D.C. set to vote on legalizing marijuana, already a widely used drug

By Paul Schwartzman and Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Just after 11 one morning last week, two men and two women, all in their early 20s, sat on a basketball court behind Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington and filled an empty cigar with marijuana -- their first hit of the day.

Also that day, at a picnic table by the Oxon Run stream, east of the Anacostia River, five men played dominoes and passed a joint.

And at an Adams Morgan park, as dog walkers and bicyclists wandered by, a 23-year-old man in a Pittsburgh Pirates cap rolled a thick joint using cherry-flavored paper. "This is hitting nice," he said moments later, forecasting that he would smoke five or six more before day's end.

The D.C. Council is set to vote Tuesday on legalizing medical marijuana, thereby allowing the chronically ill -- including those with HIV, glaucoma or cancer -- to buy pot from dispensaries in Washington.

Yet marijuana is already ubiquitous in many parts of the city, as demonstrated by federal surveys showing that Washingtonians' fondness for weed is among the strongest in the country -- and growing.

The popular image of the nation's capital leans toward the straight and narrow, a town of over-achieving, button-down bureaucrats, lawyers and lobbyists. But meander through any neighborhood from Congress Heights to Friendship Heights, and Washingtonians across race and class lines can be found lighting up.

"It's absolutely pervasive and accepted," said a 44-year-old sales manager who lives with his wife and three children in the city's Chevy Chase section. He estimates he spends $3,000 a year on pot. After a recent pickup hockey game, he found himself sharing a joint with a beer distributor and the vice president of a technology company.

"Everywhere you go, you meet someone who gets high or, if they don't, knows someone who does," he said.

Federal surveys put the District among the nation's leaders in pot consumption. More than 11 percent of Washingtonians older than 26 reported smoking marijuana in the past year -- the highest percentage of any state in the nation, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Vermont and Rhode Island were second and third, each with more than 10 percent of respondents reporting marijuana use.

"Washington is among the areas in the country where marijuana use is most," said Jon Gettman, a criminal justice professor at Shenandoah University and a former leader of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "The number of colleges in the city is one factor. Another factor, and a subtle one, is the degree that people feel open enough to answer."

But because pot is illegal, many users are reticent to discuss their habit at work, in social settings or with newspaper reporters. All of the nearly two dozen pot smokers interviewed for this article spoke on the condition that their names not be revealed.

High rate of arrests

A 50-year-old scientist who lives with his wife in Adams Morgan said that if marijuana is ever legalized, he hopes to open a pot cafe called Wakey Bakey. For now, though, he's discreet, preferring to step away from the crowd at a party to smoke from a pipe shaped like a cigarette. "I don't want people to think of me as a stoner," he said. "It is, technically, illegal."

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