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Models of Legalization

In the U.S., people tend to equate marijuana legalization with marijuana commercialization. Economists and policy researchers challenge this perception as both reductionist and potentially harmful to the public’s well-being. This section describes alternative models for implementation and the current options for the federal government.


Legalization is not a binary choice: Legal middle ground options

Scholars from prestigious research organizations, including RAND, Carnegie Melon University, and BOTEC, have pointed out that policy discussions about marijuana legalization in the U.S. have largely been reductionist and binary, with only two models presented: total prohibition or full-blown, market-oriented legalization.12 supply alternatives

As briefly illustrated in the section Legalization Around the World, Uruguay and the Netherlands have adopted alternative models and Canada is also seeking a non-commercial approach to marijuana decriminalization.

The "Twelve Supply Alternatives" figure illustrates some alternative models for legalization, outlined by Jonathan Caulkins and colleagues at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

readmoreRead More: The associated report from Caulkinset al. explains how middle-ground options may be better from a public health perspective than standard commercial legalization: Options and Issues Regarding Marijuana Legalization. Caulkins JP, et al. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015.

Similar considerations can also be read in this commentary published in USA Today, November 30, 2016: The Legal Marijuana Middle Ground.


What are the options the current federal administration can enforce?

As presented in the section Federal Government & Legalization, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, but states are operating under conditional federal tolerance to marijuana legalization, as outlined by the Cole Memo released during President Obama’s Administration. As of July of 2017, the Trump Administration has not overturned the policy outlined by the Cole memo.

Senior Policy Researcher Dr. Beau Kilmer of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center anticipates that a decision will be made at the federal level at some point in the next four years. In the interesting 20-minute video, [below] he discusses seven possible federal options, from a theoretical perspective:

  1. “Crack down” or attempt to close down the market: this is one possible extreme measure. It would impact state economies, but would align with federal regulations.
  2. Shape the market: Selectively choose which aspects of the market should be closed down. For instance, choosing to focus on cracking down on producers of high potency products.
  3. Continue the status quo: keep the Cole Memo in place and leave state policies untouched.
  4. De-schedule marijuana: as recently as 2016, the federal government refused to change marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug with no medical benefits and high risk for abuse; see Federal Government and Legalization.
  5. Leave current approach untouched but resolve some federal-state conflicts, such as banking and financial systems.
  6. Policy waiver system: develop a formal agreement between states and the federal government that would guarantee no interference under some conditions. 
  7. Legalize marijuana federally: this is an option as extreme as #1 and would contradict international/UN treaties.

Watch This: Dr. Kilmer’s presentation about possible implications of each of these responses: