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; A01

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."

In the District, penalties for possession and distribution are strong enough to encourage discretion but too weak to be much of a deterrent. Those caught with small quantities could face up to a year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. Dealers risk a year in prison and up to $10,000 in fines -- penalties that can double if sales take place within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, library or public housing.

The District's arrest rate for marijuana possession, 677 per 100,000 residents in 2007, is among the nation's highest. Police say pot accounts for so many arrests not only because it is so commonly used but also because it's often easier to detect than crack cocaine or heroin, with a distinctive odor that has a way of wafting out car windows during traffic stops.

"You can drop a rock and run," said D.C. Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham. "If you drop a Ziploc bag of marijuana, you're going to leave a big patch of green."

D.C. police seized about 840 pounds of pot last year, Newsham said. "People don't feel marijuana is dangerous, but it is, because of the way it is sold," he said. "We frequently recover weapons when serving search warrants associated with the sale of marijuana."

Doing a 'service'

Finding a marijuana dealer can be easy or hard, depending on how much risk a buyer can tolerate. A 26-year-old man, unemployed and just coming off probation for selling crack, said it took him all of about 15 minutes to find someone selling pot as he walked along Georgia Avenue NW on a recent afternoon.

But a businessman in his mid-40s who is married with children and lives in Northwest is too cautious to buy on the street. At parties, he tries to figure out who smokes and who might help him buy pot. If someone mentions, say, the pot-happy film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," his ears perk up. "You listen for the cultural references," he said.

Dealers don't exactly take out advertisements. A man in his late 40s who has been selling pot full time from his Northwest home for more than two decades said he has 30 to 50 regular clients, many of them lobbyists, journalists, Capitol Hill staffers, artists and musicians.

"I'm in waste management" is among the answers he said he gives at parties when asked how he makes a living. He makes about $50,000 a year selling pot, he said, maintains regular business hours of 10 to 12 hours a week and takes time off, sometimes to the annoyance of his clientele.

"They'll say, 'You don't need to go on vacation,' like I don't have a job," he said during an interview at a restaurant near Dupont Circle. "I do have a job. In fact, I have a career. I'm doing people a service. I make them happy. People come to see me, and they leave happier than when they came."

The dealer said that the legalization of medical marijuana would lift some of the stigma attached to the drug and could be a step toward making all pot legal. But he also said Congress's authority over the District could make full legalization unlikely. "We'll be the last place it happens," he said.

A steppingstone

The bill before the D.C. Council would allow physicians to recommend -- but not prescribe -- up to two ounces of pot in a 30-day period for patients with chronic, debilitating conditions. Fourteen states have legalized medical marijuana.

Many pot smokers support the bill as a steppingstone toward broader legalization, as a way to keep the drug away from minors and as official recognition that their drug of choice has some beneficial effects.

"It calms you down," said Tyrone, a 26-year-old New Orleans transplant, as he shared a joint with three friends on an empty basketball court in Northeast. A resident of a homeless shelter, he scrapes together an income helping to carry out evictions and said he spends $10 a day on pot.

Sitting next to him, a woman who identified herself as Recee, 23, a graduate of Ballou Senior High School, said, "I wake up the next day looking for another 'J' because it's just that good."

Teenagers in parts of the city said they can buy pot more easily than beer or cigarettes.

At Cardozo Senior High in Columbia Heights, teachers and students said that a group of students has turned a secluded stairwell into a smoking den. Sometimes the smell is so overwhelming that one teacher keeps her classroom door closed. "There are a lot of jokes about contact highs," the teacher said.

School administrators or security guards chase the tokers off, but they always return.

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