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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

UN Committee Unexpectedly Withholds Marijuana Scheduling Recommendations

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On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) was expected to make recommendations about the international legal status of marijuana, which reform advocates hoped would include a call to deschedule the plant and free up member countries to pursue legalization.

But in a surprise twist, a representative from the organization announced that WHO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, would be temporarily withholding the results of its cannabis assessment, even as it released recommendations on an opioid painkiller and synthetic cannabinoids. The marijuana recommendations are now expected to come out in January.

Earlier this year, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) released a pre-review of marijuana that included several positive, evidentiary findings. Cannabis has never caused a fatal overdose, the committee said, and research demonstrates that ingredients in the plant can effectively treat pain and improve sleep, for example.

The pre-review results prompted a more in-depth critical review, one of the final stages before the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) makes a determination about whether marijuana should remain in the most restrictive international drug classification. But on Friday, as observers anxiously awaited that determination, WHO pumped the brakes. The committee said it needed more time “for clearance reasons,” according to the International Drug Policy Consortium.

“This decision to withhold the results of the critical review of cannabis appears to be politically motivated,” Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran and legalization advocate who has pushed for international reform, said in a press release.

“The WHO has been answering many questions about cannabis legalization, which is not within their mandate. I hope the WHO shows courage and stands behind their work on cannabis, findings we expect to be positive based upon recent WHO statements and their other actions today.”

Those other actions include recommending that the opioid painkiller tramadol should not be scheduled under international treaties out of concern that such restrictions would limit access and hurt patients. In August, the committee made a similar recommendation about pure cannabidiol, or CBD, a component of marijuana.

While the critical review of marijuana itself has been postponed, the committee’s recommendations for its international scheduling are still expected to go up for a vote in the CND in March. If the committee does decide to recommend that cannabis be removed from international control, that would have wide-ranging implications for the reform efforts around the world.

In the U.S., the federal government has routinely cited obligations under international treaties to which it is a party as reasons to continue to ban marijuana and its derivatives. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration said in May that CBD doesn’t meet the criteria for federal scheduling at all, but that international treaties obliged it to recommend rescheduling to Schedule V.

“If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or if the international controls on CBD change in the future, this recommendation will need to be promptly revisited,” the agency said.

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Where Trump’s Pick For Attorney General Stands On Drug Policy

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President Donald Trump said on Friday that he plans to nominate William Barr to replace Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.

Barr, who previously served in the position under President George H. W. Bush’s administration, seems less openly hostile to marijuana compared to other potential nominees whose names were floated—like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who pledged to crack down on state-legal cannabis activity during his failed 2016 presidential bid.

That said, he developed a reputation as anti-drug while overseeing harsh enforcement policies under Bush.

The prospective nominee seems to share a worldview with the late president under whom he served. Bush called for “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors” to combat drug use and dramatically increased the federal drug control budget to accomplish that goal. In 1992, Barr sanctioned a report that made the “case for more incarceration” as a means to reduce violent crime.

Barr wrote a letter explaining why he was releasing the report, which has now resurfaced as observers attempt to gauge how he will approach drug policy in the 21st century.

“[T]here is no better way to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets,” he wrote. “Of course, we cannot incapacitate these criminals unless we build sufficient prison and jail space to house them.”

“Revolving-door justice resulting from inadequate prison and jail space breeds disrespect for the law and places our citizens at risk, unnecessarily, of becoming victims of violent crime.”

He also wrote a letter to lawmakers in 2015 defending the criminal justice system—including mandatory minimum sentences—and encouraging Congress not to bring up a sentencing reform bill.

“It’s hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one,” Michael Collins, director of national drug affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. “Nominating Barr totally undermines Trump’s recent endorsement of sentencing reform.”

“The vast majority of Americans believe the war on drugs needs to be replaced with a health-centered approach. It is critically important that the next Attorney General be committed to defending basic rights and moving away from failed drug war policies. William Barr is a disastrous choice.”

Another window into Barr’s criminal justice perspective comes from 1989, when he wrote a Justice Department memo that authorized the FBI to apprehend suspected fugitives living in other countries and extradite them to the U.S. without first getting permission from the country. The intent of the memo seemed to be to enable the U.S. to more easily capture international drug traffickers.

In 2002, Barr compared drug trafficking to terrorism and described the drug war as the “biggest frustration” he faced under Bush. The administration “did a very good job putting in place the building blocks for intelligence building and international cooperation, but we never tightened the noose,” he said.

Interestingly, as The Washington Post reported, Barr would be heading up a department where his daughter, Mary Daly, also works. Daly is the director of opioid enforcement and prevention efforts in the deputy attorney general’s office, and she’s established herself as an advocate for tougher criminal enforcement aimed at driving out the opioid epidemic.

Today’s drug policy landscape is a lot different than it was in the early 1990s, though, and it’s yet to be seen how Barr, if confirmed by the Senate, will navigate conflicting state and federal marijuana laws. He’ll also be inheriting a Justice Department that no longer operates under an Obama-era policy of general non-intervention, after Sessions moved this year to rescind the so-called Cole memo that provided guidance on federal cannabis enforcement.

But for advocates, at least it’s not the guy who said “good people don’t smoke marijuana” anymore and it won’t be one who campaigned for president saying he’d enforce federal prohibition in legal states, either.

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Marijuana Bills Are Already Being Pre-Filed For 2019 Legislative Sessions

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If you thought 2018 was a big year for marijuana, gear up for 2019. Before the next legislative session has even started, lawmakers in at least four states have already pre-filed a wide range of cannabis reform bills.

In Missouri, where voters approved a medical marijuana initiative during last month’s midterm election, a state lawmaker has already drafted a piece of legislation that would legalize cannabis for adult-use—though it would not establish a retail sales system. Instead, adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.

At least one marijuana decriminalization bill will be on the table in Virginia next year. The legislation would reduce the penalty for simple possession from a misdemeanor offense punishable by a maximum of a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail to a civil penalty punishable by a $50 fine for first-time offenders, $100 for second-time offenders and $250 for subsequent offenses.


Marijuana Moment is currently tracking more than 900 cannabis bills in state legislatures and Congress. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Down in Texas, lawmakers in the state House and Senate have already pre-filed no fewer than 12 marijuana-related bills. The legislative proposals range from constitutional amendments to fully legalize and regulate cannabis to simple decriminalization policies to lessen penalties for low-level possession.

Finally, in Nevada, where cannabis is legal for adults, lawmakers have introduced a flurry of what are called “bill draft requests” that relate to marijuana. Proposals to revise cannabis tax policies, create a state bank that could potentially service the legal industry and regulate hemp cultivation—among several others—could be taken up by the state legislature next year.

While the pre-filing process has already started in most states, there’s still time and it’s possible that more cannabis legislation will be introduced for consideration in coming days and weeks prior to the formal start of 2019 legislative sessions.

Missouri Lawmaker Files Marijuana Legalization Bill After Voters Approve Medical Cannabis

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