District of Columbia panels weigh legalizing marijuana sales

By Lacey Johnson
A medical marijuana user smells a jar of marijuana at the medical marijuana farmers market at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles, California July 11, 2014. REUTERS/David McNew

By Lacey Johnson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington lawmakers took a step toward legalizing the sale of marijuana in the U.S. capital on Thursday, holding a hearing on rules and taxes ahead of a referendum next week.

The proposed legislation to regulate marijuana sales in the District of Columbia is part of a sharp shift in U.S. public opinion in the past several years that has pushed legalized pot toward the mainstream.

Advocates at the hearing said the legal sale of marijuana was a top civil rights issue since blacks were far more likely to be arrested for pot possession than people of other races.

“It is time to end the failed experiment of marijuana prohibition. It has ... made criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens,” Stacia Cosner, deputy director of the advocacy group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told the joint hearing of the council's finance and business committees.

The proposal would legalize marijuana possession and private consumption for people 21 and older. Marijuana sales would be regulated by the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and taxed similarly to alcohol.

Under the law proposed by independent Councilman David Grosso, marijuana sold for recreational purposes would be taxed at 15 percent. Medical marijuana would be taxed at 6 percent.

Non-medical marijuana revenue would go into a fund that supports public services, such as youth programs and drug prevention education. An NBC4/Washington Post/Marist poll last month showed Washington voters backed legalization by a two-to-one margin.

Nov. 4 ballot initiatives in the District of Columbia, Oregon and Alaska will decide on legalizing marijuana, and they could join the states of Colorado and Washington. Decriminalization of pot in the District of Columbia took effect in July.

More than 30 activists and policy experts testified on Thursday, and they overwhelmingly favored Grosso's bill.

But Lanre Falusi, a pediatrician, said legalization would increase access to the drug. "A growing number of medical studies are showing the true dangers of marijuana,” she said, and the bill would put minority youth in poverty at risk.

Grosso responded, “I don’t think you can do more harm, in the District of Columbia or in this country, than putting them behind bars.”

Marijuana reform in Washington could face scrutiny from the U.S. Congress, which has constitutional oversight over the capital.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)