It was easy to miss amid the geopolitical furore of the past week, but the US federal government has done something interesting and important. It has announced that it will not attempt to assert a federal ban on marijuana in states that vote to legalise its use -- on the condition that distribution is properly regulated.
The Obama administration has taken a while to clarify its position, but this is the result reformers wanted. It requires states to do what triggered the last federal crackdown: regulate the marijuana trade themselves.
This is new territory -- it's not decriminalisation, it's an actual regulated commercial trade in cannabis -- and I'm working on a feature on it for the New Zealand Drug Foundation magazine, Matters of Substance. One thing that became apparent to me when I started researching the story is that legalisation has obliged everyone to confront issues that had been quietly ignored under the medical pot schemes operating in many states.
For instance, it's hard to regulate something you can't standardise -- and there is currently no good standard test for marijuana potency.
Last week, I spoke to Mark Kleiman of UCLA, who is the first "pot czar" in Washington State, which, along with Colorado, opted for legalisation in referenda last year. The early part of his job has been essentially to do with formulating -- and attempting to answer -- key questions. Those included: How much canabis is sold in Washington every year? How much should we expect to sell through the legal system in the first year? What is the environmental impact of growing that much cannabis? How and where do you allocate retail outlets?
Trying to model health outcomes is also tricky. Will marijuana consumption actually increase in a legalised environment? Might legal pot reduce overall alcohol consumption? What the hell do you do about marijuana and driving? And how do you keep Big Tobacco and the alcohol industry out of the picture, assuming that's possible?
Researchers, lawmakers and advocates the world over are going to be watching developments in these two states. And they'll also be watching New Zealand, where the transitional period provided for in the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 came into effect last month.
What was significant about that was that after years of mess, there is now a list of interim product approvals in which the ingredients of every product are a matter of public record. You might not like these things being for sale, but their formal standardisation is a very, very good thing.
Almost as significantly, various individuals and companies received interim licences to import, produce and sell psychoactive drugs. And they were pretty happy about it. Chris Fowlie, self-described "pot geek" and the owner of The Hempstore, posted this on Facebook:
I got the 40th birthday present I was secretly hoping for... Psychoactive Substances Retail License #001, the very first legal highs license in the world!
Matt Bowden of Stargate was even more effusive, as he posted photographs of his new (and separate) interim licences to import, manufacture and research psychoactive substances:
Significant moment for me. Permission slips for manufacture, importation and research of psychoactives. Testament to believing for the impossible. I just kept believing one day there would be such a license and visualising until it existed and they issued them. Thank You Divine Creator, Ministry of Health & everybody who believed with me and also to those who told me I was crazy and this would not happen!
This new regime could still fail. If the bar for approval is set too high, it will simply be irrelevant and the black market will continue to provide the psychoactive chemicals people seek -- many of them new, poorly understood and being sold as something else. And at some point the most obvious flaw in the new process -- that it is off-limits to any drug currently outawed under the Misuse of Drugs Act -- will have to be addressed. But at the moment, I think it behoves everyone involved to show the utmost good faith, see what happens -- and see what can be learned.