D.C. Police Chief Says Cannabis Is Fueling A Surge In Gun Violence. Advocates Say That’s ‘Absurd.’

A series of recent shootings in some of D.C.’s wealthy neighborhoods has left local officials scrambling to address gun violence in parts of D.C. that generally do not experience it. 

Though many District residents face gun violence on a daily basis, the public outcry first erupted when 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney was killed in a drive-by-shooting on July 17 in Southeast’s Congress Heights.

The next day, a shooting outside Nationals Park left three injured, interrupting a Nats-Padres ballgame as fans ducked for cover under their seats. Less than a week later on July 23, two men chased each other through Logan Circle’s 14th Street corridor, firing nearly 40 shots that injured two and sent diners into a frenzied panic.

Amid mounting public pressure to address the violence, which drew attention from media outlets around the country, some D.C. officials stepped out in front of the cameras. At a press briefing on Friday, D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee went on a 10-minute tirade, blaming the spike in gun crime on a variety of causes, from court delays to a lack of police resources.

But Contee was quick to deflect responsibility away from his own department, whose job it is to prevent this kind of violence. 

“The police department, we’re an easy target,” he said. “I’m challenging you to look at the entire system,” he added.

He then took aim at an easy target of his own: cannabis.

“We have taken on a mindset that marijuana is not really a big issue in our city,” he said, taking a jab at pot’s legal status in the District. “I can tell you that marijuana undoubtedly is connected to violent crimes that we are seeing in our communities.”

Offering only anecdotal evidence, Contee said that violent crime tied to illegal pot sales is on the rise. “I’m seeing it happen more and more all across our city in all different wards,” he said.

He said illegal cannabis shops are frequent targets of armed robberies, and that people who sell cannabis illegally see no repercussions for their crimes. 

“Really, is there a prosecution of a guy with marijuana?” he said.

D.C. legalized recreational pot in 2015, but retail sales have remained prohibited due to a Congressional budget rider that blocks the District from establishing a regulated market for pot. 

As a result, dozens of gray-market dispensaries have cropped up around the city, taking advantage of a loophole in local law to sell pot as a “gift” that comes with the purchase of various legal goods, from t-shirts to potted plants.

Chief Contee’s comments have raised the eyebrows of cannabis advocates and legal experts who say it’s cannabis is not significantly contributing to D.C.’s uptick in gun violence. 

“To claim that marijuana has some kind of causal connection to the increase in violent crime in DC is just completely absurd,” Joe Scrofano, a criminal defense lawyer in D.C., told The Outlaw Report.

Scrofano acknowledged that gray market dispensaries are easy targets for robberies because they rarely have security, and are unlikely to report crimes to the police. 

But he said that the illegal pot trade predates legalization by decades: “There’s always been illegal marijuana businesses –– since before legalization,” he said. “All of this stuff existed. This isn’t something new.”

Scrofano worries that MPD will use cannabis as a scapegoat to justify ramping up arrests for low-level offenses that aren’t contributing to the rise in violent crime. 

“This is all laying the groundwork for a bunch of really ridiculous arrests that are going to have no impact on public safety in the community,” he said. “But it’s going to make it look like MPD is doing stuff.”

That approach, he said, could end up hurting some of D.C.’s most vulnerable residents, like sex workers and people experiencing homelessness: “They’re gonna find all the low hanging fruit that they can, because the agency with a $600 million budget somehow can’t get to the one thing that it’s supposed to do, which is protect the public.”

Scrofano, who has worked as a criminal defense lawyer in D.C. for the past ten years, said he’s only encountered a handful of cannabis cases that involved violent crime. “It’s a super small fraction,” he said. 

It’s more likely, he said, that D.C.’s gun violence epidemic has been fueled by the coronavirus pandemic and the many social problems that have stemmed from it.

“I don’t know why this is surprising to anyone, that after a very tumultuous and unstable year and a half, there’s been a rise in crime,” Scrofano said. “People who were just barely hanging on to the middle class fell into poverty or fell into homelessness.” he said.

In a tweet, Anthony Lorenzo Green, an organizer for Black Lives Matter DC and the commissioner for Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7C04, echoed Scrofano’s thoughts.

“The violence we’re seeing is a symptom of how we don’t care for our people,” Green said. “Pointing the finger at a plant only shows how committed Contee is to continuing the violent conditions created by the ongoing criminalization of marijuana in Black communities.”

According to FBI data, the U.S. saw a 25% increase in homicides in 2020, the largest surge since crime tracking started in the sixties. The rise in violence was most pronounced in America’s largest cities, with poorer neighborhoods experiencing the most dramatic increases.

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked by a Fox News reporter whether the Biden administration would take a tougher stance on cannabis given Contee’s recent comments. But despite Biden’s opposition to legalizing cannabis at the federal level, she was reluctant to blame pot for D.C.’s crime woes.

“We’re looking to address a range of causes, working in close partnership with the mayor and local police to bring crime down in our city,” Psaki said.

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