Pubdate: Thu, 26 Feb 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Authors: Marc Fisher, Aaron C. Davis and Perry Stein


Marijuana Legalization Seen As a Breakthrough for the Nation's 
Capital and a National Movement

As Thursday dawns on the nation's capital, marijuana will be a legal 
intoxicant, though Washington will not be Amsterdam, or even Denver. 
There will be no pot shops, no open-air smoking, but at least for the 
moment, the District - for once in its decades-long struggle for the 
right to govern itself - has gotten its way, and a green rush is on.

Despite a last-hours intervention by the Republican chairman of the 
House committee that handles D.C. affairs, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and 
D.C. Council members said Wednesday that they would not back down 
from implementing the will of the 70 percent of city voters who 
approved legalization in November.

Now, from private residences where Washingtonians may grow, possess 
and use small amounts of the drug to shops where budding 
entrepreneurs plan to sell accessories for cultivating marijuana 
plants, marijuana will quickly become a more overt part of the 
capital's culture. For advocates of legalization, the idea that weed 
can be legal in Washington is a breakthrough that will accelerate a 
similar embrace of the mind-altering plant in much of the nation. At 
least five states are moving toward legalization votes next year.

"What you're seeing here is the end of marijuana prohibition, a 
change in attitudes and a real shift in law enforcement - a huge step 
forward in the national fight for legalization," said Michael 
Collins, national policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

"The nation's capital has an exaggerated impact," said Keith Stroup, 
legal counsel at NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of 
Marijuana Laws). "If Washington, D.C., can legalize marijuana and the 
sky doesn't fall, things will get a lot easier in these other 
states." On the streets of the city, the big change actually took 
place in July, when the District decriminalized possession of small 
amounts of marijuana, meaning that someone caught with a joint or two 
faced a ticket rather than an arrest, handcuffs and a trip to court.

Relaxed enforcement

Since July 17, when the penalty for possession of less than one ounce 
went from up to a year in prison to a civil fine of $25, both D.C. 
police and their federal counterparts have essentially stopped going 
after people who have marijuana for personal use. Arrest data from 
the U.S. attorney's office, which prosecutes drug offenses in the 
city, found that marijuana arrests in the District dropped from more 
than 15 a day to just over one a day after decriminalization.

In the first half of last year, law enforcement referred charges 
involving marijuana to prosecutors in 2,425 misdemeanor cases and 257 
felony cases. From July 18 to the end of the year, arrests dried up, 
resulting in just 159 misdemeanor and 67 felony cases.

For the most part, D.C. police didn't bother with the new marijuana 
citations, issuing fewer than 250 of them in the second half of the 
year. Even in public places, police may no longer use the smell of 
marijuana as probable cause for an arrest; an officer must directly 
observe someone smoking to make an arrest.

Although the federal government owns roughly a quarter of the land in 
the District, and marijuana remains illegal on any federal property, 
federal arrests for pot possession have also fallen off a cliff since 
the city approved decriminalization.

U.S. Park Police reported 501 marijuana "incidents" in 2013, though 
many of those did not result in arrests. After decriminalization, 
Park Police were involved in 41 incidents last year, only three of 
which led to marijuana-related charges.

"Basically, police stopped arresting people, and the government 
stopped papering, unless it was with another charge, like carrying a 
pistol," said Betty M. Ballester, head of the Superior Court Trial 
Lawyers Association, which represents defense lawyers.

Ballester and other defense lawyers have seen a marked change in how 
prosecutors handle pot cases as the government has repeatedly halted 
cases that were already in progress.

"They just came in on the day of trial and said they were not ready 
to proceed," she said. "I think that was a policy decision."

Decriminalization won support from then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and 
council members after a study by the American Civil Liberties Union 
showed a racially lopsided pattern of arrests for marijuana 
possession. Although surveys find that whites and blacks use the drug 
in roughly equal proportions, about nine out of 10 arrests in the 
District were of African Americans - a larger percentage than in any 
other major U.S. city.

Although arrests had already plummeted, legalization is nonetheless a 
pivotal moment for the nation and the city. Recreational marijuana is 
already legal in Colorado, Washington state and, since Tuesday, 
Alaska, but Congress's decision to do nothing about the D.C. law 
during the 30-day review period that expired Wednesday marks a 
significant turning point, according to both sides of the legalization debate.

"A certain number of Republicans in Congress wanted to block D.C.'s 
marijuana initiative," said Collins, who lobbies Congress on pot 
laws. "But the party's leaders don't want Republicans to become known 
as the anti-marijuana party."

Collins and other lobbyists say Republicans on the Hill fall into 
three camps - a small group that strongly opposes liberalizing the 
law because of concerns about health and productivity; a larger group 
that wants to leave the issue to the states on libertarian and 
states' rights grounds; and an ambivalent faction that doesn't want 
to be viewed as falling behind public opinion on social issues.

"This opens the door across the country," said DeForest Rathbone, 
chairman of the National Institute of Citizen Anti-Drug Policy, a 
Maryland-based group that favors existing drug laws. "Congress is 
afraid of acting because everybody thinks marijuana is harmless these 
days. People are going to regret this."

'Initiative 71 is . . . law'

A threat from congressmen with authority over the District seemed 
only to bolster the new D.C. mayor's resolve. Rep. Jason Chaffetz 
(R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform 
Committee, warned Bowser (D) to halt legalization or face "very 
severe consequences," he told The Washington Post. "You can go to 
prison for this. We're not playing a little game here."

But Bowser made clear that she is keenly aware of her authority and 
intends to use it.

"I am the duly elected mayor of the District of Columbia," she said 
upon taking the stage at a mid-afternoon news conference, during 
which she announced that the city would "implement and enforce" the 
law as passed by voters.

The city's new attorney general, Karl A. Racine, and several council 
members stood with Bowser. "Initiative 71 is, in the attorney 
general's view, law," Racine said.

House Speaker John A. Boehner appeared to steer clear of the D.C. 
controversy; his spokesman, Michael Steel, said Boehner "deferred to 
the committee." And Chaffetz's Republican colleagues said they had no 
plans beyond the rhetorical warning.

"There's no talk of litigation," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), 
chairman of the subcommittee that handles D.C. affairs. But he warned 
that it could become "very difficult for D.C." to get the money it 
needs on other matters. Congress can still act to roll back marijuana 
legalization through budget language.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who earlier sought to block the city from 
spending money to implement the ballot initiative, said Attorney 
General Eric H. Holder Jr. "should prosecute people in the District 
who participate in this." That seemed highly unlikely in an 
administration that has repeatedly signaled that it will let states 
conduct their own marijuana experiments.

Harris said the city's planning for legalization may violate federal 
law against spending public dollars that haven't been budgeted for 
that purpose. "Those people ought to be very afraid, because the 
penalties are severe," he said.

Bowser allowed that "me being in jail wouldn't be a good thing, but 
making sure that the will of the voters is implemented ... that's my 
job and that's what I'm doing."

As the conflict between the city and its federal overseers develops, 
marijuana's role in city life is already shifting. Although Congress 
has stopped the council from planning for eventual retail sales, 
entrepreneurs are charging ahead with plans to sell accessories used 
to grow and consume the plant.

Adam Eidinger, a leader in the legalization campaign, said he will 
reopen his Capitol Hemp store, which the city forced to shut down two 
years ago because he sold paraphernalia used to consume illegal drugs.

Eidinger said his new store, in Adams Morgan, will sell bongs, 
vaporizers and hemp products and will be more open about the purpose 
of its wares. In 2012, "if you said you were going to use the pipe 
for marijuana, we would tell you to leave," he said. "We don't have 
to play that game anymore."

A marijuana industry exposition is scheduled to be held at a Capitol 
Hill hotel this weekend, part of what Stroup, the NORML counsel, 
called "the green rush." Stroup said his group is getting calls from 
people who want to get into the business in Washington. He expects 
some entrepreneurs will test the limits of the law by establishing 
clubs where users pay a membership fee and are given the drug, in 
lieu of buying it directly. Bowser has called for legislation to 
block the formation of such clubs.

"Most marijuana smokers don't want to smoke on their own at home," 
Stroup said. "It's a social act. So it will be up to the police and 
then the courts to decide what is public and what is private."

Capital City Hydroponics, a small indoor gardening shop on Upshur 
Street NW in Petworth, already sells everything a gardener needs to 
grow vegetables and leafy greens. Now, said Michael Bayard, the 
owner, "we're expecting volume to increase."

Until now, when Bayard's customers have come in asking how to grow 
marijuana, he has told them that he doesn't provide that service. 
Bayard, valuing his relationships with local schools, still doesn't 
want to be known as a pot store. Until he is sure legalization is 
here to stay, he won't use marijuana leaf images in his marketing or 
openly talk about growing the plant.

"I don't want to risk our livelihood," he said. "The D.C. government 
works in funny ways. If you live here long enough, you know you don't 
know what's going to happen."

Still, the store already sells fertilizers with packaging that looks 
as if it could be on a Grateful Dead poster and products called 
"Kushie Kush" and "Big Bud." Bayard expects a rush of customers this 
weekend; he has ordered plenty of kits that could be used to 
cultivate marijuana at home. Prices range from $420 to $1,250.

Despite legalization, no one expects the black market to dissipate, 
especially since the D.C. law makes no provision for legal sale of 
the drug. One District dealer, a 24-year-old whose day job is with a 
government contractor, said he expects to continue selling about four 
ounces a week.

He believes that legalization will make it much less likely that he 
will be caught selling illegally. He said it will now be easier to 
hold and transport the drug because he'll limit his own possession to 
the legal maximum of two ounces. And he expects customers will buy in 
larger quantities than the standard one-eighth ounce, which he sells for $60.

"This makes it easier to stay in because it's safer," the dealer said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom