It’s been more than a year since residents in the District of Columbia voted to legalize marijuana, and their vote appears to be bearing fruit. Even so, the law remains a mess, and residents may not be able to buy the drug legally anytime soon.
The law voters passed in 2014 took effect on Feb. 26, 2015, allowing adults to buy and possess up to two ounces of cannabis and grow up to six plants on private property.
It’s already apparent legalization is working.
Marijuana arrests have plummeted
Arrests for simple possession dropped by 98 percent between 2014 and 2015, from 1,840 arrests to only 32, according to The Washington Post. The overall rate of marijuana-related arrests, from low-end possession to trafficking, also declined, dropping 85 percent.
That’s especially good news for black residents. African Americans make up roughly half the city’s population and use cannabis at the same rate as whites, yet they are arrested for pot offenses at dramatically higher rates.
In 2013, a study found African Americans are eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession in the city. Those arrests account for a staggering 91 percent of all possession busts.
The ramifications of arrest can be severe, costing young black men the chance for employment, housing, or government benefits after release from jail or prison. A permanent criminal record can lead to persistent discrimination in all corners of life.
D.C. decriminalized in 2014
Changes for stoners started in 2014, when the District Council voted to decriminalize marijuana. That November, voters went one step further and legalized recreational weed completely.
Arrest rates have declined sharply since then. Between 2010 and 2015, pot busts declined by more than 92 percent. That includes an 86 percent drop in charges of possession of cannabis with intent to distribute it and a 72 percent reduction in distribution arrests.
In part this is because of the legalization vote. But another impetus comes from District police, who still have authority to make cannabis busts under federal law but have opted to focus their resources on other problems.
Congress blocking establishment of retail market
That helps residents, but it doesn’t fix the city’s central marijuana problem: Congress doesn’t want legal weed in the nation’s capital. And because the district falls under federal jurisdiction, U.S. lawmakers have the power to block parts of the cannabis initiative from taking effect.
They have done this by barring the District Council from passing laws that would put the initiative into practice. It is still legal to possess pot in the city, but Congress prohibits commercial cultivation and retail marijuana shops.
This is a problem not only for weed-hungry potheads, but also for the residents most at risk of unjust arrest. That includes small-scale dealers on the black market who could instead be selling legally if Republicans in Congress were to change their minds.
There are other steps district officials can take, according to the Post. They could use reserve funds to write and enforce regulations and levy taxes. A large majority of residents support these moves. Tax revenue would go toward addiction treatment, drug education, and investment in neighborhoods suffering from the consequences of the drug war.
The council could also legalize cannabis clubs and reduce public consumption from a criminal to a civil offense. These reforms are not likely to happen immediately, but they could bring the district closer to the wishes of the people who live, work, and travel there.