District of Columbia residents to vote on marijuana legalization

If the measure passes, D.C. will join the ranks of Colorado and Washington State in legalizing marijuana for recreational use – a move that has raised tax revenues but also increased the number of pot-related medical emergencies.

David McNew/Reuters
Marijuana plants are displayed for sale at the medical marijuana farmers market at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles. The District of Columbia Board of Elections unanimously voted Wednesday to include legalization of recreational marijuana on the November ballots.

Washington, D.C., voters will get the chance to weigh in on marijuana legalization at the polls this November. The D.C. Board of Elections unanimously voted Wednesday to include legalization of recreational marijuana on November ballots.

If passed, the initiative would allow individuals over 21 years old to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and would permit cultivation of up to six plants at home. The ballot question does not address the sale of marijuana; the city council is considering a separate bill that would tax and regulate marijuana. 

A majority of District residents – 63 percent – support pot legalization, according to a Washington Post poll released in January.

Until earlier this year, possession of even a small amount of marijuana in DC carried a $1,000 fine and a stint in jail up to six months. On March 31, Mayor Vincent Gray signed legislation decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. Under the new law, possession of less than one ounce carries a civil penalty of $25 – less than most parking tickets.

Colorado became the first state in the union to allow retail sale of recreational marijuana on Jan. 1. Pro- and anti-legalization advocates have been watching the Rocky Mountain State as the proverbial guinea pig for the nation.

In the first five months of legal pot sales, the state collected an additional $23.6 million in taxes and fees, showing that there could be an economic benefit to bringing sales out of the black market and into the taxable economy.

At the same time, however, Colorado has seen an increase in the number of marijuana-related medical emergencies since legalization. The state has struggled to figure out how to keep edible products that include marijuana and frequently come in the form of candy and baked goods out of the hands of children. The jury is still out on whether stricter regulation of pot and pot-infused food products can adequately reduce those complications.

Recreational marijuana is also legal in Washington State, though with just one month of retail sales under its belt, the state has yet to quantify the societal effects of legalization.

So far, 17 states have decriminalized marijuana and 35 states allow for some degree of medicinal use, according to NORML, a marijuana-reform lobbying group. Marijuana legalization will also appear on ballots in Alaska and Oregon in November.

Many in the decriminalization and pro-legalization camps have framed their argument as a civil rights issue because blacks tend to be arrested on marijuana charges more frequently than people of other races. Across the country, blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than people of other races, an American Civil Liberties Union report released in June showed. In Washington, D.C., that discrepancy is even more stark, with blacks facing arrest for pot at a rate eight times higher than other groups. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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