Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Will California Show the Way on Marijuana?

Copyright, The New York Times Company

Next month Californians will vote on Proposition 19, which would change state law to allow adults to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana. Possession and sale of marijuana remain federal crimes, but the proposition is a current example of how California is a legal innovator of sorts.

Much economic and social activity is regulated at the discretion of the states. Federal laws apply uniformly across the states but, when state law comes into play, some activities can be legal in one state and illegal in another. (Connecticut requires gamblers at casinos and race tracks to be at least 21, while New York sets the bar at 18, for example.) Proponents of Proposition 19 hope that marijuana use by adults will soon be one such activity.

Economists have long studied why jurisdictions vary in their regulation of activities, and one of those studies was published by me and Prof. Andrei Shleifer of Harvard. With states legislating so many behaviors, we borrowed a device from Ronald Reagan’s 1981 State of the Union Address: we measured the number of kilobytes (a printed page is about a kilobyte) in each state’s law books.

The chart below, from our paper, compares each state’s law kilobytes (measured in 2002) with its population. The first thing to notice is how much law the states have: more than 20,000 kilobytes (about 20,000 printed pages). California is the most highly regulated state by this measure, with well over 100,000 kilobytes.

Legal Statutes and Populations Among the States Legal Statutes and Populations Among the States

California’s penchant for unusual legislation is well known, so its leadership in terms of the quantity of law is no surprise. But we noticed that Texas — a state with quite a different society and economy than California — is fairly similar to California in terms of kilobytes of law. We also noticed a similar pattern at the bottom end: Alaska and Delaware have a similar number of pages in their law books, despite being very different.

We concluded that population is a major determinant of whether a state has various laws, and of the amount of detail state lawmakers provide in their statutes. States with a lot of people have a greater variety of situations that arise that might be addressed by lawmakers. We found that the large states tend to be the early adopters of new laws, with the smaller states following later.

Like it or not, the tens of millions of people in California serve as a laboratory for new legislation, and their state sets a legal example that the rest of the states might follow. So, even if you do not live in California, pay attention to Proposition 19: maybe someday marijuana may come to a store near you.

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