Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU 88.5, November 6, 2014
D.C. voters this week approved a ballot initiative making it legal to use small amounts of marijuana for fun — not just for medical purposes. If Congress doesn’t interfere, the measure could become law next year. We explore the growing momentum behind legal marijuana nationwide, and ask about second-hand smoke, pot tourism and the lessons D.C. can learn from marijuana pioneers Colorado and Washington.
- David Grosso Member, D.C. Council (I-At Large)
- Aleta Labak Online Producer for “The Cannabist,” The Denver Post’s marijuana website
- Steve Fox Long-time cannabis legalization proponent; Lawyer with Vicente Sederberg in Denver and director of lobbying for cannabis industry clients; Lead author and campaign manager of Colorado’s 2012 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana
MS. JEN GOLBECK Welcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. If the will of the voters of D. C. prevails, D. C. will soon be a place where you can legally grow and use small amounts of marijuana for fun, not just for medical purposes. D. C. voters this week approved a ballot initiative, number 71, which makes it legal to have and use up to two ounces of marijuana and to grow up to six plants at home. It's not up to the D. C. council to send the measure to congress and hope congress doesn't interfere.
MS. JEN GOLBECK D. C. already allows medical marijuana and last summer replaced criminal penalties with a $25 fine for possession of small amounts of pot. The D. C. vote comes amid a growing national movement to legalize recreational marijuana with Colorado and Washington leading the way and Oregon and Alaska voting this week to join them. But voters in Florida aren't ready yet.
MS. JEN GOLBECK They rejected a ballot measure that would've okayed medical marijuana. As D. C. pushes ahead, residents are asking questions about second-hand pot smoke, pot tourism and whether to take the next step and start selling and taxing marijuana too. Joining me to look at the future of legal marijuana in D. C. are David Grosso, at-large D. C. council member. Good to have you here.
MR. DAVID GROSSO Thank you very much. Good to be here.
GOLBECK And Steve Fox, longtime cannabis legalization proponent. He's a lawyer with Vicente Sederberg in Denver and director of lobbying for cannabis industry clients. He was also the lead author and campaign manager of Colorado's 2012 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana. Steve, it's good to have you here.
MR. STEVE FOX Thanks for having me.
GOLBECK And Aleta Labak, online producer for "The Cannabist," the Denver Post marijuana website is on phone with us from Denver. Good to have you here.
MS. ALETA LABAKThank you.
GOLBECK David Grosso, let's start with you. D. C. voters this week approved ballot initiative 71 which would make it legal to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants at home. If the measure takes effect, how would it change the status quo in D. C.? Because medical marijuana's already legal here, and the council removed criminal penalties last summer.
GROSSO I think if the measure takes effect -- and really the end is the important thing here -- initiative 71 passed overwhelmingly in the District of Columbia which gave us an indicator that the people in the district are ready to tax and regulate marijuana. The initiative went as far as it could go and the impact that it'll have is you can share marijuana with a friend, you can grow some at your house. And what it does is completely decriminalize it. So now it's not a $25 fine anymore if this moves forward.
GROSSO Now the theory is that Phil Mendelson, the chairman of the council will send this to congress in January. There'll be a period of review in congress and then it'll come back and be in effect. At the same time we have my tax and regulate bill which I introduced in September of 2013. And I'll note, when I introduced it, it was a different time. There was no co-sponsors, no co-introducers on the council. So initiative 71 along with the work that councilmember Wells has done on decriminalization has moved our city to really a new place.
GOLBECK So what happens now? The D. C. council has to send this measure to congress, as you mentioned. And they have 60 legislative days to weigh in. But Mayor Elect Muriel Bowser said yesterday, she might want to have a system for selling and taxing pot in place before sending the bill to Capitol Hill.
GROSSO Well, I was really excited that Mayor Elect Bowser has come out in support of the bill that I introduced. And I'm glad that she's ready to work on this issue with me. And what will happen next is -- we already had a hearing on my bill last Thursday where we got a lot of great input. And this bill will now move forward. We might have to reintroduce it in the new legislative session in January.
GROSSO But if everything works properly we'll have two of these initiatives, the initiative 71 along with my bill, moving forward on the same parallel track. And then they can be implemented after congressional review at the same time. We can clean up any issues that people have with the initiative. We can make sure we have the right process to regulate marijuana in the District of Columbia.
GOLBECK So I'm going to confess, as we go on with this conversation, that we are well outside my area of expertise. A question for you -- and this is why I've prefaced it -- is that the law states that it's legal to carry up to 2 ounces of marijuana outside the home. I am told that that's a lot. Why would someone need to carry that much?
GROSSO That's a great question. I don't know why somebody would actually need to carry that. I think it was a number that the initiative writers thought was a fair number. And these are people that I think have studied it in Colorado and studied it in other places to truly understand how much somebody might want to move from one house to another or share with a friend. And I'm not sure. But let me just say one thing on this. The more times that we can avoid putting people in jail for nonviolent marijuana offenses the better off our city's going to be. And that's been the real motivation of why I'm involved in this.
GOLBECK What would it take for congress and the president to overrule voters and shut down this law or for congress to basically kill it slowly? And do you think either of those scenarios will happen?
GROSSO Well, we've had home rule in the district for 40 years. And in 40 years congress has acted very rarely to intervene with what we're trying to do here in the district of Columbia. So they could pass a resolution that disapproves the referendum. They could pass a resolution that disapproves my bill. They could also put a rider on our appropriations because, you know, they still oversee our budget, which is ridiculous.
GROSSO And so both of those things though, they're going to take a majority of both the House and the Senate and have to be signed by the president. It's a huge hurdle to overcome. I think what we'll hear is a lot of pontificating from some out of touch members of congress like Andy Harris. And what we'll see is that the rest of the congress has moved forward with this issue and believes that the best thing you can do now is move from an unregulated prohibition state in marijuana to something that's regulated by the government to make sure it's not in the hands of minors, to make sure that it's bought and sold in the right place.
GOLBECK We'd like to hear from you too. Do you support making it legal to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve Fox, explain the votes in Oregon, Alaska, and Florida on Tuesday. The two western states approved ballot measures to legalize possession, production and sales of pot for adults over 21. But the Florida measure to legalize medical marijuana needed 60 percent of the vote to pass and fell short with 57 percent saying yes.
FOX Yeah, I mean, Tuesday night was really, one could say, a tipping point in marijuana law reform. This is something that started in 2012 when Washington and Colorado voted to change their laws and make marijuana legal and set up regulated production and sale. But what we had seen over time was that ballot initiatives -- marijuana-related ballot initiatives in off-year elections tended to get lower percentages than during presidential elections to the demographics of people who turn out to vote.
FOX So what we saw on Tuesday night was actually surprising even to me. I would say every initiative ended up doing better than I expected by a significant amount. Florida -- especially you mentioned that Florida didn't pass but it actually ended up with 58 percent. And, you know, in a swing state like Florida, you know, this -- we had just never seen a number like that during an off-year election. You know, since 2000 the highest percentage for a medical marijuana vote in a non-presidential election year was 50 percent. So this was a dramatic increase.
FOXSo what we saw with Alaska, Oregon and Florida all -- and D. C. as well, all getting such high marks in the polls, and during a year when there was clearly a Republican wave going on, it just shows that this issue really has support across the board.
GOLBECK Aleta Labak -- I'm sorry, I can't pronounce your name today.
LABAK Oh, (unintelligible) that's no problem.
GOLBECK Colorado's a pioneer in legalizing recreational marijuana. What's legal there now?
LABAK As far as recreational, it's allowed to -- you're allowed to posses up to 1 ounce of marijuana. And, let's see, there is no public -- open public consumption allowed.
GOLBECK Local jurisdictions in Colorado can opt out of legalized marijuana either by a vote of the city council or through a ballot measure. Five cities have banned pot sales and two more voted on moratoriums this week. What happened in Manitou Spring and in Lakewood on election day?
LABAK Well, Manitou Springs was an interesting case because the city council allowed recreational sales to happen. And they started in July 31. And there was a citizen petition to repeal this measure and that's how that ended up. They would've been the first city, had that measure been approved, to repeal recreational sales. However, the measure failed and the recreational sales will continue. And in Lakewood they -- it was (unintelligible) largest city but they did decide to not allow recreational sales.
GOLBECK Steve Fox, you've been involved for a long time in the nationwide effort to legalize marijuana. How important is this week's vote in D. C. coming on the same day as we mentioned Oregon and Alaska okayed the possession and sale of cannabis but medical marijuana failed in Florida?
FOX I think it's very important. I mean, to see 69 percent support for any measure is significant and eye-opening. And to have that occur on this issue, which was for not only legal possession but also home cultivation, it really just shows that the people do not support marijuana prohibition continuing. And that's something we're seeing across the country.
FOX And I think an important point is that this really will trigger more of a national debate. It really sends the message to congress that times are changing. And it will be interesting to see how they respond to that.
GOLBECK David Grosso, you want to follow up?
GROSSO Absolutely. Thank you. The fact is, right before the vote on Tuesday, I was talking to my staff and predicted that it would be around 70 percent support for this. And the reason why we understood and knew this was coming, this -- you know, that vote was because we've been out all over the city for the past year-and-a-half around decriminalization, around ending the war on drugs, around changing the whole conversation in D. C. on this issue. And the people out there in the city, in the communities understood this matter, supported it.
GROSSO And I'll note that all except one precinct voted to support this. So there's 141 precincts and all except for one did. That's a big deal across the city that people understand the implications of the war on drugs and want to change that.
GOLBECK We're going to take a quick break but we'd like to hear from you too. What concerns do you have about making marijuana legal in D. C. and elsewhere? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo and we'll continue our conversation in a moment. Stay tuned.
GOLBECK Welcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with David Grosso, Steve Fox and Aleta Labak about legalizing marijuana in D. C. A question for all of you -- and David, I'll ask you to do first. There's an interesting piece in Slate by a public policy professor, who says, "D.C. could pioneer a grow-and-give system that stops short of commercializing marijuana and keeps the cannabis industry and its big business approach at bay." He says, "If the goal is to allow adults to smoke in peace, D.C. should just stick with the limits of Initiative 71 and forego the sale and taxation of pot." Do you agree? David, you first.
GROSSO I've actually thought about this a lot. And one of my biggest concerns with that would be the access to marijuana for people under the age of 21. And frankly, I think the best way to avoid it spreading into the youth is to have a regulation like we do with alcohol, to make it sold and bought at particular places, to have some regulation on it. Obviously, I'm a council member who's elected to the D.C. Council to work in the government.
GROSSO So I actually think that the government should be involved here in the regulative process, and make sure that we are growing safe marijuana that can be consumed without danger. And also distributed in a way that's proper. And make sure that people don't get it who really shouldn't, people with problem or with people who are under the age of 21. Do I think that people should be able to grow it a little bit in their homes?
GROSSO I'm not out of -- that's not out of the question. I'm not entirely opposed to that. But I think it should be done in a way that is smart and minimal. And I think the initiative does that. It has three plants that are active and three that are in the early stages permitted. And that's not overwhelmingly a lot. So the one thing to remember here is we're in a place where prohibition where things have not worked.
GROSSO And it's time for something new to happen. And this is what we're trying to do, is create something new that can actually work to keep it out of the hands of minors and to make sure that the underground market is completely eliminated.
GOLBECK Steve, your thoughts?
FOX Sure. Yeah, that piece you referenced was written by Professor Mark Kleiman. And he really seems to have a significant problem with the idea that there will be, you know, a cannabis industry that is operating and cultivating and distributing cannabis in a regulated and controlled manner. But the truth is that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol. Mark Kleiman, his colleagues, the New York Times and others say that the success of marijuana legalization will actually be based on whether alcohol use rates go up or down.
FOX And, you know, our position is that there is no reason to treat marijuana differently than alcohol. And there's no reason to give alcohol, which is far more dangerous than marijuana, a marketing advantage over marijuana. So we believe that the industry should be allowed to flourish and, you know, sell its products and advertise its products in an appropriate way with proper regulation.
GOLBECK Aleta Labak, I'd like your thoughts in particular, since you're in a space now where there is this kind of regulation and commercialized sale of pot.
LABAK Well, one of the things that has happened is the -- a recent sting of area dispensaries and recreational pot shops. There were zero -- targeting underage sales. There were zero cases where any of the pot shops were selling to anyone underage. And I -- that seemed to be fairly telling, as far as how the regulation is helping to limit access to underage users. So I think that the more regulated approach is -- has been successful in Colorado.
GOLBECK We have a lot of callers. And we'd like to hear from you, too. If you'd like to discuss the future of legal marijuana in D.C., give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Let's start with John, in Silver Spring, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JOHN Hi, there.
GOLBECK Hi. What's your question?
JOHN Thanks for taking my call. You asked earlier what our stance was. I'm in favor of legalization of marijuana for all the right reasons I think. But my question is in D.C. and other jurisdictions what measures are being considered to make sure the marijuana being sold and used under these laws is safe in terms of the strength of the drug and more importantly, lacing with PCP and other things? That's my question.
GOLBECK David, do you want to take that?
GROSSO Absolutely. Thanks for question. We would actually incorporate testing facilities in the District of Columbia to monitor the marijuana that's being sold out of the retail stores so there would be an opportunity to keep an eye on this and do random testing. Which, I think is a valid question. We certainly wouldn't want the marijuana to be laced with anything or infiltrated with any other types of drugs. It needs to be straight marijuana that is safe for everybody to consume.
GOLBECK Let's take a call now from Doug, in Northern Virginia. Doug, you're on the air. Go ahead.
DOUG Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to comment that, well, I mean, you know marijuana is here. I've been smoking marijuana for 30 years and used to drive into the District to buy it when I was a kid. I think that Colorado -- which I've been to and have bought marijuana in Boulder and Denver -- does a great job at regulating it in a way that, you know, it's not even visible. Kids can't get in. You know, there's a room you go in. You have to present your ID and then they take you into another room.
DOUG And I also want to comment and say that I think it's great that it's being legalized. And it needs to be taxed properly because I believe that we need to make sure that the money from those taxes goes to fix the ailing school system and to feed the homeless in D.C. And make sure that it, you know, the funds are put to proper use. And if I'm not mistaken, I believe Colorado has done that. Although, I don't know the particulars. They could probably tell you more about that. Thanks for taking my call.
GOLBECK Thanks, Doug. David and Steve, I want you to both address this, but David, you first. And in particular, in your plan are there things that specify where some of the tax money that would be raised from marijuana would be used?
GROSSO In fact there are two aspects to the taxing that's important. One, the level of tax, how high it is. It's at 10 percent in my revised bill. And the second of where we spend the money. And I think there are two priorities that I have and then beyond that I think it's open for discussion. First we have to pay for the regulation of it. It's very important for me that we attach the cost of regulation to the actual money we collect. The second area is to try to do more youth diversion programs like Youth Court.
GROSSO When the youth are involved, under 21, or caught with marijuana, rather than criminalizing their behavior, working with them under some kind of restorative justice program and investing in that. And finally, I'll just make one more note on that. If there's money left over, which there may well be, I think it's important that we recognize the impact that the war on drugs has had on our communities in the District of Columbia. And we have to invest money.
GROSSO We have to invest our effort and our time into giving our African American communities something back, reparations of sorts, when it comes to economic development, when it comes to job training or better education opportunities. And that's really important to me.
GOLBECK Steve, your thoughts?
FOX Sure. Yeah, in Colorado we wrote the measures so that there was 15 percent excise tax with those funds going to public school construction and then the legislature added an additional 10 percent tax on sales and that money is going to regulation, education, treatment and so on. And I believe the figure at this point is that they brought in about $47 million so far this year. And we think that trend will continue.
GOLBECK We have another call from Scott, in Gaithersburg, Md. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead.
SCOTT Good morning. I have a (unintelligible) regarding some of the outside effects of the legalization. So not just the criminalization of it -- or the decriminalization, but, for example, for a long time I worked in the food service industry. And let's say employee X falls off a ladder. The first thing that happens is that employee X goes and gets a drug test to see if drugs were in their system that would make them have fallen off the ladder. And if drugs were in the system, then Workmen's Comp was either denied or, you know, things like that.
SCOTT So now with the legalization of marijuana, would those type of activities no longer occur? Or would that be the legal thing to do? And I do have a second question. Let's say that I am going for a new job. And the job requires a drug test, as many jobs do. Because of -- I (unintelligible) and I'm going for a job interview (unintelligible) and yes, marijuana is now legal. So can you not -- can they not give me the job because of that?
GOLBECK Thanks for your call, Scott. And I'd like to just follow on with that. That there are -- that some of these issues actually come up now with alcohol and even cigarette smoking. There are some places -- I know some fire departments don't allow their firefighters to smoke, even though these things are legal. David, can I get your thoughts on this first?
GROSSO Absolutely. Thank you for your call. I think it's really important that we consider this. This will not change the current policy that is at any employer's office. You know, if you are working for somebody who doesn't want you to consume alcohol on the job or be under the influence of marijuana on the job then you're going to still have to comply with those standards. Now, whether or not you are falling off the ladder based on the use of a drug, then that's still going to be relevant.
GROSSO You know, you shouldn't probably have been on the substance when you're at work. Now, testing for getting a job is another question. And I think we have to be careful because, unlike alcohol, you can test the day of and know if somebody's been drinking and they may have an effect on whether or not you want to hire them. With marijuana, it stays in your system for a lot longer.
GROSSO And so the tests right now are not perfect. Although, we have heard of some tests being tested -- tests being tested? Tests being, you know, worked out over time in Colorado that are more immediate. And maybe Steve can talk about that. But it's a blood test that is done through your saliva that can actually tell you within four hours if somebody's consumed marijuana. And that's a much more immediate test and will give you better standards on whether or not the person is using at the time when the accident happened or used weeks earlier.
GOLBECK Steve, do you know about these faster tests?
FOX Yeah, I believe at this point the state just awarded a grant of $250,000 to a company that's working on this. It's far from being perfected. But this something that would be more helpful for testing drivers and so on. But that's a whole other issue that we could talk about. But yeah, in Colorado, just to answer the question, we didn't change employer policies through the initiative. We allowed employers to maintain their policies because we feel like we can change the law broadly, but we need to let society evolve and employers change their policies at their own pace.
GOLBECK David, some people are concerned about the possibility of pot tourism, people coming into the District from Maryland, Virginia and beyond to get pot. Do you think that'll be an issue?
GROSSO I think people will come to the District to consume pot and marijuana, but we have some pretty strict requirements around it. You can still get it if you have an out-of-state driver's license, but it'll be a very limited amount of marijuana that you'll be able to purchase. I think that'll keep it from going outside the boundaries. My fear is that people will take it, go to another jurisdiction with the marijuana they bought here legally, and then it's still illegal there, that they could get in trouble and not be aware of that. So I think it's…
GROSSO …important for people to remember that no matter what we do in D.C., it's going to be just in our borders, inside our lines and make sure that nobody thinks they can take it outside the city.
GOLBECK Aleta, has Colorado experience pot tourism and how has it addressed that issue?
LABAK Well, yes. There was a state-funded market study on who is buying the marijuana in Colorado? And they determined that in mountain towns 90 percent of sales are happening to out-of-state visitors. So there -- it's definitely a factor. However, the total volume of sales are -- tourists are not accounting for -- according to the study it was about 7 percent of the annual demand for Colorado marijuana was for -- was from tourists. So it is a -- it's happening. But is it significant? That's -- that is still to be determined.
GOLBECK David Grosso?
GROSSO Jen, I'll just note that the more people we can get to come to the District of Columbia and spend their money and the more taxes we can collect from people from out of state the better off we are. You know, we're not allowed to do a commuter tax in D.C. It's about a billion dollar hit to our economy. And so whenever we can get people to come here and eat dinner or hang our or use our parking garages, the better off we'll be as a city. So I encourage people to come here and use our economy.
GOLBECK Steve, do you think the federal government will ever do what some of these states and the District are doing in making marijuana legal?
FOX I think they will. I think what we're looking at right now is a two-year period where the systems in the four now legal states will continue to grow. Medical marijuana's in 23 states. And 2016, it's going to be a big year. And that's when California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine, maybe some others, join the four legal states. And at that point the federal government will really need to decide what they want to do. There will be a potential tax benefit they can gain from making it legal at the federal level and imposing a federal excise tax. And I expect that, combined with public opinion, is what will tip it towards making it legal at the federal level.
GOLBECK We're running a little bit low on time, but we did have a caller who is not -- he says he doesn't think marijuana is criminal act, but he's worried about consumables. So these are things like brownies and chocolate bars. Because they're more difficult to control and it's hard to take too much too fast. I'd like to get all of your thoughts on that because that is sort of a next step beyond just allowing people to smoke marijuana. And it comes with the commercialization, David Grosso, that you've talked about.
GROSSO That's exactly right. And it's inevitable that over time it's going to change the way that you can consume marijuana from pure smoking to vaporizing it to consuming in food or in other edibles. And I think we have to be really careful about that. And that's why regulation is so important, is that you have to have some level of oversight from -- currently I'm putting it in the Alcohol Beverage Regulatory Administration because they have experience with this.
GROSSO But you can't just allow it to be out there. And we have experience with this, with, you know, certain types of alcohol that was being delivered in less quantity so that, you know, it might be attractive to somebody who didn't have to buy it at a liquor store. We can monitor this. We know how to monitor this and I think we should continue to do it right.
GOLBECK Aleta, very quickly, Colorado's experience with these consumables?
LABAK Yes. It did start out there were some concerns and issues. And legislation has been -- it's undergoing some revisions to limit the potency. And as well mandatory testing of edibles -- edible potency is now -- is -- has gone into effect. And that's what's happening in Colorado.
GOLBECK Steve Fox, about 10 seconds, you get the last word on the whole discussion.
FOX Great. Yeah, on that subject I would just say education is the key. You have a lot of people, as we were talking about, with tourists going to Colorado and thinking, well, I don't smoke, I'll just consume an edible. But they need to understand that it really affects the body in a different way and need to understand that there's an appropriate amount and they should take that seriously and try it. And then if they want to try more later they can.
GOLBECK This has been a really interesting conversation. A lot to look forward to going ahead. Thanks to all my guests for joining us. I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.