In Washington, D.C., it’s now legal to possess marijuana, to grow it, to smoke it and to give it away. But you’re not allowed to trade in it. You can give your neighbor up to an ounce, but if he gives you money or even bakes you a pie in exchange, that’s illegal.
The District of Columbia has legalized marijuana — but is trying not to create a market in marijuana. It’s aiming for a gift economy.
Other legalizing jurisdictions are taking a more traditional approach. Colorado and Washington State have both established regulated markets in marijuana that look a lot like those many states have to regulate and tax alcohol.
District of Columbia council members were expected to do the same until Congress passed a law barring them from spending money to regulate marijuana. That left the city with noncommercial legalization as its only option after voters repealed the law prohibiting marijuana in the district last November.
The New York Times reports that the district’s lawmakers aren’t happy about the process, but maybe they should be pleased about the outcome. Mark Kleiman, a leading expert on drug policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been arguing for Washington’s “grow-and-give” approach for years. He is one of several researchers affiliated with the RAND Corporation who have been urging states to look for intermediate options between prohibition and commercial legalization. They have urged states to consider approaches like nonprofit cooperatives, a government monopoly on marijuana production or a grow-your-own rule like the one Washington has ended up with, essentially by accident.
Drug prohibition imposes many costs. People go to jail for using and trading in drugs, causing major disruption to individuals’ lives and to communities. Illegal markets breed crime, including violent crime, because people in the drug business can’t use the courts to enforce contracts and settle disputes. And prohibition reduces access to a product that many people enjoy and use responsibly — though it’s not that hard to buy marijuana even where it’s illegal.
Washington’s reform isn’t about making the marijuana trade truly, totally noncommercial. It’s about making the commercial aspects of the marijuana trade mostly harmless, occurring discreetly inside people’s homes, without attendant violence or mass marketing. The Times report compares the issue to gambling — your home poker game might be illegal, but isn’t likely to cause violent crime or draw government attention in the way a full-scale gambling operation might.