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D.C. Council Prepares for Historic Move Towards Marijuana Legalization

The Council of the District of Columbia is set to make history as the first legislature in the country to pass a law legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana sales for adults. At 11:00 am the Council will hold their first public hearing on a proposed legalization law and I will be there testifying.

You can watch the hearing here, and my written testimony is attached below.

Marijuana sales are already legal in Colorado and Washington State but those laws were adopted via ballot initiative. While the voters of D.C. will have a chance to legalize marijuana possession by voting for Initiative 71, D.C. ballot law prevented the campaign from including tax and regulate provisions. So that task is left to the Council. With a new poll showing that 55 percent of D.C. likely voters want the Council to adopt a tax and regulate law if the Initiative 71 is approved, the Council is getting ready to fulfill the will of the electorate.

How the Council decides to craft the final version of this bill could have wide ranging implications. Most states don’t allow ballot initiatives, so there is a good chance this bill could end up serving as the model in states where the only path forward for reform is via the state legislature. It will be the first time the basic rules are written by professional legislatures instead of activist campaign that needs to focuse on language that sounds best to voters.

My written testimony:

To the members of the Council of the District of Columbia,

I’m Jon Walker, senior policy analyst at Firedoglake. I’m the author of After Legalization: Understanding the Future of Marijuana Policy, and I’m also a D.C. resident.

The D.C. Council has the unique chance to make history. It could be the first legislative body in the country to adopt a law approving the taxation and regulation of recreational marijuana use, and it could serve as a model for other states.

While I support marijuana legalization, I will leave it to others here today to make the arguments in favor of it. Instead, I want highlight six specific policy considerations the Council should keep in mind when drafting the final version of the legislation:

1. Keep in mind your power to shape the market and consumption habits – The rules and taxes the Council adopts can shape consumption habits in the region for decades to come. The Council could design policies to favor potent marijuana over weak marijuana, vaporizing over smoking, edibles over flowers. For example, the explosion in popularity of flavored vodka is in part the result of a decades old tax advantage that flavored spirits received.

2. Allow legalization of personal possession and home cultivation to move forward right away – There is little practical reason for delaying the main elements of Initiative 71. Ending the criminalization of personal use can exist without a regulated retail system. In Colorado, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and limited home cultivation was legalized in December 2012, and it was just over a year later when the first retail shop opened. During that time, there were very few problems to speak of, but there was a significant drop in small marijuana arrests.

In addition, allowing home cultivation will give added reassurance that residents would still have a legal way to obtain marijuana in the event of possible future interference by federal agencies against the retail system. Data from Europe indicates that very few adults go through the hassle of growing their own marijuana when it can easily be obtained at retail locations; however, when home cultivation is the best legal option, a significant number take part.

Finally, Allowing home cultivation should potentially help the long term development of the D.C. marijuana industry. Just as laws allowing homebrewing eventually lead to the growth of craft brewing, home marijuana cultivation could play a similar role.

3. A small limit on non-resident purchases – The Council needs to balance two concerns. On one hand is the goal of eliminating the black market. On the other hand, the Council should aim to prevent the diversion of marijuana to neighboring states that haven’t legalized it, in accordance with the Cole memo. Banning non-residents from buying any marijuana may seem like it would help with the latter goal, but it would create huge potential for a grey market in which residents re-sell marijuana purchased legally. This black market could easily become large and organized enough that it would undermine that anti-diversion goal and other Cole memo priorities like preventing use by minors and revenue going to criminal organizations. The smartest course seems to be a middle ground that relies on placing a very small limit on what non-residents can buy.

Here are some numbers to keep in mind when choosing a limit. A joint contains roughly 0.5-1 grams

  • 1 gram – This tends to be the smallest unit of marijuana flower for sale in places where it is legal
  • 3.54 grams – An 1/8th of an ounce is commonly purchased for personal use in America
  • 5 grams – The limit on how much a person can buy at a coffeeshop in the Netherlands
  • 7.09 grams – Non-residents are only allowed to buy 1/4th an ounce of marijuana in Colorado
  • 10 grams – Marijuana possession under 10 grams was recently decriminalized in Maryland
  • 14.17 grams – Under half an ounce is considered simple possession in Virginia, a misdemeanor

4. Allow vertical integration – Vertical integration is allowed in Colorado’s marijuana industry but not in Washington State’s. I would consider it a mistake to ban it in D.C. If the Council is worried about competition, there are other ways to address that. Arguably, bans on vertical integration actually drove much of the market concentration in the beer industry.

Long-term, it is likely the entire country will eventually embrace marijuana legalization. Given D.C.’s size, its marijuana producers are likely going to remain small, making them eventually vulnerable to outside competition from growers in states where land and labor is cheaper. Allowing vertical integration from the start should hopefully allow the D.C. industry to better position themselves in the future as local craft options. It was only relatively recently, when states began allowing limited vertical integration in the beer market, that we began to see real growth in the microbrewing/brewpub industry.

5. Consider allowing private clubs or marijuana lounges – One issue in Colorado is tourists have no legal place to consume marijuana. This can result in public consumption, and it made marijuana edibles much more popular among tourists since they can be discreetly eaten. Edibles are not ideal for infrequent consumers. Consuming too much is more likely with edibles, since people can’t easily titrate their consumption the way they do with smoking or vaporizing.

Allowing the creation of on-premise private marijuana clubs or lounges would be a smart approach to give people a safe, controlled and highly regulated place to consume. Especially in D.C., this could really help advance the Cole memo goal of preventing diversion. People at these lounges could be limited to only purchasing as much as they consume while there. If the Council is worried about air quality in these establishments, it can require all marijuana be vaporized instead of smoked.

6. Maximum flexibility for regulators over rules, labeling, and taxes – Whenever a new industry is taking shape, things evolve fast. Add to that the changing legal issues surrounding marijuana, and we could see rules that need to be revised very quickly. Giving regulators maximum flexibility will probably be the best way to deal with the developing market, the political situation, legal issues and consumer behavior.


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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at