MOST VOTES have yet to be cast in the District’s referendum on legalizing marijuana, but the D.C. Council is already making plans on how to regulate sales. The premature move is in keeping with the heedless rush to put the city’s imprimatur on use of a drug whose impacts are still not fully known. It is not too late for more prudent judgment to prevail; voters on Nov. 4 could slow the push for legalization by voting no on Initiative 71.
The ballot initiative to be decided in the Nov. 4 general election would make it lawful for a person 21 years of age or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use, to grow up to six plants at home and to transfer without payment up to one ounce of marijuana to another person 21 years or older. Because of the District’s restrictions on what is subject to ballot approval, the initiative would not allow for sale of marijuana, creating a situation where having marijuana would be legal but getting it might require illegal acts.
A joint committee hearing will be held Oct. 30 on legislation to establish a taxation and regulation infrastructure for marijuana production and sale. Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), chairman of the business and consumer committee that will hold the hearing with the finance committee, said the city needs to be prepared to move forward if the initiative passes, which, based on polls, he believes will be the case, and if Congress doesn’t intervene, about which he won’t hazard a guess.
Much of the District’s debate about Initiative 71 has centered on matters of race and social justice. That was a serious issue when marijuana possession was subject to criminal prosecution and African Americans accounted for an outsize proportion of those arrested. But since decriminalization went into effect in July, possession is now subject to just a $25 fine, among the lowest in the nation. As The Post’s Marc Fisher recently detailed, some leaders in the African American community worry that legalization would not keep more young blacks out of jail because a more readily available drug could lead young people to harder drugs. “Scratch the surface of most homicides and rape cases, and the perpetrators were high on drugs, including marijuana,” said Arthur Burnett of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition.
We are not in the Reefer Madness school of marijuana prohibition. We favored decriminalization. But the drug can have harmful effects; Its active ingredient has been linked to memory problems, impaired thinking and weakened immune systems. And we question whether it is possible to legalize the drug for adults without sending a message to youth that its use is risk-free.
By waiting, the District would benefit from ongoing scientific research as well as the experience of states that only recently have legalized marijuana. I t is easier to let a genie out of the bottle than to try to stuff one back in.
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