The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Alison Holcomb
On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Alison
Lisa Owen: Cannabis legislation is now quite widespread across the US…. Do the general public and law enforcement there think it’s working?
Alison Holcomb: Apparently, they do. Since the first states – Washington, Colorado – passed laws back in 2012, we’ve had six additional states who have passed laws that fully legalise and regulate cannabis. And public opinion is continuing to increase. There is support both from the public, and also what we’re seeing from law enforcement in these states is they’re realising the sky isn’t falling; we’re able to maintain safety in our communities; and this is a change that we can incorporate into our law enforcement practices.
Can you walk me through it – in Washington, you can buy cannabis, but you can’t grow your own, can you? So how does it exactly work?
That’s right. In Washington State, you must be a licensed producer or processor or retailer, and adults 21 and over can visit cannabis shops. Nothing else other than cannabis and cannabis-related products can be sold in the shops. So you can’t purchase cannabis alongside alcohol, for example. In all of the other states that have followed suit, they do allow adults to grow a small number of plants for their own personal use.
And in Washington, you can’t grow it and be the person who sells it, can you? You can’t have vertical integration in a business, as such?
That’s right. We followed, essentially, the tied-house rules that typically apply to liquor in some states, where the manufacturer of the substance cannot also be the retailer.
And why did you go down that line?
One of the things that we were concerned about is we knew that this was going to be a limited-size marketplace; we weren’t going to open it up and allow anybody to purchase licences and go into business. And since it was going to be limited, what we didn’t want to have happen was to have individuals who were fully in control of the marketplace. We wanted there to be a diversity of marketplace. We didn’t want to concentrate all the wealth that would be flowing through this marketplace in a few hands.
So tell me, how much does cannabis cost there? Because it’s taxed quite heavily, isn’t it? And I’m just wondering, is it in the same realm as alcohol and cigarettes, say?
Yes. Washington State actually taxes both alcohol and tobacco at a fairly high rate, and the tax on cannabis is set at 37%, with 80% of those taxes going to prevention, education, research and evaluation. So the taxes are quite high, and we did see at the beginning of the rollout of the stores, which started in 2014, very high prices for legal cannabis in the marketplace. Now they’ve started to fall quite a bit as we’ve seen more stores open and the marketplace begin to stabilise, so that the legal stores are in fact able to compete with the still-existent illicit marketplace.
So what has been the effect of this in terms of convictions and prosecutions and jail time?
Right. In Washington State, prior to the passage of our measure, even simple possession of a small amount of cannabis was a mandatory misdemeanour conviction that carried 24 hours in jail and a $250 fine. We had arrests ranging between 7000 and 9000 for that each year. Immediately following passage of Initiative 502, even before the law had gone into effect, we saw arrests drop 98%. So we went from roughly 7000 arrests in 2011 to 120 arrests in 2013. And as you know, the arrests and the jail time are only part of the picture. It’s those convictions that derail people’s efforts to get jobs, rent apartments, pursue an education – that have widespread impacts, not simply on that individual, but on their families and on our communities as a whole.
And in essence, it has been a race issue, because there’s a disproportionate number of black people who have been affected by those convictions, hasn’t there?
Absolutely. In Washington State, our black neighbours were three times as likely to be arrested, three times as likely to be charged, three times as likely to be convicted for simple possession of cannabis than whites, even though white people in Washington were using cannabis at slightly higher rates. So absolutely disproportionate impact of the enforcement of these laws, and all of the cascading effects of having a criminal conviction were landing disproportionately in those communities.
There was a recent study that I saw on the news in relation to car accidents in states that had legalised cannabis, and it indicated that there had been a 3% increase in crashes. Does that worry you, or what do you make of it?
To be honest, I think it’s still too early for us to tell exactly what’s happening in those situations, because in a lot of the incidence of crash, it’s not only cannabis that’s found in the driver’s system – it will be mixed with alcohol and sometimes with other substances. And what we do know is that cannabis mixed with alcohol has a potentiating effect. The intoxicating and impairing results of combining those substances are much stronger than cannabis by itself. By and large, we haven’t seen negative consequences overall, both in traffic safety and also in youth use, which is an outcome that we’re all watching quite closely.
So do you have any reservations, in the time that’s passed? Have you seen anything that gives you cause for concern?
I think the most important factor that we need to watch is how governments respond to this change in policy, because we know that arresting people and saddling them with convictions has not been effective at addressing problematic cannabis use; but what we also know is that we have to invest in strategies that are effective. Preventive science, for example, has come a long way in the last 20 years, and we need to be investing resources in strategies that actually work, both in prevention and treatment and public health education.
I was interested – there was quite a lot of animosity towards you during this period from people who were traditionally in that field of decriminalising cannabis. Why was that old-school marijuana crowd so down on you? Because they got what they wanted in the end – they can have a joint.
Well, I think that that perhaps wasn’t exactly what they wanted. We look at the old-school marijuana law reformers – some of them are definitely in what I might call the ‘free the weed’ category, so, ‘The government has no business at all telling me whether I can grow marijuana and what I can do with my cannabis.’ And I approached this very tricky policy problem from the place of, ‘We need to accommodate the interests and concerns not only of the people who are using cannabis and who are being impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition, but also by the people that have valid concerns about whether there will be impacts on safety and on problematic use – will there be an increase or rise in that.’ And I think that is what we’re all tasked with as policymakers and advocates who want to see responsible policy reform happen – that we need to be able to take all perspectives into consideration and craft policies that are addressing those concerns; and also hold ourselves accountable to watch what happens as the policy unfolds and be ready to make adjustments if necessary.
Okay. So from what you’ve seen in New Zealand, do you think that this framework could work here?
Absolutely. It’s been wonderful to be here this week and to be hearing from ministers as well as advocates, directly impacted people. Everybody, to a person, agrees that what is happening right now in New Zealand is not serving its communities well and that they’re ready for change. They also understand that that change needs to be built on a conversation with a very wide range of perspectives. And everything that I’m hearing is that they’re ready to move forward. They are inviting perspectives from places like the United States and Canada and other countries and states that have moved forward with this. And that’s exactly how this work has to happen. None of us knows exactly what it will look like when all is said and done, but we’re willing to be engaged in the process.
Alison Holcomb, great to talk to you this morning. Thanks for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me.
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