The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress, stop blocking D.C. from regulating its marijuana market

Marijuana plants growing in Columbia Heights in Northwest D.C. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

Karl A. Racine, a Democrat, is the D.C. attorney general. David Grosso, an independent, is an at-large member of the D.C. Council.

The District has a long history of fighting to secure its fundamental rights. With the watershed passage in the House of legislation endorsing D.C. voting rights and self-government, the momentum for D.C. autonomy has never been greater. And yet Congress’s pernicious intrusion in D.C. affairs continues.

In one of the more egregious examples of this interference, Congress continues to prohibit the District from spending money to enact or carry out any law, rule or regulation to legalize or reduce penalties for marijuana. Congress has prevented the District from legislating on an issue of importance to our residents and from tackling the racial disparities that persist in marijuana policing and within the burgeoning marijuana industry. We urge Congress to allow the District to determine for itself how to regulate marijuana.

Over the years, the District has increasingly relaxed its regulation of marijuana. In 2014, in a landslide vote, 70 percent of D.C. residents voted in favor of Initiative 71, which permitted individuals to possess, grow and use small amounts of marijuana in their homes. But despite this clear expression of democratic will, Congress passed a 2015 budget rider prohibiting the District from using any funds to enact new laws to regulate and tax our local marijuana industry; that rider is still in effect today.

The result for the District is a dangerous legal limbo. While some use of marijuana is legal, selling it is not, and our city has no way to regulate its production, distribution and use to guard against negative consequences. Residents are confused about what is legal and what is not, entrepreneurs cannot establish legitimate businesses, and the underground market continues to operate without oversight or regulation, posing a potential threat to public safety. From a fiscal standpoint, this lack of regulation prevents the District from reaping the benefits of marijuana taxation. According to a 2014 study, taxing marijuana could generate upward of $20 million in revenue for the District. Unable to regulate or tax, we are operating with one hand tied behind our back.

Moreover, the District is prevented from addressing the glaring racial inequities that legalization was meant to ameliorate.

Despite studies showing that the rates of marijuana use for African Americans and white Americans are similar, in 2010, black citizens were about 3.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for marijuana possession nationwide; in the District, they were more than eight times more likely. Public-consumption arrests, which actually increased in the wake of Initiative 71, continue to disproportionately affect the District’s most vulnerable residents — primarily individuals with federally supported or no permanent housing. Racial bias also persists, and 91 percent of people arrested in the District for marijuana-related offenses in 2017 were African American.

If granted the power to tax and regulate a legal marijuana market, the District could address these issues sensibly and comprehensively.

We could regulate growth and distribution, ensuring that products are safe and transactions secure. We could tax sales, using revenue to address the potential negative side effects of legalization with interventions to prevent teen smoking and to prevent and treat addiction. We could also use revenue to address some of the District’s other pressing priorities — violence reduction and trauma care foremost among them.

And, importantly, we could think critically and creatively about how to redress past prosecutorial inequities by, for example, expunging marijuana-related records and creating spaces for social consumption to limit public-consumption arrests. We could also move to promote inclusion and opportunity in the marijuana marketplace, with an emphasis on individuals with prior drug- or marijuana-related offenses. To address the dearth of minority-owned businesses in the medical marijuana industry, the D.C. Council in 2016 and 2017 passed measures to give minorities a leg up in owning or working at dispensaries and cultivators. We should double down on these efforts to create an inclusive, opportunity-rich industry.

If not for congressional meddling in local D.C. affairs, we could join the many other states, from Alaska to Maine, in implementing marijuana reform. Congress is the only obstacle to the District establishing effective marijuana regulations that protect D.C. residents, promote D.C. interests and meaningfully address decades of racially inequitable marijuana policy and policing. Congress should allow us to do our job and let the District promote safety and justice for its residents.

Read more:

Stacey Patton and David J. Leonard: If you’re white, that joint probably won’t lead to jail time

Doug Fine: Five myths about marijuana legalization

Cynthia H. Coffman: It is too late to dismantle the marijuana industry