On March 27, about two dozen cannabis advocates rallied at the John A. Wilson Building, the seat of Washington, D.C.’s municipal government, handing out joints and seeds to the public — and even getting at least one councilmember to accept a joint.
After the activists moved into the building, they settled outside the room where lawmakers were holding a breakfast meeting with Jewish community leaders. Councilmember David Grosso, a supporter of reforming the city’s cannabis laws, was handed a joint as he left the breakfast.
The rally was called by activist group DCMJ and the D.C. Cannabis Business Association (DCCBA) to press for legalization of cannabis sales in the nation’s capital. DCMJ was the outfit that pushed for 2014’s Initiative 71, which made it legal to possess personal quantities of cannabis — but included no provision for legal sales. Cannabis enthusiasts in D.C. have in recent months been hosting “pop-up markets” at local venues, where vendors have sought to skirt the law by selling trinkets and including cannabis-infused edibles or extracts as a gift — or giving out such “gifts” a gratuity upon paid entry to the event.
Free pot being handed out at the Wilson Building, right in front of DC Council chambers. All legal. Advocates want elected officials to push harder on legalizing sales. pic.twitter.com/jRUSEo251e
— Martin Austermuhle (@maustermuhle) March 27, 2018
One such pop-up market in January, at downtown D.C.’s XO Lounge, was shut down by the police and 22 people were arrested. They were charged with misdemeanor drug possession with intent to distribute, although the cases were later dismissed.
“The impetus [for this rally] is that the raids have increased,” said DCMJ activist Adam Eidinger to the Washington Post, as he protested at the Wilson Building. “At our biweekly meetings at public libraries, especially in Southeast and Northeast, we’ve heard about this issue more than any other issue, that people’s livelihoods are being threatened.”
Initiative 71 legalized possession of up to two ounces. But creation of a system to regulate and tax sales has been blocked by Congress, which controls the District’s budget. A congressional rider quickly enacted after passage of Initiative 71 prohibits cannabis sales in D.C. It also bars the D.C. City Council from passing measures to “reduce penalties” for cannabis offenses.
The DCCBA and DCMJ used their protest to call on council members to pressure Congress to overturn the rider, and then put in place a system to tax and regulate sales.
A measure introduced last year by Sen. Thad Cochran — a Mississippi Republican, surprisingly enough — would repeal the rider, but has yet to pass.
On March 7, the D.C. Board of Elections blocked another proposed ballot initiative that would explicitly legalize retail cannabis sales in the capital. Building on the notion of “cannabis equity” — in which legalization policies are crafted to address the social and racial injustices of prohibition — the proposed measure would direct 40 percent of tax revenues from cannabis sales to the city’s African American communities. But the board said that putting the initiative to the city’s voters would violate the congressional rider.
The initiative was submitted to the board by activist Asar Mustafa, who portrayed the measure as a way out of Washington’s long-standing fiscal challenges, which have also disproportionately affected black residents. “Those same men and women the city has typecast as criminals,” he told D.C.’s WAMU Radio. “If you legalize cannabis, you’re talking about employing those people and you get a chance to tax them while they’re working in the cannabis industry.”
There is a sense of déjà vu to all this. In 1998, voters approved a medical marijuana law in the District of Columbia, but its implementation was blocked by Congress until 2010, when Capitol Hill lawmakers finally allowed it to go forward. Activists complain that the program is still being bottlenecked by bureaucratic overreach.
The question of sales is practically certain to be in the news again next month. The third annual National Cannabis Festival is scheduled to take place in D.C. on April 21 — the day after 420, of course. Herb-apostle hip-hop legends Cypress Hill are set to headline the event. Inevitably, this raises expectations of a public smoke-in. However, as WaPo wrote of last year’s entry: “While Initiative 71 did legalize marijuana for adult use in D.C. starting in 2015, the law bars anyone from using cannabis in public — and the festival doesn’t change that.”
Yet the prohibition on public use has not always been enforced. A public smoke-in was indeed held right on the National Mall precisely as Trump was making his inauguration speech last January. There were no arrests.
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