Washington D.C. is trying—again—to complete the project it started in 2014 when voters said yes to ballot initiative 71 and legalized cannabis for adults 21 and up. On Thursday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser submitted the District’s latest proposal to legalize recreational marijuana sales. Dubbed The Safe Cannabis Sales Act, Mayor Bowser’s bill wouldn’t just authorize the retail sale of cannabis products. It would also fight criminalization and encourage equity in the local cannabis economy.
D.C. Desperately Needs “Reefer Sanity”
Speaking at a news conference Thursday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and other members of her administration spoke about how the Safe Cannabis Sales Act would reinvest in D.C. communities hardest hit by the ongoing criminalization of cannabis consumers. They spoke about how the bill would open a process to criminal record expungement as the moral, compassionate, economically justified thing to do. “D.C. desperately needs reefer sanity,” said Justin Strekal, the Political Director of NORML.
The Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2019 would build on the ballot initiative voters passed in 2014. Under current rules, residents of Washington D.C. can grow and possess small amounts of cannabis, but they cannot legally purchase, sell it or consume it publicly.
To buy cannabis legally, the bill would require consumers to present a valid government ID showing they’re 21 years of age or older. The bill would also tax sales at 17 percent. That’s comparatively high, but the Safe Cannabis Sales Act would direct a large portion of tax revenue to affordable housing programs.
“The Safe Cannabis Act will promote equity by ensuring that the benefits of this new system—from jobs to revenue—go to communities that have been disproportionately hurt by marijuana criminalization,” Mayor Bowser said.
Legal Sales Bill Aims to Stop Racist Enforcement of Cannabis
In remarks about the bill, Mayor Bowser also said that “for far too long the possession of marijuana has been a pipeline to prison, especially for black men in D.C. and across the nation.”
Bowser isn’t exaggerating. An egregious pattern of racist cannabis enforcement has actually increased arrests for weed since D.C. legalized it in 2014. While arrests for marijuana possession have plummeted, arrests for public consumption doubled between 2015 and 2016. And Black people comprised 86 percent of those arrested by D.C. police for smoking weed in public. Recent policy changes have attempted to replace citations with arrest, however. But it’s the encounter with law enforcement itself that is the issue.
Mayor Bowser hopes the Safe Cannabis Act can replace the criminalization pipeline with “a pathway to prosperity.” But as has been the case in the past, local D.C. politics always have to overcome Congress’ stranglehold. Capitol Republicans had many times undermined, slowed or outright blocked efforts to decriminalize and legalize cannabis. Having failed that, they’ve done everything in their power to block the District from establishing a legal retail market.