“The criminal-justice system has become a blunt instrument to deal with a whole array of social problems—addiction, truancy, mental illness,” Sadanandan said. “Most police officers are ill-equipped to deal with some of these issues. We need teachers, doctors … perhaps some would even say lawyers.”
Though the ballot passed overwhelmingly, district residents are unlikely to see recreational pot dispensaries until late 2015 or early 2016. As the Brookings Institution noted in an October post, “Initiative 71 does not, by itself, create a fully legal commercial marketplace or institute any taxation system, refraining from these tasks because of the limitations of the District’s ballot initiative process.”
Effectively, purchasing legal pot is months away. Nikolas Schiller, director of communications for the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, says a marijuana tax bill won’t get transferred to Congress by the D.C. Council until mid-2015, after being approved by multiple council committees. Then, it would be treated by Congress like any other D.C. law, subject to review.*
David Grosso, an at-large councilman, submitted such a bill to the D.C. Council in September 2013. It would impose excise taxes of 15 and 6 percent on recreational and medical marijuana, respectively, and would require D.C.’s Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration to adopt regulatory rules “within 180 days of the [act’s] effective date.” That would be next winter at the earliest.
Whatever the law’s effective date, marijuana taxation would generate significant revenue. Colorado, which saw its first cannabis stores open on January 1, recorded $34.1 million in recreational pot sales in August alone. (This generated about $7.5 million in total tax revenues from recreational and medical marijuana that month, or about $45 million year-to-date.) As The Economist noted recently, the national market for pot is estimated to be worth a whopping $40 billion—most of which is still being produced, sold, and redistributed illegally.
Still, not everyone in the district condoned the initiative, with 30.5 percent of voters choosing against. The Washington Post urged D.C. residents not to "rush to legalize" the drug. "Marijuana, as proponents of legalization argue, may or may not be less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, both legal, but it is not harmless," the paper's editorial board wrote in September. "Questions exist, so it would be prudent for the District not to make a change that could well prove to be misguided until more is known ... why not at least give Colorado a bit more time to provide lessons?"
How and whether those lessons materialize in the district remains to be seen.
“I don’t know if now is the time to be celebrating,” said Wayne Turner, who launched the campaign to legalize medical marijuana in D.C. with his AIDS-stricken partner, Steve Michael, in the 1990s; Michael died in 1998. “There’s a fight ahead—it might be a long one. Thank goodness I’m still alive to enjoy it.”
* This post originally stated that a bill would have to pass through multiple committees of Congress. We regret the error.