By Tom Angell
Nearly 15 years after voters in Washington, DC approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana, patients in the nation's capital can finally access their medicine from safe and legal avenues.
On Monday, Capital City Care, one of three approved dispensaries in DC, conducted the very first legal medical marijuana sales in the city, supplying two patients with their doctor-recommended medicine.
With each new state or city that allows dispensaries to open, our movement is able to show more people how a legal, regulated marijuana industry is better for everyone - users and nonusers alike - than prohibition is. While only serving a portion of the marijuana-using population (those with recommendations from doctors), these facilities clearly demonstrate the benefits of bringing the marijuana trade aboveground. Dispensaries often test and label their products for potency and purity. They collect tax revenue. They have cameras and security personnel on-site to reduce the threat of robberies (which also makes neighboring properties safer). They create jobs. None of this is possible as long as the marijuana trade is pushed underground and onto the streets.
But the importance of the fact that this is now happening in Washington, DC - just blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building - cannot be overstated. For too long, members of Congress have been able to avoid seriously dealing with the issue of medical cannabis because of pervasive stereotypes. Many think medical marijuana dispensaries are shady places that hand out weed willy-nilly to anyone who comes by.
But now, many legislators and their staffers will be forced to drive by at least one dispensary on their way to work every day. They will see seriously ill people climbing the stairs or using the wheelchair lift in order to get access to the medicine their doctors say can help them. Perhaps some lawmakers and staffers will even accept invitations to tour these facilities so they can see the benefits up close.
And the fact that marijuana is now being sold in stores in the nation's capital just might provide the prod that President Obama needs to realize that there's no controlling the marijuana trade through prohibition and that regulation is much better. He's already said that his federal government has "bigger fish to fry" than going after individual marijuana users in Colorado and Washington. Now we just need him to realize that any attempt to prevent the voter-approved regulations for sales of marijuana from going into effect will be a win only for the cartels and gangs that control the currently illegal market and will be a huge loss for the rest of us.
But besides the clear merits of our reform proposals, we also have politics on our side. Polls consistently show that medical marijuana enjoys support from 70-80% of the public, while we have majority support for legalizing marijuana outright. As more polls are released and as more initiatives are approved by strong voter margins, more elected officials will start to wake up to the fact that marijuana reform is coming. It's a hard political fact: They can either get on board this reform train or get run over; there's no simply avoiding the issue and getting out of the way.
If the president and members of Congress don't quite get the picture just by looking at the polls or by witnessing the benefits these new dispensaries bring to the capital, not to worry. More change is on the way soon. Marijuana reformers in DC already have plans to push the issue even further. For example, the City Council is currently considering legislation to decriminalize the possession of marijuana altogether, an idea that has support from a majority of District voters.
DC is the center of the political universe and, like it or not, what happens there heavily influences the rest of the country and, for that matter, the globe. If the medical marijuana program and the decriminalization proposal move forward as planned and demonstrate the benefits of moving away from prohibition, it's likely to provide a big boost to reform efforts elsewhere.