Pubdate: Thu, 16 Jan 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Section: page A1
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Authors: Aaron C. Davis and Peyton M. Craighill


Poll Finds a Substantial Shift in Opinion Since 2010

Support for legalizing marijuana has expanded dramatically in the
nation's capital, with residents who were split evenly on the issue
four years ago now favoring sales of the drug for personal use by a
ratio of almost 2 to 1, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Washingtonians of every age, race and ethnicity - teenagers and
seniors, blacks and whites - registered double-digit increases in
support of legalization. Overall, 63 percent are in favor.

Even among those who oppose legalization, nearly half support relaxing
punishment for marijuana possession to a fine of $100 or less.

The survey comes amid other moves across the country to legalize pot.
This month, Colorado allowed the first sales of the drug for
recreational use, and the state of Washington is preparing to follow

The poll places District residents significantly to the left of a
closely divided nation. A new, separate Washington Post-ABC News
national poll this week shows voters coast to coast split 49 percent
to 48 percent on the issue.

The numbers also came on the same day that a committee of D.C.
lawmakers voted unanimously to take the first major step in decades to
loosen the city's marijuana laws by advancing a bill to reduce the
city's penalty for possession of pot from $1,000 and six months in
jail to a $25 civil fine.

The full D.C. Council will begin considering the measure next week. If
passed, the fine would amount to less than most city parking tickets
and would run counter to the federal penalties of $1,000 and one year
in jail for possession, which could still be enforced on the Mall and
other federal properties within the District.

A band of District activists also has filed a ballot initiative that
could move beyond the council's effort to decriminalize marijuana by
asking voters, possibly this November, whether marijuana should be
legal, as it is in Colorado.

Majority support for legalization in the nation's capital, home to the
federal law-enforcement agencies that most adamantly oppose it, could
hasten the arrival on the East Coast of a debate that has largely
simmered in Western states. Ballot measures in Alaska, Arizona,
California and Oregon this year could legalize marijuana in a
contiguous, 1,800-mile swath stretching from the nation's border with
Canada to Mexico.

"There's still a federal law that says it's a no-no, and yet states
are starting to legalize it. In my lifetime, what's out west comes
east. At this point, I think it's inevitable," said Richard Smith, a
Northwest Washington businessman who deals in scrap metal.

At 68, Smith is among the 38 percent of District senior citizens who
support legalizing marijuana - up from 26 percent in 2010. Smith says
he simply no longer cares.

The initiative, which would require 25,000 signatures to qualify for
the November ballot, would rival that in Colorado, allowing residents
ages 21 or older to possess as much as two ounces of marijuana for
personal use and to grow up to three plants at home. The initiative
would also allow individuals to transfer, but not sell, up to one
ounce of the drug, and it would permit the use and sale of
paraphernalia. Because of federal oversight of District governance,
the measure would have to go to Congress for review if passed.

According to the Post poll, the expansion of support for legalization
over the past four years is driven in part by a complete reversal of
opinion among African Americans.

In 2010, 37 percent were in favor of legalization, and 55 percent were
opposed. Now, that number has flipped, with 58 percent of African
Americans in favor and 39 percent opposed.

In the past, many older black residents have opposed legalization out
of the fear that it could lead to addiction among black youths. Those
fears are reflected in the poll. Just 40 percent of black respondents
ages 50 and older favor legalization, compared with 73 percent of
younger black residents. There is no such age difference on
legalization among white residents.

But the overall change in opinion could reflect the recent effort by
civil rights groups to call attention to the disproportionate arrests
of African Americans on marijuana charges.

A study that the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and
Urban Affairs released in July said nine out of 10 people arrested on
the charge of simple drug possession in the city were black.

That report came on the heels of another from the American Civil
Liberties Union, saying that the District is arresting more people
than ever for marijuana possession: 60 percent more in 2010 than a
decade earlier, with black residents accounting for much of the increase.

D.C. police say the majority of people arrested in the city do not
live in the District. In addition, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has
insisted repeatedly that her department doesn't target African
Americans or prioritize minor arrests ahead of serious crimes. The
numbers are explained in part, she said, because more arrests tend to
occur in higher-crime parts of the city with a greater police presence.

In Ward 1, which includes part of historically black Shaw but also
Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan, African Americans accounted for 81
percent of the more than 1,200 drug arrests in 2011 - but make up
about one-third of the population.

"I don't care one way or another about legalizing it," said Renee
Matthews, 49, a Northeast resident who works as a receptionist at a
teachers organization downtown. "But it shouldn't be criminalized if
the penalties are harder for African Americans."

Still, African American women are among the least likely to support
legalization, with 51 percent in favor to 45 percent against.

Chuquita Berry, a homemaker in the Marshall Heights neighborhood, said
she opposes legalization and attempts to lessen penalties because she
fears a rise in impaired driving as well as "major negative impacts"
on her neighborhood.

"The law needs to remain the same," said Berry, 34. "You could see the
negative effects on children, teenagers, adults."

African Americans aren't the only ones driving the trend. Their share
of the city's population has fallen below 50 percent over the past
four years. Since the 2010 Census, the District's population has
mushroomed by 45,000 people, a 7.4 increase, with many newcomers young
and white. More than three-quarters of white residents younger than 40
favor legalization.

One is Will Hardy, 34, who returned to the District after eight years
away and is working at a Starbucks near Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill
while he figures out a way to combine his loves of music and politics
- - perhaps by working on issues of royalties for artists.

"I smoke pot, and I'm a highly functioning critical thinker - perhaps
not at Starbucks, but in my personal life," Hardy said. "The
prohibition on pot has been lost in terms of its social goal - to calm
a social problem. It's creating a social problem, not calming it."

Under the bill approved Wednesday, fines would be lowered to $25.
Those caught smoking marijuana in public could be fined $100 and have
their paraphernalia confiscated; minors would also have a letter sent

"We know that 90 percent of those charged for small amounts are
generally young African Americans," said its author, council member
and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). "For those, a $25 fine
and losing whatever paraphernalia will be an impact," Wells said. 
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D