The District of Columbia could soon earn a new nickname: the Wild West of marijuana.
In 10 days, a voter-approved initiative to legalize marijuana will take effect, D.C. officials say. Residents and visitors old enough to drink a beer will be able to possess enough pot to roll 100 joints. They will be able to carry it, share it, smoke it and grow it.
But it’s entirely unclear how anyone will obtain it. Unlike the four states where voters have approved recreational pot use, the District government has been barred from establishing rules governing how marijuana will be sold. It was prohibited from doing so by Congress, which has jurisdiction over the city.
In December, after voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to legalize pot use, opponents in Congress tried to upend the result by blocking any new rules establishing legal ways to sell it, protections for those caught purchasing it or taxes to cover its social costs.
D.C. officials say that Congress’s action did not halt the initiative, but it did set the city up for potential chaos. Barring last-minute federal intervention, the District’s attorney general said that pot will become legal as early as Feb. 26 without any regulations in place to govern a new marketplace that is likely to explode into view.
Even some supporters of the initiative are worried. At best, they predict an uncertain free-for-all where marijuana enthusiasts immediately start growing and smoking at home — and testing the limits of a law that does not allow for public consumption or sale. At worst, they say, as entrepreneurs push ahead with the business of pot, unregulated businesses will start popping up with no means to judge the safety of their product.
Two ballrooms on Capitol Hill are already reserved for a pot expo on Feb. 28. A date for a massive marijuana seed giveaway is in the works for early March. Some are planning “cannabis clubs” with membership fees and access to the plant. Others hope to offer high-end catered dinners cooked in marijuana-infused oils; recently, an underground test dinner was served a mile-and-a-half north of the White House.
“Where can it be bought? Sold? Eaten? Smoked? We’re not going to have answers to any of that, and that makes me very concerned,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large). And as the consequences play out in the nation’s capital, he said, it could set back the entire movement: “Let’s be responsible about how we do this so we don’t have a negative image coming out.”
Many unanswered questions
How the city will prepare to enforce the new law remains a work in progress.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s office has given the police department guidance for how to implement the law, according to two city officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is not yet clear if the department will follow all of the recommendations.
The guidance calls for District police to not arrest or issue fines for pot possession or use it as a pretext to investigate other criminal behavior. But there are many areas that will probably not become clear until litigated, the officials said.
Bowser’s administration has sought to draw little attention to the coming deadline, in hopes that it will come and go, as one administration official said, “without the sky falling.”
Grosso said he met with Bowser on Friday and raised a host of concerns about what happens at the end of the month. “For one, I asked what happens when a restaurant or a club has a smoking section outdoor and people light up? Do you arrest them? . . . I didn’t get an answer to that question.”
Other questions: What happens when someone who lives in federal public housing in the District lights up? Under current federal law, residents can lose their housing for a single drug violation. And, has there been any coordination, he asked, with the District’s many federal law enforcement agencies? Marijuana possession will remain punishable by up to a year in jail if found on someone on the Mall, in Rock Creek Park or in almost any city traffic circle, since they are the provinces of the U.S. Park Police and others.
A senior Bowser administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the enforcement protocol is still under review said the mayor probably will soon begin to make the case to D.C. residents that they should smoke or cultivate pot only at home. If they carry it in public, they should keep it in their pockets. Anything more, the official said, would risk a run-in with police.
Corey Barnet, head of District Growers, a cultivation center for medical marijuana dispensaries in the District, said it may be difficult for police to prove a marijuana sale. His biggest concern, he added, is the possibility of unsafe or chemically enhanced pot that could make consumers sick.
Adam Eidinger, who organized the petition drive to get Initiative 71 on the ballot, said the odds of dangerous marijuana are low. He is more concerned about police not clarifying aspects of enforcement, such as whether marijuana can be grown on balconies, or only inside residences.
He also is concerned about entrepreneurs going too far to profit off distribution. The safest way to enjoy the initiative, he said, is to grow marijuana yourself.
“It’s legal, you can go do this, enjoy it,” he said. “But if you buy it and get caught, you’re technically breaking the law. I hope they would make that a low priority, but the sharing of marijuana will be legal.”