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Congressional Ban On D.C. Marijuana Sales Drives Arrests, New Police Data Suggests

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New data from the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, released last week, shows that arrests for marijuana-related infractions in the nation’s capital rose substantially again from 2016 to 2017. In particular, busts for distribution have skyrocketed, while huge racial disparities in arrests continue unabated.

A total of 926 people were arrested for cannabis crimes in Washington, D.C. in 2017, up 37 percent from 676 in 2016.

The numbers had fallen dramatically in 2014 and 2015 after the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment went into effect in July 2014 and Initiative 71 went into effect in February 2015. The Amendment, approved by the D.C. Council in July 2014, decriminalized possession of up to one ounce. The Initiative, approved by 65 percent of voters that November, allows adults 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, grow up to six plants and “gift” up to one ounce of cannabis to another adult.

But sales remain banned despite support from a majority of councilmembers and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). That’s because Congress continues to attach language to annual funding bills that prevents D.C. from spending its own money to legalize and regulate the marijuana trade.

Overall marijuana arrests in the District have steadily increased in the two years since the initial drops following decriminalization and limited legalization, and a Marijuana Moment analysis of the new data shows that the rise appears to be related to the lack of a legal supply chain for cannabis.

In 2015, only 323 people were arrested for marijuana possession, consumption or distribution. In 2016, that number doubled, and 2017 arrests are nearly triple what they were in 2015. While not anywhere close to pre-decriminalization 2012 or 2013 numbers, the trend is unmistakable.

Types of Arrests

Strikingly, the type of charges made for cannabis-related arrests has been inverted in the last six years.

Since possession of limited amounts of cannabis is now legal in the District, possession arrests are rare (only 35 total in 2016-17). In turn, public consumption rates rose markedly in 2015 and 2016, but fell slightly in 2017 as police began applying more serious distribution charges more frequently.

Percentage-wise, the growth in distribution arrests is startling. In 2012, distribution accounted for only 4 percent of arrests. In 2017, it was 43.5 percent. Even by raw numbers, distribution arrests have soared. This type of bust rose 83 percent from 2016 to 2017, and nearly five times as many people were arrested on this charge in 2017 than in 2013 (403 and 83, respectively).

(If someone is arrested on multiple marijuana charges, only the most serious charge is listed in the data.)

In recent months, dozens of arrests have been made at “pop up events” that have emerged in the city in response to the “gifting” language in the law. Typically, vendors will sell unrelated products such as juices or shirts, and “gift” cannabis to those customers for free. But since the overall transactions require remuneration in the form of the supposedly unrelated purchases, police have said they violate city law.

That form of commerce—and the resulting arrests—would almost certainly diminish significantly if people could legally buy cannabis directly from licensed stores.

Local legislators have proposed both regulated sales and social use over the last few years, but Congress has exerted its influence multiple times to prevent such measures from moving forward.

“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 in response to these latest numbers. “It’s absurd that despite legalization in the District, MPD continues to make such arrests. As former MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said years ago, ‘All those arrests do is make people hate us.’”

Racial Disparity in Arrests

The out-of-whack percentage of African Americans arrested in the District of Columbia for marijuana violations has been the subject of scrutiny for years now. The U.S. Census Bureau puts the African American population of the District at 47 percent and white (non-Hispanic) at 37 percent. But as this set of data reveals, for every 10 people arrested for a marijuana violation, nine of them are black.

In 2016, the numbers seemed to be improving slightly, with the share of African American cannabis arrests down 3.5 percentage points, but in 2017, the numbers rose slightly to return to 91 percent of arrests. Non-Hispanic Whites represented only 4 percent of arrests. In real numbers, 794 people coded “black” by the arresting officer were arrested in 2017, while only 35 people coded “white” but not “Hispanic” were arrested.

Arrest Year Black       White
(non-Hispanic)
Hispanic Asian Other
2012 89.34% 4.50% 3.40% 0.44% 2.31%
2013 90.19% 5.15% 3.44% 0.34% 0.88%
2014 90.64% 4.68% 2.77% 0.24% 1.67%
2015 92.04% 2.87% 3.82% 0.32% 0.96%
2016 88.56% 3.13% 6.90% 0.16% 1.25%
2017 90.85% 4.00% 4.00% 0.34% 0.80%

(A note on the data: Race is not recorded for arrests of juveniles. D.C. police say, “Race and ethnicity data are based on officer observation, which may or may not be accurate.”)

“The war on drugs has always been a war on people, particularly on people of color,” said Boecker. “Initiative 71 was passed by voters in large part to eliminate racial disparities in marijuana arrests, but due to racial bias and uneven enforcement, four years later Black men continue to be overwhelmingly targeted for arrests. This is unacceptable and must stop. Marijuana arrests do not advance public health or safety, and violate the will of the voters.”

Age of Those Arrested

From 2012-2017, the age of those arrested for marijuana infractions has stayed relatively steady. The one exception is the percentage of arrests for those under 21, which in 2016 jumped 8 percentage points, to 23 percent of those arrested, the highest year in this data set. In 2017, the percentage fell to 19.8 percent, which is still higher than 2013-15 numbers.

The numbers of those 21-29 arrested, by far the age group with the most arrests each year, fell and rose in tandem with these fluctuations in the younger cohort (down 5 percent in 2016, then back up a couple of points in 2017).

Women and Weed

Arrests of women for marijuana-related incidents leveled off in 2017, after four years of annual decreases. In 2012, women made up 12.6 percent of arrests. By 2016, that number had fallen to 7.1 percent (52 arrests). In 2017, 64 women were arrested — only 7.3 percent of total arrests.

Federal and Local Policies Both to Blame, Activists Say

Overall the new police data shows that while legalization of low-level possession and home cultivation in D.C. has driven a significant decline in marijuana arrests overall, discriminatory enforcement continues and issues related to the lack of a legal supply chain persist.

“I’m alarmed that D.C. had nearly 1,000 marijuana arrests last year three years after citizens overwhelming voted to legalize adult use of cannabis,” Adam Eidinger of DCMJ, the group that successfully campaigned for 2014’s legalization measure, told Marijuana Moment.

In addition to the congressional regulatory blockade, he pointed to the city’s own ban on public cannabis consumption as being partially at fault for the recent uptick in marijuana arrests.

“As a result people in public housing that does not allow cannabis use choose to consume outside risking arrest rather than smoke in their homes and risk eviction,” Eidinger said. “This catch 22 situation for cannabis users, including people carrying a medical card from the D.C. government, is the policy leading to more arrests.”

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Polly has been creating print, web and video content for a couple of decades now. Recent roles include serving as writer/producer at The Denver Post's Cannabist vertical, and writing content for cannabis businesses.

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Trade Associations And Civil Rights Groups Send Mixed Messages On Marijuana Banking To Senate

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A coalition of trade associations sent a letter to Senate Banking Committee leadership on Thursday, urging a vote on legislation to protect financial institutions that service state-legal marijuana businesses.

But those senators are also feeling pressure from leading civil rights groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, which sent an earlier letter insisting that they not allow cannabis banking to detract from more comprehensive reform that addresses social equity.

The organizations involved in the latest letter—including the American Bankers Association and Credit Union National Association—said that advancing the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act or similar legislation is pivotal to ensuring that stakeholders receive needed clarity and are shielded from being penalized by federal regulators.

The letter, addressed to Banking Chair Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-OH), emphasized the bipartisan nature of the House passage of the bill in September and the growing movement at the state level to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes.

“Our organizations support an initial legislative step that allows the legal cannabis industry into the banking system,” the groups, which also include the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, International Council of Shopping Centers and National Association of REALTORS, wrote. “Ultimately, protecting law-abiding financial institutions and ancillary businesses from their currently untenable position and addressing increasing public safety concerns.”

As more states reform their marijuana laws, however, “distribution, sale, possession, research, transaction, housing, employment, and a broader landscape of cannabis is becoming increasingly problematic” for stakeholders under federal prohibition.

“Ultimately, this creates more legal and security concerns that impact the operations and safety of businesses and consumers,” they said. “Finally, the lack of an available safe harbor for cannabis will continue to challenge the full adoption and deployment of the legal hemp and CBD products market in the U.S. due to the inextricable link between hemp and cannabis.”

“To resolve this, we urge the Committee to vote on the SAFE Banking Act or similar measures. Such measures are meant to create a safe harbor for depository institutions that provide a financial product or service to businesses in a state permitting the use of cannabis. A safe harbor will enable law enforcement and states to effectively monitor and regulate businesses while simultaneously bringing billions into the regulated banking sector.”

The letter, also signed by Americans for Prosperity and R Street, recognizes that creating a federal regulatory scheme for marijuana will take time but says that the SAFE Banking Act represents “a critical first step to ensure that legal cannabis marketplaces are safe, legal, and transparent.”

Crapo has said that he’s interested in holding a vote on resolving the cannabis banking issue in his panel before the year’s end, but so far nothing has been scheduled. The chairman told Marijuana Moment in earlier interviews that there are several changes to the House-passed bill that he’d like to see but that he’s worried impeachment proceedings against the president will interfere with plans to hold a vote.

All that said, pressure from civil rights advocacy groups could complicate congressional efforts to get the banking bill approved. In October, several organizations including the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch and Center for American Progress sent a letter to Senate leadership, as well as Crapo and Brown, demanding that “marijuana legislation considered in the Senate include provisions that will guarantee equity in the industry.”

The letter, which doesn’t appear to have been previously reported and was obtained by Marijuana Moment, states that while the coalition agrees the SAFE Banking Act “is an incremental step toward rolling back the federal prohibition of marijuana, it fails to help communities that have been historically and disproportionately devastated by United States’ punitive drug laws.”

“As the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs considers similar legislation, we insist that the legislation include provisions that ensure equity in the marijuana industry by creating opportunities for individuals who have been prohibited from this growing business either by legal or financial means,” the letter, which was also signed by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and National Association of Social Workers, states.

“Indeed, this Congress has shown it understands the economic impact of legalization. But while progress on the business side of legalization is promising, it is not sufficient. Federal marijuana legislation must be comprehensive and lead with equity, addressing past and current harms to communities of color and low-income communities who bore the brunt of the failed war on drugs. We demand that any marijuana reform or legalization bill considered by the Senate] include robust provisions addressing equity. More than simply adding equity provisions to bills that address industry concerns, we need comprehensive reform that deschedules marijuana and addresses the inequities and harms continually inflicted by the failed war on drugs.”

In other words, the groups are insisting on broad reform prior to a vote on a bill viewed as largely beneficial to the cannabis industry—similar to a request they made of House members prior to the legislation’s passage in the chamber.

Read the marijuana banking letters from the trade associations and civil rights groups below:

Industry SAFE Senate Bankin… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Senate Leadership Letter Re… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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GOP Congressman Knocks His Party For Failing To Pass Marijuana Reform

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A Republican congressman says that whichever party is responsible for passing federal marijuana reform will “instantly” shoot up in the polls, while lamenting the fact that the GOP failed to do so when they controlled the House.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), a vocal advocate for hemp, was asked by Fox Business host Kennedy on Wednesday whether cannabis should be rescheduled under federal law.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The first party that does this—and I don’t understand why either party won’t do it—is going instantly gain 10 points in the general poll on which party versus the other.”

“We should have done it when we were in the majority,” he added. “The liberals should be asking Pelosi why she hasn’t put it on the floor yet.”

The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation last month to end federal marijuana prohibition, but it hasn’t yet been scheduled for floor action.

Massie made similar points during an interview with Marijuana Moment earlier this year, stating that if Republicans had advanced states’ rights-focused marijuana legislation, “I think we might still be in the majority.”

Of course, while Massie has supported legislation to allow states to set their own cannabis policies without federal intervention, as well as other more modest reform measures such as protecting banks that service marijuana businesses, he’s so far declined to cosponsor any bills that seek to deschedule cannabis.

The congressman has also expressed interest in changing federal gun control laws to allow cannabis consumers to purchase firearms.

Though it’s not clear exactly how much of a boost either party would get by passing a marijuana reform bill, a Pew poll released last month does show that there’s majority support for legalization among those who lean Republican (55 percent) as well those who lean Democratic (78 percent).

Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications

Photo courtesy of YouTube/Rep. Massie.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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State Department Warns Travelers About Flying With Cannabis Oil Internationally

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The U.S. State Department is warning international holiday travelers that while hemp-derived CBD might be legal in the U.S., it can land you in trouble if you take it certain places abroad.

“Make sure your gift isn’t a fa la la la la la la la la fail,” the department said in a tweet on Thursday. “Bringing along gifts like drones, CBD oils, and firearms can land you in trouble in foreign countries. Research what is and isn’t allowed before you travel.”

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

MLB Officially Removes Marijuana From Banned Substances List For Baseball Players

Photo courtesy of Flickr/DHS.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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