Locked out of Initiative 71 by the nanny state
Initiative 71 brought sweeping change to the District, but because of federal regulation, many longtime residents feel left out of the new “District of Cannabis.” In 2014, residents voted to legalize possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana, growth of up to six plants and indoor use for everyone 21 or older, but like everything in the District, it’s not that simple.
Not everyone can actually smoke or medicate at home. Home use and home-grow are controlled by property owners. Marijuana use policies are set by landlords, so renters should be careful to check marijuana-smoking policies in their lease terms before signing away their rights under Initiative 71. Tenants in public housing don’t get to choose a cannabis-friendly lease and are forced to take the restrictions of the federal government, unless they want to risk becoming homeless.
The federal government still treats cannabis as a dangerous Schedule I drug and forbids possessing, consuming or growing marijuana in public housing. Federal housing residents can’t smoke outside either because public use was banned by the D.C. Council, and they can’t go to a cannabis lounge because the council banned social use, too. So even after legalizing marijuana in the District, the 20,000 residents whose landlord is the federal government are stuck living under draconian, drug-war policing and don’t have a safe place to smoke or medicate in or out of their home.
Homeowners, however, are under no such restrictions and can take full advantage of the Initiative 71 liberties to consume and grow cannabis in their homes in the District. Given the high prices of the medical marijuana program, many low-income cannabis patients would prefer to save money by growing their own medicine at home, but they can’t.
The unfortunate result is that access to Initiative 71 freedoms functions as a system in which the rich can afford to exercise their rights in the privacy of their homes that they own, and lowincome residents are locked up or locked out by the nanny state. At a recent meeting in a Northeast public library, members of the community group DCMJ aired their frustration about current marijuana policies in public housing.
One DCMJ member who lives in a subsidized unit in Southeast reported that she was greeted the day after the annual April 20 marijuana holiday to a big orange memo from building management notifying residents that marijuana use was prohibited in and around the property. The notice explained that if tenants break this rule, they have one chance to correct the violation, but if they receive federal housing subsidies, then they are subject to a “one strike” rule and could be evicted immediately without a chance to appeal. In today’s Washington, money buys leniency and the freedom to avoid the threat of eviction and harassment for marijuana, and if you can’t pay, you’re in trouble.
The DCMJ member noted that after she spoke up about black mold in the building, she was intimidated by the management of her building for using marijuana, even though she has a medical card for her fibromyalgia. Many of the residents on the block smoke, and she is worried that the management will target residents who use marijuana and encourage neighbors to report on each other so that it can continue to neglect maintenance issues. The resident also worries that developers might be setting the stage for mass evictions as the area gentrifies from the Anacostia extension of the D.C. Streetcar.
For people receiving federal housing vouchers, Initiative 71 is irrelevant. That’s not fair. There should not be different sets of rules for those who can pay and those who can’t. The District needs one set of laws. Initiative 71 was supposed to provide liberty for all, not just privileges for some.
An anti-drug mural in the Lincoln Heights public housing area.