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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.”

Michigan Cops Lock Up 80-Year Old Grandmother For Expired Medical Marijuana Card

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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New York Doctors Can Now Recommend Medical Marijuana To Patients For Any Condition They See Fit

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As New York prepares the launch of its adult-use marijuana market, the state Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) announced on Monday a significant expansion of the existing medical cannabis program.

Now doctors will be able to issue medical marijuana recommendations to people for any condition that they feel could be treated by cannabis, rather than rely on a list of specific eligible maladies. Physicians were granted that discretion through the state’s recreational marijuana law that was enacted last year.

The expansion is being made possible as part of OCM’s new Medical Cannabis Program certification and registration system.

“It is terrific to see the Medical Cannabis Program expand so vastly with the launch of the new certification and registration program and the ability of practitioners to determine qualifying conditions as included in the MRTA,” Cannabis Control Board (CCB) Chair Tremaine Wright said in a press release.

“The new cannabis industry is taking shape as we continue to implement the MRTA and provide greater access for New Yorkers to a medicine that we’re learning more about every day,” Wright said. “We’re continuing to move forward swiftly and today’s system launch follows our achievements that already include adding whole flower medical product sales, permanently waiving $50 patient fees, and advancing home cultivation regulations, among others.”

Lat last year, CCB voted unanimously to advance a policy change to allow medical cannabis patients in the state to grow plants for personal use, another change made possible by the broad legalization law that was enacted.

In November, regulators also approved rules for the state’s cannabinoid hemp program, notably clarifying that flower from the crop can be sold but delta-8 THC products are currently prohibited from being marketed.

“Launching the new patient certification and registration system and expanding eligibility for the Medical Cannabis Program are significant steps forward for our program,” OCM Executive Director Chris Alexander said. “We will continue to implement the MRTA and ensure that all New Yorkers who can benefit from medical cannabis have the access they need to do so.”

“It’s important for New Yorkers to know that even as we shift the medical program to the OCM, your access will not be disrupted and the program will continue to expand,” he stressed.

While marijuana retailers have yet to launch in New York, the legalization law signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) already permits adults 21 and older to possess and publicly consume cannabis. Meanwhile, lawmakers in the state have been working to build upon the reform.

For example, a New York senator filed a bill last month to make it so that gay, lesbian and bisexual people can qualify as social equity applicants under the state’s marijuana law.

Sen. Jeremy Cooney (D) introduced the legislation, shortly after filing a separate bill to include transgender and non-binary people in the cannabis social equity program. He’s also behind other recent marijuana reform proposals related to cannabis business tax benefits and licensing.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. 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.

In July, Cooney filed a bill to create a provisional marijuana licensing category so that farmers could begin cultivating and selling cannabis ahead of the formal rollout of the adult-use program.

Cooney is also sponsoring a newly filed bill to allow licensed cannabis companies to deduct certain business expenses on their state tax returns.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who replaced Cuomo after he resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal, has repeatedly emphasized her interest in efficiently implementing the legalization law.

Hochul released a State of the State book earlier this month that called for the creation of a $200 million public-private fund to specifically help promote social equity in the state’s burgeoning marijuana market.

The governor said that while cannabis business licenses have yet to be approved since legalization was signed into law last year, the market stands to generate billions of dollars, and it’s important to “create opportunities for all New Yorkers, particularly those from historically marginalized communities.”

That proposal was also cited in Hochul’s executive budget, which was released last week. The budget also estimated that New York stands to generate more than $1.25 billion in marijuana tax revenue over the next six years.

The state Department of Labor separately announced in recent guidance that New York employers are no longer allowed to drug test most workers for marijuana.

Meanwhile, a New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to research the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Another state legislator filed legislation last month to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for medical purposes and establish facilities where the psychedelic could be grown and administered to patients.

Colorado Meets Marijuana Industry Diversity Goal Ahead Of Schedule

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Colorado Meets Marijuana Industry Diversity Goal Ahead Of Schedule

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Colorado officials announced on Monday that the state has achieved a “wildly important goal” of increasing diversity in the legal marijuana industry—but the data shows there’s still a way to go before cannabis business ownership is on par with the state’s population demographics.

Nearly 17 percent of the state’s cannabis businesses are now minority-owned as of January 1, the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) reported. Colorado had set a goal of at least 16.8 percent minority ownership in the cannabis sector by June 30, 2022, and that’s already been narrowly exceeded by the beginning of the year.

When data on licensee demographics started to be collected in July 2021, there was 15.2 percent minority ownership in the marijuana market. Now it’s up to 16.8 percent.

As of January 1, the state has also approved 50 social equity licenses for communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition.

Via Colorado DOR.

As one of the first states to legalize marijuana for adult use, there’s been significant pressure on Colorado to ensure that the industry is equitable, benefitting those who have been most impacted under criminalization.

“Colorado is demonstrating that intentionally revising state marijuana laws to be more equitable gets results,” Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis regulator and current CEO of the Parabola Center, told Marijuana Moment.

“If one of the most mature markets can make clear progress, it’s not too late for any market. And although there’s always more to go—we should all be aiming for proportional representation in ownership at the very least—Colorado is setting and reaching reasonable goals,” she said. “It’s good for transparency and it’s good for morale, and having more data on what’s working at the state level is valuable to inform federal policy.”

(Disclosure: Title supports Marijuana Moment’s work via a monthly pledge on Patreon.)

A demographic breakdown of the new data shows that while there’s been an increase in minority ownership, the percentage of black people who own a majority stake in a cannabis business (2.9 percent) is still lower than the percentage of black people who live in the state (4.6 percent).

There’s also a significant disparity when it comes to gender and marijuana licensing. MED’s report says that there are 1,535 men who own a marijuana business, compared to just 350 women.

And with respect to license type, white people have a notably more expansive portfolio compared to other races.

Via MED.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) is also working to right the wrongs of prohibition outside of licensing. For example, last month he granted 1,351 pardons for convictions of possession of two ounces or less of marijuana.

That move focused on people who were made eligible for relief under a new law that increased the legal cannabis possession limit for adults in the state, which Polis signed in May. At the time, he directed state law enforcement to identify people with prior convictions for amounts under the new, two-ounce limit.

Polis signed an executive order in 2020 that granted clemency to almost 3,000 people convicted of possessing one ounce or less of marijuana. And while earlier legislation that enabled him to do that in an expedited way applied to possession cases involving up to two ounces, his office declined to pardon those with more than one ounce on their records because that amount violated the existing state law.

As the state works to increase diversity in the marijuana industry, it’s also collecting significant tax revenue from cannabis sales.

Last year alone, Colorado generated $423 million in tax revenue from cannabis, the state’s Department of Revenue reported last week.

Nearly $500 million of cannabis tax revenue in Colorado has supported the state’s public school system so far, according to a report from the Marijuana Policy Project.

Massachusetts Marijuana Tax Revenue Now Exceeds Alcohol By Millions

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Governors Across The U.S. Tout Marijuana Reform Progress In State Of The State Speeches And Budgets

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Governors across the U.S. have been taking the opportunity to tout marijuana reform accomplishments as part of their annual State of the State speeches and budget requests this month.

From New York to South Dakota, the comments and proposals from state executives demonstrate how cannabis has become more mainstream and is being talked about in high profile venues alongside more traditional fare such as taxes, education and infrastructure.

It’s also part of a growing theme, as governors have increasingly brought up marijuana policy in State of the State addresses each year to kick off the new year as the legalization movement spreads.

Here’s a look at what governors are saying about marijuana policy in 2022: 

New Jersey

While adult-use marijuana retail sales have yet to launch in New Jersey after voters approved a 2020 legalization referendum, the state’s top executive said in his State of the State address that he’s expecting an economic boon.

“Many jobs await in the cannabis industry ready to take off,” Gov. Phil Murphy (R) said.

The governor also said separately in his second inaugural address this month that “businesses in the new cannabis industry that we are setting up in the name of social justice” are part of efforts to “continue growing the innovation economy that will power our future and make us a model for the nation and the world.”

As the state prepares to implement legal cannabis sales, Murphy said late last year that he’s open to giving adults the right to cultivate marijuana for personal use even though it’s not currently written into the law.

New Mexico

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) talked in here State of the State speech about the economic potential of the marijuana industry under the legalization law she signed last year.

“We’re expanding our economic footprint into every single community,” the governor said in her State of the State address. “Legal cannabis is going to create thousands of jobs and serious tax revenue for local governments to support local services in every corner of our state.”

New York

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) released a State of the State book earlier this month that called for the creation of a $200 million public-private fund to specifically help promote social equity in the state’s burgeoning marijuana market.

The governor said that while cannabis business licenses have yet to be approved since legalization was signed into law last year, the market stands to generate billions of dollars, and it’s important to “create opportunities for all New Yorkers, particularly those from historically marginalized communities.”

That proposal was also cited in Hochul’s executive budget, which was released last week. The budget also estimated that New York stands to generate more than $1.25 billion in marijuana tax revenue over the next six years.

The briefing book for the executive budget touts how Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has “prioritized getting New York’s cannabis industry up and running” since marijuana was legalized under her predecessor last year. That includes appointing key regulators who’ve been “creating and implementing a comprehensive regulatory framework.”

Rhode Island

The governor of Rhode Island included a proposal to legalize marijuana as part of his annual budget plan—the second time he’s done so. And time around, he also added new language to provide for automatic cannabis expungements in the state.

Gov. Dan McKee (D) released his request for the 2023 fiscal year on Thursday, calling for adult-use legalization as lawmakers say they’re separately nearing a deal on enacting the reform. It appears that an outstanding disagreement between the governor and legislators concerning what body should regulate the program remains unresolved based on the new budget proposal, however.

In general, McKee’s plan would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis, though it would not provide a home grow option. Adults could also store up to five ounces of marijuana in secured storage in their primary residence.

“The governor recommends creating a strictly regulated legal market for adult-use cannabis in the state,” an executive summary states. “This proposal would create a weight-based excise tax on marijuana cultivation, an additional retail excise tax of 10 percent, and also apply sales tax to cannabis transactions.”

South Dakota

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) isn’t a fan of adult-use legalization, going so far as to fund a lawsuit against a voter-approved 2020 reform initiative that ultimately led to a court ruling voiding the law. Her office has even suggested that activists behind the successful legalization campaign should front the legal bills for the case.

However, she seems to recognize the popularity of the issue and has recently attempted to associate herself with the implementation of the separate medical cannabis legalization law that voters also approved, as she did in her State of the State address this month.

“I take our citizens’ health seriously. I don’t make these decisions lightly. And when we create new policy, we’re going to do everything we can to get it right from day one,” Noem said. “Our state’s medical cannabis program is one example.”

“It was launched on schedule according to the timeline passed by South Dakota voters,” she said. “I know there will be some debate about that program this session. My focus is on making sure South Dakota has the safest, most responsible, and well-run medical cannabis program in the country.”

Noem tried to get the legislature to approve a bill to delay implementation of the medical cannabis program for an additional year, but while it cleared the House, negotiators were unable to reach an agreement with the Senate in conference, delivering a defeat to the governor.

In response, her office started exploring a compromise last year, with one proposal that came out of her administration to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of cannabis, limit the number of plants that patients could cultivate to three and prohibit people under 21 from qualifying for medical marijuana.

Advocates weren’t enthused with the proposal, and now they’re taking a two-track approach to enacting broader legalization legislatively and through the ballot.

Virginia

In his final State of the Commonwealth address this month, now former-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) talked about the criminal justice implications of his state’s move to legalize marijuana last year.

“We also worked closely with you to make sure our criminal justice system reflects the Virginia that we are today. Too often, our modern-day punishments and practices have their roots in a more discriminatory and unfair past,” he said. “That’s why we’ve made marijuana use legal.”

He also thanked the legislators who championed the reform “for their work on this policy, which is complicated, but important.”

Meanwhile, the new governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, said recently that while he’s not interested in re-criminalizing marijuana possession, which became legal in the state last summer, but he feels there’s “still work to be done” before he gets behind creating a market for commercial sales and production.

Bipartisan Pennsylvania Senators File Bill To Let Medical Marijuana Patients Grow Their Own Plants

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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