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Our Guide to Washington, DC Marijuana Laws

In its more than 226-year existence, Washington, DC has been the site of some of the most significant events in U.S. history. Our nation’s capital has been invaded by the British, served as home to the Union capitol during the Civil War, housed all of the nation’s presidents except one (George Washington), and been the setting for some of the most important moments in the Civil Rights movement. On November 4, 2014, Washington, DC again made history by joining Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state in legalizing recreational marijuana.

On that date, Initiative 71 passed with support from nearly 70% of voters, making possession and cultivation of marijuana by adults fully legal. However, the initiative made no provision for the sale of marijuana which remained distinctly illegal. And the initiative was not applicable on federal property, which accounts for a large percentage of real estate in DC, including the National Mall and Interstate 295!

While DC voters could pass the measure to legalize marijuana, they were powerless to control the details since the constitution grants the U.S. Congress exclusive jurisdiction over the city. Though DC elects its own mayor and city council, and can pass its own laws, Congress controls all city-related finances, can overturn local laws at will, and can stipulate through budget measures that tax dollars cannot be used to enact laws that are passed. This power prevented Initiative 71 from addressing the legalization and regulation of marijuana sales since a regulatory system would require substantial city funding.

In its early 2015 session, Congress did not act to strike down the Initiative, meaning it went into effect as law on February 26, 2015. But all efforts since to create the regulatory framework necessary for a marijuana industry to exist in Washington, DC–including the most recent “Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act of 2017”–have failed.

How DC Got Legal

Washington, DC is not only our capitol, but is considered by most marijuana proponents to be the true epicenter of the nation’s pro-legalization movement. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a global entity dedicated to pro-legalization efforts, was formed in DC in 1970 and continues to call the capitol home nearly 50 years later. The legalization of marijuana for medical purposes–or “medical marijuana” as it later came to be known–also originated in DC when resident Robert Randall won a landmark Superior court case in 1976, arguing that the marijuana he grew and used treated his glaucoma successfully. Because of this legal victory, he is considered by most to be “the father of the medical marijuana movement.”

In early 2014, several months before Initiative 71 was passed, the city council proposed and approved a bill that decriminalized marijuana, meaning the possession of 1 ounce or less of cannabis by those 18 and older was considered to be a simple civil violation punishable by nothing more than a $25 fine. The catalyst for this action was an ACLU report that showed 90% of people arrested in DC in relation to marijuana possession were black. Legalization proponents across the nation applauded DC for taking this important first step toward addressing the blatant racial disparities that exist in the War on Drugs.

Marijuana Law Milestones
  • 1970: Non-profit legalization advocacy group NORML is founded by Keith Stoup in Washington, DC, after receiving a $5,000 contribution from the Playboy Foundation.
  • 1976: A DC Superior Court Judge rules that Robert Randall’s use of marijuana is a “medical necessity,” allowing him to petition for access to government supplies of medical marijuana.
    • This distinguished Randall as the first person in the United States to receive legal marijuana for treatment of a medical disorder.
    • Learn more about Randall’s legal battle and his victory at DrugScience.
  • 1998: DC voters pass an initiative legalizing medical marijuana.
    • Congress blocks the new law from taking effect for 11 long years.
  • 2010: The medical marijuana initiative finally goes into effect.
  • 2011: The first medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington, DC open their doors to patients.
  • June 2013: An ACLU report shows that DC has the highest per capita marijuana arrest rate in the nation, and that 90% of those arrested are black.
  • July 2013: The DC City Council proposes a law decriminalizing marijuana for those age 18 and older in an attempt to end racially-biased marijuana arrests.
    • The law makes possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil penalty punishable by a $25 fine.
  • March 2014: Mayor Vincent Gray signs the decriminalization proposal into law.
  • November 4, 2014: DC voters pass Initiative 71, which legalizes marijuana possession and cultivation for adults 21 and over.
    • We’ll provide more details later, but basically I-71:
      • Allows adults 21 and over to possess, consume, and grow their own cannabis for recreational purposes
      • But it does not allow for legal sales, meaning no marijuana shops allowed
  • February 26, 2015: I-71 goes into effect in our nation’s capitol.
The Steps to Legalization

Though Initiative 71 passed in 2014 with nearly 70% of the vote, the District of Columbia was left to battle politicians on the hill over implementation of the measure. Though Congress did allow the new law to go into effect in early 2015, no measures proposed since to establish a regulatory framework for a DC marijuana industry have been successful. Proponents strongly fear Congress will continue to block their efforts just as they nullified medical marijuana implementation for more than a decade after that law was passed.

  • November 4, 2014: 70% of DC voters approve Initiative 71.
  • December 3, 2014: Election results are certified by the city council.
  • December 13, 2014: Congress passes a $1.1 trillion spending bill which includes a provision prohibiting the District of Columbia from using any of its funds “to enact or implement drug laws that are weaker than federal ones.”
    • The provision is an attempt by Congress to block I-71 from going into effect.
    • The White House comes to DC’s defense, scolding Congress for meddling with I-71’s implementation, saying, “The president believes, on principle, that members of Congress shouldn’t be interfering in this way.”
  • January 2015: DC sends I-71 to Congress for a customary 30-day review period which will begin when Congress returns to session in January 2015.
  • January 2015: David Grosso, a DC city council member, begins to push his peers to fully legalize marijuana in DC by taxing and regulating it in defiance of Congress.
    • He introduces legislation to the council to establish a full marijuana regulatory framework.
    • The council tables the legislation after a warning from DC’s attorney general noting that even a hearing to discuss Grosso’s proposal would be in violation of federal law.
  • February 26, 2015: Surprisingly, I-71 receives congressional approval and is allowed to go into effect after the 30-day review period.
    • Recreational marijuana is legalized in DC.
  • June 11, 2015: Congress advances a budget plan that prevents legal marijuana sales in DC until at least 2017.
    • The budget plan does not, however, negate I-71.
    • Possession, consumption, and cultivation of marijuana for personal use by adults remains legal.
  • January 2017: David Grosso reintroduces his former legislation to the DC city council to establish a full regulatory framework for a marijuana industry in defiance of Congress.
  • February 4, 2017: A handful of lawmakers calling themselves the “Congressional Cannabis Caucus” announce that they intend to introduce legislation on Capitol Hill that would protect the cannabis industry in states where it is legalized from federal interference (including the District of Columbia).
The National Context

So what does the decision by Washington, DC’s to legalize marijuana mean in a national context?

  • The battles between the District of Columbia and Congress over implementation of I-71 and later, over creating a regulatory framework for a marijuana industry in DC, have further heightened awareness about legalization efforts nationwide.
  • Those working for drug policy reform say the approval of I-71 dramatically boosts the movement’s political clout on a national level and adds to the pressure on the federal government to allow each state to decide on its own regulations.
  • Tom Angell, Chairman of the drug policy reform group called Marijuana Majority, claims that the end of federal marijuana prohibition is now only a matter of time and that policies related to it will be a much bigger issue in Washington, DC now that more states are legalizing marijuana.
  • The confirmation of Alabama senator Jeff Sessions as the Attorney General in February 2017 creates some anxiety among marijuana reform advocates since he can choose to uphold or rescind the U.S. Justice Department’s August 2013 memo suggesting that U.S. attorneys not prioritize marijuana-related convictions.
  • You can learn more about the current administration’s thoughts on state legalization by reading this article.
  • With legalization now in place in 8 states and the District of Columbia, the national market for marijuana is projected to reach $7 billion by the end of 2017 and $22 billion by 2022.
  • More and more states are expected to place legalization measures on the ballot in the coming elections.
  • Read all about the current status of marijuana in all the states over at NORML.

The Law in Washington, DC

Personal Use

These are the rules:

  • Just like alcohol, marijuana can only be possessed or grown by adults. Currently, you must be 21 years and older to do either in DC.
    • These rules apply to all adults, even visitors from out of state.
  • The most you can possess is:
    • Up to 2 ounces of marijuana
      • Either on your person and/or in your household
  • Adults can also grow their own plants at home.
    • Up to 6 marijuana plants can be cultivated at one time
      • No more than 3 can be mature or flowering plants at once
    • No more than a total of 12 plants can be cultivated in a single household no matter how many adults live there
      • No more than 6 can be mature or flowering at once
  • Adults 21 and over can share marijuana with other adults. The rules are:
    • Up to 1 ounce can be transferred
    • All transfers “are to be free of remuneration” – meaning, the marijuana is a gift
      • No money can change hands
  • The sale and/or use by adults of paraphernalia related to marijuana consumption, cultivation, or processing is allowed.
  • To learn more about what adults can and cannot do under I-71, see the DC Cannabis Campaign’s answers.
A Word About Medical Marijuana

The measure to make medical marijuana legal in Washington, DC was passed by voters in 1998 but Congress successfully blocked the new law from taking effect until 2010. Fortunately, Initiative 71 legalizing recreational marijuana made no mention of nor had any impact on the medical marijuana program in DC.

  • Medical marijuana remains legal in DC and is regulated under a system that is completely separate from recreational marijuana.
    • The MMJ program is overseen by the DC Department of Health (DOH).
  • Patients will continue to be able to purchase medical marijuana from any of the licensed dispensaries operating in DC.
    • These dispensaries cannot sell marijuana to anyone who is not registered with the DC medical marijuana program.
  • In November 2016, the city council passed bill B21-210 that made significant improvements to the program:
    • The improvements went into effect in February 2017 after the required 30-day period of Congressional review
    • The law now requires independent laboratory testing of medical marijuana to ensure patient safety
    • The cap on the number of plants a medical marijuana cultivation facility can grow is increased to 1,000
    • A person with a misdemeanor drug conviction or a conviction for possession with intent to distribute marijuana is no longer prohibited from working in the medical marijuana industry
    • Once a planned district-wide electronic tracking system is in place, patients will be able to purchase marijuana from any licensed dispensary rather than only one
Buying Marijuana

You’re 21 years old and you want to buy marijuana in Washington, DC. Where can you get some?

  • If you’re a medical marijuana patient, you can purchase marijuana at any of the licensed dispensaries.
  • If you’re a recreational user, you cannot purchase marijuana anywhere – or from anyone.
    • The only way to legally obtain recreational marijuana in DC is by receiving it as a gift from an adult who is 21 years old or older
      • The gift can be 1 ounce or less of “usable marijuana”
      • Or a single marijuana plant to be grown in your home
  • DC residents are hoping that legislation establishing a regulatory framework for a recreational marijuana industry in DC passes soon

While residents of DC await the passage of legislation that would allow a regulated industry to be formed for the sale of recreational marijuana, some enterprising entrepreneurs are using the gifting clause of Initiative 71 in interesting ways.

  • Online delivery services have been established that remain compliant with the law by selling and delivering other products to customers, then giving an ounce or less to them as a gift.
    • Some even accept credit cards!
  • While somewhat questionable since they’re open to the public, some businesses that sell other things (food/drink/juices, t-shirts, backpacks, even art) tack on a small marijuana gift when a purchase is made.
  • Other folks are hosting and selling tickets to private events (discussion groups, internet television show recordings, private club parties) and then giving away free marijuana to ticket holders.
Consumption

Where can you consume marijuana in Washington, DC?

  • You can legally consume cannabis products in DC if you are:
    • On private property
    • Outside the view of the general public (and on private property)
  • You cannot consume marijuana:
    • In public, including
      • On the street
      • In public parks
      • In bars and restaurants
      • In your vehicle
      • At sporting or other events
      • Anywhere smoking is banned
    • On federal land, including:
      • National parks
      • Federal courthouses
      • National monuments
      • Military bases
      • The National Mall

Police Enforcement

Driving High

Initiative 71 specifically states that it makes no changes to the current law related to “driving under the influence of marijuana or driving while impaired by marijuana.”

So what is driving high in Washington, DC?

  • There is no consensus in DC about how much marijuana in the system actually impairs driving as there is in Colorado or Washington state.
  • Instead, it is simply illegal to be under the influence of marijuana while driving.
  • And, a person suspected of driving under the influence has–simply by virtue of driving in the state–given “implied consent” to provide a blood or urine sample to police for testing.
  • With laws this murky, it’s best to avoid driving at all after consuming marijuana, no matter how little you consume.

How an officer can stop you:

  • An officer can stop you for another offense, such as speeding, illegal turn, expired tag, etc.
  • Or if they have probable cause that you are driving impaired. This includes:
    • Speeding
    • Swerving
    • Illegal actions of any kind
    • Other suspicious driving activity
  • The District of Columbia also allows law enforcement to set up random roadblocks to check both motorist operation without a license and/or operation with impaired ability due to intoxication.

What happens when they stop you:

  • They will ask some questions, observe your behavior, and probably have you take a preliminary breath test.
  • If you pass the breath test–meaning no alcohol is detected–then they’ll conduct field sobriety tests to determine your level of impairment. The test can be:
    • Walk the Line Test–you’ll be asked to walk in a straight line and the officer will watch for lack of balance, inability to stay on a straight line, or breaks in walking.
    • One Leg Stand Test–you will be asked to raise your foot, be still, count, and look down, and the officer will watch for swaying, hopping, or putting your foot down.
  • They’ll also look for:
    • Dilated pupils
    • The smell of pot
    • Eyelid or body tremors
    • Especially relaxed and uninhibited behavior
    • Short term memory problems
  • If you fail the field sobriety test and/or an officer has other probable cause to suspect you’re driving while high, he or she can arrest you and require you to take a chemical test to determine if there is THC in your system.
    • If you refuse the testing, the officer then has to inform you that your driver’s license will be revoked for 1 year if you do not submit.
    • If after being informed of this, you continue to refuse, the officer will revoke your license on the spot and take you to jail.
  • Learn more about the laws and penalties related to drugged driving in DC from NORML.

Penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana include:

  • For a first offense:
    • A fine of $300
    • Possible imprisonment for up to 90 days
  • For a second offense:
    • A fine of $1,000 to $5,000
    • Imprisonment of not less than 5 days but up to 1 year
    • Possible community service of at least 30 days
    • Possible license suspension of 1 year
  • For a third offense:
    • A fine of $2,000 to $10,000
    • Imprisonment of not less than 10 days but up to 1 year
    • Possible community service of at least 60 days
    • Possible license suspension of 2 years
  • Learn more about the penalties for drugged driving from the DC Metropolitan Police Department.
Other Legal Information

Possession of usable marijuana:

  • More than 2 ounces is a misdemeanor with up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Cultivation:

Our nation’s capitol has a little work to do in regard to how to handle cultivation of more than the maximum number of plants adults are allowed to grow.

  • They say there is no penalty and no fine for having up to 6 plants per adult (or 12 per household)
  • But they do not yet define penalties for having more than 6 plants.
    • Most legal experts believe DC will view more than 6 plants as intent to distribute and will apply penalties accordingly.

Sale, distribution, or intent to distribute:

  • 1/2 pound or less (first offense) is an unclassified offense with up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
  • A subsequent offense carries a penalty of up to 2 years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
  • Distribution to a minor means additional penalties.
  • Distribution within 1,000 feet of a school, day care center, or public recreational area (including pools, playgrounds, video arcades, youth centers, and public libraries) doubles the penalties.

Possession and/or sale of paraphernalia:

  • Possession for personal use or at home has no penalty for adults 21 and over.
  • If you’re under 21, possession of paraphernalia will result in a fine of $100 and up to 30 days in jail.
  • Sale of paraphernalia, first offense, results in a fine of up to a $1,000 and up to 6 months in jail.
  • Sale of paraphernalia, subsequent offenses, results in a fine of up to a $5,000 and up to 2 years in jail.

You can read all the details of marijuana laws and related penalties in Washington, DC over at NORML.

Growing Pot

Initiative 71 allows adults 21 and over in Washington, DC to cultivate marijuana plants for personal use as long as they are grown out of view of the public.

  • Adults can also grow up to 6 marijuana plants at one time.
    • No more than 3 can be mature or flowering plants at once.
  • No more than a total of 12 plants can be cultivated in a single household no matter how many adults live there.
    • No more than 6 can be mature or flowering at once.
  • If you end up with more marijuana than you can use, you can give away up to an ounce or a single plant to someone 21 or older, but no money can change hands.
  • Property owners can ban the cultivation of marijuana on their properties–meaning your landlord can decide that plants cannot be grown on their property, i.e., in your apartment.

To learn more about the laws related to growing marijuana in DC:

Resource Guide