Marijuana became legal in the nation's capital on Thursday as a voter initiative into came into effect, despite Republican challenges that the move is illegal.
With Initiative 71, which passed with overwhelming support, people over 21 can possess up to two ounces of marijuana smoke on private property, grow up to six marijuana plants at home, and share up to an ounce with another adult as long as no goods or money is exchanged.
As Democracy Now! reported, "Congress has oversight of laws in D.C., and Republicans tucked a measure into a spending bill to block new laws easing marijuana rules in the district." Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the marijuana reform organization NORML explained:
District officials contend that they possess the legal authority to depenalize minor marijuana offenses despite the passage of a federal spending provision in December prohibiting the District from spending any tax dollars to implement the new law. They argue that the municipal measure took effect upon passage in November and that Congress failed to take any explicit action to overturn the law during its requisite 30-day review period.
The Washington Post adds: "House Republicans said Wednesday that they are not preparing to take legal action against the city should it proceed in defiance of a congressional funding rider. Instead, one congressman said, it would fall to the Justice Department to intervene—a much less likely scenario under the Obama administration."
District Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a statement Tuesday affirming the legalization.
"In November, residents of the District of Columbia voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana by adults for personal, in-home use in the District," Bowser said of the initiative. "We will uphold the letter and the spirit of the initiative that was passed last year, and we will establish the Initiative 71 Task Force to coordinate our enforcement, awareness and engagement efforts and address policy questions as they arise."
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Drug Policy Alliance hailed the move as helping to combat racial injustices, pointing to an ACLU report (pdf) that found that, despite marijuana use being roughly equivalent between blacks and whites, blacks in D.C. face an arrest rate 8 times that of whites for possession.
"Marijuana has been effectively legal in the affluent and white parts of the District west of 16th St for years," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for Drug Policy Alliance. "All Initiative 71 does is treat the black community the same way—no arrests for minor marijuana violations."
Dr. Malik Burnett, D.C. policy manager at the organization, called it "a significant milestone in the movement for racial justice, civil liberties, and drug policy reform," adding, "The racially-biased enforcement of marijuana laws in the nation’s capital is officially a relic of history."
The news comes on the heels of a new study that found marijuana was the least risky recreational drug and far less deadly than alcohol.
Washington state, Alaska and Colorado have already legalized recreational marijuana.