The 'Known Unknowns' Of Regulating Legalized Marijuana
Both Washington and Colorado have passed measures legalizing marijuana. Here in Washington, the Washington State Liquor Control Board is busy hammering out how marijuana will be grown, sold, and regulated. But there are still many questions, from how the federal government will respond to a legal weed market, how to monitor marijuana potency, how to effectively measuring and enforcing marijuana impairment levels in drivers.
For answers, KUOW’s Steve Scher talked with Thomas McLellan, Ph.D. He’s CEO and co-founder of the Treatment Research Institute, and is an internationally known substance abuse researcher and public policy expert. Most recently, he served as deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under the Obama-Biden administration, where he was heavily involved in health care reform.
Interview has been edited for clarity.
What might legalization mean on a day-to-day level?
I don’t think it’s likely to happen, even though the state has passed legalization. My expectation is that the federal government will step in to try and stop this. This is like Oregon deciding they want different naturalization and immunization practices than the rest of the country. This would put the federal government in conflict with international policies. There are eight international policies that govern controlled substances, and states really don’t have the authority to declare that one controlled substance is legal.
Why do you think the federal government has been so quiet on legalizing marijuana in Washington thus far?
Because it’s an issue of enforcement. You see a glimmer of this with so-called medical marijuana. The federal government has the option of enforcement through the DEA and FDA. They’ve chosen not to thus far. But in my opinion, I think the issues any state will have to deal with can be seen in the already legal medications or drugs that are out there -- alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription opiates. They’re legal, but they’re controlled. It’s perfectly permissible for anyone to grow their own tobacco using hydroponic soil, dry the plant, and roll it and smoke it. But because of legalization it’s a lot more convenient to go to the store and buy a package of pre-rolled plant material in paper.
Do you expect cigarette companies to get involved in the sale of marijuana cigarettes in Washington and Colorado?
There’s likely to be a lot of profit in selling marijuana, so it seems like a cigarette manufacturer or any other manufacturer would want to get involved in selling marijuana. I think it’s highly unlikely that Amish farmers are going to be the ones growing and selling marijuana.
After the bigger players get involved, and after some time passes with legalization, we’ll see whether legalization is worth it. There will likely be immediate benefits to reducing the incarceration costs associated with marijuana use. I presume it’ll still be illegal for people to sell without a license, although that remains to be seen. There should also be taxes that accrue, and that could help the state’s budget.
On the other hand, you can imagine there will be new expenses. For example, no state will want marijuana to be freely, easily available to kids. So some dollars will be spent on enforcement there. The state will also be assuming some responsibility with the ingredients and potency of marijuana, and like with cigarettes, there will be some companies that infuse marijuana with more THC or other cannabinoids, and that will require some policing.
You looked at drunk driving impacts as part of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. How will drug-impaired driving regulations be enforced in the states that are legalizing marijuana?
There’s already an effort to enforce those regulations, because driving on drugs is a significant problem. I don’t think it’s as severe as drunk driving, but there’s no reason to assume that the issue will be just driving on marijuana instead of alcohol or instead of cocaine. It’ll probably be in addition. The federal government looked at this in random stops between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, using cheek swabs. They found 9 percent of drivers used marijuana within three hours previous to the stop.
One complaint about drug-impaired driving regulations is that the marijuana impairment standard for drivers is very low.
So what’s the way to determine if someone is really impaired from marijuana?
There are ways to tell, and it’s been done with alcohol. The advantage of assessing impairment with alcohol is, it’s fairly easy to administer known quantities and potencies of alcohol, and then measure via breath, sweat, cheek swab, and urine. After a lot of testing, we now know that anything above a very small amount of alcohol impairs a driver. So there’s an agreement that the cutoff level is a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent. But we only got there after decades of research.
We could probably get there with marijuana, but it would likely take the same amount of time. But it’s hard to gauge marijuana potency. It’s not like a marijuana consumer has a sense of how much to smoke before he or she is impaired, the same way an adult knows that after a drink or two, he or she shouldn’t drive. A marijuana consumer won’t know which cannabinoids are in the strain of marijuana he or she is smoking. There’s a lot of technical aspects I could go into, and I don’t want to bore anyone.
So here’s my simple question: Is there anyone out there who thinks marijuana is going to improve driving? How about marijuana plus alcohol? I find that hard to believe. I’d favor low rates of blood alcohol, blood THC, and blood cannabinoids. And I’d favor the same kinds of sanctions that we have with alcohol.
Another complaint is that residue can show up in your blood, but that doesn’t reflect impairment.
Correct. And my prediction is that it’ll take a good decade of research before we can really know how to measure marijuana impairment. But the thing for Washington state residents to consider is whether they want to go through that decade of research, or whether they just want to say right now that they don’t want anyone driving on alcohol or drugs or even prescription medication. That’s a policy decision, and it’s one the state will have to deal with once marijuana is legalized.
What do you think of the way the federal government currently classifies marijuana?
That’s an easy question for me, and this is just my opinion: I am not in favor of marijuana legalization. Not for any ideological reason, but because I don’t think we need any new drugs. Legalization increases access and availability, and therefore it increases use. I don’t want to see a lot more people smoking dope. I’m not a prude, but if I know kids aren’t graduating in an increasingly competitive world, I don’t want to make marijuana more freely available. That’s the first point.
My second point isn’t an opinion. It’s a fact. Today’s marijuana is far different from marijuana that was used in the past. Some of the synthetic marijuanas that are available, and some of the cannabinoids you can spray on plant material can be up to 600 times more potent than natural marijuana. It’s unknown what that level of potency will do to an adult’s driving ability, or ability to concentrate, or ability to learn. For developing brains, it’s even more questionable.
Do you think the arguments you just made are also being made in the Office of National Drug Control Policy?
I know they are. The current administration is taking this very seriously. And I’m not trying to be political here. I’ve been out of office for a year. But I know those conversations are happening there. And I know there are equally serious and avoidable problems of over-incarceration for people who have been locked up for marijuana use. That is stupid, it’s wasteful, and it’s expensive. But there’s something between incarcerating people who smoke marijuana and making it more freely available that I think needs to be developed.
Thomas McLellan, Ph.D. was the deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for the Obama-Biden administration. He is CEO and co-founder of the Treatment Research Institute, and is an internationally known substance abuse researcher and public policy expert.