Last year, Washington and Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana. Supporters of legalization hailed the decision as a panacea that would produce additional tax revenue for cash-strapped state budgets, lower law enforcement costs, and keep millions of harmless pot smokers out of jail. Drug warriors warned that marijuana that is legal in Washington and Colorado would flood the black market in surrounding states. Medical marijuana dispensary owners worried that they might be put out of business, and pot dealers feared that their profits go up in smoke.

In my latest piece for the New Yorker, I investigate Washington state’s attempts to turn the black market in recreational marijuana into a white market overseen by the state, all while avoiding harmful disruption to the existing gray market in medical marijuana. As I write there:

Washington and Colorado have launched a singular experiment. The Netherlands allows personal use of marijuana, but growing or selling the drug remains technically illegal. Portugal has eliminated criminal sanctions on all forms of drug use, but selling narcotics remains a crime. Washington and Colorado are not merely decriminalizing adult possession and use of cannabis; they are creating a legal market for the drug that will be overseen by the state. In a further complication, the marijuana that is legal in these states will remain illegal in the eyes of the federal government, because the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 forbids the growing and selling of cannabis.

The upshot: Legalizing pot may be the right policy, but it will be fiendishly complicated to get right.

You can read the entire piece at the New Yorker.