It’s a Saturday night in Adams Morgan. As an impromptu dinner party is winding down in an eclectic duplex apartment, the guests -- mostly government and policy professionals in their thirties -- stare at a Volcano vape bag that’s just starting to inflate. Before it starts to circle the room, though, the host has to consult one guest to make sure it’s OK with him – the guest is a specialist for the CIA and there’s some fear that just being around the smoke could trigger a false positive on a random drug test, putting his security clearance at risk. This kind of celebratory mood, tempered by high-stakes cautiousness, pervades the weird post- legalization climate in Washington, D.C. Political culture wars, along with D.C.’s legal status as a capital district rather than a state, have made for a rocky start to legal weed in our nation’s capital.
The Birth of Legalization
The path to legalization began with a 2014 decriminalization law passed by the D.C. Council, reducing the penalties for possession of an ounce or less from six months in jail and a $1000 fine to a simple $25 fine for possession and a $100 fine for public use. The measure, similar to a New York City law also passed in 2014, came on the heels of a local ACLU report showing that 91% of 2010 marijuana-related arrests in D.C. were of black residents, despite equal rates of use between blacks and whites. Not much later, a David and Goliath effort triggered some more dramatic progress. Capitol Hemp, one of D.C.’s few headshops, had been shut down by police in 2011 for violating city drug paraphernalia laws. Angered and inspired to take action, the store’s proprietor Adam Eidinger -- who has a history of activism, cannabis-related and otherwise -- drew up a full cannabis legalization initiative. With some heavy canvassing from his political action group DCMJ,
Eidinger collected about 55,000 signatures -- more than twice the number needed to put D.C. legalization on the ballot for November 2014.
The D.C. Board of Elections approved the initiative in August 2014. As predicted by Washington Post polls, D.C. residents voted in favor of Eidinger’s Initiative 71 by a huge 64% majority, thereby legalizing the possession of up to two ounces of cannabis and the cultivation of up to three plants per residence.
Legal Limbo: Initiative 71
Perhaps inevitably, some legal hurdles followed. D.C. does not have any representation in Congress (a fact that’s become something of a local rallying cry - it’s even printed on their license plates); Congress must review any legislation passed in the District before it officially becomes law. In the Congressional review period between November and February, D.C.’s cannabis enthusiasts held their collective breath while legal weed sat in vulnerable limbo. In December 2014, Congress -- possibly in preparation for a veto of D.C. legalization -- included a rider in an emergency spending bill that prohibited federal or local funds from being used to legalize any Schedule I substance. Then in February 2015, a few weeks before the review period was set to end, some in Washington began signaling their intent to strike down Initiative 71. Citing the federal budget provision, D.C.’s Attorney General warned the city council (who are paid by local funds) that they were
risking fines or even jail time by holding any preliminary meetings to discuss legalization logistics.
Not long after, two conservative state representatives sent a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, quoting the same federal budget provision and demanding any evidence that the city council had violated it by making initial plans for D.C.’s legalization framework; the letter was ignored.
Not For Resale
Despite all this opposition -- and despite such grandstanding affronts to D.C.’s autonomy -- Congress let the review period for Initiative 71 pass without taking any action. On February 25, 2015, it became legal in D.C. to possess up to two ounces of cannabis or to cultivate up to three plants per individual residence. But as of September 2016, D.C. Council officials are still barred by the federal budget provision from even discussing the newly-legal cannabis in their city. This means that Initiative 71 is the final word on weed in D.C. Although possession is legal, there are no provisions for sale --
no supply regulation, no way for recreational dispensaries to open, and no cannabis tax revenue boom for D.C. like the one that has benefitted Colorado.
This ambiguity has created a newly-thriving underground market for cannabis in the city. Dealers who previously operated covertly can now get away with openly selling their stash, two ounces at a time, on D.C. streets -- as long as no money is seen changing hands, they can claim that the exchange is a “gift.” That gift loophole has created some other creative semantic enterprises. One man who calls himself Kushgod openly solicits curbside “donations” from his car and then gifts the donors with cannabis. Alternatively, D.C. residents looking for a less brazen exchange can order loose-leaf tea (yes, actual tea) from quickiesdeliveryshop.com. The tea is mailed to any destination within D.C., along with what the site calls “fun, interesting, and innovative gifts from our local herbalist community”; Quickies’ Instagram feed is a little more forthcoming about exactly what those gifts might be. As the first East Coast territory to legalize recreational cannabis, D.C. may have inadvertently served as a great administrative model of what not to do. Among D.C. residents though, things could be worse. Cannabis arrests were down 99% in 2015. Adam Eidiginer has re-opened Capitol Hemp a few blocks from its original location. And CIA employees don’t need to worry about their drug tests being set off by friends’ secondhand smoke -- that’s not really a thing.