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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Marijuana policy requires continual evaluation

The Columbian
Published: July 9, 2024, 6:03am

By many measures, the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington has been a success. But a decade after the first cannabis shop opened in Clark County, marijuana policy remains contentious at the national level, and the need for oversight remains paramount at the state level.

Economically, there are clear benefits to recreational marijuana. In 2023, Clark County dispensaries generated more than $76 million in sales. From more than $1 billion in statewide sales, the city of Vancouver received approximately $650,000 last year, and Clark County received approximately $700,000.

But revenue should not be equated with good governance. Sound social policy involves more than attempts to generate money for governments, and the issues can be complex.

Among the questions is whether marijuana legalization has contributed to a persistent drug crisis, a crisis fueled by opioid addiction and compounded by the prevalence of fentanyl. As a 2021 headline from NBC News stated in a noncommittal fashion: “Legal marijuana either eases opioid crisis or makes it worse. The evidence is split.”

Academic studies have reached differing conclusions about legalized marijuana and whether it promotes or discourages opioid use and addiction. In that regard, a change in federal cannabis policy is essential.

For decades, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug by the federal government, lumping it with heroin, LSD and others on a list of the most dangerous substances. Among the criteria for a Schedule I drug is that it has a high potential for abuse and that it has no currently accepted medical use. Marijuana has well-documented medicinal benefits for some patients, indicating that cannabis should not be included in the category facing the strongest government restrictions.

The Biden administration is seeking to change marijuana to Schedule III status. The move is sensible, and it would have an impact that extends beyond societal debates about the dangers of cannabis; it also would pave the way for more intensive research into the drug — research that has been limited by its Schedule I status.

The federal status of the drug represents broad differences of opinion about cannabis throughout the country. Twenty-four states have legalized recreational use, and another 14 allow medical marijuana. In the others, it remains illegal in all instances.

In Washington, recreational use was approved with 56 percent of the vote in 2012, paving the way for the opening of the first dispensaries two years later. Since then, the provisions included in the initial law have proven to be effective and well-considered.

For example, Washington placed limits on the number of marijuana shops that could be approved; the importance of those restrictions is evident from a quick visit to Portland. According to city officials, Portland has one dispensary for every 2,966 residents — or one on seemingly every major street corner; Clark County has one dispensary for approximately every 25,000 residents.

For another example, Washington’s law takes strides to prevent illicit marijuana use by underage residents and to focus on treatment and education. As detailed in a recent Columbian article, cannabis use has declined among Washington high school students over the past decade, according to the state’s Healthy Youth Survey.

All of this represents the complexity of marijuana policy and the need for constant evaluation. Washington’s experiment with legalization has been successful, but some questions remain to be answered.