It’s been a banner year for marijuana in D.C.—both legal and illegal.
After years of delays, the city’s first medical marijuana dispensary opened to qualifying patients in July. The news was that much more momentous because of how long many of those patients had waited: It was in 1998 that D.C. residents voted to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, but a mix of congressional interference and glacial bureaucratic wrangling delayed implementation by 15 years.
But for all the relief that may have come from medical marijuana finally being available, there’s still concern over whether the city’s small industry will manage to survive. Restrictive rules have kept the program small—as of this month, only 111 patients and 78 physicians have successfully registered—making dispensers and cultivators fret that they’ll never post a profit, let alone break even. In October, advocates pleaded with the D.C. Council to expand the list of qualifying conditions beyond the big four currently covered—HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, cancer, and spasms—but received a lukewarm reaction from legislators.
There was also sudden movement on weed for the rest of us. In late October, the Council held a hearing on a bill that would decriminalize marijuana, making the possession of less than an ounce punishable as a civil, not criminal, offense. The bill is all but assured passage next year: 10 of the Council’s 13 members back it, and Mayor Vince Gray says he’ll sign it. (Some activists say decriminalization is too tame a step, and would rather see full legalization debated.)
So what spurred the Council’s sudden interest in the rights of pot smokers? Paul Zukerberg’s long-shot campaign for an at-large D.C. Council seat—dedicated entirely to easing restrictions on pot—deserves some credit. His message carried even more weight because it went against his personal financial interests—he’s a defense attorney focusing on marijuana cases, after all—and was backed by a majority of D.C. residents. In an April poll commissioned by two drug-policy groups and paid for by Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, 75 percent of residents said they backed decriminalization.
More important, though, may have been a June report from the American Civil Liberties Union that found that despite similar rates of marijuana usage, African-American residents were eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for it. Suddenly the debate was less about drugs and more about civil rights.
Maybe the only losers of the year were manufacturers of synthetic marijuana, the chemically enhanced designer drug marketed as “incense” and sold at corner stores and gas stations. Not only did D.C. formally ban the drug—Gray even took part in a staged bust of a store selling it—but it rolled out a graphic ad campaign warning teens that its use would turn them into zombies. City officials won’t have to worry for long: Once real marijuana is decriminalized, those same teens won’t have to risk becoming zombies—or criminals—to get high.