Resident of the District of Columbia may soon get the chance to decide whether they want to legalize pot.
A group of activists pushing for legalization said they turned in 57,000 signatures to District election officials July 7. They needed less than half that number to qualify for the November ballot. Even if many of the signatures are rejected, as typically happens, there should be enough to qualify.
The next step? Convincing residents that legal weed will be a good thing for the District. Adam Eidinger of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign said supporters would have to take a more traditional approach to reach voters in the months leading up to the election.
“We need to reassure the voters in the city that this isn’t too big of a step to take,” Eidinger said. “The public will see very little change, but the cannabis user will no longer have to live in fear.”
If the initiative makes the ballot, and voters approve it, it would become legal for adults over 21 to possess up to 2 ounces of weed and grow up to three plants at home. The measure wouldn’t legalize sale or commercial cultivation of the drug, leaving that to Washington’s elected leaders.
But even if residents approve legal pot, it’s not certain it would ever take effect. The council can block voter initiatives, as can Congress.
Republicans in the House recently pushed through a budget amendment that would prevent the District from enforcing a council vote to decriminalize weed. If the amendment passes the Senate, and the president signs it, it would bar the District from imposing the will of a large majority of residents, who support marijuana reform.
The decriminalization plan, passed by the council earlier this year, would remove criminal penalties for cannabis possession. Currently, possession of any amount is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Instead, people caught with weed would pay a $25 fine, similar to a parking ticket.
The decriminalization vote had widespread support in the District, with more than 80 percent of voters saying they wanted to remove criminal penalties for simple possession. But Republicans in the House objected and have tried to block the policy from taking effect.
The effort is led by U.S. Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland. In response to the amendment, the District mayor and the city’s largest voting-right group urged residents to boycott Harris’ district, which includes the Eastern Shore, a popular summer vacation spot.
It remains unclear how the Senate and President Obama will act on the amendment, but the issue could be hashed out during budget negotiations between the two houses of Congress. Still, it’s relatively unlikely the Democrats who control the Senate would support a move that could to outrage residents of the overwhelmingly Democratic District. Nor is Obama likely to alienate Washington by signing a bill that bans decriminalization.
But the idea of cannabis reform has staunch opponents who are pushing Congress to block it. Kevin Sabet, a nationally known anti-weed crusader, said he expects a groundswell of opposition to legalization.
“I think there is a growing sense that folks have enough of a time dealing with problems of alcohol and tobacco,” Sabet said. “The idea that we’re going to go down this path may be appealing to the 30-year-old blogger in Georgetown, but not the working family in Southeast.”
Supporters of the legal pot campaign disagree. Strong poll numbers prove the city is ready for a new approach to marijuana, they say, and legalization is the best way to go. It’s the only way to deal with the huge racial discrepancy in cannabis arrests, they say. Black residents of D.C. are nine times as likely to be busted for weed as white residents, even though both races use the drug at the same rate.
“We’re not afraid of a little humor,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, a physician and a national organizer for the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s okay to laugh when people think about cannabis. We’re human beings. But at the same time, there are serious matters at play. A tremendous amount of people are going to jail for something that is otherwise humorous. If we can bring that to and end through [legalization], all the better.”