In yet another blow to the United States' decades-long war on drugs, the nation's capital has legalized recreational marijuana, NPR and USA Today reported Tuesday night.
Washington, D.C., voters on Tuesday approved Initiative 71, which legalizes adult marijuana use, possession of up to two ounces and home cultivation of up to six marijuana plants for personal use. With 29 percent of votes in, 68 percent of District residents supported the measure, and 31 percent were opposed.
Under the measure, the sale of marijuana remains illegal, but the Council of the District of Columbia is considering a separate bill that would allow for the regulation and taxation of marijuana sales, similar to laws on the books in Colorado and Washington state.
And even though sales are not yet allowed, the passage of the law on the federal government's home turf represents one of the largest symbolic shifts in U.S. marijuana policy since Colorado and Washington state legalized the drug two years ago.
Supporters praised the measure as a step toward resolving the racial disparity in the District's marijuana arrest rates.
“The people of D.C. have voted in favor of ending racially-biased marijuana prohibition,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement Tuesday night. “The harms caused by the war on drugs are not fixed with this vote alone; the real healing begins with the D.C. Council developing a tax and regulate system which is based on racial and social justice.”
According to the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, arrest statistics from 2009 to 2011 revealed that nine out of 10 people arrested for drug offenses in Washington were black, though blacks make up just slightly more than half of the city's population. Government surveys show that blacks are no more likely than whites to use the drug.
While the measure was popular among voters, The Washington Post, the most widely circulated newspaper in the District, raised eyebrows when it came out against the ballot measure in two separate editorials leading up to the vote.
The ballot measure builds on several recent moves to remove restrictions on marijuana in Washington. The District legalized medical marijuana in 2010, and its first medical marijuana dispensary opened last year. Earlier this year, the D.C. Council decriminalized the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
Tom Angell, chairman of the marijuana advocacy group Marijuana Majority, said, "With marijuana legal in the federal government's backyard, it's going to be increasingly difficult for national politicians to continue ignoring the growing majority of voters who want to end prohibition."
"I've been saying for a while that 2016 presidential candidates need to start courting the cannabis constituency," he added. "Now the road to the White House quite literally travels through legal marijuana territory."
Now that voters have approved the measure, the bill moves to Congress for a mandatory review period by lawmakers in January. Congress has 60 days to review all new laws in the District, and if there is no interference the measure could go into effect in early 2015. However, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) has vowed to put a stop to the progression of the bill in Congress.
“I would hope that the D.C. residents would turn down legalization,” Harris said in August, according to Politico. “If they don’t, I think that Congress will have an opportunity next year to comment on it, both through the normal authorization process or through appropriations if necessary.”
Harris is just one congressman, but he may be able to gather more support if "thousands of ecstatic stoners spark up on the streets tonight" as Mother Jones puts it, something many advocates fear could happen.
Along with the District, 23 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and in 2012 Colorado and Washington state became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. Two new government forecasts project that the two states could generate more than $800 million in revenue from marijuana sales in the next several years.
The plant remains banned by the federal government, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance, along with heroin and LSD.
The District wasn't alone on Tuesday in considering the legalization of marijuana. Florida voters rejected a measure that would have legalized medical marijuana. Voters in Oregon and Alaska were also considering legalizing recreational cannabis.
This post has been updated to include the congressional review process for laws in the District.
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