Trends and Transitions | June 2014



Liquor Lessons 

Legislators charged with writing regulations for America’s budding marijuana industry should look to alcohol and tobacco laws, a new report suggests.

“The lessons from the many decades of regulating alcohol and tobacco should offer some guidance to policymakers who are contemplating alternatives to marijuana prohibition and are interested in taking a public health approach,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center and a co-author of  “Developing Public Health Regulations for Marijuana: Lessons From Alcohol and Tobacco.”

In November 2012, Colorado and Washington voters became the first to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Bills calling for legalization for adult use have been proposed in 18 states, and ballot initiatives are being pursued in at least two.

Illustration of bottle with marijuana leaf insideThe trend raises important questions about how to best allow the production, sales and the use of marijuana while also working to reduce related public health issues, such as increased dependence and addiction, consumption by minors, impaired driving, and use of alcohol and marijuana at the same time, especially in public places. 

Local, state and federal governments have regulated the sale and consumption of alcohol and tobacco for years. Among the things they have learned is that keeping prices artificially high reduces consumption. 
Numerous studies have shown that when liquor taxes go up, people drink less, drive drunk less, suffer fewer alcohol-related diseases and commit fewer violent acts. Raising taxes on cigarettes has similar effects—people are less inclined to start smoking and more inclined to cut back or quit, according to the report, published online by the American Journal of Public Health.

RAND researchers posed an interesting hypothetical: What if states, instead of private companies, ran their own marijuana industries? A state-run monopoly could set policies that would reduce marijuana’s social ills. Artificially high prices and limited stores, for example, would reduce consumption. RAND researchers also suggested state stores would mean minors would have less access to marijuana. Federal law currently prohibits such state monopolies, but the researchers write that the legal landscape could change.

Other report suggestions:

  • Restrict and carefully monitor licenses and licensees. Keep the number of licenses relatively low and the number of restrictions relatively high.
  • Limit the types of products allowed. The alcohol industry, for example, appeals to youth with sugary drinks such as wine coolers and alcohol pops. Look closely at marijuana-infused cookies, brownies, candy, etc., and consider restricting them before they hit the market, since it becomes much harder to do so after they already are for sale.
  • Restrict public consumption, which would reduce second-hand smoke and limit youths’ exposure to the drug. 
  • Measure and prevent impaired driving. Colorado and Washington set legal limits for the amount of THC—the primary intoxicant in marijuana—allowed in a driver’s blood.
  • Ban marijuana advertising, including retail display. Such a ban might run into legal issues, but it’s worth exploring, wrote the RAND researchers. The time to impose it would be early, they suggested, before sales become well-established.

Making Energy Efficiency Easy

Consumers, businesses and policymakers interested in improving energy efficiency often face a significant barrier: the higher upfront costs of the newest and smartest appliances, boilers, HVAC systems, furnaces, insulation, lighting and weatherization. To help, some states and utilities are offering  “on-bill financing,” which incorporates the finance costs of the upgrades into the consumers’ utility bills over time.

The intention of on-bill financing is to increase the number of efficiency improvements in existing homes and buildings by making it easier for middle- and low-income customers, renters, residents of multifamily properties and small businesses to purchase energy-efficient products. 

Twelve states have enacted legislation to create revolving loan funds for capital, authorize pilot programs or require utilities to offer on-bill financing. Several states have also employed on-bill financing to meet state requirements for energy efficiency. And 11 states have considered bills related to on-bill financing this year.

South Carolina’s “Help My House” Rural Energy Savings Pilot Program, launched in 2010, saw a 34 percent reduction in energy use in the year following improvements. Customers saved, on average, $288 a year after paying off on-bill financing loans, which averaged $7,700 with a 10-year maximum payback. The program was funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant after state lawmakers passed a law authorizing utilities to offer on-bill financing to residential customers in 2010.

The Green Jobs-Green New York Act of 2009 and the Power NY Act of 2011 set up a statewide on-bill financing program. On-bill financing loans range between $3,000 and $25,000, with an interest rate of 3.49 percent and repayment within 15 years. The program offers two tiers of loans: the first tier is bundled for sale to the private market through an on-bill repayment program, while the second tier, which has lower credit score requirements, is financed by utilities.

The Oregon legislature enacted the Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Technology Act in 2009, authorizing a state loan program for energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy conservation programs, which also receive federal and local funding. One on-bill financing program has worked in more than 3,000 homes to save 2.7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity—enough electricity to power nearly 250 homes for a year. On-bill financing requires no money down and includes rebates and a free energy audit; loans range from $2,000 to $30,000, with an average loan just over $10,000.

—Jocelyn Durkay

Hurricane Watch by the Numbers

June 1–Nov. 30 is the official hurricane season in the North Atlantic. Experts predict a quiet year, but that doesn’t mean residents of Atlantic Basin states shouldn’t prepare to batten down the hatches and keep emergency stocks well-supplied.

Tropical storms expected this year; 
12 is average

Tropical storms predicted to develop into Category 3 or higher hurricanes; 
six is average

Number of storms last year

Portion of U.S. population that lives in the areas most threatened by Atlantic hurricanes

Retired names of especially deadly hurricanes

One of the busiest Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, with 28 named storms 

Sources: Atlantic Oceanography and Meteorological Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Census Bureau Emergency Preparedness, National Hurricane Center, meteorologists Philip Klotzbach and William Gray of Colorado State University

Family Leave With Pay

Rhode Island became the third state to enact paid family leave, effective Jan. 1, 2014. The statute covers all private sector employers. Local public sector employers may choose to participate in the program. The legislation was approved by wide margins in the state House and Senate. 

The new law, called the Temporary Caregiver Insurance Program, provides partial wage replacement benefits for workers who take time off work to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, domestic partner, parent, parent-in-law, grandparent, or to bond with a new child. “Supporting family caregivers saves medical costs by letting people remain in their homes for care, and, it can protect caregivers from losing their jobs and going on unemployment,” says Representative Elaine Coderre (D), one of the bill’s main sponsors.

In more than 70 percent of Rhode Island families with children, both parents work, and most need both incomes to pay their bills and family expenses. 

Workers must give their employer 30 days notice of their intent to use the benefit, except in unforeseeable circumstances. They must also have earned a minimum of $9,300 in the previous year and have paid into the program to qualify for benefits. 

Sponsor Senator Gayle Goldin (D) says the legislation has already had a tremendous impact. “As legislators, we don’t often get to champion legislation that has such an immediate, positive impact on people’s lives. TCI has already helped 900 families in Rhode Island. We know it’s working, helping people keep their jobs and successfully weather stressful life events so they can return to work,” she says. 

Critics argue that these laws hurt business operations and ultimately cost jobs.

Like similar programs in California and New Jersey, the Rhode Island program is administered through the state’s temporary disability program run by the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. The benefits are funded by participating employees, who pay a small tax on their wages to participate. 

Workers may take up to a maximum of four weeks leave per benefit year to provide care for a family member and must use a minimum of seven consecutive days’ leave. Weekly benefits are based on the worker’s earnings, with a maximum benefit of $752 a week.

The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period to care for a newborn, an adopted child or a foster child, or to care for a family member or to attend to the employee’s own serious medical condition. The FLMA also allows states to set standards that are more expansive than the federal law. 

—Jeanne Mejeur and Julie Poppe

Driver’s Licenses for Immigrants

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. California, Colorado, Connecticut, D.C., Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington issue a license if an applicant provides certain documentation, such as a foreign birth certificate, a foreign passport, or a consular card and evidence of current residency in the state. 

Eight of the states made licenses available in 2013.  Previously, only New Mexico, Utah and Washington offered them. 

The licenses offered by the 11 states and D.C. do not meet the more stringent standards of the federal REAL ID Act, which is being phased in starting this year. The aim of the federal legislation is to establish national standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards so they may be used to board commercial aircraft and access certain federal facilities.

—Gilberto Soria Mendoza

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