Debbie Hines discusses DC’s marijuana law on Fox 5 News.
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In November, 2014, DC residents and voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly by a margin of 70% voted to make marijuana legal in the District of Columbia. With DC voters’ approval of Ballot Initiative 71, the new law was enacted. Since the vote in favor of Ballot Initiative 71, two events have occurred that might either derail or give life to the legalization of marijuana in DC. In December, MD Republican Congressman Andy Harris placed a rider in the federal government spending bill that would prohibit any monies—federal or DC from being used towards a marijuana law. The District of Columbia, including Mayor Bowser, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and DC Attorney General Karl Racine take the view that the rider has no effect as the new law was enacted in November.
The complication of the status of DC as a non-state bears on how laws become laws in the District of Columbia. Before any new law can become law in the District of Columbia, the proposed law must be submitted to Congress for a 30 day review to approve or disapprove. DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson submitted the marijuana law to Congress in January and is waiting for the expiration of the 30 day period to determine the fate of the law. The 30 day expiration period is February 26. And even if Congress approves, there is still the question of whether the Rider on the spending bill has any effect on the law. And there is always the possibility that Congress could disapprove the new marijuana law. If Congress attempts to thwart the new marijuana law and the will of DC voters, DC officials have vowed to fight the action.
Speaking optimistically, if the new marijuana law becomes law, then here’s what will happen. For adults over the age of 21, up to 2 ounces of marijuana and 3 mature marijuana plants for cultivation in one’s home for personal use would not be subject to any civil or criminal sanctions. There are some nuances to the law. First, while the possession in the stated amount is legal, it is still illegal to sell marijuana in the District of Columbia. The sale of marijuana in any amount remains illegal. Currently, there is no provision for the legal sale of marijuana. And for those individuals who smoke marijuana in public, that is still a crime, subject to 6 months in jail and $500 fine, if convicted. And the possession of marijuana in any amount on federal property and land remains illegal. Over 20% of land in the District of Columbia is federal property such as Rock Creek Park, Malcolm X Park, the Mall, monuments and federal housing. While DC Metropolitan Police will not arrest for possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana, an individual could be arrested if impaired by marijuana while driving a vehicle.
Presently, until Congress decides on the fate of the legalization of marijuana in the District of Columbia, the law remains that possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is not subject to criminal prosecution but subject to a $25 fine. That law passed in July, 2014. Hearings are held by the Office of Administrative hearings on any cases. The proposed new law under Ballot Initiative 71 once it passes Congress’ hurdles would make null and void any civil fines. The rationale for the changes in DC’s approach towards marijuana addresses the racial disparity of blacks arrested for small amounts of marijuana versus whites. In the court system, up to 9 out of 10 cases for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana are black defendants although the racial make- up of the city for blacks is vastly less than 90%. In 2011, the black population in the District of Columbia slipped below 50% for the first time in 50 years.
Once the District of Columbia is able to proceed with the legalization of marijuana as passed through Ballot Initiative 71, the DC Council intends to further make changes to the law to regulate commercial production and sales of marijuana and tax sales like alcohol. That will probably become the battle with Congress. President Obama is in support of the District of Columbia and its ability to legalize marijuana. President Obama included in the 2016 budget a proposal that DC can spend its own funds on legalization.
Until the wait is over for Congressional approval, we will not know if the DC marijuana law will become law or subject to a court battle. Until then, stay tuned.