Economy & Jobs

Battle Blazes Over Washington, D.C., Marijuana Legalization

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Months after District of Columbia residents voted to legalize marijuana, the battle still blazes as a GOP-led Congress pushes to keep this drug off the nation’s capital. Last November, 65 percent of local voters approved Initiative 71, legalizing the possession and cultivation of marijuana beginning in February. A month after the measure was passed, however, Congress slipped a provision into a spending bill that blocked its full implementation. The move gained media attention because several states, including Colorado and Washington, have passed laws allowing for the recreational use and sale of marijuana. Will the fight for Washington, D.C., marijuana legalization succeed?

Congressional Opposition in D.C.

Under federal law, it’s illegal to possess marijuana, and many members of Congress want to ensure that the epicenter of the federal government (Washington, D.C.) won’t legalize the substance. Congress’s battle with local politicians is leaving residents and District law enforcement in a haze as to what exactly is legal when it comes recreational marijuana use.

Millennials are disproportionately affected by this issue. Nationally, 63 percent of Millennials support legalization, according to the Pew Research Center, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that about one in five young adults aged 18 to 25 use, or have used, marijuana. At the local level, 35 percent of Washington consists of Gen Yers, while nearby Arlington, Virginia, has the highest percentage of Millennials among all U.S. cities, at 40 percent.

What’s Legal, What’s Not

Thus far, D.C. residents have been permitted to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six cannabis plants in their home. Smoking paraphernalia such as bongs and pipes have also been legalized. However, residents are prohibited from possessing and smoking marijuana on federal property, which comprises about 20 percent of the land in Washington.

Where the issue becomes complex is in regard to the sale and taxation of marijuana within the District. Congress’s measure against Initiative 71, which blocks any spending on marijuana, has left residents in the position of being allowed to possess and grow the plant but have no legal right to buy or sell it. They’re allowed to transfer up to one ounce, though, as long as no payment takes place. Still, Congress’s move has made it difficult for local lawmakers to regulate the sale of marijuana.

The Tax Problem

Washington’s population comprises just under 660,000 residents, and its annual marijuana market is estimated at $130 million. But that doesn’t necessarily mean millions would be realized in tax revenue should the spending ban be lifted. Colorado brought in $44 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales in 2014, and while that’s a significant amount, it fell well under the projected $70 million. Estimates for Oregon range widely, from about $17 million annually to $80 million brought into state coffers for the 2017–2019 budget cycle.

For now, Congress has remained steadfast in its effort to ban marijuana from the federal capital, thereby preventing any tax revenues that could result from sales. However, the provision that blocks Initiative 71 from being fully realized will need to be renewed before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, advocates of Washington, D.C., marijuana legalization are using creative methods to populate the District with plants. In March, for instance, the DC Cannabis Campaign gave away 25,000 seeds to eager residents.

Both sides seem committed to their cause. It may be reasonable to assume that many residents smoke in the confines of their homes without regard to legislative formalities, though, so the legalization’s success remains in question.