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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

Trump Campaign Orders Mississippi Medical Marijuana Activists To Cease Using President’s Name

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President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has issued a cease and desist order against a Mississippi medical marijuana legalization campaign, claiming “unauthorized and misleading representation” of the president’s position on the reform initiative in one of its mailers—even though he has on multiple occasions spoken favorably on camera about medical cannabis.

Michael Glassner, chief operating officer of Donald J. Trump for President Inc., sent a letter to Mississippians for Compassionate Care (MCC), demanding that they stop distributing campaign materials touting the president’s past remarks.

While the mailer and the envelope it’s being sent in don’t at any point state that Trump has specifically endorsed Initiative 65, they encourage voters to “join President Trump and 3 out of 4 Mississippi Republicans who support medical marijuana” and point out that he’s voiced “complete support for medical marijuana.”

It is indeed the case that the president has, on several occasions, stated that he’s in favor of medical cannabis reform.

For example, while he said in 2015 that Colorado has “a lot of problems going on right now” with its recreational marijuana program, medical cannabis “is another thing.”

“I think medical marijuana, 100 percent,” he said.

Beyond stating his personal support for medical cannabis, Trump has said multiple times that he personally knows people who have benefited from using it.

“I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I mean I think so,” he said at a 2015 rally in Nevada. “I know people that are very, very sick and for whatever reason, the marijuana really helps them.”

“I know people that have serious problems and they did that and it really does help them,” he said In a 2016 interview on Fox News.

But the president’s reelection campaign evidently takes issue with the state cannabis effort using his on-camera quotes.

“President Trump has never expressed support for Initiative 65, and his campaign demands that you immediately cease and desist all activities using the President’s name, image or likeness in support of the legalization of medical marijuana in Mississippi,” Glassner wrote in the October 12 letter, which was first reported by Y’all Politics.

“The President’s campaign strongly believes in and encourages your organization’s fundamental right to engage in speech on issues of public importance, but this is not about that,” he said. “You are misleadingly using the President’s name in support of your own agenda without authorization or justification.”

But MCC is defending the mailers, which also feature endorsements from multiple Republican legislators in the state.

“President Trump has clearly stated on multiple occasions that he supports medical marijuana. That is all that we’ve shared—the truth,” MCC Communications Director Jamie Grantham said in a press release. “The politicians and bureaucrats behind Mississippi Horizon clearly orchestrated this letter from the Trump campaign. It’s just the latest example of the lengths to which they will go to prevent any form of medical marijuana in Mississippi.”

“President Trump himself has said he supports medical marijuana and is letting the states decide,” she said. “Initiative 65 is the only plan on the ballot that will create an actual medical marijuana program in Mississippi.”

While Trump has made his views on medical cannabis clear—and he’s expressed support for a states’ right approach to marijuana policy—he’s also on several occasions released signing statements on spending legislation stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore a long-standing rider that prohibits the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs.

He also proposed deleting the rider altogether in multiple annual budget proposals to Congress, though President Obama did the same thing when he was in office.

The Mississippi mailer neglected to acknowledge those nuances, however.

“For the last two years, he has signed legislation offered by Republican Senators to prevent his Department of Justice from prosecuting medical marijuana businesses in states that have legalized its use,” it states.

“The Trump campaign’s decision in this matter is a further indication that this administration is unwilling to either embrace or act upon marijuana policy reform,’ Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “For four years, this administration has been silent at best and hostile at worst when it comes to marijuana policy, and there is no indication that they would change going forward if given the opportunity.”

“At the end of the day, this is just bad politics,” he said.

A Quinnipiac poll found last year that 93 percent of Americans support medical marijuana, including 86 percent of Republicans, 96 percent of Democrats and 96 percent of independents—raising questions about why the president’s reelection campaign chose to take the proactive step of distancing their candidate from such an overwhelmingly popular issue that enjoys supermajority backing across partisan lines.

Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, favors legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing cannabis possession more broadly, expunging prior convictions, modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law and letting states set their own policies. That said, he helped craft some of the nation’s most infamously punitive anti-drug laws during his time in the Senate—a record that the Trump campaign has seized on.

“More than 81 percent of Mississippians agree with President Trump in supporting medical marijuana for people who are suffering,” Grantham said, referencing a poll released last month. “Voters see through the actions of politicians who failed to act on this issue and who are now trying to block this initiative. 65A lets politicians decide. More than 228,000 Mississippians signed petitions for Initiative 65 which lets doctors and patients decide.”

The medical cannabis reform campaign has faced a series of obstacles before and after qualifying for the state’s November ballot.

The primary complication for advocates is the fact that two competing initiatives will appear alongside each other on the ballot. After MCC qualified their measure, the legislature approved an alternative that is viewed as more restrictive. The result is a muddled ballot that requires voters to answer a two-step series of questions—and that potential confusion threatens to jeopardize the activist-led proposal.

More recently, the Mississippi State Medical Association and American Medical Association have also contributed to the opposition, circulating a sample ballot that instructs voters on how to reject Initiative 65.

Last week, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed legislation that amends state law to allow people to obtain marijuana-derived medications that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He also reiterated his opposition to broader medical cannabis reform, stating that he’s “against efforts to make marijuana mainstream.”

If the campaign’s measure passes, it would allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.

In June, lawmakers introduced yet another medical cannabis alternative resolution that would’ve similarly posed a threat to the activist-driven reform initiative. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.

Read the Trump campaign’s cease and desist letter below: 

Trump Cease and Desist To M… by Marijuana Moment

Kamala Harris Touts ‘Commitment’ To Marijuana Decriminalization And Expungements Under Biden Administration

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New Jersey Voters Strongly Back Marijuana Legalization And Cannabis Pardons, New Poll Finds

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Support for a referendum to legalize marijuana in New Jersey remains strong, according to a new poll released on Tuesday. And what’s more, voters want Gov. Phil Murphy (D) to go a step further by pardoning people with low-level cannabis convictions.

The survey, which is the fourth and final from the law firm Brach Eichler LLC this election cycle, shows that 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of the reform proposal that will appear on the state’s November ballot. Just 29 percent are opposed to the policy change and six percent remain undecided.

These results are statistically consistent with the prior three polls from the firm as well as one from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which similarly found roughly two to one support for the measure. A separate survey released last week by Stockton University showed three to one support for legalizing cannabis among New Jersey voters.

As has historically been the case, Democrats are most likely to back legalization (70 percent), followed by independents (62 percent) and Republicans (52 percent).

But beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, New Jersey voters are also strongly in favor of having the governor use his clemency powers for those previously convicted over low-level marijuana offenses. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said Murphy should grant those individuals pardons, compared to 21 percent who are against it and 11 percent who are unsure.

For the first time since the firm starting polling on cannabis issues this year, a majority of voters (51 percent) also said that prior marijuana records of all levels of convictions, rather than just simple possession, should be expunged.

“The Brach Eichler Cannabis Poll, which has consistently reported overwhelming support for legalizing cannabis, today again confirms that New Jersey voters support this long overdue change by a significant margin,” Charles Gormally, co-chair of the firm’s cannabis practice, said in a press release. “After election day it is imperative that our legislature move to create the most efficient, safe and regulated marketplace to capture the tri-state cannabis business.”

The survey, which involved interviews with 500 registered voters from October 5-13 and has a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points, also asked about the policy of local control for the marijuana market. Forty-seven percent said that individual jurisdictions should be allowed to ban cannabis businesses from operating in their area, compared to 39 percent who are opposed to the proposal and 14 percent who are undecided.

“It is clear that home rule is a topic that needs to be more fully addressed,” Gormally said. “Cannabis businesses are going to need an immediate understanding of local politics and community issues before embarking on plans for certain parts of New Jersey.”

Five states have recreational or medical marijuana legalization on the ballot this election, and polling broadly indicates that the measures will be successful.

Two recent surveys of Arizona voters show growing majority support for an initiative to legalize adult-use cannabis.

Montana voters seem poised to approve a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives next month, according to a poll released last week.

In South Dakota, polling signals that voters will approve separate initiatives to allow both medical and recreational cannabis.

A survey of Mississippi voters that was released in September found that an activist-led measure to legalize medical marijuana “stands a strong chance of passage.”

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, putting legalization to voters as a referendum question was the result of the legislature’s failure to pass reform legislation last session.

Murphy, the governor, has been a vocal advocate for approving the measure.

He said during a virtual fundraiser with the pro-legalization NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month that the state “can’t fail” at enacting the policy change this round. A top lawmaker also spoke at the event and said an enabling and regulatory bill was being prepared in anticipation of a favorable vote, and that it could be voted on by the legislature as soon as the first week of November.

The governor also recently recorded a video ad that was released by the reform group, outlining why he’s embraced the policy change. Murphy said that the ongoing criminalization of cannabis in New Jersey wastes taxpayer dollars, and he emphasized that prohibition is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.

Murphy similarly said in a recent interview that the marijuana reform proposal prioritizes social justice.

“I wish we could have gotten it done through a legislative process,” he said at the time, referencing lawmakers’ inability to advance a legalization bill last session. “We just couldn’t find the last few votes, so it’s on the referendum. I’m strongly supporting it—first and foremost for social justice reasons.”

Last month, Murphy also called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

“Legalization would right those wrongs while also spurring massive economic development opportunities, job creation, and new tax revenue,” the governor wrote. “Now, we have the opportunity to get this done and finally legalize adult-use marijuana here in the Garden State, and I need your help to make it happen.”

He said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.

The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”

NJ CAN 2020, one of two campaign committees working to pass the cannabis referendum, released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads last week, after having published one prior ad. Meanwhile, campaign finance records compiled  show that legal marijuana supporters are out-raising opponents by a ratio of nearly 130:1.

In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time, though it hasn’t advance in the Senate.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Kamala Harris Touts ‘Commitment’ To Marijuana Decriminalization And Expungements Under Biden Administration

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Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (D-CA) again pledged in a new interview that decriminalizing marijuana would be an administrative priority if she and Joe Biden are elected.

Speaking to The Grio on Saturday, the senator discussed the would-be Democratic administration’s criminal justice agenda, contrasting it with that of President Donald Trump. She reiterated the cannabis reform would be among their policy goals.

“We have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses,” Harris said. “When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits.”

Watch Harris discuss criminal justice and marijuana reform, starting around 12:00 into the video below: 

While reform advocates have appreciated the senator’s repeated calls for cannabis reform on the campaign trail, they’ve taken issue with her tendency to refer to the drug war in the past tense—as she did here by talking about the impact the policy “had”—as though those prosecutions and enforcement disparities haven’t persisted.

In fact, recently released FBI data shows that there were 1,558,862 drug-related arrests in the U.S. last year, about a third of which were for marijuana. That amounts to a new drug bust every 20 seconds on average.

There’s also some frustration that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization—a policy not supported by the former vice president despite its popularity among Democrats.

Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.

In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”

In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.

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Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.

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