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.