Despite displeasure from members of Congress, marijuana legalization took effect in Washington, D.C., at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. The sale of marijuana remains illegal.
Having passed with 69 percent of the vote in November’s election, the measure faced a 30-day congressional review period, beginning Jan. 13. Its expiration at midnight paved the way for implementation.
Initiative 71 permits individuals who are 21 years of age to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, freely give up to one ounce to another person who must also be at least 21 years of age, and use marijuana in private spaces.
Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and Metropolitan Police Department Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier clarified in a press advisory Thursday that restaurants and private clubs do not constitute private spaces, emphasizing that the substance could only be used in private homes. The operation of vehicles under the influence of marijuana is still unlawful as well.
“[Initiative 71] does not allow for the sale of marijuana, the use of marijuana in public spaces, the use of marijuana by juveniles,” Bowser said at a press conference Wednesday.
Additionally, marijuana possession remains illegal on federal property, approximately 25 percent of the land in the District, including the National Mall.
Metropolitan Police Department officers have undergone training to ready themselves to respond in accordance with the new legislation. According to Lanier, new protocols will only differ slightly from those implemented last July when D.C. decriminalized marijuana.
“It’s not some major change or shift in what the officers do under decriminalization,” Lanier said at the Wednesday conference. “We’ve been working on this for a while. … Our officers are going to be fully prepared for 12:01.”
Prior to legalization, marijuana possession and private use of less than one ounce was considered a civil offense with a fine of $25, while public use would result in a jail sentence of up to 60 days. Before decriminalization in July, possession and use resulted in a criminal offense that could be punished by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Zack Pesavento (SFS ’08), press officer for the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, which led the campaign in favor of Initiative 71, said that legalization would lead to fewer race-related arrests in D.C.
“Really, what we’re doing is putting an end to marijuana prohibition that has disrupted thousands of people’s lives not only here in the District but all over the country,” Pesavento said. “The biggest change is we’re going to stop seeing a system that’s really just been used to target low income and minority communities here in the District.”
The District’s efforts to legalize have received scrutiny and backlash from certain members of Congress.
In its omnibus spending bill passed in December, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) included a policy rider that prevents the District from “enacting” any law that legalizes marijuana.
Bowser and the D.C. Council, along with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), argued that the initiative was self-enacting when approved by voters, and thus legalization was ratified before the passage of the rider.
“We are of the same view that the initiative was enacted at the point that the voters voted and the board certified the results. Since the handling of legislation falls to the legislative branch … I sent the legislation to Congress as a requirement of law,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said at the press conference. “I had no choice but to do so.”
Mendelson sent the initiative to Congress, which reviews all legislation passed by the District, on Jan. 13. Over the past 30 days that Congress was in session, members of Congress had the opportunity to prevent the initiative’s implementation by introducing disapproval motions which would have to be passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives and subsequently signed by President Barack Obama. No such motions were introduced.
Still, members of Congress were alarmed by D.C.’s move to legalize. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to Bowser on Tuesday that said any move to implement the initiative would be “in knowing and willful violation of the law.”
Attorney General for the District of Columbia Karl Racine disagreed with Chaffetz’s interpretation.
“Every single representation that the mayor has made and the representations that Councilmember Mendelson has made are correct,” Racine said. “The Initiative 71, in the Attorney General office’s view, is law.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also each released statements supporting the District’s interpretation of the omnibus bill.
Bowser encouraged Congress to allow D.C. to proceed with legalization, noting that people around the country would be observing the strained relationship between the District and Congress.
“For Americans wondering why we’re being treated differently than Colorado, than Alaska, this demonstrates our relationship with Congress,” Bowser said. “We encourage Congress not to be so concerned with what seven out of 10 residents said should be the law in the District of Columbia.”
According to The Washington Post, Harris and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chairs the subcommittee in charge of District affairs, did not heed Bowser’s pleas, warning local officials that legalization would jeopardize funds for other District programs, as Congress retains the authority to approve D.C.’s budget. Harris also implored Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute officials for implementing the law.
“Me being in jail wouldn’t be a good thing,” Bowser said in response.
Initiative 71, notably, does not permit the sale of marijuana, only allowing the drug to be obtained by growing plants or receiving it as a gift. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) had introduced a bill in October to implement a tax-and-regulate system in preparation for legalization, but the policy rider in the omnibus prevented further discussion about such a system.
“The appropriations rider that passed Congress in December does appear to present an obstacle to further action by the D.C council on marijuana related policies,” Pesavento said. “It appears that the congressional obstruction has at least temporarily halted progress on that front.”
Although the sale of marijuana itself is still illegal, supporters of Initiative 71 believe the marijuana industry can still grow. Comfytree Enterprises, which promotes and supports marijuana-related business, is hosting a “Cannabis Academy, Expo and Job Fair” Saturday and Sunday in Capitol Hill to teach people how to take advantage of the “green rush.”
“You are able to set up a business that is financially benefitting from gifting and donating cannabis,” Bowen said. “Things like cannabis clubs: a cannabis collective where you’re able to charge a membership fee for the group you belong to, and they happen to gift you cannabis as part of that membership. That is something that people can do.”
Bowen said that the lack of government regulation could allow an increased number of small businesses to enter the market, allowing the economic benefits of marijuana to trickle down.
“Most of the time, the state is rolling out the program, and there’s a handful of dispensaries and a handful of cultivation centers that are controlling it,” Bowen said. “They also a lot of the time make it so cost prohibitive that small business owners, the middle class, women, African-Americans and others who are generally marginalized in mainstream markets are not able to participate on the same level. … So what a home-grow situation does is that it evens the playing field a little bit.”
Despite the publicity around the issue, Pesavento said that Initiative 71 would not result in a huge cultural change in D.C., a sentiment echoed by local officials.
“People are fed up, they’re tired of the arrests. … That’s the biggest change you’re going to see from this going forward,” Pesavento said. “There are people who will start to grow a few plants at home and people will be able to share marijuana with their friends but there’s not going to be a very dramatic change, at least right now.”