WASHINGTON, DC – The District of Columbia city council this week took a preliminary step toward decriminalizing marijuana possession in the nation’s capital, with a bill to do just that winning a unanimous committee vote.
But the council’s belated response to decades of racially biased pot policing may end up just being a blip on the path to outright legalization.
That’s because District activists, led by the indefatigable Adam Eidinger and the DC Cannabis Campaign have filed a marijuana legalization initiative with DC officials and are determined to move forward with it.
According to the campaign, the Legalization of Possession of Small Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014 would “make it lawful for a person 21 years of age or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use; to grow no more than three mature cannabis plants within the person’s principal residence; and to transfer without payment (but not sell) up to one ounce of marijuana to another person 21 years of age or older; and to use or sell drug paraphernalia for use, growing or processing of marijuana or cannabis that is made legal by the Initiative.”
The act does not address legal marijuana commerce because under District law, initiatives cannot deal with matters having to do with District government revenues. In the event the initiative passed, the council would have to come up with any regulatory and taxation scheme.
“Under DC law, voters can’t interfere with the city’s tax and spending authority,” explained Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “And the courts have read that so broadly that they ruled that a ban on public smoking in bars would lead to less smoking, which would interfere with the city’s revenue authority.”
The time for a legalization push appears to be ripe. Public sentiment in the District, long a bastion of liberal politics, is swinging in favor of legalization, not least because of increased public awareness of the racially disparate impact of marijuana prohibition.
In a June report, The War on Marijuana in Black and White, the American Civil Liberties Union found that Washington, DC, had one of the highest racial disparities in marijuana arrests in the country, second only to Iowa.
In DC, blacks were 8.05 times more likely to face arrest for pot possession than whites. Numbers such as these are driving the reformist impulse in the District.
A Washington Post poll released Wednesday is a case in point. In that poll, 63% of DC residents favored legalizing small amounts of marijuana, up from only 46% in 2010. And among the District’s black residents, support increased even more dramatically, from only 37% in 2010 to 58% now.
Not only does legalization appear to have public opinion on its side, the District is also easy pickings for initiatives. The number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot is relatively small, and, in advertising market terms, DC is only a medium-sized market, meaning that the cost of a campaign is also relatively small.
“We only need 25,000 valid signatures, although we’re going for 30,000, just to be on the safe side,” said Eidinger. “I think we can do that in four months,” even though DC law gives them up to six months.
The veteran DC activist estimates that the campaign needs $500,000 to be successful.
“I think we need about $30,000 for signature gathering,” he said. “We’ll need about half a million to be also be able to fight off any counter-campaign that emerges.”
Eidinger and the DC Cannabis Campaign aren’t there yet. He said the campaign had received a $100,000 donation from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and an additional $10,000 in bitcoins. The drug reform community needs to step up, he said.
“If we don’t raise at least $350,000, I don’t know if we can move forward,” he said. “That’s the bare bones. And if we do get this on the ballot, the drug reform community here in Washington should come up with the money. This is the nation’s capital,” he exclaimed. “It’s a twofer. If we can legalize it here, we can legalize it anywhere.”
But drug reform organizations that serve as major funding conduits have yet to get on board, at least with their checkbooks.
“We don’t have a position so far on the initiative,” said Dan Riffle, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. “We generally support legalization, but it’s a question of whether we want to put our resources into a campaign that would improve on a very good law.”
Riffle was referring to the District’s decriminalization bill, which he described as “the best decriminalization law in the country,” with maximum $25 fines and no probable cause for a search based on smell alone.
DPA was similarly focused on the decriminalization bill and perhaps going even further with the council.
“Our first goal is eliminating the mass arrests of people of color in DC, which is why we’re working with the council to support the decriminalization bill,” said Piper. “And then we will support legalization, either through the initiative process or through the council or both,” he said.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions with Adam,” said Piper. “They’re in the process of figuring out how much money they can raise to support this, while we’re working with Councilmember Grosso and others on a tax and regulate bill.”
That’s all well and good, said Eidinger, but the initiative campaign needs money now.
“Early donations are the most important,” he emphasized. “I think we can get the money to get this on the ballot, but we need money to defend it, and we need to hire good people early. People need to donate now!”
Marijuana reform is happening in the District of Columbia. The question now is how far it goes, and by what route. Decriminalization looks like a done deal, but having a legalization initiative hanging over the city council’s head may prod it to take the next step as well.
“The council will for sure decriminalize in the next month,” Piper prophesied. “But will they then take up legalization? Having an initiative on the ballot is a good way to force their hand. We’re hopeful that the council will realize that they will either end up in a situation where marijuana is legal with no controls, or they can take action and adopt a regulatory approach.”
The initiative now awaits approval by the Board of Elections of its language, which could take up to a month. Then, it’s on to signature gathering. Then it’s winning an election. And then, Congress would have to refrain from blocking it — or be forced once again to contravene the democratically expressed will of the voters of the nation’s capital.
“There are lots of hurdles, but now is the time to move forward with righteous indignation,” Eidinger said. “Those people who were talking about decriminalization aren’t talking about it now; instead, the goal now is legalization. This is the time for everyone to think big and win!”