Policy diffusion and Cannabis Legislation

Researchers suggest that the measure of policy diffusion and political culture are the primary drivers of marijuana adoption

U.S. states may diffuse policies for cannabis legalization

Even more U.S. states may diffuse policies for cannabis legalization

In the past two decades, the drive to legalize medical, as well as recreational cannabis, has gained worldwide attention. The public, as well as policy makers, seem to have taken particular interest in cannabis legalization in recent years. At the beginning of 1996, many states in the U.S. (United States) started legalizing medical marijuana. Today, cannabis is legal for medical use in 33 American states, the District of Columbia, and the territories of Puerto Rico and Guam. Recreational marijuana is legal in 10 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Another 13 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have decriminalized marijuana sale, use, and possession. Overall, the US is fast adopting marijuana, especially for medical purposes. Researchers suggest that the measure of policy diffusion and political culture are the primary drivers of marijuana adoption.



What is policy diffusion?

Policy diffusion has a different definition in various contexts. In an article on social learning, diffusion is defined as the process in which a state is more likely to adopt a policy if another state has already adopted that policy. Policy learning is a specific form of diffusion, which not only considers policy innovation and diffusion of the best practices but also follows less desirable goals. According to Craig Volden, a leading scholar, geographic proximity is a good proxy for policy interdependence. However, it cannot be connected to a specific argument about the nature of the diffusion process.



How might the concept of policy diffusion affect cannabis legalization in the US?

States are commonly viewed as laboratories for policy experimentation. Differences between states in terms of educational attainment, urbanization, industrialization, political ideology, wealth, and geographic proximity to other innovative states, influence their adoption of novel policy approaches.

The question is: Are these factors related to recent shifts in policies legalizing cannabis across U.S. states? Can we predict which state will adopt the policy next?

According to “The Mechanism of Policy Diffusion”, an article written by Charles R. Shipan from the University of Michigan and Craig Volden from the Ohio State University, the primary drivers for policy diffusion are economic competition, learning, imitation, and coercion. When it comes to marijuana legalization laws in the US, this theory suggests that the U.S. states with stringent marijuana regulations either learn from less restricted states and adopt their policies for improved economy, or as a result of coercive pressures which enforce the implementation of such policies.

Coercion Hypothesis seems to play a less significant role in cases where larger states, such as Alaska for example, adopted policies from smaller states. It may become relevant if a federal law legalizes marijuana and pressurizes states to adopt the federal policy. The Coercion Hypothesis differentiates vertical and horizontal diffusion. Vertical diffusion only considers top-down approaches and neglects the idea that policy can be affected by the pressures of the public. Increasing number of voters demanding legalization of marijuana might influence political behavior and thus influence policy diffusion across states.

Legal marijuana created a $700 million dollar industry in Colorado in 2014 and generated $63 million in tax revenue, along with an additional $13 million collected in fees and licenses. Market spectators suggest revenues will hit $1 billion dollars by 2016, collecting $94 million in taxes per year. Consequently, marijuana legalization is appealing for economically poor states. In fact, every state might benefit from increased legalization across the US.


Marijuana sales and tax revenues in Colorado by month

Source



What Policy Is Being Diffused?

For marijuana policy diffusion, states should meet the following criteria:

  • Enact language allowing individuals with a qualifying illness to use medical marijuana if they’ve received a prescription from a licensed physician.
  • Some form of legalization exists. A majority of the U.S. states have removed criminal penalties; remaining states have essentially legalized the use of medical marijuana.
  • Provide language to evoke an affirmative legal defense for qualified patients who stay compliant with state law.
  • The Department of Health or Health and Human Services should list qualifying illnesses, which most commonly include HIV/AIDS, cancer, cachexia, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis (MS), etc.



Final Words

The policy model explained here is important to understanding policy diffusion in the case of marijuana legalization in the US. However, because it cannot serve as an exact prediction tool pointing to which state will adopt cannabis legalization next, perhaps it is better referred to as an analysis tool, not a model.

In addition, the influence of power is insufficiently considered in the described theories, as well as vertical coercion from below. Understanding how negative economic spillovers will influence the decision-making of other states is yet to be seen with increasing legalization. What seems clear though, is that the legalization of cannabis in U.S. states seems more sporadic than not, given the long distances between legalized cannabis states that can hardly reflect any neighboring influence. However, with the nature of today’s world, perhaps policy diffusion has nothing to do with close geographic proximity. Shipan and Volden have the better point -- the awareness of economic development born from the policy is enough pressure in itself to coerce adoption, regardless of geographic proximity.