Congress Needs to Stop Blocking Legal Marijuana Sales in Washington, D.C.
Lenin Nolly/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom


Congress Needs to Stop Blocking Legal Marijuana Sales in Washington, D.C.

The answer isn't more police enforcement, the answer is to enable legal marijuana markets in the city.

District of Columbia Police Chief Robert Contee recently claimed there’s been an uptick in violent crime in the city that should be blamed on marijuana sales. “We have taken on a mindset that marijuana is not really a big issue in our city,” Contee said. “I can tell you that marijuana undoubtedly is connected to violent crimes that we are seeing in our communities.”

Contee didn’t offer any evidence connecting marijuana to violent crime in the city, but the police chief added, “When you have something where people get high reward—they can make a lot of money by selling illegal marijuana—and the risk is low, the risk for accountability is very low, that creates a very, very, very, very, very bad situation.”

Contee went on to complain it is difficult to catch marijuana dealers with illegal amounts and that local prosecutors aren’t seeking to prosecute low-level drug charges:

“What’s the risk for people? Is there a prosecution that is going to happen? Really? Is there a prosecution that’s going to happen of a guy with marijuana? I’ve heard from some community members that say these guys are keeping scales on them where they’re measuring out their marijuana … so that the police are not able to lock them up. That’s something we have to look at as a community. I know, again, marijuana, not a big issue — but it’s tied to violent crime, some of the violent crime, we are seeing in our city.”

If Contee really thinks marijuana sales are causing the problems, the answer isn’t more arrests and police enforcement of non-violent drug possession or sales, the answer is to finally enable a legal marijuana market in the city.

Washington, D.C.’s voters long-ago—in 2014—approved the legal adult-use and possession of marijuana. Although the possession of marijuana is legal in the city, Congress consistently prevents Washington, D.C., from actually enacting a market to enable the legal sale of marijuana.

Congress’ so-called “Harris rider,” named after anti-marijuana Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), effectively blocks retail legalization of marijuana by denying the city the ability to use federal funds or to create its own tax and regulatory system for a legal, retail marijuana market. Rep. Harris attaches the rider to the annual federal spending bill each year. President Joe Biden included the rider in his budget this year, which drew the ire of a variety of progressive, pro-legalization, and criminal justice reform groups. Marijuana Moment reported:

“It’s seriously concerning that the will of District of Columbia residents who voted to legalize cannabis years ago continues to be ignored, despite immense support in the city,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) Office of National Affairs, told Marijuana Moment, adding that local officials should be allowed to “deliver on the promises of equity and justice for those disproportionately impacted by racially-biased enforcement of cannabis laws in the District.”

The inconsistency with which Biden’s budget approaches D.C. is all the more interesting given that while the president has said repeatedly that states should be empowered to make their own decisions regarding adult-use legalization—and he also supports statehood status for the District—he wants to prevent it from having that same right.

“The president’s budget is simultaneously positive and concerning. On one hand, unlike his predecessors from both parties, he is the first sitting president to call for continued protections for medical cannabis programs,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “But on the other hand, unlike President Obama, this budget denies the right of self-determination to D.C. citizens when it comes to the overwhelming desire of the public and local government to regulate cannabis for adults.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said in April that local officials are prepared to move forward with implementing a legal system of recreational cannabis sales in the nation’s capital just as soon as they can get over the final “hurdle” of congressional interference.

A legal marijuana market would help the city on a variety of fronts. For most products and services, buying and selling in a legal and properly regulated market is magnitudes safer than buying things on a black market. For consumers, there is assurance the product meets quality standards and that the transaction will be safely executed, helping reduce crimes like assaults and robberies that are often associated with black markets.

According to a Reason Foundation analysis of marijuana activity, most data show that legalizing marijuana reduces crime in various categories:

From this evidence, it is clear that, while legalization does not necessarily eliminate illegal production, distribution and sale of marijuana, it tends to diminish it dramatically. As a result, it relieves the burden placed on courts, law enforcement, and prisons, allowing for greater focus on violent crime. It also appears to have reduced use of marijuana by minors.

Unfortunately, Rep. Harris continually makes flawed arguments against marijuana legalization, including his claim that legal marijuana markets provide cover for organized crime groups. Medical cannabis is already legal in a majority of states and 18 states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. In fact, Washington, D.C.’s neighbors, Harris’ home state of Maryland along with Virginia, have legalized medical marijuana and taken steps to decriminalize its recreational use so it’s not clear how Harris blocking the district’s regulatory efforts stops organized crime.

Rather, preventing a legal market from operating ensures more illegal operations exist and keeps the black market thriving. For most people in the Washington, D.C., area, fully legalizing cannabis would means they no longer need to buy it from a friend or larger-scale enterprises. 

Running a small-scale illegal grow makes both cannabis growers and buyers targets for robberies because they accumulate product and cash. Drug cartels are also frequently associated with violent tactics and robberies to increase their financial gain.  The data from states with legal marijuana show that purchasing from a legal cannabis dispensary is far safer than either of these options.

Legalizing cannabis also helps free police from investigating low-level, non-violent drug offenses to violent crimes and criminal operations. In fact, data showing an increase in criminal arrests for growing marijuana in legalized states seems to be a direct result of police no longer prioritizing petty marijuana offenses. Instead, police are spending more time and resources finding true criminals. The Reason Foundation brief noted:

A recent study found that legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington was associated with an improvement in the rate of clearance of cases relating to violent crimes, reversing a previously worsening trend. This may be evidence that legalization has led to an improvement in the prioritization of police resources.

Police Chief Contee and the district’s police officers don’t need to make more marijuana-related arrests, they need Congress and the Biden administration to stop blocking the city from fully legalizing marijuana sales. Experience from a growing number of states shows that a functioning, legal cannabis market would make the city a safer place for everyone.