D.C. — And Congress — Block Public Vote On Legalizing Marijuana Sales

Photo Credit: Daniel Lobo

The D.C. Board of Elections on Wednesday blocked a proposed ballot initiative that sought to legalize the retail sale of marijuana in the city and direct 40 percent of the resulting tax revenues to black residents.

The board said putting the initiative on the D.C. ballot would violate city law, as well as a congressional prohibition that stops D.C. from taking any additional steps to lower penalties on marijuana.

The initiative was submitted to the board in January by Asar Mustafa, who says he is the director of the Economic and Protection Independent Political Party. Speaking to the board on Wednesday, he said legalizing marijuana sales would bring the city billions of dollars in tax revenue, a portion of which he said would go to help address the needs of the city’s black residents — many of whom were victimized by the war on drugs, and are now struggling to take part in legal businesses in states like Colorado and Washington.

“Those same men and women the city has typecast as criminals,” he said. “If you legalize cannabis, you’re talking about employing those people and you get a chance to tax them while they’re working in the cannabis industry.”

But the board’s three members explained to Mustafa that the initiative could not legally appear on a D.C. ballot because it directs a proportion of tax revenues from marijuana sales to black residents and businesses. D.C. law does not allow initiatives to be used to appropriate funds, or discriminate based on race or gender.

And then there’s the matter of Congress. In late 2014, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland) inserted a provision into the city’s annual budget that prohibits officials from taking any further steps to legalize or regulate marijuana. Harris wrote the prohibition shortly after D.C. residents approved Initiative 71, which legalized the possession, personal use and cultivation of marijuana — but remained silent on sales.

The congressional prohibition has been interpreted broadly enough that in 2015 D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine advised members of the D.C. Council not to hold a formal hearing on a bill that would have legalized and regulated sales of marijuana. And in a letter to the Board of Elections this week, he issued a similar warning.

“Mr. Racine is saying this initiative would violate Congress’s prohibition on the District of Columbia,” said Kenneth McGhie, the board’s general counsel.

But despite the board’s arguments that its hands were tied and the marijuana initiative could not be placed on the ballot, dozens of marijuana advocates spoke out in favor of legalizing sales.

“The city is very dependent on tourism, and the residents of the neighboring states will come in here just because of the recreational cannabis. The Smithsonian is just a secondary reason for them to come,” said Lisa Scott, president of the D.C. Cannabis Business Association.

Some of the speakers said they understood the board had no choice but to reject the initiative, but they still wanted to know where the board members stood on the issue.

“Do y’all believe in this initiative?” shouted one speaker.

“It doesn’t really matter what we believe,” responded board member Mike Gill.

For his part, Mustafa, who proposed the ballot initiative, said the board should take a stand and let the initiative make it to the ballot — especially since it would explicitly direct revenue to black residents.

“If you don’t want to help the people who need the help the most, what does that say about you? If you’re in favor of the system, that means you’re not in favor of black citizens,” he said.

“We certainly want to see initiatives succeed,” said board member Dionna Maria Lewis. “We want these issues to get to the voters to make sure the voice of the citizenry is heard. “But we’re not here to make determinations on the merits or the content [of an initiative].”

Later this month, marijuana activists say they will rally outside the Wilson Building, where they will demand that the city allow marijuana-related businesses to operate freely and urge legislators to lobby Harris to free the city to legalize the sale of marijuana.

They also say they may give away small amounts of marijuana inside the Wilson Building — which, under Initiative 71, is perfectly legal.