Cannabis in America

The Absurdity of D.C. Marijuana Legalization

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I’m writing this from Washington D.C. As many of you know, as of 12:00am Thursday, recreational marijuana became legal in our Nation’s Capital. Things will never be the same. Our Congresspeople are lounging on the steps of the Capitol, smoking joints. (This hasn’t affected their productivity–it has remained dismal.) All of the CVSes are out of Doritos. The National Mall looks like modern day Woodstock. It’s the end of this city as we know it.

Just kidding. Everything is still normal. Although it did snow in D.C.–a rarity for late February–I don’t think that had to do anything with recreational marijuana becoming legal. No, everything here in D.C. is basically the same. The line at Starbucks was still too long. The metro is a fiery pit of despair. My hallway still smells like weed–although I guess we shouldn’t be as surprised by that one.

Regardless though, nothing has changed, but it is now legal to smoke, possess, and grow recreational pot in D.C., with some obviously pretty heavy restrictions. But, given D.C.’s status, it’s kind of a mess.

D.C. is a unique place, to say the least. For a long time there was almost no ability to self-govern–an attitude left over from the idea that D.C. was to be the city where our federal government was located and little else. We did receive some limited home rule in the 1970s, but there’s still a lot in D.C. that’s controlled by everyone’s favorite group of whiny toddlers–Congress.

Now, weed became legal because a pretty sizable majority of the population of the District of Columbia voted to legalize it during the 2014 midterms. The ballot measure was named “Initiative 71.” However, unlike the states that have approved the legalization of recreational marijuana, D.C. has had to wait to figure out if our votes actually allow us to control the legislation of our own city. (I’m clearly not bitter.) Basically, we had to wait and see if Congress would step in and stop the legalization of weed. It didn’t–or at least not in so many words, though we’ll get to that later–so we’re in the clear, right? If only. There are still a lot of complicated, absurd things happening here in D.C. with regard to the legalization of marijuana, and here are a few of the most pressing:

D.C. Has a Lot of Federal Land

D.C. has two kind of distinctive parts to it–there’s federal land and then there’s the land that’s occupied by the city and by private residences, businesses, and buildings. Initiative 71 obviously only legalized weed on non-federal land. Although you can’t smoke in public anywhere, you can have it on your person without it being against the law.

While that sounds pretty straightforward, it’s not. In D.C. Twenty-nine percent of the land is actually federal–including parks, monuments, and buildings. With a few exceptions, every time that two diagonal streets meet, a park, square, or circle is formed. And all of those grassy areas are federal land–meaning they’re not good “grassy” areas, if you catch my drift. Here’s what the map of D.C. looks like if you mark all the federal land–it’s in green in the map below.

So unless you want to memorize that map, be careful, and be prepared take some weird routes home.

D.C.’s Weed Legalization Expects Everyone to be Very Generous

So, what D.C. legalized is actually kind of weird–it didn’t set up any sort of parameters to sell recreational marijuana. So you can have recreational weed, but you can’t buy or sell it. You can, however, gift it, or receive it as a gift. So, there will be a lot of “gifts” happening, presumably.

Congress is Still Freaking Out

The situation with Congress right now is very complicated. There’s basically an argument over whether or not what D.C. is doing is legal. In a federal spending bill, Congress had included a measure preventing D.C. from using money to “enact” marijuana legalization. That, however, isn’t what D.C. is doing. There really isn’t any money being used–not arresting people for possessing marijuana doesn’t cost anything. Furthermore, it may have already been “enacted” when it passed in November, so that measure, passed later, wouldn’t apply. It just depends a lot on your definition of enacted. Congress could still act, but right now it’s all up in the air.

So, that’s the news from here in the District. Whether or not legalized marijuana is here to stay is yet to be seen. Everyone’s confused, avoiding public parks, and Congress is being a pain, so it’s basically just business as usual here.

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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