Amid Controversy, D.C. Marijuana Law Goes Into Effect

By Alicia McElhaney

WASHINGTON (Feb. 27, 2015)–On Thursday at midnight, for the first time in his life, Allen St. Pierre got legally stoned.

While St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a national advocacy group for the legalization of marijuana, said he possessed illegal marijuana for his entire adult life, he celebrated when Initiative 71, Washington, D.C.’s ballot measure to legalize marijuana went into effect by not only lighting up, but also by planting his own cannabis seeds.

“In D.C., it was clear this initiative was going to pass,” St. Pierre said, referring to last November’s referendum when marijuana legalization was approved with 70 percent of the vote. “We did volunteer call outs in the two weeks leading up to the vote, but there was no cajoling necessary to get it to pass.”

Initiative 71 makes it legal for anyone over 21 in Washington, D.C. to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes. The marijuana must be consumed on private property and cannot be sold, but rather must be traded or shared.

After much dispute between Congress and the D.C. Council on whether possession of marijuana in Washington, D.C. is legal (and whether the federal or local government has power to determine that), the law went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s blessing.

Despite legalization of marijuana possession in the District, the D.C. Council is still working on rules and regulations for the marijuana industry. However, this will take time, in part because the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees the D.C. government, opposes the law and attempted to use the federal spending bill passed in December to block it.

“The interplay between D.C. laws and Congress is for the most part preventing them from taking any action on that sort of legislation,” Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said.

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, is one of the members of the oversight committee firmly against the measure.

“Congress took clear action to stop enactment of legalization of marijuana in D.C.,” Harris said. “I agree with my colleagues at the oversight committee that any movement to legalize marijuana in D.C. is a willful violation of the law.”

St. Pierre said the committee’s opposition was bizarre.

“It is a script for a comedy series or at least a comedy plot on Saturday Night Live,” St. Pierre said. “How dare [Congress] lash out at these elected officials who turned to 70 percent of their voters.”

Both St. Pierre and Capecchi praised Bowser and the D.C. Council for continuing with implementation of Initiative 71 despite Congress’s qualms.

“I think they’ve been wonderfully courageous,” Capecchi said. “I think they saw through the bologna and stood up for their constituents.”

Despite attempts to block D.C. from allowing marijuana sales, advocates and businesses are already planning for the days when selling and buying pot is legal in the District.

ComfyTree, a cannabis education and entrepreneurship group, will host a Cannabis Expo and Job Fair Saturday and Sunday at the Holiday Inn Capitol to teach locals about growing marijuana and to help them find jobs in the industry.

“We want to give useful information to people, but to not make them pay an arm and a leg for it,” Tiffany Bowden, ComfyTree co-founder and chief happiness officer said.

And while ComfyTree will work to educate locals, the Drug Policy Alliance is working to advocate for marijuana taxation that is grounded in racial justice, Dr. Malik Burnett, a policy manager at the group said.

Burnett said the alliance wants legislation to include people with criminal records in the new marijuana marketplace. The group is also advocating for revenues generated by marijuana taxation to go to the Office of Returning Citizens and to after school programs in wards 7 and 8.

“Revenues generated from the sale of marijuana should be used to restore the harms caused to communities of color by the war on drugs,” Malik said. “We want money to go toward helping formerly incarcerated individuals returning to the community.”

Instead of celebrating legalization by lighting up like St. Pierre, Burnett spent early Thursday morning riding around D.C. with the Metropolitan Police Department to see how the legislation was being implemented.

After a quiet day, the department made two arrests late Thursday afternoon for possession with intent to distribute marijuana, Lt. Sean Conboy of the Metropolitan Police Department Public Information Office said at 7:50 p.m.

“The point that I made to the officers is that the sky hasn’t fallen,” Burnett said. “[Their] lives are largely the same as they were. They laughed and were largely in agreement.”

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