Small Washington Think Tank Could Be Pot Trailblazer

By Tom Bacon

Washington's well-publicized experiment with legal marijuana is shadowed by a much quieter - and perhaps more important - experiment. A Brookings Institution researcher said the state has launched a knowledge experiment to weigh the potential and the pitfalls of its legalization policy.

Philip Wallach, who is a government specialist at Brookings, has released a study citing Washington's attempt to develop policy tools by which to judge reform, and to make them relevant - as he put it- amid
the hurly-burly of partisan political debate. Wallach points to an obscure state agency called the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, funded by a portion of excise tax revenue from marijuana sales.

The Institute will get $50,000 dollars each quarter, and must use the money to conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of I-502, the initiative which launched the pot experiment. The in-state agency must have its first report ready by next September, with subsequent reports due in later years.

Wallach said the policy group must use a huge variety of factors in weighing the costs of legal marijuana against the possible benefits - factors such as public health, including the costs of usage and prohibition, public safety, youth and adult use rates, economic impacts on jobs, state and local revenue, changes in law enforcement  and court practices, and the impact of legalization on black markets.

He said Washington State elected officials believe there's no real alternative to tight regulatory controls on the burgeoning industry because of the threat of a federal crackdown if there are too many egregious mis-steps.

He concluded they have a chance to shape the contours of the state's legalization debate by forcing both supporters and opponent to base their claims more on factual evidence and less on familiar political noise. Put another way- he said Washington can make marijuana regulation wonkish, the province of careful analysts rather than angry firebrands.
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