Pubdate: Wed, 05 Nov 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Author: Aaron C. Davis
Page: A28


City Joins Colorado, Washington State in Allowing the Drug

"If your job is over at 5 o'clock and you want to have cannabis 
instead of a glass of scotch, so be it." Adam Eidinger, advocate for 
marijuana legalization

The District followed Colorado and Washington state into a closely 
watched experiment to legalize marijuana Tuesday, as voters 
overwhelmingly backed an initiative 7 to 3 allowing cannabis to be 
consumed and grown in the nation's capital. The move to allow the 
drug almost certainly will take effect unless the next Congress blocks it.

Under a voter-proposed measure, known as Initiative 71, residents and 
visitors age 21 and older will be allowed to legally possess as much 
as two ounces of marijuana and to grow up to three marijuana plants 
at home. Leading candidates for mayor and the D.C. Council have vowed 
to quickly sign the measure into law. A majority of the council also 
pledged that if approved by voters, they would submit follow-up 
legislation to Congress next year establishing a system to sell and 
tax the drug in the District.

The twin measures will become law, as District bills do, unless 
Congress vetoes and the president agrees that the local measures 
should be halted. That complex layer of federal oversight could 
thrust Congress - which on Tuesday appeared headed for Republican 
control - and President Obama into the middle of a rapidly evolving 
national debate.

In joining two states to bring marijuana into the mainstream - making 
it nearly akin to alcohol and tobacco - the District's vote is the 
latest sign of growing public acceptance of the drug. Advocates have 
been trying to give marijuana legal status since the 1960s, losing 
periodic battles with parent groups and to the war on drugs. But the 
arguments against weed have lost steam, and public opinion has 
shifted; about 6 percent of Americans use the drug, including 
one-third of the nation's high school seniors.

Unlike the arguments about health concerns elsewhere, the 
legalization debate in the District became fused with weighty issues 
of civil rights after a series of studies during the past year showed 
wide disparities in drug arrests: 88 percent of those convicted of 
marijuana possession in the city in recent years were black, even as 
surveys have shown that whites and blacks are equally likely to use the drug.

"The population in the District is certainly different from that in 
Colorado and Washington state. Here, this has been cast as a racial 
justice issue," said Malik Burnett, a doctor who delayed practicing 
to organize support for the measure. "This is huge. We're talking 
about ending the prohibition of marijuana as a manifestation of the 
war on drugs, in the birthplace of the war on drugs, Washington, D.C."

Adam Eidinger, who is a longtime advocate for legalization in the 
District and who spent $20,000 of his own money to help put the 
measure on the ballot, said he was thrilled and confident that any 
pushback from Congress could eventually be overcome.

"This sends a message to the nation that people are finally ready for 
change," he said. "If your job is over at 5 o'clock and you want to 
have cannabis instead of a glass of scotch, so be it."

Realtor Tom Bryant, 50, who cast a ballot at the Georgetown public 
library, said he voted yes because he thinks it is "ridiculous for 
people to go to jail" for a small amount of pot. Katie Holloran, a 
37-year-old teacher, said she, too, voted in favor of legalization: 
"I guess I've really never understood why it's different from 
something like alcohol."

Not everyone agreed. Alizonia Leach, who voted at Watkins Elementary 
School on Tuesday, said she had no doubts: "Oh, no, no, no, no, no, 
no," she said. "Marijuana is not good for anybody."

This past summer, the District joined 17 states that have 
decriminalized marijuana. Members of the D.C. Council and Mayor 
Vincent C. Gray (D) said they were moved by studies that showed the 
District's marijuana-arrest rate was higher than any of the 50 states 
and ranked seventh nationally among a study of 1,000 counties 
analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Such studies also helped fuel a complete reversal in public opinion 
during the past four years among the District's black residents, who 
now account for half the city's population.

According to Washington Post polls this year, roughly 56 percent of 
likely African American voters said they planned to back 
legalization. Four years ago, 37 percent were in favor and 55 percent 
opposed, with many saying they feared greater access could lead to 
addiction among black youths.

The D.C. Council measure in March that decriminalized marijuana took 
a first step toward legalization. It stripped away jail time for 
possession and made it a $25 fine - cheaper than most city parking 
tickets - and the lowest fine outside of Colorado, Washington state 
or Alaska. Penalties for public consumption also were lowered to that 
of carrying an open container of alcohol, punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

But on the District's iconic federal land, including the Mall, the 
monuments and streets surrounding the White House, possession remains 
a federal offense punishable by up to a year in jail.

The District also is home to federal agencies charged with enforcing 
U.S. drug laws, which still designate marijuana in a class of the 
most dangerous drugs, worse than cocaine and viewed equal only to the 
likes of heroin in terms of how addictive they are.

Full legalization of marijuana would set up a conflict with federal 
law enforcement agencies and Congress. Even advocates of legalization 
say they can barely imagine a day when the District would resemble 
Denver, with a proliferation of shops selling marijuana by the bag, 
in joints or in foods such as cookies or brownies.

Advocates testified at a hearing last week that, given the necessary 
congressional review and time needed for the D.C. Council to decide 
how sales would work, the earliest marijuana could be legally 
purchased in the District would be in early 2016.

Less clear is how Congress will react. After D.C. voters passed a 
measure allowing medical marijuana dispensaries in 1998, Republicans 
used amendments to federal budget bills for 11 years to keep the 
District from enacting the law.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom