The Real Election Winner: Weed

If Washington D.C.’s newly legalized ‘grow and give’ pot law works, it could be the turning point for marijuana legislation in the U.S.

11.05.14 3:16 PM ET

Four places in America just made pot legal, but D.C. is the one to watch.

With narrow majorities in most, two states, one district, and one city passed legislation that makes marijuana legal. Washington, D.C. approved Initiative 71 by a margin of 69-31, Oregon passed its Measure 91 by 55 percent, Alaska’s Ballot Measure 2 won 52-48, and a local initiative in South Portland, Maine won 52-48.

But while Oregon and Alaska overcame what some considered unbeatable odds, their programs closely resemble the legalizations currently underway in Colorado and Washington. D.C.’s initiative, on the other hand, is uncharted territory. Allowing residents to grow, smoke, and gift weed, it legalizes participating in the weed community, but not profiting from it. If the “grow and give” policy works, D.C. may usher in an entirely new—and arguably safer—way to legalize marijuana in America.

The initiative, classified by experts as “soft legalization,” removes all penalties for possession and home cultivation of limited amounts of marijuana by adults 21 years of age and older. In other words, residents can get stoned as long as it’s their marijuana, or free.

In many ways, the experiment makes more sense than previous marijuana legislation.

“D.C. is the one I’m most excited about,” Mark Kleiman, one of the leading drug policy experts in America told me days before the election. “This could work.” In an article for Slate last week, Kleiman elaborated on the concept, calling the idea to keep ganja out of the marketplace a potentially “big improvement” on the current prohibition.

“It wouldn’t generate any tax revenue, or offer consumers the same convenience or product variety as a commercial system, and of course policing the boundary between “giving” and “selling” would be virtually impossible,” he says. But while the drug may not morph into a money making machine, it may work to maintain the safety of residents. “Eliminating organized marketing would likely lead to a much smaller increase—if any—in cannabis abuse than we would expect if we sell pot the way we now sell beer,” writes Kleiman.

Legalization in the first two states in America to do so has been highly criticized. In the Centennial State, anti-legalization proponents called the effort chaotic and damaging, pointing to studies that show increases in fatal traffic accidents and a 7 percent increase in crime since legalization. While it may be too soon to claim these as fact, or know for sure exactly what impact legalization had on public safety in CO, its new identity as the golden child of the marketplace is evident.

In the weeks following Colorado’s legalization, the drug used by college students and cancer patients alike become a full-blown—and hugely valuable—commodity. Weed pioneers with little knowledge of the drug and huge desires for profit flocked to the state for a “green rush” motivated by estimates of billion dollar profits.

From cheesy, expensive “pot tours” consisting mostly of hot-boxing buses on empty interstates to college grads turned “marijuana marketing professionals,” everyone rushed to cash in on the bud. Candy-flavored edibles and silly TV ads served to mask its identity as a drug that—while more benign than others—is not without risks. Manifestations of this normalization cropped up across both states, including a poll out of Denver this August showing that fewer kids in the capital view marijuana as “risky.”

Oregon and Alaska, like Colorado and Washington, will try their hand at regulating weed like booze. A lot has been learned from mistakes made by the first two states, so it’s arguable that their movements may be less chaotic and dangerous. But as we’ve seen with the alcohol industry, the private profit-driven market of a drug can be dangerous. While the end of prohibition brought an end to the alcohol black market in America, the ubiquity of it brought its own problems. “Alcohol now accounts for more substance use disorder, more violence (especially sexual assault and domestic violence), more health damage, more injury, more death, and even more arrests than all illicit drugs combined,” writes Kleiman.

Although many studies on marijuana have shown it to be less dangerous and addictive than alcohol, a compelling 20-year study released this October shows that this new version of marijuana—with anywhere from 10-30 times the THC level—may be more dangerous than we thought. Among the study’s most jarring statistics were that one in six teenagers who smoke the drug become dependent—which doubles their risk of developing psychotic disorders.

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Whether or not the new pieces of legislation will pass, pro-legalization groups view the victory as an important reflection of the changing landscape of marijuana in America.

Tom Angell is the founder of the Marijuana Majority—a website that went viral last October by culling public figures who support legalization. From Lil’ John tweets (““I #CareLikeCrazy bout legalization cause an American is arrested every 42 secs on marijuana charges”) to an official statement from President Obama (“Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do.”), the website aims to spotlight the prevalence of support for marijuana that has emerged in the U.S.

Tuesday night, Angell’s work paid off. "With Oregon and D.C. coming on board, it's clear that Colorado and Washington voting to legalize in 2012 was no anomaly,” he says. “The trend is clear: Marijuana prohibition is coming to an end.” Angell believes the three wins bode well for pot’s role in the next major election, too. “As 2016 approaches, we can expect to see many more ambitious national politicians finally trying to win support from the cannabis constituency instead of ignoring and criminalizing us."

As the four regions begin using marijuana legally, Americans should pay close attention to what unfolds in D.C. With Congressmen now legally able to get stoned, someone’s got to.