D.C. voters to decide on marijuana use in November


Staffers with the D.C. Cannabis Campaign show off stacks of collected signatures to legalize marijuana in Washington on June 26. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

D.C. residents will vote in November on whether to legalize marijuana use in the nation’s capital after elections officials decided Wednesday to place the question on the ballot.

The three-member D.C. Board of Elections voted unanimously Wednesday morning to approve the ballot initiative, certifying that activists gathered the tens of thousands of voter signatures necessary to qualify for the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

Several of those activists attended Wednesday’s meeting and cheered the vote, which moves the District closer to joining Colorado and Washington as the only places in the nation where marijuana possession and cultivation are fully legal.

“In a democracy, the voice of the people should be heard,” said Malik Burnett, a doctor and leader of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, an activist group that said it collected more than 57,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Board spokeswoman Tamara Robinson said the staff validated 27,688 of those signatures. To qualify for the November ballot, 22,600 signatures were required.

A Washington Post poll taken this year showed 63 percent support for marijuana legalization among District residents. But the legalization effort could be complicated by efforts in Congress to forestall the city’s efforts to liberalize its marijuana laws.

A House budget bill passed last month included a provision to block not only a legalization effort but also a decriminalization bill passed by the D.C. Council this year that is in effect.

The effort to keep the District from loosening its marijuana laws was led by Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican in Congress.

Harris, a doctor who represents the Eastern Shore, argued that the D.C. decriminalization law, which reduces the penalty for simple possession to a $25 civil fine, was “bad policy.” He also noted that the law has no drug-treatment component, even for minors, and that the fine for a young teen who is caught with a joint would be half that of the city’s $50 ticket for underage cigarette smoking.

Congress has blocked previous efforts to change the city’s marijuana laws. In 1998, D.C. activists gathered signatures to place a measure legalizing medical marijuana on the ballot. Congress moved to stop city officials from counting the votes; a court challenge allowed the votes to be counted, showing 69 percent support for the law, but Congress continued to block funding to implement the program until 2009.

Burnett said he was not sure how Congress would ultimately react to the new legalization effort, but he said the vote “will send a message that D.C. is serious about reforming its marijuana laws.”

The ballot initiative, if enacted, would legalize the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use. Residents could grow up to six cannabis plants at home and give up to an ounce of marijuana to another adult without penalty. The initiative would also legalize the sale and use of drug paraphernalia.

Burnett noted that the initiative would not legalize the sale of marijuana, but he said he expected the D.C. Council to step in and pass legislation to regulate sales if voters approve the ballot measure.

With marijuana legalization appearing alongside ballot lines for mayor, attorney general and D.C. Council seats, the issue could figure into this fall’s political campaigns.

Candidates for mayor have staked out various positions on the legalization proposal. Independent candidate Carol Schwartz, a former D.C. Council member, said Wednesday that she supports medical marijuana but opposes the legalization push, saying there are “too many people that are drugged out” in the city.

Muriel Bowser, the Democratic nominee and Ward 4 council member, said in a statement Wednesday that she will vote for legalization but wants to “ensure the appropriate education is in place so our young people know the effects of marijuana.” Independent candidate and council member David A. Catania (At Large), who played a leading role in establishing the medical marijuana program, will also vote for legalization, said campaign manager Ben Young.

The legalization push has so far moved forward without much opposition. But Adam Eidinger, another leader of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, said he is preparing for anti-legalization forces­ to emerge.

“This is the Waterloo in the war of marijuana,” he said of the D.C. vote. “If they [those opposing legalization efforts] can’t win this battle here, it’s over for the whole country.”

Despite the high stakes, Eidinger said he was not especially concerned about congressional intervention. “Overturning an election is a serious matter in the 21st century,” he said. “It is a moral issue. . . . I really don’t think Congress wants to pick this fight.”

Victoria St. Martin and Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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