Despite Legalization, Cannabis Arrests Are on the Rise in Washington D.C.

Despite Legalization, Cannabis Arrests Are on the Rise in Washington D.C.

by Zach Harris
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CULTURE
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Due to budget restrictions imposed by Congress, the District of Columbia is barred from constructing a retail structure for legal weed, allowing police to continue making racially-charged pot arrests.

Residents of Washington D.C. welcomed the legal growth and possession of adult-use cannabis in 2015. Now, three years since implementing the first recreational weed law on America’s East Coast, District of Columbia police statistics show steep increases in marijuana arrests, with nearly 1,000 people charged with cannabis crimes last year.

According to a deep dive into the new statistics from Marijuana Moment, D.C. Metropolitan Police recorded 926 marijuana arrests in 2017, 250 more than in 2016, or a statistical increase of 37%. Of those ensnared in pot-related police encounters, 403 were charged with distribution, suggesting that a lack of licensed distribution and retail marketplace is pushing cannabis users to purchase their stashes on the black market. 

“Thanks to Congressional interference prohibiting the District from regulating marijuana, rather than collecting tax revenue and ensuring product safety, we are wasting resources and wreaking havoc on young people’s lives with continued arrests for marijuana use,” Kaitlyn Boecker, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “It’s absurd that despite legalization in the District, MPD continues to make such arrests.”

Since Washington D.C. is technically a district, and not a state, the city’s annual spending budget must be rubber stamped by Congress before any money is actually spent. So while city leaders have fought for a regulated marijuana marketplace every year since D.C. residents voted to legalize the sweet leaf, leaders on Capitol Hill have rejected those proposals at every turn, leaving District residents and tourists with few options to obtain legal weed, well, legally.

Under Initiative 71, the District’s 2014 legalization law, adults 21 years and older are allowed to grow up to six plants at home and “gift” up to one ounce of weed to other consenting grown-ups. But with strict homeowner laws preventing most residents from setting up a grow-op in their guest room, and few cultivators willing to part with their product for free, an underground gifting economy has emerged, with unlicensed distributors offering weed as an add-on to high-priced juices, t-shirts, and other non-cannabis products.

Over the past couple years, though, D.C. cops have honed their attention on pop-up cannabis events and other gift economy loopholes, focusing police power and local tax dollars on re-criminalizing a drug that District residents have already legalized.

“I’m alarmed that D.C. had nearly 1,000 marijuana arrests last year, three years after citizens overwhelmingly voted to legalize adult-use of cannabis,” Adam Eidinger, spokesman for the D.C.-based cannabis advocacy group DCMJ, told Marijuana Moment.

To make matters worse, demographic data breaking down the 2017 marijuana arrests depicts a blatant racial bias, with 9 out of every 10 arrest targeting people of color. In the department’s official report, 794 people charged with cannabis crimes were identified by the arresting officer as “black,” while only 35 were recorded as “white non-Hispanic.” Those numbers are eerily similar to other East Coast cities in states where prohibition is still the rule of law, most notably New York City, where 90% of marijuana arrests also target black and brown residents.

Washington D.C. pot arrests are still down significantly from the decades before the implementation of Initiative 71, but without a comprehensive legal weed industry allowing adults to take advantage of the 2014 law, police are still empowered to use the plant as an excuse to carry out widespread racial prejudice. Until Congress steps aside and lets District leaders regulate legal weed, D.C. cops have shown no signs that they will stop criminalizing cannabis users.

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Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.


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