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Tribune Washington Bureau, Published July 17 2012

As 3 states mull marijuana legalization, experts warn: ‘Beware’

WASHINGTON — Legalizing marijuana in even a single state could drive down prices dramatically across the country, encouraging more people to smoke the drug, a panel of experts said at a briefing Tuesday.

Last week, Oregon became the third state that will vote this November on a ballot measure to legalize marijuana, joining Colorado and Washington.

“Legalization is unprecedented — not even the Netherlands has done it — it is entirely possible it will happen this year,” said Jonathan Caulkins, co-author of “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

“The effects will be enormous,” said Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, during an event at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Obama administration opposes legalizing marijuana and has taken action to shut down some medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Colorado.

Caulkins said one of the main reasons for outlawing the drug is to make it riskier to produce and sell, driving up prices and curbing use. A price collapse following legalization in some states could undermine marijuana laws nationally, the experts warned.

Caulkins said Colorado’s proposition would allow residents to obtain a grower’s license fairly easily, making the state a good home for exporters of marijuana.

“They would be able to provide marijuana to New York state markets at one quarter of the current price,” he said, predicting similar price declines in other states.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, said his advice to federal officials would be “to sit down with the governor of the state and say, ‘Look, we can make your life completely miserable — and we will — unless you figure out a way to avoid the exports.”

One option would be to impose strict limits on how much of the drug retailers could sell to each customer.

Washington’s proposal would present authorities with a different problem. The state is proposing to create a strong system of regulations with the aim of propping up prices. Caulkins said the federal government could strike down the regulations but would leave a free-for-all behind.

“The federal government will face some really difficult choices where actions are like double-edged swords,” Caulkins said.