DC joins states legalizing marijuana: How it's different in the nation's capital

The District of Columbia legalized marijuana Thursday, pitting the laws of the nation's capital against those of the federal government.

Gary Cameron/Reuters/File
Melvin Clay (l.) of the DC Cannabis Campaign holds a sign urging voters to legalize marijuana, at the Eastern Market polling station in Washington on Election Day 2014.

The District of Columbia legalized marijuana Thursday, bringing the decriminalization campaign to the nation's capital in a hard-fought battle that marks a symbolic coup for legalization advocates.

The District joins Colorado, Washington State, and Alaska, which legalized the drug earlier this week, but its fight highlights the unique challenges the nation's capital faces in a jurisdiction in which state and federal laws sometimes collide with confusing consequences. 

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser implemented legalization, which was approved by nearly 70 percent of voters last November, despite threats from Congress that it may sue the city, pull public funding, and prosecute city officials.

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the District is in "willful violation of the law," and told the Washington Post, "You can go to prison for this. We're not playing a little game here."

Hours later, Mayor Bowser announced the city's plans to pursue legalization and condemned those who "bully" the District and it's officials.

"We believe that we're acting lawfully," Bowser said.

The new law, Initiative 71, allows adults aged 21 and older to possess, grow, smoke, and share marijuana, but not buy or sell it. DC residents and visitors may possess up to 2 ounces of the drug, and can grow up to six plants, with no more than three mature ones at a single time. Smoking pot in public remains illegal.

While the District has joined several other states in legalizing marijuana, the struggle for and significance of legalization is unique in the nation's capital.

Here's how it's different:

Local v. federal: It's confusing to be "a city without a state that also has the privilege of hosting the federal government for all eternity," writes New York Magazine. Doubly confusing when the District does not having voting representatives of senators in Congress, yet must have every law it passes reviewed by Congress, hoops through which other states do not have to jump. In the case of marijuana legalization in DC, the result was a local government-versus-federal government showdown.

Adding to the confusion, marijuana is legal only on District land, not federal land, which comprises almost 30 percent of the District of Columbia. On federal land — meaning the National Mall, the White House, the National Parks, federally subsidized public housing, and the Capitol — possession and use remain forbidden.

Symbolic milestone: Of course, legalization in the District faced stiffer opposition than other states because it represents a more significant symbolic milestone, given the District’s position as the nation's capital, seat of the federal government, and headquarters in the war on drugs.

"This is a major milestone on the road to ending marijuana prohibition in the United States," said Robert Capecchi of the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that advocates for legalization.

"We’re the nation’s capital, so I feel like it just makes people uneasy,” Ellen Bloom, a 24-year-old resident who said she voted for legalization but does not smoke pot, told the LA Times. “Maybe it’ll set the stage for the rest of the country, if D.C. has it legalized.”

Racial justice: Finally, in the District, more than in other jurisdictions that passed similar measures, legalization is about race. Advocates have long argued that the District's pot laws are racially unjust. Nearly half the District’s 658,000 residents are black, but the American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2010, 91 percent of those arrested for possession were black, according to a local DC CBC station. For advocates, legalization is a way to combat policies perceived as racist.

"This is a significant milestone in the movement for racial justice, civil liberties, and drug policy reform," Malik Burnett, D.C. policy manager at the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. "The racially-biased enforcement of marijuana laws in the nation’s capital is officially a relic of history."

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