By Phillip Smith
It now looks extremely likely that the residents of the nation's capitol will vote in November on whether to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. Representatives of the DC Cannabis Campaign legalization initiative handed in some 58,000 signatures Monday morning, and they only need some 22,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Signature-gathering experts generally expect to see something between 20% and 30% of signatures handed in deemed invalid. For the DC initiative to fail to qualify, the invalidation rate would have to be above 50%.
The measure will be known as Initiative 71 once it officially qualifies for the ballot.
The District of Columbia isn't the only locale where marijuana legalization is almost definitely going to be on the ballot this fall. An Alaska legalization initiative has already qualified for the ballot, and organizers of an Oregon legalization initiative just last week handed in more than 145,000 signatures, nearly twice the 88,000 valid voter signatures needed to qualify.
Colorado and Washington led the way on marijuana legalization, with voters in both states passing legalization initiatives in 2012. DC, Alaska, and Oregon all appear poised to join them in November.
In DC, campaigners will emphasize the racially disparate impact of marijuana prohibition. In 2010, black people accounted for 91% of marijuana arrests, even though they now account for less than half the city's population. The District is also currently saddled with the highest per capita marijuana arrest rates in the nation.
The DC initiative is not a full-blown legalize, tax, and regulate measure. It would allow people 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and cultivate six plants at home. But District law prevents initiatives from addressing budgetary issues, which precludes the initiative addressing the tax and regulate/marijuana commerce aspect of legalization. But the DC city council currently is considering a tax and regulate bill to cover that.
The city council passed a decriminalization bill that goes into effect shortly, but advocates argued based on other decrim laws in the states that alone is not enough to change police practices. They noted that in Colorado and Washington, where actual legalization is in effect, marijuana arrest rates have dropped dramatically. Those declines not only save millions in tax dollars; they also save thousands of people from the legal and collateral consequences of a pot bust.
After handing in signatures this morning, key players in the initiative gathered for a noon tele-conference.
"In just a few weeks, DC's groundbreaking decriminalization law goes into effect," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for theDrug Policy Alliance, which is supporting the initiative. "But decriminalization is just the first step. Today, the DC Cannabis Campaign turned in enough signatures to put Initiative 71 on the ballot."
"Last week, the US celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act," noted Dr. Malik Burnett, recently brought in as DC policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Drug policy reform is the civil rights issue of this century. Prohibition isn't working, and it is leading to poor outcomes, especially in communities of color. We definitely applaud the city council for getting decriminalization done, but in other jurisdictions with decriminalization, we continue to see a large number of racially biased arrests. If we look at jurisdictions that have legalized, arrest rates for small amounts of marijuana are down 75%."
"Today is a big day in this effort," said Councilmember David Grosso, sponsor of the Tax and Regulate Marijuana Act of 2014. "It looks like it will be on the ballot this fall, and I'm confident that people here in DC will vote to legalize marijuana. The people have been in the forefront of this for a long time, starting with medical marijuana back in 1998."
Grosso said he sponsored the tax and regulate bill because of the failures of prohibition.
"I'm a strong believer that the war on drugs has been a failure," he said. "We need to move beyond putting people in jail for marijuana and non-violent offenses. But once we legalize it, it's important to regulate it in a way that is responsible for the District, which is why I introduced the tax and regulate bill. It has to go through a couple of committees, but we're a full-time legislature and could have it done by the end of the year. If not, I will reintroduce it next year."
"This initiative is very different from the other efforts," said DC Cannabis Campaign chair and long-time DC political gadfly Adam Eidinger. "It's very focused on the consumer, how we can keep them out of jail and give them a supply without creating a marketplace. This is looking at the rights of the individual and letting them produce their own at home. This by itself isn't full legalization -- Grosso's bill is the complete picture, but we can't put that on the ballot, so we did the next best thing to enshrine the rights of the consumer," he explained.
"We already passed home cultivation for medical marijuana in 1998, and many us were demanding from the city council that we actually get home cultivation as part of medical," Eidinger noted. "Their failure to do so has fueled the interest in pushing this forward. Medical marijuana is not the destination for every user, nor is decriminalization. The goal is to stop the bleeding, to stop arresting four or five thousand people here every year. My goal is take marijuana arrests down to zero," he said.
"I want to note that I am also the social action director for Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a major backer which provided money to get this off the ground," said Eidinger. "We've raised and spent at least $150,000 and we hope to raise another $100,000 between now and election day. A lot of these initiative campaigns are fueled by business interests, but we're not offering a retail outlet as the end result of the initiative. It's a little more difficult to raise money when it's about civil rights -- not making some business person rich."
Even if the initiative makes the ballot and passes, there is still an outside chance that congressional conservatives will seek to block it. That's what happened with the 1998 medical marijuana initiative, which Congress didn't allow to go into effect for more than a decade.
Similar moves are already afoot over the District's yet-to-go-into-effect decriminalization law. A Maryland congressmen and physician, Rep. Andy Harris (R), has already persuaded the House Appropriations Committee to approve a rider to the DC appropriations bill that would block implementation of the decrim law. But that measure still has to be approved by the House as a whole, and then by the Senate.
If that were to happen, it wouldn't be without a fight.
"The Drug Policy Alliance and the DC Cannabis Campaign look forward to working with members of the city council to expand on Initiative 71 to develop tax and regulate centered around the idea of racial justice," said Dr. Burnett. "The first step is passing 71 to show the will of the people, followed by legislation from the city council. That combination will show Congress that DC residents are serious about reforming their drug policies, and Congress will respect DC home rule."
Dr. Burnett also had some advice for Dr. Harris, the Republican congressman trying to block DC marijuana reforms.
"I would encourage Dr. Harris to take a continuing medical education class on cannabis and to see the reports from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes on Drug Abuse that teen marijuana use is flat and to understand that the health outcomes associated with incarceration are much worse than those associated with cannabis use," he said.
According to recent polls, support for legalizing marijuana in the District is around 60%. If the initiative actually makes the ballot, it has a very good chance to win in November. And if it wins in November, congressional conservatives will have to explain why DC residents aren't good enough for direct democracy, or get out of the way. And the following spring could see a thousand flowers bloom in the nation's capital.