Pubdate: Sun, 12 Oct 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Author: Marc Fisher
Page: A1

Campaign 2014


Contradictions Leave Even Supporters Wondering What Initiative Might Accomplish

The campaigns for and against legalizing marijuana in the nation's 
capital are not exactly sophisticated - no targeted robo-calling, no 
TV commercials, no get-out-the-vote drive.

The Yes side instead papers street lamp poles with signs that just 
say "Legalize." The No side counters with its simple slogan, "Two. 
Is. Enough. D.C.," meaning that legal alcohol and tobacco give 
Washingtonians all the mind-altering substances they need.

The head of the No campaign, Will Jones, says he has never smoked 
pot, doesn't drink except at weddings and believes marijuana is an 
expressway to heroin and the like. The head of the Yes campaign 
counters with an assurance that weed "is nontoxic and no one has ever 
overdosed from it." "Believe me," said Adam Eidinger, "it would have 
happened to me by now."

D.C. voters will be asked Nov. 4 for a simple yes or no on legalizing 
marijuana, which the city decriminalized this year, replacing arrests 
and possible jail time with a $25 fine for possession of up to one ounce.

But in the hazy world of marijuana law - an alternate reality in 
which two U.S. states have declared the substance legal even as it 
remains banned under federal law - nothing is simple.

In the District, the contradictions get kicked up considerably: If 
the initiative passes, it would become legal to possess or grow small 
amounts of marijuana but not to sell or buy the stuff. The D.C. 
Council is talking about waiting months, or even a year, before 
taking the next step and passing a scheme to allow sales, taxes and 
regulation. In the meantime, even if Congress were to allow a "yes" 
vote to stand, the city would become a place where having marijuana 
is legal but getting it requires illegal acts or a magical appearance 
of seeds or the finished product.

That leaves even some of the most fervent opponents of marijuana 
prohibition wondering just what the ballot proposal might accomplish.

Elsewhere across the country, this fall's votes on marijuana policy 
would have real and swift impact. Alaska and Oregon voters will 
decide whether to make state-regulated sales legal, much as Colorado 
and Washington state have done. In Florida, the ballot includes a 
measure that would allow medical marijuana, as 23 states and the District do.

But even though recent polls show that a large majority of D.C. 
voters favor Initiative 71, "I don't expect Congress to sit back 
while the nation's capital legalizes marijuana," said council member 
Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Wells - who successfully pushed for the decriminalization law that 
took effect in July - will vote for legalization, but he questions 
whether the council would then act to turn the capital into the kind 
of weed free-for-all Denver has become. Advocates on both sides 
agree: Anyone who thinks Congress would approve turning its 
headquarters city into the American Amsterdam must be high.

$560 an ounce

For the 750 clients - up from 75 in May - who get their medical 
marijuana at Takoma Wellness Center on Blair Road NW, the debate is 
already over.

After a 45-minute consultation with Jeffrey Kahn, the 
rabbi-turned-turned-pot-purveyor who owns the dispensary, customers 
step into the salesroom and choose among flowers (Blue Dream, Kush, 
Sativa Afghani, with a gram ranging from $12 to $20), pre-rolled 
cigarettes ($7.95 each) and concentrates (tinctures and hash 
varieties that pack more punch than the smoked weed.)

Although Kahn has yet to turn a profit, his business, which shares an 
old strip shopping center with a Chinese takeout and a liquor store, 
has picked up sharply in recent weeks, since the D.C. government 
loosened restrictions on the city's three dispensaries and three 
cultivation centers. The new rules allow each grower's crop to 
increase from 95 plants to 500 and greatly expand the list of chronic 
and serious conditions for which physicians can recommend marijuana.

As a result, the fastest-growing categories of conditions for which 
Kahn's clients seek relief are gunshot wounds and epilepsy.

At $560 an ounce, Kahn's Sativa Afghani is about a third more 
expensive than it would be on the black market, according to dealers. 
But many people "want to feel like law-abiding human beings," Kahn 
said, and are willing to pay a premium for safe, homegrown pot.

Still, although Kahn, 62, supports the initiative, he's not sanguine 
about making the drug so easily available that people can get it 
without counseling on the right strains, dosages and forms of 
ingestion for their conditions.

"It's hard to imagine how marijuana could be safely used without some 
kind of educational program," he said. "It's not the kind of product 
any adult should be able to just buy off the shelf."

Legalization would help shift the supply chain toward local growers, 
Kahn said: "If you buy on the black market now, you're not going to 
suffer major legal consequences, but you bought that from the Mexican 
cartel. A long, heavy chain of misery is attached to that half-ounce 
of marijuana."

Kahn has no illusions about the District becoming a landscape of 
storefront pot shops anytime soon. And he doubts that many people 
would grow their own even if it were legal to do so. "Growing 
marijuana is not the easiest thing to do, as I have learned," he 
said. "It takes four months to grow, and it's a lot of work."

As of Oct. 6, 1,362 D.C. residents had registered with the city 
Health Department to get medical marijuana. Many thousands more buy 
pot on the black market; about 14 percent of city residents have used 
marijuana in the past year, compared with 11 percent nationwide, 
according to federal surveys.

Some buy on the street and some have connections, such as a Northwest 
man in his 50s who has been selling in the District for 25 years. The 
man has mostly professional clients - lawyers, government 
contractors, lobbyists, journalists - who come by his home at 
appointed hours to make their purchases.

He supports legalization and doesn't worry about losing business if 
the trade goes legit. "It's almost a pointless vote," he said, 
"because Congress would never let there be stores all over. I just 
don't see how this could practically work. Especially in this city, 
people want privacy."

Support in poll

They also want legal weed. According to an NBC4/Washington 
Post/Marist poll conducted last month, D.C. voters support the 
initiative, 65 percent to 33 percent. Two of the three mayoral 
candidates - Muriel E. Bowser (D) and David A. Catania (I) - support 
legalization; Carol Schwartz (I) does not. White voters are far more 
likely to support the change - 74 percent approve - than blacks, 56 
percent of whom say they'll vote yes.

Race turns out to be at the core of the legalization debate. The 
council's decision on decriminalization was driven by evidence that 
African Americans are much more likely to be arrested for possessing 
pot than are whites, despite survey data showing the races to be 
equally likely to use the drug.

As of 2010, the District had a higher marijuana arrest rate than any 
of the 50 states, and it ranked seventh nationally among nearly 1,000 
counties analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Eighty-eight 
percent of those convicted of marijuana possession in the city last 
year were black.

But advocates differ on what to do about those disparities. Arthur 
Burnett spent 31 years as a judge in the District; now head of the 
National African American Drug Policy Coalition, he says legalization 
would not keep young black men out of jail, because marijuana would 
be more readily available, leading more young people to harder drugs.

"Scratch the surface of most homicides and rape cases, and the 
perpetrators were high on drugs, including marijuana," he said. 
"Although marijuana may not be a gateway drug scientifically, it does 
introduce people to a culture where they get drawn into other drugs."

Burnett says opposition among older blacks to legalization stems not 
from moralism, but from practical experience: "Black communities 
already suffer from a liquor store on every corner," he said. 
"Elderly black voters see the connection between the derelict wino 
hanging on the corner and the potential for more young black men 
strung out on marijuana on that corner. Do we really want to 
substitute mass incapacitation for mass incarceration?"

Jones, the 24-year-old leader of the anti-legalization campaign, said 
he's seen too many peers lose their way in a fog of marijuana use and 
then find it hard to get back on track because of arrest records. 
"It's selfish thinking to legalize something just for yourself, 
without thinking about the impact on society," he said. "Is this 
something that's good for our community? Is it going to help people get jobs?"

Eidinger, a former head-shop owner who has devoted many years to 
pressing for more liberal marijuana laws, acknowledges the racial gap 
and said his campaign is "making a sincere effort to reach out to 
African Americans who are concerned."

"The older African American population has been devastated by the 
drug war," he said, but he believes legalization would diminish the 
harm marijuana does to young people by curbing arrests that make it 
harder for them to find jobs.

"Experimentation is inevitable," Eidinger said. "This is just another 
human activity that can get out of hand. But locking people up 
doesn't address it."

Eidinger thinks a thriving pot industry would be a source of jobs and 
tax revenue: "Someone could supplement their income by $1,000 or 
$2,000 a month with a grow in a room in their house or in outdoor 
space. This is a cash crop."

Kept on a short leash

Even if Initiative 71 passes easily, neighborhood pot shops are a 
long way from opening. Although the city can pass its own laws, 
Congress retains the right to nix those laws at will and has done so 
when the city nudges the frontiers of social policy.

 From 1979, when the District was barred from using local tax dollars 
to help low-income women pay for abortions, to 1998, when Congress 
prohibited D.C. officials from counting the votes in a referendum on 
legalizing medical marijuana, the District has been less than its own master.

On marijuana, especially, Congress has kept the city on a short 
leash. The District was eventually permitted to announce results of 
the medical marijuana referendum - 69 percent of voters said yes - 
but a ban on any legalization efforts wasn't lifted until 2009. The 
city passed its medical marijuana bill the next year.

Already this year, Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican 
congressman, has sought to block funding for decriminalization in the 
District. He attached an amendment to an appropriations bill, an 
oft-used method of imposing Congress's will on the city, and has 
promised the same maneuver against legalization. Harris's amendment 
didn't make it to the latest version of the spending bill, so 
decriminalization in the District appears safe for now.

Whether a block on legalization would get through both houses of 
Congress probably depends on whether Republicans gain control of the 
Senate in next month's elections.

"This fight doesn't end with the vote," Eidinger said. "It just 
becomes a democracy issue then." If Congress were to let a "yes" vote 
stand, even the legalization advocate wants to avoid the District 
becoming a marijuana mecca like Seattle or Denver, where open-air use 
has become common. "I have a 10year-old, and I don't want to see this 
turn into the pot festival capital," he said. "That would blow 
people's minds here. Congress would freak."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom