Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

No Libertine Oasis

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 18, 2019 --  

Washington DC has some of the most liberal marijuana laws in America. Its laws on alcohol are quite another matter.

An old man driving a mobility scooter down the street is a common sight in the neighborhoods of Washington, DC. Less common is to see the scooter stalled in the middle of the roadway, the driver passed out in a cloud of marijuana smoke from a smoldering blunt while his buddy stares in a stoned gaze on from the curbside.

But such bizarre scenes are increasingly common in Washington DC. After decriminalizing recreational marijuana possession five years ago, the city moved on to fully legalize it a year later. As legalization spreads to more states -- 26 have decriminalized or legalized it so far1 -- America is struggling to adjust its cultural mores to fit the new reality.

Walk down a Washington street on a warm summer evening anywhere people congregate, and you're likely to get passively high from the clouds of marijuana smoke you walk through. Get into the backseat of an Uber, and it is often abundantly clear what somebody was enjoying on the previous trip.

Yet Washington, DC is hardly a libertine oasis. Residents of the nation's capital find themselves in the surreal position where public consumption of alcohol remains illegal despite the fact that public consumption of marijuana is legal and ubiquitous.

Have a beer on your front porch (technically city property in most neighborhoods) and you face a $500 fine or 60 days in jail.2 Yet there is nothing wrong with exhaling marijuana smoke out your car window at the cop in the next lane. Indeed, while stuck in traffic with the windows down, you often get more than a whiff from your fellow drivers.

Have a toke, but hold the tipple

This disparity between policing of alcohol and marijuana is made worse by Washington police forces that draw recruits from Southern Baptists with a suspicious view of alcohol. One U.S. Capitol Police officer ordered me to dump out my glass of wine into the flowers by the picnic table outside the U.S. Botanical Garden. One of his colleagues sniffed my thermos of sangria at a National Symphony Orchestra concert suspiciously, inquiring “what's in this?” A National Park ranger once stormed up to my picnic blanket in a remote spot under the Cherry Blossoms to demand I discard my bottle of pinot grigio. I guess I should be thankful they didn't send me to jail for 60 days.

What gives? The big difference between alcohol and marijuana, of course, is that marijuana typically involves smoking. And smoking, as we have been taught for the last 30 years, is not supposed to be done inside. You want to smoke? Go outside!

But why, then, is alcohol allowed inside but generally forbidden outside? It's to combat the drunks of course -- the bums and winos who hang out on the park benches making a nuisance of themselves. Sure, they can cover up what they are drinking with a brown paper bag. But it's still technically illegal-- just like it is for the rest of us.

Now that marijuana is legal, however, it is no surprise that the bums of Washington often reek of marijuana far more than they do of alcohol. They can smoke a joint on the bench right next to the no drinking sign in Eastern Market Metro Park, and there's nothing anybody can do about it.

For my neighbors who responsibly enjoy a toke now and again, I say congrats on your newfound freedom. It may smell like skunk weed to me, but I can always hold my breath as I pass by on the sidewalk. Forgive me, however, for seething at the injustice each time I have to hide a bottle of malbec under my picnic blanket from some do-gooder cop with a southern drawl. I'm all in favor of tolerance toward other people's personal habits. I'm even more in favor of extending such tolerance toward habits of my own.

Related Web Columns:

Ending with a Whimper, September 3, 2013


1. Vox, Hawaii has Decriminalized Marijuana, July 9, 2019

2. Code of the District of Columbia, Drinking of Alcoholic Beverage in Public Place Prohibited; Intoxication Prohibited, as posted July 16, 2019