Will Washington, DC, Legalize Pot?

Will Washington, DC, Legalize Pot?

Polls show strong support for an initiative there. And it’s on the ballot in Oregon and Alaska, too.


On November 4, voters in Oregon and Alaska will choose whether to join Colorado and Washington in their 2012 decision to tax and regulate cannabis. Should these initiatives pass, Americans will have additional laboratories from which to test the viability of legalization. But it is a grassroots legalization effort in the District of Columbia that, if successful, could force a focused conversation in the nation’s capital and, perhaps, compel Congress to address the issue head on. This November, DC voters will decide whether to approve Initiative 71, which would legalize limited cannabis possession and home cultivation.

DC’s marijuana history is winding and bumpy. There, the nation’s oldest cannabis organization formed. There, in the 1970s, a young man won a legal battle for access to medical marijuana from the federal research farm in Mississippi—a catalyst in the medical marijuana movement. There, in 1998, voters passed a medical marijuana initiative sponsored, on a shoestring budget, by the AIDS organization ACT UP—the first to do so without the backing of billionaires and professional campaigns. Congress blocked implementation of that initiative through district budget amendments before finally allowing it to take effect in 2010.

A June 2013 ACLU report revealed that DC has the highest per capita cannabis arrest rate of any jurisdiction, and that over 90 percent of those arrested were black (just over half of the DC population is black). One month later, DC council members Tommy Wells and Marion Barry proposed, with six others, a decriminalization act to reduce the penalty for possession of one ounce to a $25 fine for those 18 and older. Mayor Vincent Gray signed it into law in March 2014.

Adam Eidinger, the district’s most outspoken cannabis advocate, decided before the ACLU report that decriminalization wasn’t enough, because people still had to engage in criminal activity to obtain marijuana. He had played a role in implementing the district’s medical marijuana law and had donated thousands to California’s legalization effort, so he felt it was his turn to take the lead.

Eidinger has not found the kind of financial support from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) that they are providing Oregon and Alaska. DC was considered too big a risk.

“I said, ‘I will eat my hemp socks if we don’t get it on the ballot. I know what it takes,’” said Eidinger.

He fundraised with fellow activists and received a $20,000 donation from David Bronner, owner of the successful Dr. Bronner’s soap company. DPA helped craft the legislation and joined the campaign.

An April 2013 Public Policy Polling survey found that 63 percent of registered DC voters would support a measure like Colorado’s or Washington’s, which encouraged Eidinger as he drafted the initiative that summer. But Initiative 71 is not like Colorado’s or Washington’s, because it only allows home growing and would not establish a tax-and-regulate retail model; such an initiative would need to appropriate funds, which is not allowed via initiative in DC.

At first glance, this weakens the initiative. But those missing pieces could make it the year’s most politically potent. If Initiative 71 passes, the City Council would have the option to tax and regulate; members are already discussing how best to move forward with such a model. If they pass one, that could force the hand of Congress, said Mason Tvert, who helped lead Colorado’s legalization campaign and is now communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “If it’s now legal, and they are in theory concerned about it being legal but there being no control over the market because it’s still underground, it’s an incentive to…adopt a regulatory system,” he pointed out.

Unable to tout tax revenue or strict regulation, the DC campaign’s messaging focuses on social justice. One of its slogans is “legalization ends discrimination.” Artwork on the campaign site depicts a person of color with one handcuffed fist in the air. Another image shows Lady Liberty holding a pen alongside the text: “Have you signed for 71 yet?” The co-chair of the campaign, Malik Burnett of the Drug Policy Alliance, is the only black person to have been at the helm of a legalization campaign.

“There’s messages that reverberate in different ways across the city,” said Eidinger. “In predominantly African-American communities, the message of ‘Let’s not deny our youth future opportunities by putting marijuana arrests on their record’ resonates really, really well.”

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The Alaska and Oregon campaigns more closely follow their predecessors’ playbooks and, while not in Congress’s backyard, have raised the volume of the legalization debate.

Alaska is the first red state to put legalization on the ballot, but it’s also the red state with the highest cannabis consumption. The campaign messaging therefore focuses more on personal liberty than tax revenue, and doesn’t address racial disparity in arrests, which is less stark there. Alaska’s campaign is most comparable to the 2012 Colorado campaign, and even uses the same name: The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. MPP, the primary backer of Colorado’s Amendment 64, is also behind the Alaska effort. The most notable differences between A64 and Alaska’s Measure 2 are that the latter does not allow industrial hemp and taxes cultivators $50 per ounce sold to processors and retailers. Colorado and Washington tax a percentage of cannabis sales, but the Alaska and Oregon campaigns want to provide consistent tax revenue, should cannabis prices fluctuate.

The New Approach Oregon campaign is clearly modeled after New Approach Washington, borrowing that campaign’s name and colors. Like Washington’s Initiative 502, Oregon’s Initiative 91 has the support of the state’s largest paper; the state Democratic Party; the ACLU; labor unions, including the United Food and Commercial Workers; Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit comprising current and former law officers; as well as prominent former officials like the state’s former chief federal prosecutor and a retired Oregon Supreme Court justice. The campaign even sent travel guru Rick Steves on a multi-city tour, which he had also done in support of Washington’s I-502.

Alison Holcomb, criminal justice director for the ACLU of Washington State and head of New Approach Washington, believes it’s too soon to draw many conclusions from her state’s experience but is observing the changing landscape. She wonders, for example, about the economic impact of Oregon’s initiative, which, with its lower cannabis taxes, could draw people from Seattle to nearby Portland. Overall, though, she thinks the differing policies are beneficial each can be tested, particularly before the legalization effort in California, the nation’s most populous state, in 2016.

“The repeal of marijuana prohibition is going to be an iterative process,” said Holcomb. “Even if the entire nation were to have regulatory models in place, they would not all be the same and would continue to evolve over time.”

Holcomb notes one major development since 2012: increased mobilization of opposition groups. While only Colorado’s Amendment 64 faced well-organized and -funded pushback in 2012, all three legalization campaigns this year face active opposition groups—even if opponents have nowhere near the funding to match supporters. According to the latest numbers, supporters of Initiative 91 in Oregon have more than twenty-five times the funding of opponents, and Alaska’s Measure 2 has about nine times the financial support of opponents.

Even so, Holcomb said, “What Oregon is having to contend with—and Alaska and DC as well—that we didn’t have to contend with is organized opposition that is cherry-picking data, that is distorting data. The people that might otherwise have been more engaged didn’t really think that either Washington or Colorado was going to manage to pass state laws.”

Polls show lagging support for Alaska’s measure. The opposition includes former governors, the former Democratic Party chair and the conference of mayors, which donated to No On 2. Colorado’s Amendment 64 had enough support to offset opposition, but no major coalitions or public figures have endorsed the Alaska measure, aside from former libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

The Oregon Marijuana Education Tour, which targeted individuals “concerned about the impact of marijuana on youth in Oregon” in thirteen cities, was scaled back to seven after the revelation that it was partially taxpayer-funded. Tour speakers included representatives from the Oregon District Attorneys Association and Kevin Sabet, an outspoken legalization opponent and head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Organizers of the tour, mostly law enforcement and drug treatment/prevention groups, insist that it was for educational purposes only, but US Representative Earl Blumenauer asked for a federal investigation of its funding because its October timing seemed intended to influence the November vote.

(While Florida’s November cannabis initiative is for medical use, it’s worth noting that billionaire Sheldon Adelson donated $5 million to an opposition group, making it the most well-funded effort to stop medical marijuana legislation.)

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The DC campaign faced a setback in September when a The Washington Post  editorial opposed the initiative. Three days later, Patrick Kennedy of Smart Approaches to Marijuana held a press conference with the not-yet-official group “Two. Is. Enough. D.C.” (as in, two legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol, is enough).

Still, on September 18, an NBC4/Washington Post/Marist poll showed 65 percent support among DC residents for Initiative 71. Democratic mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser and Independent candidate David Catania—the front-runners—support legalization. And on October 5 The New York Times published an editorial encouraging voters to say yes to all three initiatives.

The legalization debate is certain to heat up with each passing year, and will eventually reach Capitol Hill—sooner, if DC legalizes. There’s little doubt the 2016 presidential candidates will have to address the issue.

The solution to polarized debates and misinformation could lie within the initiatives themselves. The Washington State referendum’s requirement that the state evaluate the law’s effects adds an objective element to the debate, but no other campaign has yet followed suit.

“There are a whole host of issues that need to be examined when we’re talking about the pros and cons of marijuana legalization,” Holcomb said. “And we should build into our legislation standards that require us to have that broader conversation.”

Correction: This article originally misstated the meaning behind the name of the group “Two. Is. Enough. D.C.” It has been updated to reflect the fact that T.I.E.D.C.’s name refers to the two legal drugs—alcohol and tobacco—not the two states in which marijuana has been legalized—Washington and Colorado.

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