Commentary: After Legalization, Regulation

When Governor John Hickenlooper signed six bills into law this May effectively legalizing marijuana in Colorado, he stated “Recreational marijuana really is new territory.”

He couldn’t be more correct in his assessment of the situation. Majorities of voters in both Colorado and Washington State passed ballot initiatives approving marijuana for recreational use this past November, and in each state, lawmakers have struggled to implement a post-legalization regulatory framework that makes sense, and that protects children and teens.

These challenges are due in part to the fact that there is no “playbook” for implementing a legal marijuana regulatory system in the U.S. We can look to tobacco and alcohol regulations as an example, but even those who believe these systems provide adequate protection for minors (and many do not) agree that our current model when it comes to booze and cigarettes was only reached after decades of fighting and trial and error strategies.

But elected officials are ultimately beholden to their constituents, and navigating the nuances of public opinion when it comes to voters and marijuana laws can be tricky. Lawmakers in Colorado and Washington State know that about 55 percent of their voters supported legalizing marijuana. What they don’t know is what should happen next.

This week, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids released a new survey of 1,604 adults nationwide that explores marijuana attitudes and details expectations for regulation in a post-legalization environment. The research focuses heavily on the attitudes of parents of teens and “tweens” (age 10-19) when it comes to marijuana, including oversamples of parents in Colorado and Washington State, and also includes a nationally representative sample of adults 18 and up.

A Cultural Shift

The cultural landscape around marijuana is changing. Nationwide, nearly 7 in 10 support medical marijuana, more than half (52 percent in the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids’s poll) support decriminalization, and 42 percent believe that marijuana should be legalized outright for recreational use.

The new research also shows that there is little understanding of the exact parameters of these scenarios and in the survey, and support actually increased when respondents read objective descriptions of each.

Across the country, 50 percent of parents with kids age 10-19 admit to having used marijuana themselves, and view marijuana as less dangerous or harmful to their children than abusing prescription drugs, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol.

As these trends toward acceptance continue, is increasingly likely that we will see other states join Colorado and Washington in legalizing marijuana in the near future.

What Comes Next?

Critically, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids study revealed that while a cultural shift toward acceptance is happening, growing tolerance does not equate to a laissez-faire perception of pot.

The survey polled parents and adults in the general population on a variety of different regulatory scenarios assuming that marijuana was legalized – with fascinating results.

There is strong support for a wide array of stringent post-legalization marijuana regulations to protect minors and the community wellbeing. The research shows intense support (above or near 90 percent) for:

• Setting a legal age of 21
• Prohibiting marijuana smoking in public places
• Severe penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana
• Making it illegal to provide marijuana to someone underage (even at home)
• Prohibiting the sale of marijuana at grocery or convenience stores
• Industry-financed youth prevention education
• Taxation for state general fund revenue
• An outright ban on marijuana advertising

What is particularly interesting is that support for this slate of regulations remains exceptionally strong even among those who approve of the legalization of marijuana.

The poll dug even deeper into attitudes toward marijuana advertising post-legalization, providing respondents with a list of more than a dozen different advertising media ranging from television to movie-theater advertisements, and asking where it would be acceptable for marijuana sellers/growers to advertise. The number one response, among both parents and the general population at large (including in CO and WA) was “nowhere.”

The data are exceptionally clear: There isn’t just a desire for these kinds of regulations, there is an expectation, among parents and among adults nationwide, that lawmakers put these in place if and when marijuana is legalized.

New Environment, New Opportunities

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this research is the new opportunity it presents for advocacy organizations. Lawmakers in Colorado and Washington are, today, attempting to build roadmaps toward effective marijuana regulation, while their constituencies wait to be informed on the progress of their leaders in meeting the requirements they expected when they legalized pot.

Colorado and Washington have recently taken some steps to begin to construct these new systems, but neither has yet approached the kind of regulation that the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids research suggests the public supports.

This is a chance for advocacy organizations to lead by partnering with lawmakers, policy experts and medical/health experts to bring the voice of the concerned parent and constituent to the foreground. the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids is doing their part to kick off the dialog this week in Denver with a panel of experts and state officials on the subject of “Marijuana:  It’s Legal, Now What?”

If successful, these kinds of efforts may be the best bet to implement post-legalization regulatory frameworks that are effective in protecting children from the dangers of marijuana, the firsts of their kind, and replicable if and when marijuana is legalized elsewhere.

Scott Kotchko is a pollster and strategist at Whitman Insight Strategies, advising political candidates, issue advocacy organizations, and major corporations across a variety of areas and industries.  He conducted the Marijuana Attitudes survey in conjunction with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and Batten & Company (a subsidiary of BBDO Worldwide).