they conduct will have a focus on policy implementation questions, such as regulations, tax codes, and feedback mechanisms to discover what's working and what isn't — the questions that people in government will have to deal with when implementing their new marijuana policies. To answer these questions, WOLA and Brookings will talk to bureaucrats, politicians, and constituent groups in Colorado and Washington.

Through their research, Brookings and WOLA aim to develop a will-informed and well-rounded perspective on what is occurring with marijuana policy. The involvement of Brookings' researchers should help to make acquiring a varied set of perspectives possible.

The total budget for the upcoming phase of work is $425,000 for research and events in 2014.

Good Ventures asked whether there are policymakers who could talk about their experiences with the work of Brookings and WOLA.

Various officials and experts from Colorado and Washington State have participated in activities organized by Brookings and WOLA, and could give their own views on recent developments and the role that Brookings and WOLA have been playing. In the U.S. Congress, the office of Colorado Representative Jared Polis has been coordinating an informal working group of offices interested in the issue of marijuana legalization. Rep. Polis sponsored the 2013 congressional briefing organized by WOLA.