Forget decriminalization, it’s time to fully legalize pot in D.C.

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In Denver, guys in horsehead masks are shaking the president’s hand. Another is asking POTUS if he “wants a hit.” In Seattle, the city attorney is buying OG Pearl at a place called Cannabis City. Funny things happen when previously banned drugs get legalized, but the benefits are not a joke.

There was a time when I believed that legalizing marijuana possession in the District didn’t make sense–   decriminalization of up to an ounce was a sensible enough step for the city, I thought. But in less than a year, times have changed. Since then, both Colorado and the state of Washington have legalized the drug and opened retail outlets to sell the product over the counter.

The District should follow suit. This week, advocates for a ballot initiative that would put the issue of legalization up as a referendum turned in more than 50,000 signatures to make things official. They only needed half that. Come November, many residents will likely vote in favor of making use of the drug legal in the District. But after that, is when the real question arises. Take a look at Colorado. Although some projections of their tax revenues from pot sales have been overstated, the financial benefit is still obvious.

In their first month, dispensaries moved more than $14 million of product creating a couple million dollars in tax revenue. That’s extremely impressive out of the gate. If the step toward eliminating the stigma of pot possession and use is halfway there, at this point it makes sense to try to make money off of it. Clearly, there is a market.

Something that Corey Barnette, owner of District Growers, stands to profit from. “Legalization allows us to at least control, regulate and monitor what’s happening in the marketplace. Plus, we can begin to break the back of the black market,” Barnette, 44, said. His cultivation center is in Northeast, and he currently provides product to various dispensaries around the city. “The way we measure the market and the way we think about the market, if our framework was set up exactly like Colorado’s, D.C. would have the potential to be about an [annual]$1.8-$2.3 billion market in terms of cannabis sales.”

That’s the kind of money that if taxed properly, could make a significant difference.

And for Councilmember David Grosso, (I-At-Large), that potential is impossible to ignore. With decriminalization, fines for possession of pot were relatively low, thus making essentially that process more of a political statement; an admission that too many lives are being ruined over something many people consider to be less dangerous than alcohol.

“For me, the regulation of it is extremely important and I always felt like we would move toward that,” Grosso said Thursday. “I felt like as a bonus, we would have the ability to tax it and then put that money into the programs that can really help people stay on their feet. Diversion programs like YouthCorps and other things like that.

“If you remember on medical marijuana, once the Congress freed us up to implement that referendum back then… I think it took the Council at least two years, to draft legislation or pass legislation that would in their minds at the time, properly regulate medical marijuana,” Grosso said. “You’re going to see a similar approach, I think, to, the legalization of marijuana, and I anticipated that and that’s why I put it in my bill so early on tax and regulations. I think the best framework to do that is within ABRA, in the alcohol regulatory framework.”

But, what does legalization mean from a practical standpoint? Will D.C. suddenly become a better tourist hub if buying weed becomes a lot easier? Barnette thinks so, and that the District should welcome these potential visitors. But he cautions use of the word “recreational” when it comes to what he calls the “utilization of cannabis.”

“Recreational implies that anybody could get access, you know? No one is trying to actually give access to people under the age of 21. … I think that when you say recreational, it sends the signal to someone who’s not really thinking about what it is, the law,” he said. “If you qualify this as a recreational drug and you just say that way, to that little person or little lady who’s wondering what’s going to happen to her community, what’s she thinking is now: kids. I think that when we say adult use, we curtail some of those fears.”

He calls it “adult use.” We don’t say recreational alcohol,” Barnette said with a laugh Thursday. “We say we have an alcohol industry, and we all know that alcohol is 21 and up.” Of course, all of this might be moot anyways. Maryland Rep. Andy Harris (R) is trying to muck up the decriminalization process and the mayor, rightfully is defending the city on the matter.

While boycotting Ocean City might not do anything concrete for the cause, it’s worth noting that the basic fight for reducing the effect of the War on Drugs is still a reality on Capitol Hill. But if this does play out the way quite a few people want to see it, the effects could be staggering. Less people in jail, specifically, black men, more time freed up for police to do police work on things like violent crime and an industry that could put millions in to the city’s tax coffers. Given the success rate elsewhere, it’s a win-win. And first, the people have to implement their will at the polls. What if that happens? “I won’t be the least bit surprised,” Grosso said.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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