“This initiative is going to look very different when we resubmit it,” perhaps as soon as this week, Eidinger said.
Discussion of the DCMJ initiative comes as marijuana policy hits the D.C. Council agenda, and marijuana law is likely to emerge as a significant issue in the 2014 mayoral race. As currently written, DCMJ’s initiative would make it a civil violation, rather than a criminal offense, to possess less than two ounces of marijuana or to grow as many as three marijuana plants at a place of residence.
The civil violation would be punishable by fines of $100 or less, assessed by the city’s alcoholic beverage regulators. Police in most circumstances would be prohibited from arresting or detaining a person for those violations.
But Nathan found that some aspects of the proposal would run afoul of a restriction in city law preventing ballot measures from appropriating taxpayer funds. One such provision would require violators younger than 18 to attend a free drug-awareness program. Another would add civil marijuana violators to the groups protected by the District’s Human Rights Act, which Nathan said could create a financial liability for the city and require expenditures to adjudicate complaints.
Also problematic, Nathan said, is the fact that marijuana possession would remain illegal under federal law: “We are aware of no other statute in which the Council, or the public by initiative, has prohibited [D.C. police] from arresting an individual when [police have] probable cause to believe that the individual has committed a federal crime.”
A small number of District residents, certified by doctors to be suffering from certain medical conditions, are able to buy cannabis legally under the city’s medical marijuana program. Last week, the Justice Department issued guidance to federal prosecutors, saying that local marijuana laws that conflict with the federal ban should generally be respected unless they encroach on eight specific enforcement priorities.
Eidinger, who appeared at Wednesday’s meeting with a lawyer, said he believed Nathan’s objections were “predictable and minor” and could be addressed in a revised initiative. “This was a learning experience,” he said. “This was really about seeing how they would react to a basic, broad consensus decriminalization.”
At least two D.C. Council members are proposing legislation to change local marijuana laws. Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) introduced a decriminalization bill this year that has significant council support, and David Grosso (I-At Large) said he intends to pursue a full legalization bill, akin to ballot measures approved last year in Colorado and Washington state.
Eidinger said the initiative is intended to go further than the Wells bill, which does not allow home cultivation of cannabis. The revised proposal, he said, will probably hew more toward legalization than decriminalization.
Should the three-member election board approve the ballot language, DCMJ 2014 would have 180 days to collect the signatures of more than 25,000 city voters. Eidinger said Wednesday that the group has the names of more than 2,000 residents willing to volunteer to circulate the petitions.
“We can’t do this without the whole city pitching in,” he said.