DC should aim higher: Legalize commercial growing

Bruce Majors Freelance Writer
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Washington, D.C. recently rated near the top of American cities for income inequality. Perversely, D.C.’s economy is a welfare state for the rich, or at least the upper middle class: The federal government imports thousands people with law or other graduate degrees to D.C. monthly, and pays them between $75,000 and $150,000 a year.

Lobbying and law firms hire, at even higher salaries, other demographically similar people to navigate the expanding federal government. The new residents bid up real estate prices — both sale prices and rents — displacing D.C.’s long term residents, who have less money, are more likely to be minorities, and less likely to have graduate, or even undergraduate degrees.

What can D.C. offer its long term residents, as a company town with one major industry — government — which mainly hires people with grad school degrees? D.C. needs to diversify its economy, and develop new industry, beyond government, law, lobbying, journalism and tourism. One way would be to tap into D.C.’s comparative advantage, exploiting the resource it has more of than anyone else. And that would be liberalism. According to Gallup, Washington, D.C. has a more liberal population than any state.

Why not monetize this natural resource? D.C. has done a bad job of tapping it. For instance, while a couple of states legalized not just the possession of marijuana, but growing and selling it, D.C. managed to legalize medical marijuana 15 years ago, but then couldn’t get a dispensary open until last year, due to a thicket of regulations.

Now D.C. is decriminalizing personal possession of small amounts of pot, but our incumbentocracy (all the city council members running for Mayor) disagrees over whether fines should be $25 or $100, and whether one should be free to smoke pot on your front porch or a sidewalk cafe, and whether you should be arrested if you are found with it outside your own home. These are the same people who took 15 years to allow permits for a dispensary for the medical marijuana they had already legalized.

It’s very possible Maryland, or even Virginia (where there are moves to legalize non-pharmaceutical hemp), and other nearby states will decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but less likely that they will decriminalize growing it and selling it. And even states that do partially decriminalize sales and production have such extensive regulations they can’t produce enough to meet demand.

But D.C.’s population is more liberal. So why can’t they legalize production? In the process they would create horticultural and other jobs for some of the D.C. residents who didn’t go to law schools, and additionally earning monopoly profits by being the producers who can supply the demand for pot in any nearby jurisdictions that decriminalize possession but not production. (It’s not easy to get accurate numbers on the size of a black market, but even way back in the late 90s, NORML estimated that marijuana was America’s fourth largest cash crop, at $15 billion, in 1997 dollars, in sales. After medical marijuana was legalized in California, the 2011 estimates were $1.9 billion in legal sales, with a $4 billion black market.) Simultaneously reducing the black market prices created by drug prohibition that produce incentives for crime and gang warfare.

It would be not just poetic but real economic justice if the many D.C. residents who find it hard to get a job now because of the criminal records they’ve been saddled with by the drug war, when they committed a non-violent victimless crime, could instead become entrepreneurs supplying marijuana to both D.C. and neighboring jurisdictions that decriminalize possession.

My new slogan for D.C., where the political class has ignored the double digit unemployment of its less educated long-term residents: D.C. Should Aim Higher!