I was certain that I knew what to expect when D.C.’s eagerly anticipated marijuana legalization measure, Ballot Initiative 71, survived its Congressional review period and became law on February 21, 2015. There had been plenty of media coverage in the preceding weeks on the do’s and don’ts of what our city’s new policy towards marijuana would be.
The new privileges were fairly straightforward. Marijuana would be legal to possess and consume for adults 21 years and older, up to an ounce could be transferred without sale to another adult, up to 2 ounces could be possessed for personal use and up to 6 plants per adult could be possessed in a residence, with a maximum of 3 flowering (limit 12 plants per household). The prohibitions seemed equally clear. Marijuana would still be illegal in federally-funded housing and all other federal property and illegal to consume in public. It would still be illegal to operate a vehicle under the influence, and—most importantly—it would still be illegal to buy or sell marijuana.
That past part, the continued prohibition on marijuana sales, was a disappointment for proponents of Initiative 71 like myself but, considering D.C.’s status as a city without a state, nearly inevitable. D.C.’s laws and budget are subject to Congressional review before passage and Congress has to power to block or alter them seemingly at will. While D.C.’s Home Rule Act of 1973 allowed the District to consider decriminalization via the ballot initiative process, D.C. is not a state and, without the rights granted to states, D.C. has limited options in dealing with marijuana. Any attempt to establish a taxation system for the purchase and sale of marijuana with federal funds would violate the law, because marijuana is still federally illegal. Voter initiatives like Initiative 71 can propose bills, but the resulting law cannot appropriate city funding. That would have to be done through a bill proposed by D.C. Council, which they tried. The D.C. Council took a hard stance in its battle for autonomy with Congress and proposed the “Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act of 2013” that would allocate funds generated in the District to create a legalization framework. However, like clockwork, Congress reasserted its will and introduced a rider into the budget they passed in December of 2014 that would make it illegal for D.C. to allocate any funding towards marijuana regulation, regardless of the source. Just like D.C.’s 1976 handgun ban, 2015 Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act and various other laws that were struck down, blocked or altered by Congress, D.C.’s sovereignty was checked by outside forces.
Initiative 71’s initial promise was to be a populist measure that would work to alleviate the social ills that the criminalization of marijuana caused for D.C.’s poor and working class. tweet
What would normally be a gross violation of states’ rights by Congress was an all-too-familiar situation for D.C. residents. We had achieved a partial victory, but with quite a different atmosphere for marijuana possession than the one in Colorado, where the presence of a state government and tax system allowed the state to fully legalize marijuana within its borders and regulate its sale without interference from the federal government. Considering the position D.C. is in, these limitations are disappointing but not entirely unexpected, and D.C. as a whole was affected by these issues even in areas outside of D.C.’s push for marijuana legalization.
Beyond the issues inherent to D.C.’s status, a major issue with Initiative 71 is actually how it could be used by its supporters to marginalize people. While I already knew that public housing was excluded from Initiative 71, what I quickly learned was that the law did not necessarily extend to renters in non-public housing either. Unless they secure permission from their landlord, consume marijuana where this permission has been secured, or smoke in someone else’s private home, renters are still breaking the law by consuming or cultivating marijuana in the city. In this way, the gaps in the bill provide a unique opportunity for financial gain for many of the people who originally supported it. This became apparent when D.C. Council asked for public hearing on an amendment to clarify whether Initiative 71’s scope could extend to private clubs. The marijuana lobby’s all testified in favor of allowing for private clubs to charge entrance fees and allow smoking on the premises so that individuals who are prohibited from consuming marijuana at their residence would have a safe and legal place to consume (written testimony from the hearing can be found here). Personally, I have no problem with private clubs or other provisions made for those who are unable to find legal space to consume marijuana. My problem lies with the fact that there was no push following the passage of Initiative 71 to guarantee its coverage to adults living in rental housing, federal or otherwise. That means that residents of public housing or rental units that refuse to grant permission would have to either find an owned residence to consume marijuana in, or pay an entrance fee at a private club reserved for the consumption of marijuana. With all other factors the same, the difference in how Initiative 71 works for a D.C. resident is solely dependent on whether they pay rent or pay a mortgage.
I don’t want to go backwards to the days where a gram of marijuana guaranteed you a night in jail, but Ballot Initiative 71 is a half measure. tweet
My annoyance is exacerbated by the fact that Initiative 71 proponents canvassed D.C.’s poor and working class neighborhoods to collect signatures and ask for support. D.C.’s poorest wards are occupied primarily by renters. Sixty-three percent of the residents in Wards 6, 7 and 8 rent, according to a 2014 Housing Needs study by the Urban Institute, which can be found here. In addition to renters of market price housing, the majority of public housing residents in D.C. live in Wards 6, 7 and 8 (click here for a map of public housing locations in DC). When the results from the November 4th General Election that included Initiative 71 were tallied, 33% of the “Yes” votes came from residents in Wards 6, 7 and 8 and yet the majority of these residents who helped bring about this victory for the city as a whole either were barred from its benefits outright or had additional barriers to cross before they could take advantage of them.
Initiative 71’s initial promise was to be a populist measure that would work to alleviate the social ills that the criminalization of marijuana caused for D.C.’s poor and working class. To some extent, this promise has held up. According to the Drug Policy Alliance’s study of the city’s arrest records, marijuana arrests dropped dramatically across all categories from 2014 to 2015, with the lone exception being public consumption, a new addition to the D.C. penal code. D.C. also passed laws that limited police power to make stops based on marijuana possession, including legislation that prohibits police officers from using the odor of marijuana as probable cause for searches. But the central weakness of the initiative is that it still allows for exploitation of poor black and brown marijuana users––only this time under the heel of the law and marijuana businesses.
After my initial disappointment subsided, I just accepted the fact that Initiative 71, while very useful in easing police pressure, is just another means for D.C.’s newer, wealthier residents to create opportunities for themselves at the expense of D.C.’s working-class residents. There is a fledgling marijuana economy blooming in Washington, D.C., but the same people shut out of the tenets of Initiative 71 will be shut out of this as well. I don’t want to go backwards to the days where a gram of marijuana guaranteed you a night in jail, but Ballot Initiative 71 is a half measure. Full legalization is coming and when that day comes, Initiative 71 will no longer be needed. Until then, it will be as much of a symbol of D.C.’s proud struggle against the federal encroachment as it is a symbol of the losses D.C.’s poor and working class are continually expected to shoulder as other residents gain the rights they fought for but can’t enjoy.