D.C.: Marijuana Officially Becomes Legal For Adults In Nation's Capital On Thursday

DCMarijuanaCapitol

Law approved by voters in November allows adults 21 and older to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana in the Washington, D.C.

A voter-approved law making marijuana legal for adults in Washington, D.C. will officially take effect on Thursday, February 26, at 12:01 a.m. ET.

“This is a major milestone on the road to ending marijuana prohibition in the United States,” said Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). “This development in our nation’s capital embodies the broader movement taking place throughout the country.

“If the President can brew and drink beer in the White House, adults should be allowed to grow and consume a less harmful substance in their houses,” Capecchi said. “Alcohol is no longer the only authorized social lubricant in town. A safer alternative is legal for adults.”

Initiative 71, which was approved 70-30 by D.C. voters in November, allows adults 21 years of age or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana; grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes (of which no more than three can be flowering at a time) and possess the yield of those plants in the location where it was grown; and transfer without payment (but not sell) up to one ounce of marijuana to other adults 21 years of age or older.

It will remain illegal to use marijuana in public.

“This is a significant milestone in the movement for racial justice, civil liberties, and drug policy reform,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, D.C. policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “The racially-biased enforcement of marijuana laws in the nation’s capital is officially a relic of history.”

The victory in D.C. is all the more remarkable because Initiative 71 had to undergo a Congressional review lasting 30 legislative days. During this period, which began on January 13, both the House and the Senate had the opportunity to hold a vote to block the legalization law. Neither chamber chose to do so.

“There is simply no organized, significant group of members of Congress willing to waste time fighting against marijuana legalization, an issue that has become extremely popular with voters everywhere,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for DPA. “The Republican House voted five times last year to let states set their own marijuana policies. And the recent scandal over DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz shows that it is opposition to marijuana reform that is now politically toxic.”

“Legalization has come to Congress’s backyard,” said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of criminal justice professionals opposed to the Drug War. “The only question now is will they be the leaders their constituents voted for and allow the DC Council to tax and regulate the product, or will they prop up the criminal market by keeping sales underground?”

Much has been made of the difference between D.C.’s Initiative and marijuana reform in other states. Yet while D.C. is prohibited from using FY15 funds to set up marijuana dispensaries, legalization will play out in much the same way as it has in other states.

Colorado and Washington both had prolonged periods where marijuana was legalized for possession and home cultivation but there were no dispensaries (18 months in the case of Washington). The same will be the case for Alaska and Oregon.

In the same way, much has been made of the fact that D.C. has a considerable amount of federal land (21.6 percent), according to the Congressional Research Service. But other states with more federal land, such as the state of Washington, where one third of the land is under federal control, have not seen an uptick in federal arrests.

It is worth also noting that the Obama Administration supports the District’s right to legalize marijuana and has a “hands-off” approach to states and jurisdictions that have opted to legalize. District residents are advised to review a map of federal land and some basic rules in order to comply with the complex interplay of federal and District laws.

“Marijuana has been effectively legal in the affluent and white parts of the District west of 16th Street for years,” said Piper. “All Initiative 71 does is treat the black community the same way - no arrests for minor marijuana violations.”

The campaign to pass Initiative 71 was driven by public demands to end racially-biased enforcement of marijuana laws and was seen as the first step at taking marijuana out of the illicit market. A broad base of community support from multiple civil rights organizations, faith leaders and community advocacy groups supported Initiative 71, viewing it as an opportunity to restore the communities most harmed by the War On Drugs.

Two independent studies of marijuana arrest trends in the District of Columbia documented enormous racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests. Despite the fact that African American and white residents of the District of Columbia use marijuana at roughly similar rates, 91 percent of all arrests for simple possession of marijuana are of African Americans; an arrest rate eight times greater than the rate for whites.

In December, Congress passed a federal spending bill which was initially viewed by many to block the initiative. However, as outlined in the Home Rule Act of 1973, voter approved ballot initiatives are enacted once election results have been certified by the Board of Elections. Given, the D.C. Board of Elections certified Initiative 71 on December 3, the Initiative was already enacted in advance of the passage of the federal spending bill 11 days later.

Letters sent by D.C. House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to Mayor Bowser and Chairman Mendelson regarding the enactment of Initiative 71 are largely efforts of political posturing, and contrary to the legal interpretations of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D- California), Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Attorney General Karl Racine.

“While the House Oversight Committee may eventually hold hearings on this matter,” said Michael Collins, federal policy manager at the DPA, "the idea that Congress would attempt to arrest locally elected officials or their staff for doing their jobs undermines the spirit of American democracy.”

Finally, there has been significant discussion of the District’s elected officials being blocked from implementing a system to tax and regulate marijuana similar to those established in Colorado and Washington, this is not entirely true. In the appropriations bill passed by Congress at the end of last year, the District was prevented from using only FY15 funding.

Locally elected officials can simply use already-appropriated reserve funds to pay for any further steps related to marijuana legalization, including enacting a system for taxation and regulation. As outlined in Section 450A of the Home Rule Act of 1973, the Mayor and the CFO may use contingency funds to “provide for nonrecurring or unforeseen needs that arise during the fiscal year, including expenses associated with unforeseen weather or other natural disasters, unexpected obligations created by Federal law or new public safety or health needs or requirements.”

“Now that marijuana is a legal product for adults, it needs to be treated like other products that are legal for adults,” MPP's Capecchi said. “The next step is to establish a system in which marijuana production and sales are regulated similarly to alcohol.

“We are hopeful that Congress will not stand in the way of D.C.’s efforts to regulate and tax marijuana,” Capecchi said. “Members of the District Council are clearly interested in adopting such a system, and they appear ready to move forward if Congress doesn’t interfere.”

“Elected officials in the District are always talking about fighting for the right of self-determination, said Dr. Burnett of the DPA. “The time has come to see whether that rhetoric has weight or if these are just statements of political expedience. The people of the District of Columbia will be watching.”