Meet Mark Kleiman, the Man Who Will Be Washington State’s Pot Czar

Mark Kleiman tells Abby Haglage about leading Washington state’s lean, mean, pot-regulating machine.

Elaine Thompson/AP; Todd Cheney/UCLA

How does it feel to be famous? The new “pot czar” of Washington state chuckles at the question. “Drug-policy analysts do not get groupies,” he says. But judging by the media storm surrounding Mark Kleiman—the professor, blogger, and drug-policy expert appointed to head the state’s marijuana legalization effort—he’s dead wrong.

After a glowing write-up in the Seattle Times and a headline-grabbing appearance on CNN, it looks as if the bearded Californian has caught the nation’s attention.

When Washington state officials announced their decision to hire the UCLA professor and author of Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control, they were not simply choosing Kleiman—but also his hand-picked team of consultants, named BOTEC, for Kleiman’s company. The ruthless fight for the position had pitted Kleiman’s team against more than 100 others. He was sure his group of six was the strongest, and he was right. Nearly four months after the state of Washington legalized marijuana, Kleiman says he hopes to show the world what marijuana legalization—done right—can look like.

From his poor eating habits to playing Wii Fit, the new pot boss tells The Daily Beast who he is—and how he landed the most enviable seat in the world of marijuana.

Did you ever imagine that you’d take on this kind of role? Would you say this was a dream of yours?

No, I can’t say that I ever imagined that a state would legalize marijuana while it remained illegal federally and then ask for advice about how to do it. [Laughs.] That was not on my list of dreams.

So now that you’re in the spotlight, who is the real Mark Kleiman? Workaholic, family man, neither?

Well, no. I have not gotten any cooperation in being a family man. When we got the notice that we were the apparent successful proposer [to be Washington state’s marijuana consultants], I told my team not to get overconfident. I was the apparent successful proposer to somebody once and she married someone else.

So you’re single?

I’m available and interested. But I must admit, not having a family, it does make assignments like this easier.

According to the official announcement, you’re charging $292 an hour. That seems like such a specific number. What’s the story behind it?

My sense was that if said $300, it would sound like we made it up. It’s a complicated calculation; obviously we couldn’t do it precisely. A blend of some fairly high-priced talent with some younger people who don't cost as much. We’re still working out exactly how the budget will work. I asked the guy, “Do we have to do some arithmetic that comes out to $292?” And he said, “No.” I said, “Well!” [Laughs.]

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A major factor of the decision process is how many people you will license to grow. Agreed?

Yes. That will be a big decision. I don’t know if it’s going to be 10 or 500. Ninety percent of the beer market in Washington state is served by three firms, just to give you some perspective. There are some people who think that's the direction this industry will go in, and others who think that's the worst possible result.

What are some specific examples of things you will deal with day to day?

Well, packaging is one. Packaging will be hugely important and essentially determine what the market looks like. Should there be brand names? Can you put "mellow" on the label, or just give the chemical content? These aren't simple choices, and every option has disadvantages as well as advantages.

From what I’ve seen, the effect this legal marijuana will have on alcohol consumption seems vital to you. True?

It's clear to me—though not everyone agrees with this—that if marijuana turns out to be a substitute for alcohol, if allowing people to smoke pot decreases heavy drinking, that’s a huge win. If that were true, I'd be a strong legalizer. Alcohol abuse is a much bigger problem than cannabis abuse—in every dimension.

Are you able to sleep at night with the knowledge that all eyes are on you and your team, as the pioneers of this process?

[Laughs.] I’m sleeping pretty well. We’ve got a terrific team. It’s an interesting challenge. I don’t have any doubt that we can add value to the Washington process. At the end of the day, we’re advisers. It’s not as if our team is sitting around figuring out the optimal solution and then figuring out how we can pawn it off on the board. I’d be nervous about getting it wrong, but no, I’m not contemplating disaster.

Does the nickname “pot czar” annoy you?

Yeah, I mean, c’mon. [Laughs.] But at least they’re not saying chief pothead! I do have to tell people that free samples were not a part of our bid. We’re not planning to do a lot of firsthand observation.

Do you feel famous?

Well, no. As far as I can tell, drug-policy analysts do not get groupies. I went into the wrong profession, obviously. I should have picked up the guitar.

When CNNs Erin Burnett asked in an interview whether you smoke pot, you said you’ll always answer this question with the same answer: “None of your business.”

I understand why people ask the question. They’re trying to place you culturally. When's the last time someone hired to advise on AIDS prevention was asked, "How many sexual partners have you had"? We might be able to make better policy about marijuana if we giggled a little less. People would not be asking me if I used cocaine. It’s partly that about half of every age cohort uses pot. So it’s a pretty clear cultural divider. I was glad to see Erin Burnett was not offended when I didn’t answer. If you do drug policy, it’s foolish to answer that question.

Why foolish?

Well, because it allows people to categorize you, either as a pot smoker or a drug warrior. It refocuses the conversation away from the substance and onto the person. And it also assumes that this is basically an extension of the culture wars, rather than a practical policy problem. If there’s one thing that my team will bring to the table, it’s that we’re going to try to focus on advantages and disadvantages. Not on who’s winning and who’s losing. That’s part of what makes me sleep easy.

When you’re not running the pot world, what will you be doing?

I spend a lot of time blogging. I like folk music, Celtic music, and early music. My favorite singer is Mary Black. I’m also a big science-fiction fan.

What about TV?

I got rid of my TV in 1976. I have a computer, so I watch TV on Talking Points Memo. I bought a TV to watch the debates in 2008, thinking I would watch Netflix occasionally, but no. I’m out of the TV habit. I like to use Wii Fit and play video games on my computer instead. I’d much rather be reading history than watching television.

What’s your favorite food?

[Hesitates.] Hmm. I have to say brownies, but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea! I don’t have the world’s healthiest eating habits.

Word on the street is that you won’t be moving to Washington and will remain in California to do this job.

Emails are a really wonderful thing. I have a day job. I’m going to continue to teach at UCLA. I’ll obviously be up there from time to time, particularly over the summer. If I have to get up to Seattle, I won’t object. But why burn a lot of jet fuel if you don’t have to?

You’ve stated in the past that you’re neither pro-legalization nor anti-. Can you explain that?

Well, any opinions I have now are completely subject to change in the face of new facts. We’ve never seen this beast. Assuming that Washington comes up with a reasonably sensible solution and the federal government lets it operate—meaning we get a fair shot at a mostly legal regime in Washington—then come back at me in five years and ask what I think about legalizing marijuana, and I might have an opinion that’s worth something.

What advice would you give to the younger generation aspiring to be the next pot czar?

Same advice I’d give an aspiring musician: don’t quit your day job.