The latest Washington showdown isn’t over budgets or confirmation hearings — it’s over pot.
Marijuana has been legal in the District of Columbia for nearly two months now, despite ongoing warnings from Congress that the city’s voter-approved experiment violates federal law.
Voters in Washington overwhelmingly approved an initiative last November that allows adults to possess up to two ounces of marijuana. They can also cultivate up to six cannabis plants within their homes at one time. But Congress has direct oversight over the District’s laws, so the controversial new law is facing heavy scrutiny from Capitol Hill.
As states that have previously legalized marijuana quickly discover, green-lighting a substance the federal government places in the same category as heroin requires some legal jiujitsu. But in many ways, Washington’s challenge is more complex.
Congress and the nation’s capital are currently in direct opposition: The city moved forward with legalization in February despite warnings from lawmakers who said the implementation of the law was illegal. Congress, meanwhile, blocked the city from building a legal structure to tax and regulate the pot trade, making it illegal to buy or sell it. Which is why, with the help of a group called the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, District residents have organized marijuana “seed giveaways” across the city.
Last month, thousands lined up outside a bar in northwest Washington for a chance to be given free marijuana seeds. Police looked on from the sidewalk as people filed inside, where seed sharers sat at tables near the back and handed out small baggies of seeds.
“There’s a whole lot of our culture that’s been forced in the closet for my whole lifetime,” said David Bernhardt, as he handed out bags from his home supply. “It’s wonderful to see light in the cracks.”
Although lawmakers often joke about the new laws, for many Washington residents, the new marijuana paradigm represents far more than just an opportunity to get high. That’s especially true for African-Americans, who face a higher risk of being arrested than white residents, despite data showing that both groups use marijuana at about the same rates.
A study from the American Civil Liberties Union found that between 2001 and 2010, black residents in the District of Columbia were eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites.
During that same time period nationally, police made more than 8 million pot-related arrests, at a taxpayer cost of about $3.6 billion per year.
Holly Dixon, who was first in line to get marijuana seeds that day, said that despite the threats from Congress, the change in District. law would have an important impact on the life of her friends and family.
“My brothers, my cousins, my friends who are African-American males aren’t getting locked up for having a $5 bag of weed,” she said. “That, to me, means a lot.”