Legality of Cannabis by U.S. Jurisdiction

A canvasser for the DC Cannabis Campaign soliciting signatures for Initiative 71

Initiative 71 was a Washington, D.C. voter-approved ballot initiative that legalized the recreational use of cannabis. The short title of the initiative was Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014.[1] The measure was approved by 64.87% of voters on November 4, 2014 and went into full effect on February 26, 2015.[2][3]

Due to a Congressional mandate, Washington, D.C. is not permitted to establish recreational marijuana dispensaries as outlined in Initiative 71. As such, marijuana is currently legal to possess and use in the District but not to commercially produce or sell.


In 2010, DC-based headshop Capitol Hemp was one of the largest contributors to the failed Proposition 19, which would have legalized cannabis in California.[4] The following year Capitol Hemp was raided by the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department for allegedly selling paraphernalia.[5] As required in a deferred prosecution agreement with U.S. Attorneys,[6] owners Adam Eidinger and Alan Amsterdam were forced to shut down the stores in September 2012[7] and decided to start the process to change the law.[8]

In early 2013, local activists Adam Eidinger, Nikolas Schiller, and Alan Amsterdam formed a skeleton organization "DCMJ" to advocate decriminalization of marijuana in the District.[9][10] After seeing no movement from the Council of the District of Columbia, Eidinger submitted initial paperwork for a decriminalization ballot initiative, which was rejected by the Board of Election in September 2013 on technical budgetary grounds.[11] The following month DCMJ solicited online feedback [12] and resubmitted a second version, now strengthened to call for full legalization of marijuana.[13] In an interview with the Washington Post, Eidinger attributed his inspiration to legalize marijuana to his experiences in the 2011 police raids on his Capitol Hemp retail store, which was forced into closure by the city.[14]

On January 10, 2014, the DC Cannabis Campaign submitted the final version of the ballot initiative to the District of Columbia Board of Elections.[1] Hearings were held in February and March, and on April 4, 2014, the board finalized the ballot initiative language.[1][15]

Petition gathering[edit]

The campaign collected petition signatures from April 23[16] until the July 7[17] deadline, ultimately submitting over 55,000 signatures; the District certified 27,688 of the signatures as valid, exceeding the 22,600 requirement.[18]

Intervening decriminalization[edit]

While the campaign was preparing its ballot initiative, on March 4, 2014, the Council of the District of Columbia decriminalized possession of cannabis,[19] which went into effect in July following the mandatory 30-day congressional review period. Medical cannabis had already been legalized in the District by Initiative 59 in 1998, but its implementation was blocked by Congress until 2009, with the first legal sales occurring in 2013.[20]


Throughout 2014, the DC Cannabis Campaign advocated for passage of the measure, while groups such as Two Is Enough D.C. formed to oppose the measure.[21]

The measure was approved by 64.87% of voters on November 4, 2014.[2] Almost immediately following, Republicans in Congress, and Maryland Representative Andy Harris in particular, vowed to block legalization of cannabis in D.C.[22] The ballot results were certified on December 3, 2014.[2]

Initiative 71
Choice Votes %
Referendum passed Yes 115,050 64.87
No 49,168 27.72
Total votes 164,255 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 177,358

Source: DC Board of Elections[2]

Opposition in Congress[edit]

In mid-December 2014, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill (nicknamed the "CRomnibus"—a portmanteau of omnibus and continuing resolution[23][24]) that ended the federal ban on medical marijuana, but that also included a legislative rider targeted at D.C.'s Initiative 71. The rider's final language barred the use of funds to "enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes."[25][26] The final language notably solely used the phrase "enact" rather than "enact or carry out." Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said that "she was told by Democratic budget negotiators that the omission was made on purpose to give city leaders a chance to argue that in moving forward, the District is only carrying out, and not enacting, the measure."[27] Norton reiterated this point in an Initiative 71 questions and answers section on her House Web site.[28]

Both D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council of the District of Columbia took the position that the voter-approved initiative became self-enacting.[29][30] On January 13, 2015, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson sent the measure to Congress for a mandatory 30-day review period,[31] in accordance with the District of Columbia Home Rule Act.[28]

On February 24, 2015, Representatives Jason Chaffetz and Mark Meadows sent a letter to Bowser urging her to not move forward with Initiative 71.[32][33] Congressional Republicans, including the omnibus rider author's Andy Harris, threatened prison time for the D.C. mayor and others involved, suggesting that they could be prosecuted by the Justice Department under the Anti-Deficiency Act, which "imposes criminal penalties on government employees who knowingly spend public funds in excess of their appropriated budgets."[34]


This congressional review period ended at 12:01 a.m. on February 26, 2015, making D.C. the "only place east of the Mississippi River where people can legally grow and share marijuana in private."[35] D.C. "allows adults 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, grow up to six plants, and gift up to one ounce of pot to other adults 21 and older, but sales remain banned", as Washington, D.C.'s ballot initiative process does not allow spending mandates such as commercialization would require.[36][37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Ballot Initiative". DCMJ. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  2. ^ a b c d "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-12-20. Retrieved 2015-02-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ Davis, Aaron C. (2014-11-04). "D.C. voters overwhelmingly support legalizing marijuana, joining Colo., Wash". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  4. ^ Aaron Houston (2010-12-09). "Budding Prospects: Youth Activists Push Marijuana Reform". The Nation. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  5. ^ Stephanie Meyer (2011-10-27). "D.C. Police Raid Capitol Hemp in Adams Morgan, Chinatown". Washington City Paper. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  6. ^ Martin Austermuhle (2012-04-02). "Smoked Out: As Part of Agreement With Prosecutors, Capitol Hemp to Close Stores". DCist. Archived from the original on 2013-06-26. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  7. ^ Mike DeBonis (2012-09-12). "Capitol Hemp in D.C. closes, after police raid in Oct. seized smoking devices". Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  8. ^ Clinton Yates (2015-03-03). "From drug busts to cannabis conventions, D.C.'s relationship with weed takes a leap". Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  9. ^ Mike DeBonis (2013-04-17). "Marijuana policy groups kick off D.C. legalization campaign with poll". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  10. ^ Most Read. "The D.C. Council's marijuana club ban inadvertently creates the 'smokeasy'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  11. ^ Segraves, Mark (2013-09-04). "Activists to Submit New Marijuana Legalization Proposal | NBC4 Washington". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  12. ^ "Draft Ballot Initiative - Please Leave Feedback!". DCMJ. 2013-10-17. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  13. ^ Mike DeBonis (2013-09-04). "The Washington Post". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  14. ^ Stein, Perry (2015-02-24). "Top D.C. pot activist plans to reopen Capitol Hemp in Adams Morgan". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  15. ^ "Notice ID 4827610: Elections, Board of – Formulation of the short title, summary statement, and legislative text for Initiative No. 71, the "Legalization of Possession of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014.", DC Regulations". 2014-04-04. Archived from the original on 2015-02-28. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  16. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-05-06. Retrieved 2014-05-06.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  17. ^ Cohen, Matt (2014-07-07). "Marijuana Activists Turn In More Than 57,000 Signatures For Legalization Effort". DCist. Archived from the original on 2017-03-08. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  18. ^ Mike DeBonis (2014-08-06). "D.C. voters to decide on marijuana use in November". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  19. ^ Davis, Aaron C. (2014-03-05). "D.C. Council votes to eliminate jail time for marijuana possession". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  20. ^ Altieri, Erik (2013-07-30). "First Medical Marijuana Sale Reported in Washington, DC | NORML Blog, Marijuana Law Reform". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  21. ^ Weiner, Rachel (17 September 2014). "'Two. Is. Enough. D.C.' forms to oppose marijuana legalization effort in the District". Washington Post. Retrieved 27 February 2015.
  22. ^ Davis, Aaron C. (2014-11-05). "Legalization limbo in D.C.: Republican congress will have final say on city pot law". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  23. ^ "Obama Signs $1.1 Trillion Government Spending Bill". NBC News. 2014-12-16. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  24. ^ Ezra Klein (2014-12-11). "How to sound smart about the 2015 appropriations bill". Vox. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  25. ^ "Bill Text – 113th Congress (2013-2014) – THOMAS (Library of Congress)". Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  26. ^ "HR 83" (PDF). Retrieved 2019-07-30.
  27. ^ Davis, Aaron C. (2014-12-13). "D.C. maneuvering for marijuana showdown with Congress". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  28. ^ a b "Frequently Asked Questions on Implementing D.C.'s Marijuana Legalization Initiative | Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton". Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  29. ^ German Lopez (2015-01-14). "Despite congressional threats, DC Council is definitely moving forward on legal marijuana". Vox. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  30. ^ 54 days Meet the Press (2015-01-04). "Meet the Press Transcript – January 4, 2015". NBC News. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  31. ^ Davis, Aaron C. "D.C. challenges Congress to halt marijuana legalization in nation's capital". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  32. ^ Davis, Aaron C. "Lawmakers encourage Bowser to reconsider declaring pot legal in D.C." The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  33. ^ "Letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser regarding Initiative 71 – The Washington Post". The Washington Post. 2015-02-24. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  34. ^ Mike DeBonis and Aaron C. Davis (2012-12-14). "Bowser: Legal pot possession to take effect at midnight in the District". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  35. ^ "Pot fight between DC Mayor, Congress could cost the city". The Washington Post. Associated Press. Retrieved 2015-02-28.[dead link]
  36. ^ German Lopez (2015-02-26). "Marijuana is now legal in Washington, D.C.. Here's what you need to know". Vox. Retrieved 2015-02-28.
  37. ^ By A.J. Feather (2015-02-26). "Weed The People: What You Need to Know About Pot Legalization in Washington, DC - ABC News". Retrieved 2016-11-07.