How to regulate pot when it's legal

CALIFORNIA: It’s becoming a cliché: The tide is turning in the debate over cannabis. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, publicly reversed his position and now supports medical cannabis. Republican Gov. Chris Christie just expanded New Jersey’s medicinal marijuana laws. In the past month, New Hampshire and Illinois have become the 19th and 20th states to approve medical marijuana.

But the debate over medical marijuana obscures the more fundamental issue of our failed war on pot and the path to smart legalization.

I had an opportunity to explore the full range of perspectives in the marijuana debate at the recent 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. What I learned can be simply stated: Nationwide cannabis legalization is coming and smart regulation is the key to its success.

At the convention, held in San Francisco, I listened to and spoke with respected leaders of the opposition to cannabis legalization, who are mostly specialized in the treatment of substance use disorders.

The Bay Area is a proving ground for California’s liberal medical marijuana laws. Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the California branch of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, took me on a tour of local cannabis dispensaries. And Oaksterdam University invited me to speak at their makeshift headquarters — their previous location was closed after a DEA raid last year — where classes are offered on all things cannabis.

The dispensaries are largely self-regulated, yet all facilities are immaculate, security is tight, and members of the staff are knowledgeable about the science of cannabis. Surely not all points of access are as well-run as these dispensaries, but they could be. And only with legalization and regulation can we expect that they would be.

Most legalization advocates and opponents share concerns about underage pot use, an opposition to incarcerating users, and a recognition that marijuana is less harmful to adults than alcohol.

Opinion: Americans agree, pot is no crime

Most agree public opinion has shifted in favor of cannabis legalization, although the two groups have strongly divergent feelings about the change. A minority of advocates call for America to “free the weed” with few restrictions, while opponents at the American Psychiatric Association fear that legalization would lead to “a nation of drunken stoners” after an anticipated rise in adolescent use of this and other drugs.

he substance abuse treatment community has legitimate concerns, and recreational cannabis should not be legalized — for minors.

If national polls are correct, and wisdom prevails, then America is rapidly moving toward legal cannabis for adults. We must stop arguing about the right of consenting adults to consume a relatively safe recreational drug, and discuss how — rather than whether — cannabis should be properly regulated by the federal government.

First, the four essential goals of marijuana regulation are: keeping cannabis out of the hands of minors; reducing harm to adult users; preventing collateral harm to the public and getting the maximum economic benefit from legalization.

Our approach to federal regulation should synthesize the perspectives of both advocates and opponents of legalization. We should look to research on laws controlling alcohol, tobacco and gambling. We can also learn from Colorado and Washington, which have developed regulations for recreational cannabis, and the 18 other states — plus the District of Columbia — that have legalized medical marijuana.

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