No one really knows what will happen next week when recreational cannabis becomes legal in Washington, D.C. Unless Congress intervenes, implementation of Initiative 71 will begin as early as February 26, 2015. Individuals over the age of 21 will be able to:
- possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use,
- grow no more than six cannabis plants with three or fewer being mature,
- transfer without payment (but not sell) up to one ounce of marijuana to another person 21 years of age or older and
- use or sell drug paraphernalia.
It’s a “give and grow” system, and what that will look like is an open question. One possibility is that European-style cannabis social clubs will spring up.
Next Stop Barcelona
Cannabis social clubs operate openly in countries such as Spain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands, where neither personal consumption nor cultivation of small amounts of cannabis is prosecuted, much as will be the situation in the District of Columbia.
The nonprofit clubs require membership, which is often freely available subject to requirements such as having a local address. Members do not buy cannabis, but pay a “membership fee.” The club cultivates the cannabis and allows members to consume. As long as the total amount grown and distributed matches the sum of individual legal limits, things work out fine, at least on paper.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
The Rand report, commissioned by Vermont as part of its exploration of options for a legal marijuana industry, begins with the premise that legalization is not a binary choice, with the only alternatives being either the black market or a structure to treat cannabis like alcohol. One of the advantages of a nonprofit alternative may be that it takes the incentive to encourage overconsumption out of the equation. This is a compelling argument, but there are some other big issues to address, as well.
Tourism is a big industry in the District, but these tourists may not put much money directly into the city’s coffers without tax revenue from marijuana sales. From an image perspective, it is also hard to imagine either the Council of the District of Columbia or Congress showing much enthusiasm for cannabis tourism in the nation’s capital. Clubs in Barcelona seem to be subject to periodic crackdowns designed, it appears, to discourage just this.
It has taken Colorado much of the last two years to work out the details of quality control, from pesticide and contaminant testing to the regulation of THC dosages in edibles. How would cannabis social clubs handle this issue? One very sick club consumer could set legalization back in significant ways.
Law enforcement has taken a largely hands-off approach to cannabis since decriminalization took effect in July 2014, but law enforcement priorities are administrative and subject to change. The jurisdictional issues within D.C. are especially complicated because so much land is occupied or regulated by federal agencies. If the tourist from Texas, with social club marijuana in her pocket, steps off the sidewalk to look at the squirrels in Rock Creek Park, can she be arrested by the federal Park Police for a violation of the Controlled Substances Act?
This is a problem that social club consumers in non-federal governmental system like France do not face. In any event, turning the entire issue of legalization over to the nonprofit sector hardly seems to amount to the strong system of state regulation that the industry has counted on to keep federal law enforcement action at bay.
Two ballrooms have been rented out for a big cannabis expo in the District on February 28. D.C. Council member David Grosso, who earlier introduced the now-stalled measure that would have created a regulatory system, is pleading for responsible behavior. It is hold-your-breath-and-watch time.