America is getting greener every day. Voter approved ballot initiatives to fully legalize marijuana passed last November in Alaska and Washington D.C. This week they are going into effect.
Up north in The Last Frontier State, Alaskans gained their cannabis freedom yesterday. In the nation's capitol, at 12:01 a.m. tonight, it will become legal to possess and grow marijuana.
What makes things more interesting is that there are no retail stores opening anytime soon in either locality. In D.C. , Congress may also have a say.
So without a store to go buy a variety of Sativas and Indicas how does the new law work for consumers?
Alaskan residents age 21 or older can now possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants at home.
Selling any amount of marijuana remains illegal at the moment. However, up to an ounce can be given away. Alaskans are known for their robust tradition of bartering. But trading anything of value for cannabis will also remain illegal. Smoking in public can also fetch a $100 fine.
Alaska Public Media reported that Gov. Bill Walker has filed a piece of legislation that will create a marijuana control administration within state government.
The board would handle the regulation and licensing of marijuana retailers. It would be independent of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, but the groups would share the same staff within the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development.
Advocates for the marijuana industry have asked that the two substances be regulated separately to reduce potential industry conflicts.
The Alaskan marijuana initiative (officially known as Measure 2) was approved by 53 percent of voters. It allows four types of businesses: Commercial cultivators, processors (for extracts, oils and edibles), product testing laboratories and retail stores.
The tax system will be basic: A $50 per ounce excise tax will be levied on each wholesale ounce of cannabis sold by a grower to a processor or store.
Local municipalities also will have a say in zoning and other issues. Anchorage, the state's largest city and point of entry for most tourists, took up a bill to ban retail cannabis stores, but the measure was defeated in a 9-2 vote in December.
Another aspect of Alaska's laws has an interesting local connection.
Because statehood came to Alaska in 1959, it has the most modern constitution. One of the rights enshrined to residents is the strongest legal definition of personal privacy. In 1973, Irwin Ravin, a colorful attorney who migrated from Newark, New Jersey, decided to put it to the test. After being stopped for a broken taillight with some marijuana in his pocket, Ravin refused to sign the ticket. He was arrested and took the case to trial. By 1975, Ravin argued the issue all the way up to the State Supreme Court. It turned out to be a landmark decision.
"We conclude that no adequate justification for the state's intrusion into the citizen's right to privacy by its prohibition of possession of marijuana by an adult for personal consumption in the home has been shown," the court ruled.
Ravin vs The State allows up to four ounces of cannabis to be possessed within an Alaskan home. Measure 2 specifically does not interfere with that ruling.
The law has seamlessly changed in Alaska, but things are getting more complicated in Washington D.C.
The D.C. initiative (Measure 71), approved by 70 percent of the city's voters, goes into place tonight. It specifically does not address any retail scheme. Instead, it has a simpler approach.
D.C. residents can posses up to 2 ounces of marijuana, grow up to six plants and give away up to one ounce for no payment.
All of this local freedom for marijuana consumers has drawn the intense ire of some Republican members of Congress. Last year Rep Andy Harris (R-MD) and Rep Joe Pitts (R-PA) attempted to prevent the law from being implemented by tucking a provision into the omnibus federal spending package. Congress has the final say over all fiscal decisions in the District of Columbia.
But D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Washington's city council pressed forward by "transmitting" the measure to Congress. Because the format of the District's marijuana legalization plan does not require any spending by the city they feel they can honor the will of voters.
The Hill reports today that a Congressional investigation has been opened. Rep Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Rep Mark Meadows (R-NC) have even gone so far as to threaten Mayor Bowser with prison. They appeared to have backed off, somewhat, later in the afternoon. House leadership does not seem keen to get involved with direct litigation.
Still Rep. Harris told the Washington Post today that he hopes that US Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice would "bring action under the Anti-Deficiency Act."
Arresting D.C.'s mayor would be an extraordinarily unusual move. In fact, the conflict has brought out some passionate support for marijuana reform.
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) gave a passionate speech on the Senate floor in December on the topic:
"The very idea of taxation without representation and the self determination of people is at the core of our democratic ideals as a nation. Yet despite this, Washington D.C. with a population larger than two of our states, sees the constant undermining of this very principle....So when the District of Columbia votes just like Colorado, just like Washington, just like Oregon, just like Alaska to change marijuana laws...when Washington D.C. grapples with the devastating impact of the Drug War; sees the pain and the challenges and the struggles therein...when the people of the city come together to try a different way forward should we not honor their results?"
White House spokesman Josh Ernest indicated that President Obama shares that sentiment.
It is unlikely that Congress can do anything to prevent Measure 71 from going into effect tonight. Fittingly, D.C. is the first place east of the Mississippi for cannabis prohibition to end. That means the seeds of change for marijuana will be growing, legally, in the seat of American politics.
Let's hope this send a real message to the legislators who work there that we need national reform.