On Tuesday the Washington, DC City Council gave preliminary approval to legislation that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the nation’s capital. This is an important step worth celebrating, but the limited plan unfortunately leaves many of the most important harms of marijuana prohibition unaddressed.
Unlike the recently enacted laws in Colorado and Washington State that legalize and regulate the marijuana production and sales, the plan moving ahead in the District of Columbia merely protects individual users from criminal penalties for possessing one ounce or less of the drug.
Don’t get me wrong: Stopping arrests of marijuana users will prevent thousands of people from having to go through the humiliating experience of being placed in handcuffs and in the back of a police car. It will also shield people from damaging criminal records that can make it difficult to get jobs, qualify for student loans or otherwise lead productive lives.
These new protections will be especially meaningful to the District’s communities of color, who use marijuana at rates that are nearly identical to those for whites, but who are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated at alarmingly disproportionate levels.
However, by leaving the business of marijuana production and sales illegal, the decriminalization plan does nothing to solve the serious issues of violence, crime and corruption that often go hand in hand with the illegal drug trade. Whereas in Colorado and Washington marijuana is sold by regulated businesses that pay taxes, consumers in the District will still have to get their drug of choice from the black market, where profits often go to violent street gangs, drug cartels, and other segments of organized crime.
Enactment of the decriminalization bill seems nearly certain. The Council voted 11-1 this week for initial passage and needs to approve it once more in a few weeks before sending it on to Mayor Vincent Gray, who has indicated his support. But DC voters are ready for more. A Washington Post poll taken last month shows that 63 percent of District residents support legalizing and regulating the marijuana trade. Activists are pushing an initiative on the city’s November ballot that would completely remove penalties for possessing up to two ounces of marijuana and would allow residents to cultivate up to six plants. Hopefully its passage would then spur the Council to begin regulating and taxing the marijuana trade, aligning more with the stance of District residents.
Beyond concerns about dealing a financial blow to organized crime syndicates in the black market, full legalization is also worth taking a close look at because of the tax revenue it would generate for the city. Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that by legalizing and taxing the drug, D.C. can rake in $5.7 million a year in new revenue. This is money that can be spent on schools, hospitals and substance abuse treatment, among many other important programs. And, the new tax money would be in addition to saving the $11.4 million the District currently spends every year enforcing its marijuana criminalization laws.
Aaron Houston is the Policy Advisor of Ghost Group, an operating company that owns and manages marijuana technology companies. Houston is a nationally recognized expert on drug policy and marijuana law.