Will legalization help families? Yes, if state agencies get it right.

So far, the state of Washington is getting it right as its new experiment with marijuana legalization unfolds.

The Liquor Control Board wisely selected Dr. Mark Kleiman and his colleagues at the BOTEC Analysis Corporation as their primary consultants on rule-making. These experts are among the most highly respected scientists in the drug policy arena, and their recent book, Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, gives readers a thoughtful and science-based analysis of what could go wrong and what might go right if various approaches to legalization were to be adopted.

Their book is particularly credible, not only for the research that the four authors review, but also for the divergent personal views they hold about the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. This group is by no means driven by ideology, but rather by reasoned analyses of how the public will best be served with regard to marijuana.

Just as the Liquor Control Board is climbing their steep learning curve concerning cultivation, licensing requirements, labeling, controls on advertising and access, and so many other issues related to setting up a legal marijuana market, others in state government are beginning to grapple with how they will carry out their responsibilities.

DSHS, along with several other agencies, will make decisions about the questions to be addressed in future “healthy youth surveys.” These biennial studies will reveal how young people are thinking about marijuana, the extent of their use, and how legalization has affected attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. If these surveys are designed well, it will become apparent what’s working and what’s not. The challenge, of course, is how to determine right now the questions that will need to be answered five years down the road.

Our state’s Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery also faces some critically important decisions. How can the new revenues from marijuana taxes be most effectively used in bringing to communities throughout our state effective prevention programs tailored for middle school and high school students? In the past, we’ve had good intentions when mounting prevention efforts that made sense, only to find that many were ineffective. In the past, drug prevention has also been severely underfunded. Now, Washington has the opportunity to get it right if DBHR makes its funding decisions based on science. If not, we’re likely to regret these new dollars being wasted.

The Department of Health will make decisions about the establishment of a new marijuana public education program including setting up a “marijuana hotline.” We’ve done a pretty miserable job in informing the public about marijuana. Far too many people, both young people and adults, are misinformed about marijuana’s risks as well as its benefits, some of that undoubtedly due to the rhetoric during the year prior to the past election. The challenge DOH now faces is how to design a public education program so that it delivers accurate information effectively.

New tax revenues will also become available to fund local health departments or community agencies so that they can provide marijuana treatment services. The challenge here is how to set up criteria to ensure that only treatment programs shown to be effective receive funds. If we miss the boat with this task, people in need of help will face disappointment.

In meeting all of these challenges, it’s my hope that clear and measurable goals guide how our state’s agencies carry out their tasks. If I wrote those goals they’d include:

  • fewer young people initiating marijuana use prior to age 21
  • fewer students struggling with school performance as a consequence of marijuana use
  • fewer users becoming marijuana dependent
  • more of those who become dependent receiving effective treatment
  • fewer traffic accidents in which marijuana smoking was a contributing factor
  • more accurate knowledge held by the public concerning marijuana’s effects on health and behavior


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