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One Friday evening in the not-too-distant future, you leave the Metro after work and stop to do some errands on your way home. You pick up your dry cleaning. You swing by the grocery store to get some milk. And you’re going to a party later that night, so you stop at the liquor store for a bottle of wine, and then you head to the neighborhood marijuana store to buy a quarter-ounce to bring along, too. Sure, the taxes are a little steep, but it beats having to worry about the cops.
That’s not far from what At-Large Councilmember David Grosso envisions. In September, Grosso introduced a bill that wouldn’t only legalize marijuana, but also allow the city to tax and regulate it.
Under his legislation, anyone over the age of 21 could possess, use, or transport up to two ounces of marijuana, six plants and between 16 and 72 ounces of marijuana-infused products, consequence-free. Growers could cultivate marijuana, which would be sold at retail outlets—and slapped with a 15 percent sales tax. Overseeing this budding industry would be left to the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration.
In a few years, Grosso muses, not only could D.C. residents legally purchase marijuana at retail stores located throughout the city, but maybe even find a place to smoke, Amsterdam-style. “People, I would imagine, would be smoking it at home, or at friends’ houses, and the occasional spot where we would license for there to be something similar to a bar, maybe like a hookah bar [that] would end up with a license to allow people to smoke marijuana as well,” he says.
It’s not a new idea—in 1973, a 40-person task force appointed by then-Mayor Walter Washington also called for legalization, taxation, and regulation of pot—but it is one that will be exceedingly complex to pull off, probably much more so than simply moving your favorite neighborhood dealer’s now-verboten trade into a retail storefront. Quite the contrary—it would require D.C. to draw up detailed rules on the who, what, when, and how of allowing legal sales of marijuana within city limits, a legal and political minefield that could take years to traverse.
Grosso takes solace—and guidance—from the fact that both Colorado and Washington are already trying to figure out all the details now in response to referenda in November 2012 that legalized marijuana in both states. Colorado adopted its rules in September, Washington followed suit in October; the first legal sales of recreational marijuana in Colorado could take place as early as next January, while Washington is looking later in the year for its own kickoff. Possession is already legal in both states.
In Colorado, businesses interested in selling marijuana will initially have to be vertically integrated—that is, they’ll have to do everything from grow the stuff to process and sell it. Washington, for its part, forbids that. Colorado imposes stricter residency requirements on owners of marijuana businesses and even limits how much marijuana non-Coloradans can buy; Washington doesn’t. In Washington, the total amount of marijuana that can be produced will be capped, but that won’t be the case in Colorado.
“We in the industry were just intent that if we were going to be a viable industry—I mean, this is not an inexpensive industry to invest in and to operate a business in—that it needed to be boundaried by strong regulations,” says Meg Collins, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance, a chamber of commerce of sorts for Colorado’s marijuana industry. But while the hundreds of pages of rules and regulations that sketch out Colorado and Washington’s first-in-the-nation legal marijuana marketplaces can offer some guidance to D.C. should it opt for legalization, D.C. would face its own distinct challenges.
“Colorado and Washington are pretty isolated places, but [D.C.], those retail shops are going to be export centers unless the price is high. It’s sort of gibberish to say it’s legal in D.C. but illegal in Montgomery County,” says Matt Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA who not only advised Washington state on how to set up its legal marijuana market, but basically wrote the book on it (Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know).
For Kleiman, D.C.’s size and geographic location means that any local decision to legalize pot would have a regional impact that regulators need to contend with.
“The question is, of the cannabis sold in D.C. the day after it was legalized, how much would go to D.C. residents, how much would go to tourists, how much would go to Maryland and Virginia residents coming in to buy the way they used to come to Central Liquor, and how much would go to the population of New York? It’s not an easy one,” he says.
D.C. may be able to retrofit its existing medical marijuana program—one of the most restrictive in the country—to sell recreational weed, but even there, Kleiman says that regulators will carefully have to balance how big a legal regime would get (not to mention where all the cultivation centers and retail outlets would go) with creating a system that can sustain itself and sell marijuana at prices comparable to what street dealers may offer.
Grosso isn’t put off by the challenges. “I think we have a chance to do this right with the right regulation and right oversight,” he says. And even if his legalization bill doesn’t pass this time around, he thinks it’s only a matter of time before D.C. residents can buy marijuana much the same way they do alcohol.
“Part of the legislative process is that you have to put ideas in front of people and put ideas out in the public that they can begin to digest,” Grosso says. “It’s not about ramming it down their throats, but it’s about being open to other opinions and ideas. If you don’t put that on the table then no one even will talk about it as much as I think they should.”
Illustrations by Carey Jordan