Washington, D.C. is shaping up to be the most fascinating setting of the great American marijuana experiment.
A series of political quirks have made the city's marijuana-friendly lawmakers and residents agitated, but the outcome — a potentially commercialism-free, socialistic utopian marijuana share society — is being cautiously heralded by some analysts.
D.C. had been moving toward the decriminalization of weed for some time when Congress, in all its wisdom, passed a law banning the city from spending money to regulate pot. That old governmental logic: Prohibit spending money to get rid of costly-to-enforce laws. Anyway, when D.C. voters repealed the law prohibiting marijuana last year, local lawmakers were left with one choice: a marijuana share economy.
Unlike Colorado or Washington, where the state governments carefully track the growth, preparation and trade of marijuana, D.C. — unable to fund an ABC-like marijuana oversight board — decommercialized the industry.
So you can possess pot, grow it, smoke it and give it away. But you cannot trade or sell it.
Mark Kleiman of the RAND Corporation thinks this is a good idea. According to a recent New York Times article, Kleiman and his fellow researchers have recommended that states find "intermediate options between prohibition and commercial legalization," like nonprofit cooperatives or government-run grows (like the system Uruguay recently adopted). Another option is a grow-your-own weed economy like D.C.
That, Kleiman argues, reduces the negative impacts likely to appear in full commercialization: "The main risk is that marijuana businesses will — as alcohol and tobacco companies did — successfully market their products to heavy users who would be better off using less, and that they will resist regulations that discourage problem use," writes the Times.
Conservative commentator David Frum, who opposes outright legalization, told the Times that the D.C. model has merit. "It does seek to thread a path between the evils of having an industry that creates a lot of dependency and, on the other hand, having a lot of people in jail for issues that are fundamentally of dependency and not moral failing."
The big question is if grow-and-give marijuana will work. There's little doubt some aspect of the black market will continue. Not all of marijuana's frequent users have the means or desire to grow their own. It's hard to imagine many people taking on the costs of growing — in D.C., it would have to be indoors — in order to give buds away with nothing expected in return.
But Kleiman says grow-and-give has the potential to get rid of the "flagrant" black market — the kind of street dealing and money-changing that harms neighborhoods and leads to violence — while not opening the floodgates to Big Marijuana.
California, meanwhile, isn't flummoxed by congressional meddling like D.C., so it's unlikely that such a radical mode of legalization would ever stick here.
So far, Ballotpedia lists only one legalization ballot measure with the potential to appear on the 2016 ballot, though there are apparently others in the works. California Marijuana Legalization Initiative, sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project, would regulate and tax weed, leaving everything else to the private sector.
The Golden State's medical marijuana industry operates in the billions, and there hasn't been the scent of a non-commercial proposal from any industry associations, advocates or legislators. There's simply too much money to be made. And lost.