This Friday marks the one year anniversary of the implementation of marijuana legalization in the District of Columbia. In the 2014 election, District voters overwhelmingly passed Ballot Initiative 71 with 70% support, legalizing the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for adults over the age of 21, and allowing individuals to grow up to six plants in their home.
Overall, marijuana arrests decreased by 85% from 2014 to 2015. Marijuana possession arrests fell from 1,840 in 2014 to just 32 in 2015.
“The decrease in marijuana arrests is an enormous victory for District residents, who have resoundingly rejected the criminalization of marijuana,” said Bill Piper, Senior Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Marijuana law enforcement has particularly damaged communities of color in the District, who have borne the brunt of prohibition. We hope that law enforcement continues to responsibly enforce the new law and completely eliminates any racial disparity in arrests.”
Since the implementation of D.C.’s 2014 marijuana decriminalization law, and the further-reaching ballot initiative later that year, marijuana arrests have plummeted in the District. From 2010 to 2015 arrests for possession fell by 99.2%, arrests for possession with intent to distribute were down 85.5% and distribution arrests decreased by 71.8 percent. Cumulatively, marijuana arrests have dropped over 92% in five years.
Marijuana enforcement in the District has historically been racially-biased, with thousands of District of Columbia residents harassed by police, picked up off the street and locked up for marijuana possession over the years. A report issued in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital (ACLU-NCA) found that African Americans in the District were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites – even though government surveys show both groups use marijuana at similar rates. The report found that ninety-one percent of marijuana possession arrests were of African Americans, despite the fact that African Americans comprise roughly half the population.
This racially-biased enforcement was a large driver of the campaign to legalize marijuana in the District. Ballot Initiative 71 sought to remove marijuana from the local criminal justice system to the fullest extent possible and was seen as the first step at taking marijuana out of the illicit market. A broad base of community support from multiple civil rights organizations, faith leaders and community advocacy groups supported Ballot Initiative 71, viewing it as an opportunity to restore the communities most harmed by the war on drugs.
District laws prevent ballot initiatives from taxing or spending, thereby prohibiting the legalization initiative from regulating and taxing marijuana sales. The Council of the District of Columbia possesses the authority to tax and regulate marijuana. More than a year ago, however, Congress blocked District lawmakers from using locally raised public funds to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Thus, it is legal to possess, use, and grow marijuana in the nation’s capital but the sale of marijuana remains illicit and unregulated.
Though the District has experienced an unprecedented drop in arrests for possession and distribution of marijuana since implementing legalization a year ago, the lack of a full regulatory regime has left other potential benefits out of reach, and some problems unsolved. Advocates believe District lawmakers should move ahead with establishing taxation and regulation of marijuana sales, using reserve funds, which would not violate congressional prohibitions as they only apply to appropriated funds. Recent polling shows that 66 percent of District residents would support such a strategy.
“It is past time for the District to move ahead with a fully regulated system for marijuana. The Council and Mayor should listen to residents and take a stand for District autonomy,” said Bill Piper, Senior Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The District could earn revenue and use the proceeds for treatment, education, and rebuilding communities devastated by the failed war on drugs.”