Washington, D.C. residents approved Initiative 71 in 2014, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The city first approved the use of medical marijuana in 1998, but congressional pushback blocked the implementation, delaying the first purchase of medical marijuana until 2013. Five years after recreational legalization, the gray areas in DC marijuana laws have some wondering, is weed legal in Washington, D.C.?
The Marijuana Laws in D.C.
Anyone over the age of 21 can possess up to two ounces of marijuana or grow up to six personal plants. When growing, only three of the plants can be mature at a given time. Adults may also transfer up to an ounce of weed to another adult, so long as “no money, goods, or services are exchanged.” Paraphernalia may be on a person so long as it is associated with no more than one ounce of cannabis. Adults over 21 are permitted to consume marijuana on private property only.
The law relies on a single phrase: “Home grow; home use.” Consuming marijuana in public spaces or on federal property will result in a penalty of up to $100 in fines. If you’re not toking up in a private space, use discretion and be prepared for the worst. Smoking in a parked car can still result in a DUI, which could result in arrest. Discretion is key to marijuana use in D.C.
Medical Marijuana in D.C.
Medical cannabis users are the only ones who can buy from a dispensary in D.C. Medical patients can possess up to two ounces every month, though public use is still a criminal offense.
The process of obtaining a medical marijuana card in DC is extensive. Applicants must fill out the application, provide two forms of identification, present a recommendation from a licensed doctor, and pay a $100 fee. Then, they must sit back and wait for the 30-day waiting period to end.
If you’re from out of state, you can still get cannabis if you have a medical card from another state with a “functionally equivalent Medical Marijuana Program.”
Recreational Marijuana in D.C.
This is where D.C.’s marijuana laws get a little funkier than the rest. Users cannot purchase weed in a traditional dispensary setting, nor are they permitted to exchange money, goods, or services for weed from another person. Home grow; home use.
Obviously, not every pothead in DC is going to start growing weed indoors, so instead, there are unique ways to legally obtain the plant. DC’s marijuana laws allow for “gifting” or “donating” without selling weed. This loophole works by having users purchase something else, often trinkets or small materials like cups or stickers, and then they receive a free “gift” of marijuana with the purchase.
A common way to shop for marijuana in Washington, D.C. is to attend “pop-up” events. These events are usually advertised through social media, with details regarding location and time kept private. These pop-ups are filled with vendors selling other items, who also happen to throw in a marijuana-related gift with each purchase. The loophole is not completely foolproof, though, and crackdowns on pop-ups have resulted in numerous arrests. With higher prices in medical dispensaries, pop-ups have also offered an alternative for medical users looking to save money.
Legal Grey Areas
The strange D.C. laws have cultivated a culture of gifting and sneaking around with the drug, despite its legal status. Voters approved recreational use, but Congress placed hurdles along the way that prevent the area from functioning like other legal states.
Washington, DC decriminalized the possession of two or fewer ounces of marijuana for those 21 years and older, but federal law still continues to get in the way the fun. While this law is typical, it is especially cutting in D.C., where federal land makes up 29 percent of the area. Officers can still arrest anyone possessing any amount of cannabis on federal land. This means some of the best places to take your weed may put you at risk, like national parks or even the National Mall.
Racial Disparities in D.C. Weed Laws
A big issue in Washington DC’s marijuana laws comes from the clear racial bias used in arrests. In 2017, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton urged Congress to focus on reform, pointing out that it is a civil rights issue. She stated, “91 percent of all cannabis-related arrests in D.C. were of black residents, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rate—making cannabis reform a civil rights issue in our city.”
A report by the Drug Policy Alliance indicated that arrest rates for possession in Washington DC dropped about 99 percent for both black people and white people between 2010 and 2016. But still, reports in 2016 showed that black people were arrested for possession at four times the rate of white people.
The Future of Cannabis in D.C.
Fighting the federal government for more access and control is nothing new to legal marijuana states. DC lawmakers have not given up yet, with some pushing for new legislation allowing DC to support buying and selling weed. If leaders could tax and regulate marijuana, Washington DC would not be in such a strange position regarding legality.
DC mayor Muriel Bowers pointed out that the current state of marijuana laws in DC are making it more unsafe. She said if residents can legally possess and consume marijuana, there needs to be a legal way to obtain it.