Despite a congressional rider that limits the District from currently doing so, the D.C. Department of Health is calling for the city to tax and regulate marijuana using strategies similar to those that states employ to control tobacco and alcohol.
In a comprehensive report published on DOH’s website late last week, the department outlines the state of cannabis in the District following the implementation of Initiative 71, which allows people to consume and grow marijuana in private. The authors examined which demographics in D.C. tend to use cannabis, the short- and long-term consequences of the drug, and racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests, among other factors. Some of the major findings include that: 18 percent of local adults identify as current users; cannabis fell only behind alcohol in terms of the most commonly detected substances involved in fatal traffic crashes; and the majority of related arrests are of African American people.
“Although generally thought of as a harmless way to reach intoxication, marijuana abuse can have significant consequences,” DOH explains. “This report aims to examine such effects and the repercussions of the continuously changing policies surrounding the substance.”
The department relied on “behavioral risk factor” surveillance from 2011 to 2013, data from the District’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and recent crime statistics from the Metropolitan Police Department to compile the document. Per the report, D.C. marijuana users tend to be younger, less educated, and less wealthy on average than their peers.
The report notes that cannabis consumption remains illegal on federal land, which composes roughly one-fifth of the city. Meanwhile, in 2013, marijuana was found to have contributed to more than 15 percent of all traffic fatalities in the District. (But, the authors point out, cannabis metabolites can stay in a person’s blood or urine for days or weeks following use.)
As legalization and civil-rights advocates have previously contended, marijuana-related arrests in D.C. are dramatically down from their pre-Initiative 71 levels—but continue to disproportionately impact the city’s African-American population:
Ultimately, DOH recommends that D.C. tax the production, distribution, and selling of cannabis, establishing “a licensed market [that features] age restrictions, and prohibitions on advertising and marketing to minors,” whose development the drug can impair. The department also wants stronger treatment and education programs to address pot’s health effects.
“In order to better ensure public safety, more research needs to be done regarding health effects,” the authors conclude. “Additionally, health related information should be better distributed to the public, especially among expecting mothers, as many are unaware of the risks of using the substance. Currently, the District is at the forefront of cities in the nation on marijuana policy, and only time will tell if the District is on the right side of history in legalizing marijuana.”
Kaitlyn Boecker, an analyst for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement that D.C. could use reserve funds to create a regulatory system and so get around the congressional rider introduced by Maryland Rep. Andy Harris two years ago.
“As DOH’s recommendation recognizes, a regulatory system will increase public health and safety, allow our policy makers to address much needed reforms, and generate tax revenue to fund treatment and education,” she said. “District lawmakers should heed the Department of Health’s recommendation and move forward with establishing a regulatory system for marijuana immediately. Along with [DOH], 66% of District voters believe the District should pursue marijuana regulation despite a Congressional ban.”
You can read the full report here.
This post has been updated with comment from the Drug Policy Alliance.