50 States

50 States: Washington, D.C.

By David Jenison

50 States: Washington, D.C.

Medical: Yes
Recreational: Mostly Yes
Decriminalized: Yes

Update: The advocacy group DMCJ gave out free cannabis joints at Donald Trump's inauguration on Friday, which led to the Salon.com headline, "D.C.'s free marijuana giveaway may be more popular than Donald Trump's inauguration." The lines were extremely long for people waiting to nab one of the thousands of free joints rolled in protest against prohibition. Special thanks to everyone who took part. #trump420.

What do U.S. Presidents do when they retire? George W. Bush, for example, took up painting, but the original George W. took a more interesting path after serving as our first president. He built the largest whiskey distillery in the country and cultivated large fields of hemp. Based on this information, one can argue the Founding Father would have rejected both alcohol and cannabis prohibition. 

This begs the question for cannabis prohibitionists: Why do you hate freedom, America and George Washington?

The government named the capital Washington, D.C. in honor of George Washington, so it is fitting that the District voted to legalize medicinal marijuana (MMJ). And as the center of partisan political rancor, it is equally fitting that D.C. had to do it twice.

Cannabis-related arrest rates in D.C. skyrocketed in the 1990s, so when the MMJ measure Initiative 59 made the 1998 ballot, nearly 70 percent of voters supported it. Unfortunately, D.C. has a measure of federal oversight, and Congress passed the Barr Amendment to prohibit the use of funds to implement the MMJ program. To add insult to injury, the amendment also prohibited the vote tally from being made public. The American Civil Liberties (ACLU) successfully sued to make the vote count public, so a second Barr Amendment overturned the initiative altogether. To add dickishness to insult and injury, the new Barr Amendment also preemptively blocked future laws that might decrease criminal penalties for cannabis offenses.

Former Georgia congressman Bob Barr was the man behind the amendments. Other career highlights include authoring the Defense of Marriage Act, proposing a ban on Wicca witchcraft in the military, joining a taskforce to achieve a “World War II-style victory” over drugs and reportedly licking whipped cream off the breasts of a well-endowed woman. The woman was not one of his three successive wives, but The Economist in 2008 said Barr claimed he only licked the boobs to raise money for leukaemia research. You can’t make that shit up. Now are you ready for the real twist? Barr reversed his stance on MMJ in 2007 and started lobbying for legislative cannabis reform, which included fighting against his own amendments.

That’s right, Barr pulled a Darth Vader Episode VI move on us.

In an online conversation with the Rocky Mountain News, Barr said, “Regarding the drug war, I’ve been there, done that, and know firsthand our current strategy is not working. Continuing to have the federal government run roughshod over the states, even if the citizens of a state decide they wish to legalize medicinal marijuana, for example, is wrong.”

Fast forward to 2010. Per an ACLU report, the District led the nation in cannabis-related arrests for 2010 with 836 arrests per 100,000 residents, more than three times the national average (256 per 100,000). Moreover, white and black DC residents consume cannabis at roughly the same rate, yet black residents were arrested at eight times the rate of white residents. As fate would have it, 2010 was also the year MMJ finally had its breakthrough.

The City Council voted 13 to 0 in favor of Amendment Act B18-622—Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Amendment Act of 2010—and it became law after Congress chose not to intercede. Generally speaking, a doctor must provide a written recommendation or diagnose you with one of the qualifying conditions to become an MMJ patient. These conditions include HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and cancer, among others. The entire program is complicated and still developing, but the first legal MMJ sales occurred in 2013. Still, even more breakthroughs happened the following year.

In March 2014, the City Council decriminalized possession of up to one once, and the citizens of D.C. approved Initiative 71—Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014—in November with 65 percent of the vote. In December, a legislative rider targeted Initiative 71 barring funds to “enact” the new law, but District officials said the voters self-enacted the law and the rider did not forbid carrying it out. In late February 2015, several prohibitionist congressmen threatened D.C. officials with criminal penalties if they allowed the law to take effect, but the train had already left the station. At 12:01 a.m. on February 26, 2015, the law effectively legalized recreational cannabis. Adults aged 21 and older can possess up to two ounces, grow up to six plants and share (but not sell) up to one ounce with other adults.

What did the D.C. Police Chief think about the legalization? At an event that week, she said, “Marijuana smokers are not going to attack and kill a cop. They just want to get a bag of chips and relax. Alcohol is a much bigger problem.”

Cannabis sales and retail stores remain illegal, but D.C. is the first U.S. area east of the Mississippi River to legalize recreational cannabis in any measure. Ironically, this happened in the nation’s capital, named after our hemp-farming Founding Father.

Photo credit: Unsplash.

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