Colorado made headlines recently with the New Year’s Day launch of legalized recreational marijuana. Overall, it was considered a deft transition. “Marijuana industry representatives and public officials credited the smooth launch to months of planning and cooperation,” wrote Christopher Osher in the Denver Post. “Former foes agreed along the way to work together.”
Could this happen in Washington, DC—the nation’s capital, but also a city that in 2013 took its first steps into the world of legalized medical marijuana?
We brought our questions to Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project, a DC-based group that has worked since 1995 to reform marijuana laws.
What does Colorado’s new policy mean to DC residents?
For the city, the council is likely to pass [DC Council member Tommy Wells’s bill replacing criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce with a civil fine] in February.
Since full-on legalization has sparked so little outrage in Congress, I’m not expecting Congress to interfere with the council’s decision to decriminalize. [DC Council member David] Grosso’s bill to regulate marijuana likely won’t pass this year but isn’t more than two or three years away.
And what does it mean to Washington as the nation’s capital?
It puts more pressure on Congress to resolve the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws. Right now the Justice Department is scrambling to essentially work around federal law through its “trust, but verify” approach, giving Colorado and Washington the green light to move forward so long as certain federal enforcement priorities aren’t implicated. Given the polling and momentum, it’s obvious that regulating marijuana like alcohol is inevitable, and eight to ten more states are likely to enact similar laws in the next three years. So the sooner Congress can do that, the better.
How does your group rank or assess Washington, DC, in regard to moving toward a progressive policy on marijuana?
How does your group rank or assess Washington, DC, in regard to moving toward a progressive policy on marijuana? First, I don’t really consider taxing and regulating marijuana a “progressive” policy. Some of the arguments are progressive, like ending the shameful racial disparity in arrests that makes blacks in DC eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, even though both groups use marijuana at the same rate. But it’s also about libertarian ideas like not having a nanny-state government telling you what you can do in your own home, and conservative principles like ending a failed, expensive, big-government program.
But in terms of DC’s progress toward improving its policies, we’ve made more progress than most states but still have a long way to go. We have a medical marijuana program, but it’s far too restrictive. We shouldn’t have a list of “qualifying conditions” to decide whether people are sick enough for medical marijuana. We don’t have one for any other medication. Instead of politicians and bureaucrats making that call, we should leave that decision up to doctors and patients.
But of course, the bottom line is that marijuana is dramatically safer than alcohol and should be treated that way. We should end prohibition altogether and replace it with a system of taxation and regulation. Council member Wells bill makes a lot of progress toward that goal by ending arrests and prosecutions, but I’m hopeful the council will take up Mr. Grosso’s bill sooner rather than later. There’s always the specter of Congress intervening, but polling shows the vast majority of DC residents want marijuana treated like alcohol, so that’s what we should be moving toward.
What would you or your group like to see happen in Washington this year in regard to marijuana reform?
I think the smartest approach is to pass a bill that gets the federal government out of the prohibition business and leaves marijuana policy up to the states. For example, HR 1523, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, would amend the Controlled Substances Act by making buying, selling, or possessing marijuana legal for purposes of federal law, so long as that activity is in compliance with state laws regarding marijuana. If you’re in a state that doesn’t allow marijuana for any purpose under state law, all conduct regarding marijuana would remain illegal under federal law. In other words, it would allow states to be what Justice Brandeis called “laboratories of democracy.” This bill already has 20 cosponsors and bipartisan support. It’s sponsored by [California Republican] Dana Rohrabacher and has five other Republican cosponsors.
Do you think the city has crippled its medical marijuana program by making it so restrictive, covering so few diseases? Do you anticipate movement in this regard?
At the very least they should allow people with severe, chronic pain to use marijuana. An even better approach would be to do away with the list of diseases altogether, and just treat marijuana like we do every other medication and leave that decision entirely up to doctors.
This post has been updated from a previous version.