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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.

Politics

Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State

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Oregon officials finalized a series of analyses this week on separate ballot measures to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use and decriminalize drugs while investing in substance misuse treatment.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission determined that the decriminalization initiative would reduce felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug possession by 91 percent, and that reduction would be “substantial for all racial groups, ranging from 82.9% for Asian Oregonians to approximately 94% for Native American and Black Oregonians.”

Overall, the policy change would result in a 95 percent drop in racial disparities for possession arrests, the panel projects.

“The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests.”

The conviction estimate was included in the panel’s draft analysis first released last month, but the final version was expanded to include the arrest data as well. The new document also notes that “disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others”—a point that activists hoped the panel would include.

That said, the commission noted it “lacks sufficient or appropriate data in each of these areas and therefore cannot provide estimates for these other stages.”

The new report, published on Wednesday, cites research indicating that the resulting “drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others.”

The decriminalization proposal was the first ballot initiative in the state’s history to receive a report on the racial justice implications of its provisions under a little-utilized procedure where lawmakers can request such an analysis.

This information will be included in a voter pamphlet as a factual statement from the secretary of state’s office.

“Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more,” Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign, said in a press release.

Both the psilocybin therapy and drug decriminalization measures also received final explanatory statements and fiscal impact statements this week.

For the therapeutic psilocybin legalization initiative, the Financial Estimate Committee said that it projects the measure will have an impact of $5.4 million from the general fund during the two-year development period. After the program is established, it will cost $3.1 million annually, “which will be covered by the fees and tax funds for the administration and enforcement of the Act.”

The explanatory statement says the measure “directs the Oregon Health Authority to regulate the manufacture, delivery, purchase, and consumption of psilocybin, a psychoactive component found in certain mushrooms, at licensed psilocybin service centers” and that a “person would be allowed to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin only at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”

It also describes an initial two-year development period during which officials will research and make recommendations on “the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin to treat mental health conditions,” after which time the new law will allow “a client who is at least 21 years of age to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”

Sam Chapman, campaign manager for the psilocybin initiative, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “satisfied with the explanatory statement and believe it captures the thoughtful approach we took that led to psilocybin therapy being on the ballot this November.”

“Specifically, we were happy to see the regulations and safeguards that are built into the measure highlighted in the explanatory statement,” he said. “We also believe that the fiscal committee saw and respected our approach to keep the psilocybin therapy program revenue neutral once up and running.”

The drug possession decriminalization measure is expected to cost $57 million annually, according to state officials, but it will be covered by marijuana tax revenue, which is “estimated at $61.1 million in 2019-21 and $182.4 million in 2021-23” and would therefore be “sufficient to meet this requirement.” Cannabis revenue to cities and counties would be reduced under the measure.

The reform would also save money through reduced drug enforcement. “These savings are estimated at $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23,” the analysis says. “This will reduce revenue transferred from the Department of Corrections for local government community corrections by $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23. The savings are expected to increase beyond the 2021-23 biennium.”

The initiative “mandates the establishment of at least one addiction recovery center in each existing coordinated care organization service area in the state,” the separate explanatory statement says, and describes how they would be funded with marijuana tax revenue.

“The measure eliminates criminal penalties for possession of specified quantities of controlled substances by adults and juveniles,” it says. “Instead, possession of these specified quantities of controlled substances becomes a non-criminal Class E violation for which the maximum punishment is a $100 fine or completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.”

Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country: 

A measure to effectively decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics has officially qualified for the November ballot in Washington, D.C.

Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last month.

Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.

Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group, hopes are dashed.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.

Read the full state analysis of the Oregon drug decriminalization and psilocybin therapy measures below:

Oregon Drug Decrim And Psil… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

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Top White House Official Blasts Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ Coronavirus Bill

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Vice President Mike Pence’s top staffer on Thursday joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing House Democrats for including marijuana banking provisions to the chamber’s latest coronavirus relief bill.

Marc Short, who is Pence’s chief of staff and previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, discussed the COVID-19 legislation during an interview with Fox Business, and he described the Democratic proposal as a “liberal wish list” with “all sorts of things totally unrelated to coronavirus.”

“In one instance they have provided guarantees for banking access for marijuana growers,” Short said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus.”

He’s referring to language that was inserted from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to protect financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.

Numerous Republicans—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—have been critical of the provision, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.

The majority leader took a shot at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) this week after she defended the inclusion of the banking language and called marijuana a “proven” therapy.

Democrats, for their part, have made the case that granting cannabis businesses with access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview this week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.

“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.

While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.

The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.

Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.

In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.

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USDA Approves Hemp Plan For Maryland And One More Indian Tribe

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved hemp regulatory plans for Maryland and the Lower Sioux Indian Community on Thursday.

With this latest development, the total number of approved plans across states, territories and tribes is 55.

USDA has been signing off on hemp proposals on a rolling basis over the past year. Last month, it accepted plans from Minnesota, Tennessee and Puerto Rico.

“USDA continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes,” the agency said in a notice.

While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.

USDA announced in February that it will temporarily lift two provisions that the industry viewed as problematic. Those policies primarily concern testing and disposal requirements. The department declined to revise the THC limit, however, arguing that it’s a statutory matter that can’t be dealt with administratively.

Last week, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to the head of USDA, expressing concern that testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said on several occasions that the Drug Enforcement Administration influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.

State agriculture departments and a hemp industry association also wrote to Congress and USDA this week, seeking an extension of the 2014 Farm Bill pilot program for hemp to give states more time to develop regulatory plans to submit to the agency.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still in the process of developing regulations for CBD. It sent an update on its progress to Congress in March, explaining that the agency is actively exploring pathways to allow for the marketing of the cannabis compound as a dietary supplement and is developing enforcement discretion guidance.

An FDA public comment period was reopened indefinitely for individuals to submit feedback on CBD regulations.

Last month, the White House finalized a review of FDA CBD and cannabis research protocols, but it’s unclear when or if the document will be released to the public.

Also last month, FDA submitted a report to Congress on the state of the CBD marketplace, and the document outlines studies the agency has performed on the contents and quality of cannabis-derived products that it has tested over the past six years.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.

However, USDA has previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. While the department initially said it would not reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.

Two members of Congress representing New York also wrote a letter to Perdue in June, asking that the agency extend access to that program to hemp farmers.

Hemp farmers approved to produce the crop do stand to benefit from other federal loan programs, however. The department recently released guidelines for processing loans for the industry.

Senators Push USDA To Change Restrictive Hemp Regulations

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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