WASHINGTON — After voters in Washington state and Colorado made history by legalizing marijuana in November 2012, Colorado hit the finish line first, opening its pot stores to big fanfare on Jan. 1 of this year.
By contrast, Washington state had a slow and messy rollout, waiting until July 8 to open its first retail outlets.
But while Colorado created the sizzle for pot legalization by acting quickly, Washington state may end up providing the steak, merely by sticking to a meticulous and cautious approach that in the long run will make it easier for the public to track outcomes.
That’s the gist of a study released Monday by the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center in Washington, D.C., that’s been busy tracking marijuana developments in both states.
“While Colorado is justifiably garnering headlines with its ambitiously rapid _ and in many respects, impressive _ legalization rollout, there is a case to be made that Washington is undertaking the more radical and far-reaching reform,” said Philip Wallach, a Brookings fellow in governance studies who’s the author of the study.
The study lauded Washington state for reserving money for more education and substance-abuse programs, for tracking the impact of legalization on youths and for a cost-benefit analysis that state officials must do by September of next year.
Wallach said Washington state wanted to assume the role of “responsible scientist in the upcoming information wars.”
He said state workers were taking their new oversight responsibilities for I-502, the state’s legalization initiative, particularly seriously. State workers have attended presentations by pot experts, even signing up for a “Marijuana 101” class that featured the drug in American culture.
“The sense of being trailblazers matters greatly here,” Wallach said. “Government officials know they have the eyes of the world upon them.”
He said state workers also knew they had little choice but to run a tightly controlled system since the Justice Department had made it clear that federal authorities would shut down the legalization experiments if the states didn’t do a good job of policing themselves.
After marijuana was legalized in Washington, state regulators contended with a flood of license applications that required background checks and brought the process to a crawl. They also held things up by designing more controls to keep criminals out and focusing on ways to measure results.
Alison Holcomb, the criminal justice director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington in Seattle and the lead architect of I-502, said the Brookings study “shines a spotlight” on the most important feature of the initiative: “that it reaches beyond simply legalizing marijuana and seeks to establish a new framework for the development, implementation and evaluation of sounder and fairer drug policies.”
Mason Tvert, a Denver-based spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project who worked on the Colorado legalization campaign, said the study showed that different states would come up with different approaches to marijuana legalization that worked best for them, just as they did in regulating alcohol.
“You can debate which state has adopted the better law, but there’s no arguing that both laws are more sensible than prohibition,” he said.
Tom Angell, the chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority, said Washington state’s evaluation probably would produce “hard facts” that would make it easier to convince voters in other states to legalize marijuana.
“It’s common sense to many of us that legalizing marijuana will reduce crime, save law enforcement resources and generate new tax revenues _ just as ending alcohol prohibition did _ but now we’ll have even better data to prove it,” Angell said.
Opponents argue that legalization is a mistake because it will lead to more drug use among young users, harming their development. They worry about government studies that show more teens already dismissing the health risks of using marijuana.
While Washington state and Colorado are the only states to fully legalize marijuana, similar ballot measures are planned in Oregon and Alaska this November.
In Florida, voters will decide whether to make their state the 24th to allow marijuana use for medical purposes.