The first medical marijuana stores opened in Washington, D.C., less than two months ago, but the D.C. Council is already considering legalizing the drug.
At-large Councilman David Grosso, an independent, introduced legislation Tuesday to legalize marijuana possession and consumption for adults over 21.
"Most people understand the role that marijuana has played in our community: Unlike what was touted for years during the 'War on Drugs' that it's a gateway drug, really all marijuana's been is a gateway to arrest and a lifetime of struggling with the justice system," he says.
If enacted, the law would levy a 10 percent tax on recreational marijuana and 6 percent on medical marijuana. It would also authorize the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration to issue licenses to recreational marijuana stores.
Grosso believes it would comply with Justice Department guidance issued Aug. 29, which said state-level marijuana legalization will be tolerated if businesses are tightly regulated.
Nobody has approached him to express interest in opening a shop, but about 100 constituents have emailed with supportive messages, he said.
Grosso isn't the only councilman pushing for marijuana reform. Councilman Tommy Wells, a Democratic candidate for mayor, introduced a decriminalization bill July 10 to reduce penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana to a $100 fine versus the current standard of up to six month in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
"Rest assured that folks are going to be pushing for my bill at any hearing on Wells' bill," Grosso says. "I think what will happen is Councilman Wells will have a hearing on decriminalization, and people will show up and say, 'Hey, this doesn't go far enough!' and then I think it would be smart for them to move forward with my bill."
Although he supports the decriminalization bill, along with a majority of the council, Grosso fears it won't address the core issues of violence and criminality associated with the current black market for drugs.
"There's going to be an increase in demand with decriminalization, but there isn't going to be anywhere safe for people to go purchase marijuana," Grosso says. "They're still going to be on the street corners, we're still going to have problems with violence on the street, with people getting arrested for nonviolent offenses."
Councilman Marion Barry, a co-sponsor of the decriminalization bill, is "fully supportive" of marijuana legalization, said Grosso, who also introduced a bill that would automatically seal the criminal records of nonviolent marijuana cases. That bill may be adopted independently or as part of the decriminalization bill, he said.
A study released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union showed Washington, D.C., had a higher marijuana arrest rate per capita than any of the 50 states. About 846 in 100,000 district residents were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, and black residents were 8.05 times more likely to be nabbed.
Congress has the authority to block D.C. laws and did so for years after a 1998 referendum in which city residents voted for medical marijuana.
Grosso says times have changed, however, and he doesn't believe Congress would block implementation of a council-approved legalization bill.
"The mood is turning, the tide is turning," he says.
A voter-initiated legalization referendum, he added, isn't ideal, but it may be successfully pushed by residents next year if the council doesn't act first.