Our nation’s capital may well be the next jurisdiction to legalize recreational marijuana dispensaries. And if that occurs, it will inevitably help shape the debate in Congress over marijuana policy.
That is, of course, important for the 658,893 people who live in the District, and the 6,033,737 people who live in the metropolitan area, but it will also be a helpful step in eventually persuading Congress to remove federal impediments to full legalization at the state level.
Every member of Congress, all 435 House members and 100 senators, maintain two homes: one in the home state district where they were elected, and a second in DC, where they spend at least three days each week when Congress is in session. And while many of these elected officials from around the country currently hold exaggerated views of the dangers of marijuana smoking, simply living here and seeing the sky doesn’t fall when prohibition is ended and marijuana is legalized, is likely the most effective way for us to continue to build support for legalization in the Congress. There is nothing more persuasive than personal experience.
Many in Congress have made their reputations and based their election campaigns on the backs of the victims of the long war on marijuana smokers, and they are not likely to change overnight. Indeed, most will continue as long as they think it is a winning political argument in their home district. But seeing the nation’s capital embrace legal marijuana with few, if any, unintended consequences, and lots of measurable improvements in the criminal justice system, the police-community relations, and the quality of life in the District, will help temper the perspective of all who live here, including those members of Congress.
The Tortured History of Marijuana Policy in the District
Constitutionally, the District of Columbia is controlled by the US Congress, and since 1973, when Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, the city has enjoyed a degree of local control, electing a mayor and a 13-member City Council to determine local laws and policies. However, each new law is subject to a 30-day review by Congress before becoming effective. Should the Congress wish to override a local law, they have that legal authority.
While the Congress does not often directly override a District law enacted by the elected City Council, they do on a more regular basis use the budget process to stop the District from adopting a policy opposed by a majority of the party then in control of Congress, by enacting a rider to the DC appropriations bill that bars the District government from spending any money to advance the targeted issue. And marijuana policy in the District has at times been the target of the anti-marijuana zealots in Congress.
When DC residents originally passed Initiative 59 in 1998 with 69 percent support, legalizing the medical use of marijuana, Congress, led by Republican Rep. Bob Barr from Georgia, at the time a leading anti-marijuana crusader, quickly passed a budget amendment banning the District from spending any money to implement the measure. That ban was repeatedly renewed with each new budget and stayed in effect for a decade, until 2009. Following the lifting of the ban, the City Council passed legislation licensing medical dispensaries, three of which currently operate in the District.
Similarly, when Initiative 71 was approved by 70 percent of the voters in 2014, legalizing marijuana for all adults in the District, Republican Rep. Andy Harris, an anti-drug warrior from rural Maryland, led a successful effort, supported by top congressional Republicans, to add a rider to the DC appropriations bill banning the use of any money to implement legalization, a ban that remains in effect until October 1, 2015.
Harris had initially claimed his amendment blocked Initiative 71 from taking effect, and threatened to have the mayor arrested should she implement the new law. But the DC Attorney General held the initiative took effect despite the budget amendment (allowing the new law to take effect did not require the expenditure of any funds), although the amendment would preclude the City Council from moving forward to establish recreational dispensaries. The question now is whether the anti-marijuana coalition in Congress will have the votes to include the ban in the appropriations bill currently being considered. At least for now, it appears likely they will not.
The Budget Battle Ahead
When Obama sent his proposed 2016 budget to Congress earlier in the year, he did not include any ban on spending District funds to legalize marijuana (the ban against using federal funding was retained), taking the position that this is a matter for the District to decide, not the Congress.
And while the latest House Appropriations Committee budget did contain the ban, when the Senate Appropriations Committee recently completed their District appropriations bill, the ban was not included.
So the issue will be resolved in conference committee, where the real behind-the-scene horse-trading often occurs, and there is a fair chance the ban will not be included in the new budget.
If that occurs, you can expect the DC City Council to move expeditiously to establish a system to license commercial growers and retail recreational marijuana shops. There is near unanimous support for this step among the council, and from Mayor Muriel Bowser. And it is helpful that DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier has been a public supporter of marijuana legalization, stating at a press conference that marijuana is no big deal, and that “alcohol is a much bigger problem.”
So whether Congress likes it or not, their members may soon be spending roughly half of their time living under full marijuana legalization, including retail stores. This is a development that can only be helpful to speed along changes in federal law.
One of the most valuable resources that NORML possesses is our members. They are our lifeblood and the driving force behind the multitude of statewide and local reform efforts taking place around the country. That’s why NORML is pushing to build our ranks in advance of the 2016 election by launching the weeklong NORML Nation Membership Drive. As many of you know, presidential elections tend to attract a larger pool of younger and more politically progressive voters. We hope to tap into this expected voting block to achieve unprecedented successes in 2016.
2016 will be a watershed year for ending marijuana prohibition at the local, state and federal level. NORML and NORML chapters are engaging in multistate strategy to assist with marijuana-related ballot initiatives and legislative reform efforts, and we and the NORML PAC are pushing for federal reform by lobbying members of Congress in support of The CARERS Act, The Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act, and The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, as well as additional budgetary amendments and regulatory reforms.
Funds that we raise through this membership drive will help us cover costs related to our ongoing lobbying efforts and expand our network of NORML Chapters. Also, a portion of the proceeds will be used to establish our Chapter Grant program which will dedicated to directly supporting NORML-led local reform efforts.
If you’re already NORML Chapter Leader or Member, you can earn money for your local NORML Chapter through the NORML Nation Chapter Contest! The top three chapters with the most referrals to the NORML Nation will earn $1,000, $500, and $250! I’ll be sending around an email to Chapter Leaders with more information about the NORML Nation Chapter Contest.
Thank you in advance for helping us make this a successful membership drive. You can help us reach our goal by encouraging others to become members of NORML and to donate to our work. You can also join the NORML Nation Membership Drive Facebook event, and invite your friends!
Newly appointed head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Chuck Rosenberg, says that marijuana is “probably” not as dangerous as heroin.
Rosenberg’s comments, issued Tuesday, are seemingly in conflict with marijuana’s Schedule I classification under federal law, which places it in the same category as heroin and is a lesser category than cocaine. The law defines cannabis and its dozens of distinct cannabinoids as possessing “a high potential for abuse … no currently accepted medical use, … [and] a lack of accepted safety for the use of the drug … under medical supervision.”
Predictably, Rosenberg did emphasize that he believed cannabis posed potential harms, stating:“If you want me to say that marijuana’s not dangerous, I’m not going to say that because I think it is. Do I think it’s as dangerous as heroin? Probably not. I’m not an expert.”
However, Rosenberg acknowledged that he has asked DEA offices “to focus their efforts and the resources of the DEA on the most important cases in their jurisdictions, and by and large what they are telling [him] is that the most important cases in their jurisdictions are opioids and heroin.”
Rosenberg’s predecessor, Michelle Leonhart vigorously defended marijuana’s Schedule I classification. She oversaw dozens of raids on medical marijuana providers, criticized the President on his remarks of marijuana’s safety in relation to alcohol, and rejected an administrative petition calling for marijuana rescheduling hearings. NORML is pleased that although the new DEA administrator, by his own admission is not “an expert” on cannabis, he apparently possesses a better grasp on marijuana and it’s evident differences compared to other schedule 1 substances.
Rosenberg’s comments, coupled with those of NIDA Director Nora Volkow publically espousing the safety of CBD indicate that it may no longer be a question of if the federal government will move to reclassify cannabis but when.
The director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Nora Volkow, believes that cannabidiol (CBD) – a nonpsychotropic cannabinoid – is “a safe drug with no addictive effects.” Volkow made the comments in an op-ed published by The Huffington Post.
Volkow further acknowledged, “[P]reliminary data suggest that it may have therapeutic value for a number of medical conditions.”
Preclinical studies have documented CBD to possess a variety of therapeutic activities, including anti-cancer properties, anti-diabetic properties, and bone-stimulating activity. Clinical and observational trials have documented the substance to possess anxiolytic, anti-psychotic, and anti-seizure activity in humans. Safety trials have further concluded the substance to be “safe and well tolerated” when administered to healthy subjects.
To date, 15 states have enacted laws specifically permitting the possession of high-CBD formulated extracts for therapeutic purposes, primarily for the treatment of pediatric epilepsy.
In a recent Time Magazine op-ed, Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein (CA) and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (IA) encouraged the Obama administration to “definitively determine if CBD has scientific and medical benefits,” and to “look at expanding compassionate access programs where possible, to benefit as many children as possible.”
Under federal law, CBD — like cannabis — is defined as a Schedule I controlled substance with “a high potential for abuse … no currently accepted medical use, … [and] a lack of accepted safety for the use of the drug … under medical supervision.”
Senate Bill 460 permits state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries to also engage in cannabis sales to non-medical persons beginning on October 1, 2015. Adults will be allowed to purchase up to one-quarter ounce of cannabis per visit per day.
Initiated legislation approved by voters in November and enacted on July 1 allows those over the age of 21 to legally possess up to one ounce of cannabis and/or to engage in the non-commercial cultivation of up to four marijuana plants (yielding up to eight ounces of marijuana). Separate provisions in the law permitting the licensed production and retail sale of cannabis to adults were not anticipated to go into effect until next summer. Senate Bill 60 permits adults to legally obtain cannabis from dispensaries during this interim period.
Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington permit adults to legally possess and purchase limited quantities of marijuana for their own personal use. The District of Columbia also allows adults to possess and grow marijuana legally, but does not provide for as regulated commercial cannabis market. All of these measures were enacted by the passage of voter initiatives.