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Marijuana is now legal in Washington, DC. Here's what you need to know.

A marijuana plant.
A marijuana plant.
Uriel Sinai / Getty Images News

Marijuana is now legal in Washington, DC.

DC voters in November approved a ballot initiative that allows adults 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, grow up to six plants, and gift up to one ounce of pot to other adults 21 and older. The measure, which took effect Thursday, doesn't legalize sales, so anyone who tries to make a profit off marijuana could still get locked up. Smoking in public remains banned.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, although the Obama administration has avoided enforcing the ban in places where the drug is legal at the local or state level. Still, pot will be prohibited on federal property, such as parks and monuments. It also remains banned in federally subsidized public housing. DC police likely won't enforce these bans, but federal police agencies might.

DC is unique, because its marijuana legalization measure doesn't allow pot stores.

Marijuana is currently legal in Colorado, Washington state, and Alaska, and it will be legalized in Oregon later this year. All four states already or will eventually allow sales at retail outlets.

DC residents won't be able to legally buy pot

Washington DC Pot

(Estelle Caswell / Vox)

Although possessing, gifting, and growing marijuana will be legal in DC, buying pot will still be prohibited. While that may be a buzzkill to DC stoners, drug policy experts are excited to see how it plays out.

"One of the things we've been working very hard in marijuana legalization discussions is to get people to recognize there are at least 10 different fundamental architectures for legalizing marijuana," Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, said.

In a January report on marijuana legalization for the Vermont legislature, Caulkins and other experts outlined 12 alternatives to the current model of prohibition. Among the options: continued prohibition with decreased penalties, legalization with commercial sales, letting adults grow marijuana, allow distribution only within small private clubs, and have the state government operate the supply chain and sell pot.

DC essentially takes the option to only let adults grow marijuana — and maybe small private pot clubs, depending on how the allowance of gifting is interpreted. Policy experts want to see if this approach can diminish the negative side-effects of prohibition, such as mass incarceration and violent drug cartels funded by the black market, while ensuring that for-profit companies don't have a new drug to push to customers who may abuse it, similar to what the alcohol and tobacco industries do today.

As Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at UCLA, explained in a column in November, the end of alcohol prohibition in the 1930s did eliminate the organized crime and violence built on the illicit alcohol market. But, he added, alcohol has been marketed to encourage excessive drinking. It now presents major public health and safety problems: it causes 88,000 deaths each year, and it's a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes.

While it's unlikely the relatively safer marijuana could wreak such havoc, pot could become a serious problem for some people. "The main risk of cannabis is losing control of your cannabis intake," Kleiman recently said. "That's going to have consequences in terms of the amount of time you spend not fully functional. When that's hours per day times years, that's bad."

From the perspective of drug policy experts, DC could be a great testing ground for a unique marijuana policy. Colorado, Washington state, Alaska, and Oregon will already show whether commercialization works, since they have or will have retail outlets selling the drug. DC has a chance to try something else.

The initiative overcame congressional obstruction

Muriel Bowser

Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has taken a defiant stance against Congress on marijuana legalization. (Michael Williamson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

DC's marijuana legalization initiative was always the most likely to pass in the country, with a consistently strong showing in the polls.

But since DC is the nation's capital and a federal jurisdiction, the initiative first had to get through Congress to become law. Federal lawmakers didn't block the measure during a mandatory 30-day review period. But they did pass a federal budget deal that tried to prevent DC from enacting legalization.

DC lawmakers got around the budget deal by arguing that the initiative was enacted before Congress intervened.

The congressional spending deal says the DC government may not spend local or federal funds to "enact" a law, rule, or regulation that reduces penalties on marijuana. The idea was to prevent the DC Council from transmitting the voter-approved initiative to Congress for approval, as required by federal law, since it takes the city council's time and resources to do so.

Advocates and local lawmakers argued that DC voters already enacted the legalization initiative back in November when they overwhelmingly approved it. Under this argument, DC Council didn't spend its time and resources to enact the initiative by sending it to Congress for a mandatory 30-day review period; it merely carried out an initiative already enacted by voters.

In an appearance on Meet the Press last month, newly elected DC Mayor Muriel Bowser embraced this stance when she said the District's marijuana legalization initiative is "self-enacting." Previously, DC Attorney General Karl Racine and Congresswoman Eleanor Norton, DC's non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, voiced similar views.

But House Republicans claim their intent was very clear. The House Appropriations Committee's summary of the spending deal clearly states that the bill "prohibits both federal and local funds from being used to implement a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use in the District." In a letter to Mayor Bowser, congressional leaders argued Congress blocked legalization through the budget deal and it should not take effect Thursday.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told the Washington Post that if DC officials are "under any illusion that this would be legal, they are wrong. And there are very severe consequences for violating this provision. You can go to prison for this. We're not playing a little game here."

But a group of House Democrats defended DC's ability to implement legalization in a statement: "Rather than threatening elected District officials with prison time for implementing the will of the voters, Republicans should focus on more pressing matters, such as the dysfunctional division within their own party that is now threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security in a matter of days."

The debate could end up in court, but it's not clear if anyone but the Department of Justice, which appears unwilling to intervene in DC's local affairs, would have the legal standing to actually sue the District. House Republicans ruled out a lawsuit, but Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) told the Washington Post that the Department of Justice should get involved.

Supporters of legalization pointed to racial disparities in anti-marijuana law enforcement

DC marijuana legalization petitioner

A petitioner holds up forms for the marijuana legalization campaign in Washington, DC. (DC Cannabis Campaign)

Adam Eidinger, chair of the pro-legalization campaign, said marijuana prohibition is a waste of police resources based on faulty ideas about pot and its health effects.

"When I tried marijuana, I felt like, 'Why is this a big deal? Why is this illegal again? People are going to jail for this?'" Eidinger said. "I feel like [the government and educators] kind of lied to me about pot."

The enforcement of marijuana laws in DC, Eidinger noted, had been racially skewed. A 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that black residents were eight times more likely than white residents to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though black Americans aren't more likely to use or sell drugs than their white peers.

DC marijuana arrests


The local government had already decriminalized small possessions of marijuana, but Eidinger said full legalization completely removes any incentive local police have to go after residents, particularly those in black neighborhoods, for marijuana use.

But it's unclear whether full legalization would reduce or stop racially biased law enforcement.

"If you think it's actually racism, then what you'd expect is the cops will figure out some other reason to arrest those black kids," Kleiman of UCLA said in July. "You have to ask when you do this, how will law enforcement react?"

A 2014 study found marijuana decriminalization and legalization in five states reduced pot-related arrest rates, but the arrests that remained disproportionately affected black people. If that holds in DC, black residents would overall be less likely to be arrested, but they would still be arrested at higher rates than white residents for any penalties that remain for possessing larger amounts of marijuana or public smoking.

Opponents worried about commercialization

marijuana commercialization

The commercialization of marijuana is a key concern for opponents of legalization, but sales wouldn't be legalized by the District of Columbia's initiative. (Shutterstock)

Will Jones, founder of the anti-legalization campaign, argued that the initiative will lead to the sales and commercialization of marijuana in Washington, DC. If that occurred, he said the marijuana industry would target the most vulnerable sections of the population, including the heaviest drug users and poor, minority neighborhoods.

One study of Colorado's pot market, conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group for the Colorado Department of Revenue, found the top 29.9 percent heaviest pot users in the state made up 87.1 percent of demand for the drug. For the marijuana industry, that makes the heaviest users the most lucrative customers.

Jones said a similar situation could play out in DC, giving the local marijuana industry a financial incentive to exploit drug abusers. The alcohol and tobacco industries took similar tracks with their products, Jones argued, by marketing their product to potential addicts and teens.

As one example of the alcohol industry's abuse, Jones pointed out that liquor stores are much more common in minority, poor neighborhoods. "This is the real civil rights issue in DC," Jones said.

The anti-legalization campaign — "Two. Is. Enough. DC." — explicitly argued that alcohol and tobacco have already caused enough issues in American society by leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Jones said DC's problems with legal drugs will only get worse following marijuana legalization.

But, for now, the law forbids the marijuana industry from coming in. For drug policy experts, that's actually what makes DC's style of legalization a unique opportunity to see how different policies can work.

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