Marijuana Reform in the District: Progress Still Needed

By Alex Carr, intern at the Drug Policy Alliance

It’s been two years since District of Columbia voters passed Ballot Initiative 71, legalizing the possession of marijuana for adults. 70% of voters recognized that after years of senseless prohibition causing devastating effects for District communities, something had to change.

Since the initiative took effect, marijuana arrests have plummeted. Overall arrests for marijuana-related offenses decreased by 85% from 2014 to 2015. Marijuana possession arrests fell from 1,840 in 2014 to just 32 in 2015. At a time when our law enforcement and city officials are faced with limited resources, the decision to stop arresting non-violent individuals has had clear, positive results.

The decades spent wasting the District’s limited local resources enforcing the failed war on drugs is only a small portion of the havoc prohibition has wreaked on District communities. Enforcement of marijuana prohibition in the District has been astonishingly biased, based on race. African Americans comprise about half of the population of the District of Columbia, yet in 2013 comprised ninety-one percent of marijuana possession arrests in the District.

A report issued in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital found that African Americans in the District were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite the fact that both groups use marijuana at the same rate.

Many have chosen to ignore the institutional and systemic explanations for the racial discrepancies in arrests, instead using statistics like these to fuel the racist flames that have engulfed prohibition since its inception. In a Brookings Institution Debate just this week regarding whether or not marijuana should be moved from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 (a debate that lags way behind the reality of what many states and the District have already enacted) participant Dr. Bertha Madras decried the “tragedy” of this “drug” to be the effect it has on “the African Americans, the poor, the unemployed,” who are at “the highest risk” for addiction and are “the highest users.” Not only is this factually incorrect but it is a dangerous obfuscation of the real harms to these communities – harms caused by prohibition.

Though President Nixon died in 1994, Nixon-era coded rhetoric remains alive and well. The recent publicity surrounding former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman’s admission that the War on Drugs was a cover to target black people was shocking to some, but to others tuned into the history of prohibition, the response was simply, in the words of The Nightly Show correspondent Mike Yard, “No shit.”

While the legalization of adult use, possession and cultivation of marijuana in the District is a victory, it does not go far enough. In 2014, Congress blocked District lawmakers from taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol, leaving the sale of marijuana illicit and unregulated. Comprehensive regulation reform is necessary to for the market to move out of the shadows, and taxation reform could earn revenue for the District to fund treatment, education, and community investment. Furthermore, the District must decriminalize public consumption, currently a criminal misdemeanor offense.

Currently, the DC Council is attempting to expand the prohibition on public consumption by banning the establishment of private clubs for consumption of marijuana. This would effectively limit marijuana consumption in the District to private residences. This has damaging implications – by sanctioning only those residents with their own homes to consume marijuana, the resolution perpetuates the bias against marginalized groups in society who do not have access to private space. Once again, wealthy residents who have historically been protected from criminalization will continue to benefit at the expense of less well-off residents.

A main impetus to legalize marijuana in the District was ending the disproportionate effect of prohibition on communities of color. The drop in arrests since the passage of Ballot 71 is a triumph, but additional reforms are needed. To truly end the legacy of marijuana prohibition in our city, the District should enact comprehensive legislation regulating marijuana sales, regulate venues for social consumption of marijuana, and decriminalize public consumption, among other reforms.

The people of the District have spoken – 61% support the regulation of places where adults can legally consume marijuana. Mayor Bowser and the Council must listen.