Features // January 20, 2020 // UrbanAroma Staff

The Long Road to Cannabis Liberation in DC

The Long Road to Cannabis Liberation in DC

Before it was made legal, marijuana had to be made illegal.


The first step was in 1906, when Congress introduced an act to regulate the practice of pharmacy and the sale of poisons in the District of Columbia- this required that any medicines containing cannabis be purchased from a properly-labeled bottle at a pharmacy. So- only pharma business could legally profit from marijuana-as-medicine. Later, in 1937, Harry Anslinger drafted the "Marihuana Tax Act," positioning marijuana as the great new enemy, since alcohol prohibition had ended and Anslinger wanted to consolidate his government power and his pocketbook. Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971, largely as an effort to vilify black and brown communities. Ronald Reagan really stepped up the war, though, and our prison population skyrocketed.  And that's just the rough overview, ‘cause I didn't even mention the giant hemp farm that was where the Pentagon is now...

Ok, so how did the good guys fight back?

In 1998, DC voters approved Ballot Initiative 59 to legalize medical cannabis. Unfortunately, Congress passed the Barr Amendment, which prohibited it from going into effect until 2009, with dispensaries finally able serve customers in 2013. The fact that Washington, DC is not a state and Congress has the power to overturn our laws has been problematic for many issues affecting District residents, particularly the right to grow and consume cannabis. It is not surprising that District residents overwhelmingly support statehood and the congressional representation that comes with it.

DCMJ was founded in 2013 by Adam Eidinger and Nikolas Schiller to change outdated marijuana laws in the District. By 2014, Adam secured funding from Dr. Bronner's Action Fund to launch a marijuana legalization ballot initiative. Interestingly, Initiative 71 (i71) was the first legalization effort in the US to focus on racial disparity in enforcement of marijuana laws. The campaign collected over 55,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Over 70% of votes cast were in favor of legalization; However, Congressman Andy Harris (R) from Maryland introduced a rider in an attempt to stop i71 from going into effect.

Meanwhile, the ACLU released a study showing the gross disparity in police enforcement of marijuana laws that laid bare for all to see the effects of this prolonged and racist drug war. In 2014, DC council decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana after a successful lobbying effort by Seema Sadanandan, Program Director at the ACLU. She was quoted at the time as saying, "This vote is proof: The people of Washington, DC, are tired of living in a city where a Black person is eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, despite similar rates of use."

Ultimately, Congress couldn’t stop the legalizing will of DC residents- they just made it really awkward to understand the system and impossible to purchase marijuana in traditional legal ways at shops like you see in other states. Congressional “oversight” has made it impossible for the DC council to allow a taxed and regulated system that would enable weed shops to open. So, thanks to meddling from representatives of other states through the Federal government, DC is prevented from having financial expenditures related to marijuana or further changes to marijuana policies, and this has left us with the gifting economy you have come to know.