Cannabis legalization is an unstoppable social and legal movement. 25 states have now legalized marijuana for medical usage. 4 states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington) and D.C., have legalized all usage of the drug. 9 more states now have measures on their ballots to legalize marijuana. While some are still debating the social or health impacts to this change in policy, momentum for cannabis legalization is certainly building.
The first states to legalize cannabis are demonstrating what the impact to local governments will be. When Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana, the states used a model similar to alcohol businesses: Users must be over 21 years of age. The state issues licenses to businesses based on strict criteria. Sales are taxed (heavily – 30-40% in Washington, or 15-25% in Colorado). But while legalization of marijuana is frequently compared to alcohol, new cannabis markets are creating new unique challenges to agencies charged with regulation:
- Data on crime and safety related to marijuana is still being developed.
- Banking systems are unavailable to the cannabis industry because of federal laws. The cash-only system creates risk.
- Levels of THC are not monitored or easily measured in natural plant forms of the drug.
- Detecting driving while under the influence of marijuana products is a challenge to police.
- The conflict between federal prohibition and state legalization is still be navigated by courts and prosecutors.
- Employers who have previously tested for drug use, including marijuana, are now re-evaluating their testing and requirements.
- Agencies previously tasked with licensing businesses are seeing their workloads skyrocket as new markets open and applications flood regulators.
- The public is still nervous about where cannabis businesses will be allowed, what their impact to neighborhoods will be, and how many will be allowed.
None of these problems are insurmountable. In fact, most of these social challenges are really technology challenges:
- Civic tech solutions and open data are going to solve the shortage of data.
- Tech and science will solve for testing both product quality and consistency, as well as in-the-field sobriety.
- Tech entrepreneurs will innovate new cash, credit and trading devices.
- The industry can use tech to track products from field, to processor, to distributor, to customers to ensure accountability and quality through the whole market.
- Streamlined permitting and licensing tools will allow regulatory agencies to scale up to increased application loads.
- Completely open data – geographic, revenue, and more – around new cannabis businesses will build transparency and trust with the public.
- As technology solves many of the challenges that the new cannabis markets create, advocates will have more precedent to build a case for federal legalization.
Cannabis legalization is a perfect case for how technology can help solve new social and legislative challenges. This intersection of social change and tech solutions is the very definition of civic tech and the Gov 2.0 movement being driven by a new generation of leaders.
While local and state agencies will be challenged as these new policies are developed, the revenue potential is clear: The massive costs of enforcing marijuana prohibition and incarcerating users are now being turned into tax revenue instead. California’s Proposition 64 aims to shift from legal medical marijuana to full recreational cannabis legalization: its proponents estimate that the change could deliver $1 billion in annual tax revenue.
By reframing social challenges as technical challenges, we can start to find the simplest solutions to all kinds of complex issues:
- The housing crunch can be improved by making community development more agile.
- Citizens can create their own support systems by using open content platforms.
- Small countries like Estonia can grow their boundaries and become global influencers.
- Law enforcement can use tech to build trust, transparency and competencies.
Managing the complexity of a social change like cannabis legalization through technical tools is now the latest example of how Gov 2.0 will change the way government works.
Read more on our blog:
2016 Legalization Ballot Measures, Governing
California’s Proposition 64, LA Times
CO Legalization & Guide for Law Enforcement, Police Foundation
Misconceptions about Rescheduling Marijuana, Brookings
QA, Legal Marijuana in CO & WA, Brookings
Government Safety Standards, Newsweek