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Opinion On D.C.’s one-year anniversary with legalized marijuana, work remains

Marijuana plants (Jim Mone/Associated Press)

By Kaitlyn Boecker

More than a year has passed since District voters legalized marijuana. On Feb. 26, 2015, it became legal for adults to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants in their home. As a result, marijuana possession arrests decreased a whopping 98 percent from 2014 to 2015, dropping from 1,840 to just 32. In addition to the massive drop in marijuana possession arrests, it is worth noting that cumulative arrests for all marijuana offenses, including sales, also dropped 85 percent in that time.

This anniversary marks an enormous step forward not only for marijuana reform but also for criminal and racial justice in the District. Marijuana enforcement in the District has historically been racially biased; as recently as 2013 African Americans in the District were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, comprising a shocking 91 percent of possession arrests, even though rates of marijuana use and sales are comparable across racial lines and African Americans comprise roughly half the District population.

Tens of thousands of District residents, primarily from communities of color, have suffered life-changing consequences from a marijuana arrest. Residents were routinely arrested by police, locked up and faced subsequent discrimination in employment, housing and education — all in the name of marijuana prohibition.

The District’s marijuana reforms have already saved thousands of people from facing the same obstacles, as marijuana arrests have plummeted since the implementation of D.C.’s 2014 marijuana decriminalization law, and the further-reaching ballot initiative later that year. From 2010 to 2015 marijuana arrests have dropped over 92 percent – arrests for possession fell by 99.2 percent, arrests for possession with intent to distribute were down 85.5 percent and distribution arrests decreased by 71.8 percent. This reflects the local police department’s response to the desire of District residents to focus limited law enforcement resources elsewhere.

Reducing the disproportionate effect of the war on drugs on the African American community was a primary goal of the campaign to legalize marijuana in the District. Ballot Initiative 71 sought to remove marijuana from the local criminal justice system and was seen as a first step to restore the communities most harmed by prohibition. The drop in marijuana arrests is a triumph for advocates and residents alike.

Unfortunately, additional restorative justice reforms have been slower to follow. District laws prevent ballot initiatives from taxing or spending, thereby prohibiting the legalization initiative from establishing a regulatory regime for marijuana. The D.C. Council was expected to adopt such legislation, but was prevented from doing so by Congress.

In late 2014, Congress blocked District lawmakers from using locally raised public funds to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol and enact other reforms. Thus, it is legal to possess, use and grow marijuana in the nation’s capital but the sale of marijuana remains illicit and unregulated.

This lack of a full regulatory regime has left potential benefits out of reach and problems unsolved. District lawmakers should work around congressional prohibitions and use reserve funds to move ahead with establishing taxation and regulation of marijuana sales, a strategy 66 percent of residents support.

By taxing marijuana, the District could earn revenue to fund treatment, education and investment in communities devastated by the failed war on drugs.

District lawmakers should prohibit discrimination because of legal marijuana use (including employment and child custody), establish safe locations for consumption of marijuana beyond a private residence and make public consumption a citation instead of an arrestable offense.

One year into marijuana legalization, the District has benefited tremendously, but much work remains to repair decades of destructive drug war policies.

Kaitlyn Boecker is a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance and a resident of the District.