Cannabis in Washington, D.C.

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A canvasser for the DC Cannabis Campaign soliciting signatures for Initiative 71

In Washington, D.C., cannabis is legal for recreational and medical uses, but is barred from commercial sale. Though the drug was fully legalized in the District following a 2014 ballot referendum, the United States Congress exercises oversight over the government of the District of Columbia, preventing the local government from regulating cannabis sales like other jurisdictions with authority derived from a U.S. state.[1]

Although marijuana is legal under District law, the possession of marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Marijuana prohibition is enforced on federal lands, including national parks and military property. The federal government controls about 29% of the District's total land area (about 18 square miles), including the National Mall, West Potomac Park, Rock Creek Park, and Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling.[2][3]

Restricted to prescription (1906)[edit]

In 1906, Congress introduced An act to regulate the practice of pharmacy and the sale of poisons in the District of Columbia, and for other purposes, requiring that certain medicines, including cannabis, be limited to licensed pharmacists and prescribed.[4]

Medical cannabis[edit]

Initiative 59 was a 1998 Washington, D.C. voter-approved ballot initiative that sought to legalize medical cannabis. The short title of the initiative was "Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Initiative of 1998".[5] Though the initiative passed with 69% of the vote in November 1998, its implementation was delayed by Congress's passage of the Barr Amendment, which prohibited DC from using its funds in support of the program. This Amendment delayed the start of the medical marijuana program until it was effectively overturned in 2009, with the first DC customer legally purchasing medical cannabis at a dispensary in the District in 2013.[6]

In May 2010, the Council of the District of Columbia passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana. The Congress did not overrule the measure within the 30-legislative-day period, and as a result medical cannabis became legal on January 1, 2011.[7] Though carefully regulated through a lengthy permitting process, dispensaries began opening [8] and cultivation centers were allowed.[9]

Decriminalization (2014)[edit]

In a January 2014 poll by The Washington Post, roughly eight in 10 city residents supported legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana.[10] On March 4, 2014, the Council of the District of Columbia decriminalized possession of cannabis.[11][12][13] The new law went into effect in July, following the mandatory 30-day congressional review period.

Congress sought to block D.C.'s decriminalization through another rider. On June 25, 2014, House Republicans, led by Maryland representative Andy Harris blocked funding for the D.C. law.[10] The Harris amendment bans the D.C. government from spending any funds on efforts to lessen penalties for Schedule I federal drug crimes.[14] Harris argued that the D.C. law was "bad policy" assessing a fine of $25—a fraction of the $100 fine in Maryland. In response, activists launched the Boycott of Maryland's 1st District, Harris' constituency.[15]


Initiative 71 was a Washington, D.C. voter-approved ballot initiative that legalized the recreational use of cannabis. The short title of the initiative was Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014.[16] The measure was approved by 64.87% of voters on November 4, 2014 and went into full effect February 26, 2015.[17][18]

Under the legalization measure that went into effect in 2015, persons over the age of 21 in D.C. may possess up to two ounces of marijuana, grow up to three mature and three immature marijuana plants in their homes, and transfer up to one ounce of marijuana to another individual. Drug paraphernalia, such as bongs, were also legalized. The sale, purchase, and public consumption of marijuana remains illegal.[3]

Opposition in Congress[edit]

In mid-December 2014, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill (nicknamed the "CRomnibus"—a portmanteau of omnibus and continuing resolution[19][20]) that ended the federal ban on medical marijuana, but that also included a legislative rider targeted at D.C.'s Initiative 71.[21] The rider's final language barred the use of funds to "enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes."[22][23] The final language notably solely used the phrase "enact" rather than "enact or carry out." Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said that "she was told by Democratic budget negotiators that the omission was made on purpose to give city leaders a chance to argue that in moving forward, the District is only carrying out, and not enacting, the measure."[24] Norton reiterated this point in an Initiative 71 questions and answers section on her House Web site.[25]

Both D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council of the District of Columbia took the position that the voter-approved initiative became self-enacting.[26][27] On January 13, 2015, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson sent the measure to Congress for a mandatory 30-day review period,[28] in accordance with the District of Columbia Home Rule Act.[25]

On February 24, 2015, Representatives Jason Chaffetz and Mark Meadows sent a letter to Bowser urging her to not move forward with Initiative 71.[29][30] Congressional Republicans, including the omnibus rider author's Andy Harris, threatened prison time for the D.C. mayor and others involved, suggesting that they could be prosecuted by the Justice Department under the Anti-Deficiency Act, which "imposes criminal penalties on government employees who knowingly spend public funds in excess of their appropriated budgets."[1]

Marijuana arrest patterns[edit]

Between 2010 and 2015, the total number of marijuana-distribution arrests made by all police agencies in DC (the Metropolitan Police Department, Metro Transit Police Department, and federal agencies such as the U.S. Park Police and U.S. Capitol Police), declined by 80%. The number of arrests for marijuana distribution and marijuana possession with intent to distribute was 1,378 in 2010, and 234 in 2015.[31]

In 2016, however, more than 400 people were arrested in D.C. for public consumption of marijuana, and numbered remained high in 2017. Arrests for marijuana distribution also sharply increased from 80 in 2015 to 220 in 2016.[32]

Protests and events[edit]

On 20 April 2017, local activist Adam Eidinger and six other activists were arrested by U.S. Capitol Police, during a public event where they handed out free cannabis cigarettes to anyone with a Congressional ID badge.[33]


Although D.C. law prohibits the selling of cannabis, a number of entrepreneurs have sought to exploit the legal gray area around the drug. Kush Gods is a local company which accepts donations and distributes cannabis, with a fleet of cars decorated with vinyl wraps of cannabis leaves, while stating that they are not selling cannabis. The owner of Kush Gods pleaded guilty in 2016 to two counts of distributing cannabis.[34]

A number of cannabis "pop-ups" have appeared in D.C., hosting events in which donations are accepted and cannabis distributed. In 2018 D.C. police raided the XO Lounge, where a number of vendors were distributing cannabis, and selling items such as stickers or football cards, with the cannabis being given out as a "gift" along with purchase. Twenty-two vendors were arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute (a misdemeanor), but the charges were later dropped.[35]


  1. ^ a b Mike DeBonis and Aaron C. Davis (2012-12-14). "Bowser: Legal pot possession to take effect at midnight in the District". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  2. ^ Ted Mellnik & Denise Lu, Graphic: Marijuana still illegal on federal land, Washington Post (February 24, 2015).
  3. ^ a b Martin Austermuhle, Here's Just About Everything You Need To Know About Pot Legalization In D.C., WAMU (February 25, 2015).
  4. ^ United States Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency (1977). Marijuana decriminalization: hearing before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninety-fourth Congress, first session, pursuant to S. Res. 72, section 12, Investigation of juvenile delinquency in the United States, S. 1450 ... May 14, 1975. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 286.
  5. ^ "D.C. Voters' Guide '98". Retrieved 2016-11-09.
  6. ^ Altieri, Erik (2013-07-30). "First Medical Marijuana Sale Reported in Washington, DC". NORML Blog. NORML. Retrieved 2016-11-09.
  7. ^ "Medical marijuana now legal". The Washington Post.
  8. ^ Reilly, Ryan J.; Wing, Nick (2013-07-30). "Medical Marijuana Goes on Sale Blocks From U.S. Capitol". Huffington Post.
  9. ^ "D.C. Selects Medical Marijuana Cultivation Centers". WRC-TV.
  10. ^ a b Aaron C. Davis (June 25, 2014). "House Republicans block funding for D.C. marijuana decriminalization". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
  11. ^ "Decriminalization arrives, and D.C. police prepare for sea change in marijuana laws". Washington Post.
  12. ^ Davis, Aaron C. (2014-03-05). "D.C. Council votes to eliminate jail time for marijuana possession". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  13. ^ Noble, Andrea (4 March 2014). "D.C. Council approves bill decriminalizing marijuana". The Washington Times.
  14. ^ Trip Gabriel (July 13, 2014). "Marijuana Is at Center of Feud in Capital". The NY Times. Retrieved July 13, 2014.
  15. ^ Trip Gabriel (July 3, 2014). "House Republicans block funding for D.C. marijuana decriminalization". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 9, 2014.
  16. ^ "Ballot Initiative". DCMJ. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  17. ^
  18. ^ Davis, Aaron C. (November 4, 2014). "D.C. voters overwhelmingly support legalizing marijuana, joining Colo., Wash". The Washington Post.
  19. ^ "Obama Signs $1.1 Trillion Government Spending Bill". NBC News. 2014-12-16. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  20. ^ Ezra Klein (2014-12-11). "How to sound smart about the 2015 appropriations bill". Vox. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  21. ^ "Congress Ends Federal Medical Marijuana Ban". UPI. 2014-12-16. Retrieved 2016-02-26.
  22. ^ "Bill Text – 113th Congress (2013-2014) – THOMAS (Library of Congress)". Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  23. ^
  24. ^ Davis, Aaron C. (2014-12-13). "D.C. maneuvering for marijuana showdown with Congress". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  25. ^ a b "Frequently Asked Questions on Implementing D.C.'s Marijuana Legalization Initiative | Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton". Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  26. ^ German Lopez (2015-01-14). "Despite congressional threats, DC Council is definitely moving forward on legal marijuana". Vox. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  27. ^ 54 days Meet the Press (2015-01-04). "Meet the Press Transcript – January 4, 2015". NBC News. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  28. ^ Davis, Aaron C. "D.C. challenges Congress to halt marijuana legalization in nation's capital". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  29. ^ Davis, Aaron C. "Lawmakers encourage Bowser to reconsider declaring pot legal in D.C." The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  30. ^ "Letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser regarding Initiative 71 – The Washington Post". The Washington Post. 2015-02-24. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  31. ^ Andrew Giambrone, Marijuana-Distribution Arrests in D.C. Decreased More Than 80 Percent Between 2010 and 2015, Washington City Paper (January 13, 2016).
  32. ^ Justin Wm. Moyer, D.C. arrests for public use of marijuana nearly tripled last year, Washington Post (July 11, 2017).
  33. ^, The Washington Times. "4/20: D.C. pot activists arrested during free marijuana giveaway on Capitol Hill". Washington Times.
  34. ^ McCoy, Terrence (6 April 2016). "The most controversial marijuana champion in the nation;s capital is a fugitive named Kushgod". Washington Post.
  35. ^ Tauhid Chappell & Tom Jackman (March 26, 2018). "In the murky world of D.C. marijuana law, "pop-up" markets thrive". Washington Post.