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These are heady times if you’re an elected official in D.C.
Now that Democrats have taken back control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, the District’s path to fully legalized recreational marijuana could be clearing. Several local elected officials have indicated that regulating recreational weed is a priority.
During a post-Election Day press conference, Mayor Muriel Bowser expressed her commitment to establishing a regulatory scheme for legalized marijuana at the beginning of 2019. In a news release, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, fresh off her reelection victory, also pointed to “recreational marijuana commercialization” as one of the two major areas where Congress has ignored the will of D.C. voters and the Council.
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso previously introduced legislation to establish a recreational market in 2013, 2015 and most recently in 2017.
“My hope is that with the House going back to the Democrats, we will see the removal of those riders and get the autonomy we deserve,” Grosso says.
One of the “riders” he’s referring to is the major barrier standing in the way of District residents buying and selling weed in a store, and of their government collecting oodles of tax revenue. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD 01) inserted the budget rider into a 2015 government spending bill. It prevents the D.C. government from spending tax dollars to legalize and regulate weed sales.
The result, then, when voters passed Initiative 71, is a “gray” market where it’s legal to posses up to two ounces of weed, to “gift” it, use it in a private place, and grow it. But it’s still illegal to buy and sell weed in the District.
Grosso says he intends to introduce another version of his previous bills that would set up a legal marketplace for weed in D.C.
With Democrats in control of the House, Grosso is hopeful that Harris’ amendment won’t make it into the budget next year. Another question, he says, is whether there’s any appetite in the Republican-controlled Senate to duplicate Harris’ efforts.
“I might be more hopeful if I wasn’t worried there could be more meddling by Congress,” he says, adding that anti-marijuana sentiment seems to be dying off even among conservatives. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, for example, has pushed for marijuana legalization.
States that have legalized recreational marijuana, such as Colorado and Washington state, have raked in millions in taxes and fees, even if those dollars only account for a fraction of their overall budgets. Previous reports have estimated that nationwide marijuana legalization could bring in billions of tax dollars.
His biggest motivation in pushing marijuana legalization, Grosso says, are racial disparities in arrests. He points to a 2013 report by the ALCU of D.C., which found that African-Americans were eight times more likely to be arrested for weed possession than white people. A more recent analysis of police data by WUSA9 found that in 2017, 86 percent of people arrested for marijuana-related offenses were black.
“We’ve seen a lot of arrests and criminal charges brought against people in the city and there are huge disparities between white and black people in those numbers,” Grosso says. “To eliminate those we have to completely regulate marijuana.”
Grosso estimates that it could take a year or more for his bill to make its way through local committees. The House’s anti-marijuana rider could theoretically be removed as early as this month, though Democrats won’t officially have control of the chamber then. More realistically, the removal of the rider and setting up a legal recreational weed market in D.C. is still at least a year away.