Washington, D.C. recently passed a referendum to allow the use of marijuana, and even the conservative state of Alaska has joined the three states that allow recreational use, as well as the 23 states with laws that allow recreational or medical marijuana – including Illinois. Professor of Criminal Justice Ralph Weisheit looks at what makes the D.C. law radically different than most.


The D.C. approach is highly unusual. One of the things that makes it unusual is how it was designed. What passed in D.C. was a voter referendum, which was rather vague about the details. You cannot have more than 2 ounces in your possession. You cannot buy or sell any marijuana, which also means it cannot be taxed. In many states that is a huge reason to promote marijuana – for the tax revenue.

The D.C. idea was that the details would be hammered out by the city council, that was supposed to meet to provide regulations. But they were told by the attorney for D.C. that they risked criminal sanctions from the feds if they met to work out details. So they let it go into effect – just as the voters passed it.

Marijuana is one of those rare topics for which you cannot tell on which side of the issue a person will fall based solely on whether they are a conservative or liberal. Many conservatives, who generally gear toward state’s rights, would be opposed to states defying the federal ban on marijuana.

It’s interesting that a very conservative state like Alaska also recently passed a law on recreational marijuana. There are similarities between Alaska and D.C. and the other states that have recreational laws. Yet D.C. is different – it literally brings marijuana to the steps of the federal government. Of course, the district can pass all the laws it wants, but ultimately those have to be reviewed and approved by Congress. The House of Representatives has said that one of their budget bills includes a clause that nullifies this public vote. D.C.’s position is, “No it does not.” So this will be going to court.

There are more shady areas. You cannot possess marijuana on federal land, which is much of D.C., or in Section 8 housing. Also, a substantial number of people in D.C. work for the federal government, or work for companies that have contracts with the federal government. To use marijuana violates federal law, and they can be fired for using it.

Police in D.C. have said they are not actually going to hunt down people for marijuana use, but there are a lot of questions to be answered. And, it will be interesting to see how the federal government reacts to having this right on their doorstep. Of course, now 23 states have some kind of law on medical marijuana, so I think the tide is already turning.

I’ve been studying the drug issue for 30 some years now, and I would have never predicted that the medical and recreational movements would have moved as quickly as they have. Think about it – we are now at a time when fast food restaurants are picky about where they get their chicken, and we are restricting where we use tobacco. So the idea that we would loosen up on something like marijuana doesn’t seem consistent with where we are going in other areas.

Ralph Weisheit can be reached via MediaRelations@IllinoisState.edu.