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.
(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.”
Anti-Marijuana Group Wants Campaign Finance Transparency, Kind Of
A leading anti-legalization group is cooking up a new follow-the-money tool, ostensibly to track contributions from the marijuana industry to lawmakers.
At least, that seems to be what Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) is doing with this interactive map on its website:
If you visit the page and click on a highlighted state, it brings you to a list naming select members of Congress, the district they represent and an undefined monetary “amount.”
Presumably, this is a beta version of something that SAM has been talking about for some time.
Take last year, for example. A group of 44 U.S. House members signed a letter to the chairman of a key subcommittee, asking that language restricting the Department of Justice from interfering in state marijuana programs be included in an appropriations bill. In response, SAM president Kevin Sabet announced plans to “investigate campaign contributions” of signees.
“Legalization is about making a small number of people very rich,” Sabet said in a press release. “For them, it’s all about the money.”
“The representatives who sign on to this letter will be investigated, and any ties to the pot industry lobby will be exposed. There’s a money trail behind further relaxation of federal marijuana laws, and it points to politicians who have taken money from the next big addictive industry.”
It’s admittedly difficult to follow the money using the current version of SAM’s online map, though. There are few citations showing where the group’s information is coming from, and for most states, when you click on one of the hyperlinked “amounts,” it takes you here:
For some reason, nearly every hyperlinked amount points to a URL apparently meant for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and the page only shows a 404 error message.
At least one state, Washington, seems to be mostly functional.
SAM representatives did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication, but they do appear to have slightly edited the webpage after receiving Marijuana Moment’s inquiry. The title “The Money Trail: Where Big Pot Meets Big Politics” was added above the map, and the phrase “(Work In Progress)” was appended to all sub-pages.
This story will be updated if the organization sends comment.
What SAM appears to be interested in accomplishing is drawing links between campaign contributions from cannabis industry interests and politicians who’ve come to embrace marijuana reform. Or in other words, campaign finance transparency.
Missing from that agenda, though, is disclosure of SAM’s own finances—a subject of particular interest to advocates and reporters following the marijuana legalization debate.
Sabet touted the group’s financial expansion over the past two years in a recent curriculum vitae (not linked here, as it appears to reveal his personal phone number). A summary of Sabet’s work at SAM noted that the 12-person organization has a $1 million budget, with $4.5 million in reserve.
The group also recently opened a new office in Manhattan.
When this reporter asked Sabet about financial contributions to SAM in a 2016 interview, he emphasized the role of grassroots, individual contributions. There is limited public information available about SAM’s financing.
An FAQ published on SAM’s website states:
“SAM is funded by small family foundations (with no interest in the opioid, tobacco, alcohol, or prison industries) and individuals affected by drug use and its consequences. SAM does not receive a dollar from the opioid, pharmaceutical, alcohol, or tobacco industries – unlike some pro-legalization groups like Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), which takes money from Big Tobacco.”
Another potential source of ongoing funding may be past supporter Julie Schauer, a retired art professor who donated at least $1.3 million to SAM Action’s efforts to defeat 2016 marijuana ballot initiatives in California and other states.
It remains to be seen when SAM will officially launch its online campaign donation tracking tool and what its impact will be.
Marijuana Emerges As Key Issue In Nevada U.S. Senate Race
This year’s U.S. Senate race in Nevada has become one of the most watched of the cycle, and marijuana is increasingly a central issue as Congresswoman Jacky Rosen (D) ramps up her challenge to incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R).
During the campaign, Rosen has consistently drawn attention to what she says is Heller’s lack of pushback against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s moves to rescind protections for state cannabis laws.
Rosen herself had written to Sessions in January, urging him to reverse his decision to end Obama-era guidance on the issue — known as the Cole Memorandum — that generally allowed states the freedom to enact legalization and regulate their own cannabis industries without federal interference.
ICYMI: I sent a letter to AG Jeff Sessions demanding @DeptofJustice end its marijuana crackdown. The DOJ shouldn’t interfere with states' rights and halt the progress that has been made on medical and recreational marijuana use in Nevada. pic.twitter.com/UFFAHi6F3W
— Rep. Jacky Rosen (@RepJackyRosen) January 24, 2018
Meanwhile, Heller also made a statement in response to Session’s decision: “Knowing Attorney General Sessions’ deference to states’ rights, I strongly encourage the DOJ to meet with Governor Sandoval and Attorney General Laxalt to discuss the implications of changes to federal marijuana enforcement policy. I also urge the DOJ to work with the congressional delegations from states like Nevada that have legalized marijuana as they review and navigate the new policy.”
However, as Rosen pointed out in January, Heller is the only Republican senator up for re-election this year who’s both from an adult use cannabis state and also voted to confirm Sessions as attorney general.
— Jacky Rosen (@RosenforNevada) January 6, 2018
On various counts, Rosen has vocalized her support for legal marijuana — citing benefits like job creation and tax revenue — as well as her commitment to protecting state cannabis industries from federal interference, all while simultaneously attacking Heller for his relative passivity on the issue.
Senator Heller stood on the sidelines while Jeff Sessions attacked our marijuana industry.
— Jacky Rosen (@RosenforNevada) August 7, 2018
In addition to public commentary, Rosen has taken a stand by cosponsoring several congressional bills relating to cannabis, including the STATES Act to strengthen states’ rights on marijuana, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018, the SAFE Act of 2017 to secure banking for the cannabis industry and the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, as well as legislation to ensure tax fairness for cannabis businesses and to remove roadblocks to marijuana research.
“Nevada voters chose to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, and states like Nevada have shown that allowing responsible adults to purchase marijuana legally supports our state budget, creates new jobs and businesses, and drives our economy instead of making our broken criminal justice system worse,” Rosen said in a press release about signing on to the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act. “I believe it’s time to end the federal prohibition on marijuana, start regulating this product like alcohol, and get rid of barriers for states like ours where voters have made this decision to move forward.”
Nevada's marijuana industry has created thousands of jobs and continues to exceed revenue projections. In the Senate, I'll keep fighting to support these workers and protect these businesses from federal interference. https://t.co/iOpOmOXf1V
— Jacky Rosen (@RosenforNevada) July 27, 2018
Though publicly less vehement on the issue than Rosen is, Heller has cosponsored a handful of cannabis bills during his time in the Senate, namely the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015 and the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2015.
But he has not signed onto the CARERS Act or the banking bill in their current iterations during the 115th Congress.
Though Heller has discussed cannabis under the umbrella of states’ rights, in 2007, as a House member, he voted against an amendment shielding state medical marijuana laws from federal interference.
By 2015, Heller made a statement that “the time has come for the federal government to stop impeding the doctor-patient relationship in states that have decided their own medical marijuana policies.”
Meanwhile, NORML gave Heller a B grade in its congressional scorecard last year. Rosen will receive an A in the organization’s forthcoming analysis of the current Congress, and Heller is being downgraded to a C for “not representing his constituents,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment.
NORML is getting ready to release it's 2018 scorecard and challenger ratings. Lots of interesting races, like in #Nevada where @RepJackyRosen will have an A for cosponsoring the STATES AcT against @SenDeanHeller who has yet to put his name on comprehensive reform legislation.
— NORML (@NORML) August 14, 2018
Two years ago, Nevada voters approved legalization by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. This year, it could end up being the case that a contrast on cannabis issues makes the difference in what is expected to be a very close Senate race.
Marijuana Policy Project Welcomes New Executive Director
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the nation’s best-funded cannabis advocacy group, has named long-time social justice reform advocate Steve Hawkins as its next executive director.
Hawkins, who previously served as the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) and executive vice president of the NAACP, will assume responsibility for MPP’s national legalization advocacy efforts just months before a number of states vote to enact their own legal systems.
The decision was made after a “months-long candidate search that included several exceptionally qualified candidates,” MPP said in a press release.
“We are still battling the effects of decades of anti-marijuana legislation and propaganda in this country,” Hawkins told Marijuana Moment. “Huge strides have been made when it comes to setting the record straight, but our work is far from over and there is still a lot of misinformation out there that needs to be addressed.”
“Fundraising and maintaining momentum is also a core challenge for the movement, which is in some ways a victim of its own success. Thanks to the major gains it has made in recent years, many people think legalization is inevitable and that their donations are no longer needed or that they don’t need to take the time to write their elected officials. These laws are not going to change themselves and there is more need than ever for resources and engagement to support federal and state-level reform efforts.”
Hawkins’s experience running successful criminal justice reform campaigns—including a bipartisan effort to end capital punishment for juveniles during his time at the NCADP—made him an apt candidate to spearhead the fight to end prohibition, Troy Dayton, chair of MPP’s board of directors, said in a statement.
“Steve has a strong track record in the field of criminal justice reform, and he knows how to build a movement toward meaningful social change,” Dayton said. “We were not only impressed by his expertise and experience, but also his strong convictions regarding the injustice of marijuana prohibition.”
“The country is moving in the right direction on marijuana policy, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Hawkins also previously held leadership positions at Amnesty International and the Coalition for Public Safety.
He told Marijuana Moment that his three decades of experience “defending civil and human rights” has informed his belief that we should “bring an end to marijuana prohibition, which has had a hugely detrimental impact, especially to communities of color,” and that we should “replace it with a more sensible system of regulation.”
“I also believe it is critical we ensure those populations that were so negatively impacted by prohibition are able to participate in and experience the positive impacts of such a regulated system.”
At MPP, Hawkins will succeed Rob Kampia, who late last year left the organization he founded in 1995 to start a for-profit cannabis policy consulting firm called the Marijuana Leadership Campaign. Kampia’s departure was announced shortly after sexual misconduct allegations against him resurfaced amid the #MeToo movement.
Kampia offered some words of advice for the next person to occupy his former seat in a phone interview with Marijuana Moment:
“View yourself as a fundraiser who has to engage in transactional fundraising with the marijuana industry in part, and view yourself as needing to come up with a smart, strategic plan for lobbying in state legislatures rather than doing ballot initiatives where no one else is going to touch it. Do not view yourself as a spokesperson.”
Or in other words, less of a focus on talk, and more on action.
MPP named Matthew Schweich as the interim executive director while the group scouted for a replacement. Scweich will now serve as MPP’s deputy director overseeing marijuana reform initiatives in Michigan and Utah.
In a statement, MPP board member Joby Pritzker said Schweich “provided critical leadership during a challenging transition period for MPP.”
“He maintained the effectiveness of our advocacy operations, managed our fundraising efforts, and oversaw ballot initiative campaigns in multiple states, while at the same time leading our staff and assisting the board with the executive director search.”
The past few years have seen a number of leadership changeups at national pro-legalization groups.
NORML brought on Erik Altieri as executive director in 2016 after Allen St. Pierre left the organization following 11 years of service. And last year, the Drug Policy Alliance announced that it had hired Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, who worked on international and domestic drug policies issues for 13 years at the Human Rights Watch, as the new executive director to replace retiring founder Ethan Nadelmann.
While the objective at all of these groups—promoting equitable drug policy reform in the United States—has remained the same, the nature of the movement has evolved. A majority of states have now legalized cannabis for medical or recreational purposes, and though state-level reform efforts continue, calls for change at the federal level are increasingly resonant.
That is to say, these new executive directors will face a different set of challenges than their predecessors did.
Photo courtesy of Beloit College.