Paid solicitors are pounding the pavements of Washington these late spring days searching for signatures of registered voters to put two controversial referendum questions on the Nov. 4 ballot -- whether to legalize private marijuana smoking and city-run daily numbers and lottery games.
Marijuana proponents say they already have collected nearly 8,000 of the 12,451 signatures needed to put their measure on the same ballot as the presidential election. Gambling supporters are planning an all-out blitz in the next two weeks to gather the 12,681 signatures they need by July 7.
Meanwhile, a band of mostly black, conservative ministers who spear-headed opposition to the unsuccessful May 6 gambling referendum are already planning a coalition to oppose both the marijuana and numbers-lottery referendums.
Both issues are almost certain to spark spirited debates, even though the gambling initiative is a sharply truncated version of the defeated proposal. That measure would also have legalized parimutuel betting on jai alai and dog racing, both of which have been removed from the new referendum.
Even so, both measures, if they win a place on the ballot and then are approved by a majority of the voters, would place the District of Columbia alongside a minority of states that have decriminalized the use of marijuana and legalized daily numbers and lottery games.
Eleven states now give traffic ticket-like citations and small fines to marijuana users who are caught. But only Alaska has as liberal a law as that proposed for the District. Here, people 18 and older would be legally able to possess small, unspecified amounts of marijuana, grow unspecified quantities for their personal use and smoke it in the privacy of their home.
George L. Farnham, a 26-year-old graduate of the George Washington Universtiy Law School and leader of the marijuana initiative effort, likes to look at the marijuana proposal not so much as avant-garde, but "basically a conservative, right-to-privacy issue.
"We argue that adults have the right to make up their own minds in the privacy of their own homes" whether to smoke marijuana, says Farnham. He said he has smoked pot since he was 21 and now puffs two or three joints a day.
Some ministers opposed to the drug's legalization have already claimed that the proposal would turn Washington into a "marijuana mecca." The Washington Star also has editorialized against the measure, saying that it would transform D.C. into the "capital of pot."
In an effort to make the gambling measure more appealing to voters, supporters of legalized wagering changed more than just the jai alai and dog racing provisions; they also wrote the new initiative so that the projected $30 million in annual profits would go directly to the D.C. treasury. Only part of the gambling revenue would have gone to the cash-pinched city government under the old proposal.
But in transforming the old gambling proposal into the more limited new one, the gambling supporters also deleted one provision and added another, changes that may prove to be controversial.
Gambling supporters touted the old lottery and numbers measure in part because it mandated a 600-to-1 payout ratio on winning tickets. That is about the same as the $300 million annual illegal street numbers game in Washington and better than the 500-to-1 rate used in the Maryland daily numbers game that many Washingtonians love to play.
The new proposal says nothing about the amount of the winning payoffs, instead leaving the issue to a proposed District of Columbia Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board, whose five members would be appointed by the major with the consent of the city Council.
"It gives us more flexibility," Brant Coopersmith, chairman of the unbrella pro-gambling group seeking the initiative, said of the deletion. He said that with no specific amount noted in the 24-page proposal, the lottery board will be able to set the prize money after considering what prizes are offered in Maryland.
The bill would exempt winners from paying D.C. income taxes on their lottery and numbers prizes, as well as winnings from bingo and raffles, which the measure would also legalize.
There now are 14 states, all in the northeast, that operate lotteries. Most of those that have income taxes, like Maryland, also require lottery winners to pay state taxes on their prizes, in addition to federal taxes.
Such a provision could leave up to $60 million in winnings untaxed by the District government -- if the winners lived in the District -- at a time when the city is scratching to save every penny it can.
Gambling proponents have projected that a D.C. lottery and numbers operation might gross $100 million annually, with $60 million paid in prizes, $10 million going for administrative costs and $30 million to the city treasury.
Coopersmith justified the no-tax provision by saying that "the purchase of a lottery ticket is really a gift to the city" and therefore winnings should not be taxed. He also said that it would not be good competitively for the city to tax winnings from the city-run game when it is unlikely that anyone pays any city taxes on his winnings from the illegal street numbers games.
Predictably, the Rev. John Bussey, the Baptist minister who headed the anti-gambling drive earlier this spring, is not impressed with such logic.
"If you're going to have a revenue measure, why not tax the winnings?" he asks.
Bussey said that he expects "it will take a little more education (of voters) this time" to convince them to reject the lottery-numbers proposal.
But he said that a variety of religious groups and civic organizations are being invited to a late June meeting to try to form a group that would oppose both referendums. Bussey said that if the measures are on the November ballot, opponents will attempt to have personal testimonials during the campaign from families who have been adversely affected by drug use and gambling.
Farnham said that the Committee for the D.C. Marijuana Initiative has hired six solicitors to gather more signatures and expects to submit about 20,000 to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
Under D.C. election laws, supporters of the two referendums must collect signatures of 5 percent of the city's registered voters to place their measures on the ballot, with at least 5 percent of the voters signing in five of the city's eight wards. The gambling proponents need 230 signatures more than the marijuana supporters because there were more registered voters in the city when their initiative was submitted to the elections board.
The deadline for submission of the signatures is July 7. Then the elections board will decide within a month whether there are enough valid signatures to place the measures on the ballot.
Farnham said his group has spent about $20,000 so far to solicit the signatures, print brochures about the initiative and advertise the issue in newspapers. He said the group has raised about $15,000 mostly from individual donations, but $3,000 of it from a fundraiser.
Coopersmith said that it may cost the D.C. Committee on Legalized Gambling about $25,000 to hire about 50 solicitors to gather enough signatures to place the lottery-numbers issue on the ballot. He said that D.C. liquor dealers, who want to be able to sell numbers tickets to compete with Maryland liquor dealers who already sell that state's daily numbers tickets, have pledged $5,000 toward the signature-gathering effort.
He said most of the remainder of the cost would be borne by companies like General Instrument Corp. and Scientific Games Development Corp., which sell lottery equipment and tickets and hope to win contracts to run a D.C. lottery operation.
General Instrument contributed about $15,000 and Scientific Games $6,000 of the $22,000 that lottery-related firms donated toward the defeated gambling proposals.