Southeast Capitol Hill didn’t look any different on the morning of Feb. 27,
24 hours after marijuana officially became legal in the District of Columbia. There was still snow on the ground from the cold weather that had swept through the city a week earlier. Kids walked to Eastern High School, their breath forming puffs of steam in the air, and the sloping roof of RFK Stadium loomed in the distance, its white crest blending into the cool gray sky.
But there was something different, Vonneva Pettigrew could tell, about her neighborhood that day. She could smell it when she walked along the residential streets lined with tidy brick houses and sense it when she talked to the neighbors. More people were smoking pot. And they were doing it in the open. Marijuana may have been legal for only a day, but for Pettigrew, 76, it was the 1970s all over again.
“I have mixed feelings about the new marijuana law,” the lifelong D.C. resident says. “I’m worried about the message it will send to kids.”
That, she contends, is liable to be the same message she confronted more than three decades ago, when she first took up the fight against liberalized marijuana laws.
In the 1970s, when Pettigrew was a young mother of three, an earlier movement to decriminalize marijuana was in full swing. Between 1973 and 1978, 11 states representing more than one-third of the U.S. population decriminalized possession of up to one ounce of pot. The result? Unprecedented levels of adolescent drug use, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Those were the days when High Times, rolling papers and bongs were available at local record shops and in suburban malls. Kids as young as 11 told researchers at NIDA that marijuana was “easy to get.” By 1979, 1 in 9 high school seniors reported smoking pot every day.
Pettigrew’s children did not smoke — she made sure of that — but the family had experienced the dangers of drug abuse firsthand. On Christmas Eve 1976, Pettigrew’s oldest son, Harold, was shot and seriously woundedby a young man high on PCP during an argument over a parking space.
In an atmosphere of widespread drug abuse, decriminalizing marijuana sent the wrong message, Pettigrew contended. Rallying to action, she formed a youth group in her home to combat drug abuse and violence.
Meanwhile, a young white mother of two in Silver Spring, Md., was also alarmed at the spread of drugs. In 1977, at the invitation of a teenage neighbor, Joyce Nalepka accompanied her two young sons to a Kiss concert at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., where she was shocked by all the underage kids in the audience blatantly smoking pot, while security guards looked the other way. “Looking out over the arena, there was a cloud of smoke,” she recalls, “and so many of the kids couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13.” Her sons got sick from the fumes, she said, and her battle against decriminalization began.
Pettigrew and Nalepka eventually joined forces in a parent-led movement that made preventing adolescent pot and drug use a national concern. The Silver Spring-based National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth (now the National Family Partnership) aligned with then-first lady Nancy Reagan in a “Just Say No” campaign that organized marches and brought rallies and conferences to Washington, pushing to overturn lenient drug laws. The organization’s president and public face, Nalepka attended events with Reagan and wrote articles decrying adolescent marijuana use. Pettigrew was the group’s first black board member.
But 2015 isn’t 1975, and support for decriminalization and legalization is once again slowly spreading. And Pettigrew and Nalepka feel the need to at least sound a warning about the potential unintended consequences.
Initiative 71 passed by wide margins in 142 of the District’s
143 precincts in November, including Pettigrew’s area of Capitol Hill. Although she voted against it and encouraged others to do likewise, she recognizes that African American voters largely supported legalization “not because they felt it was good, but because it solved a problem.”
“Marijuana use in the city is so widespread, but only African Americans are being arrested,” she says.
But she says legalization happened far too quickly. “We didn’t have the time to really look at it, to weigh the pros and cons,” she says. “We haven’t talked about edibles, how it will be regulated, how it will affect kids.”
As for Nalepka, she doesn’t mince words. “I don’t know if there are words strong enough to explain my disgust,” she says. “It’s a crime” that legalization is happening in the District.
She says that legalization was not necessary to overcome racial disparities in drug-arrest rates. “Back in the 1980s, there were just as many African American parents involved in the movement as there were whites,” she says. “Everyone thought we could turn things around if we had the time to organize and save these kids.”
How quickly the country seems to have forgotten the lessons of the past, the now 78-year-old grandmother notes ruefully. In the 1970s, decriminalization launched an unregulated marijuana economy, with nearly unfettered access to the drug. Both she and Pettigrew say that the District’s law could do the same. Although Initiative 71 allows possession only for anyone 21 or older, it doesn’t provide specific regulations for sale or distribution. So pot, they say, may still be easily available to kids and teenagers.
Nalepka misses the community that formed in the 1980s and successfully rolled back marijuana decriminalization laws in every state. “Back then, we were able to educate parents and adults in the District and across the country,” she says. “We had support from families and from leaders.” Today, she is chagrined by the “blase statements” by President Obama and members of Congress who have suggested that their own marijuana use did them no harm. “It’s extremely important that elected officials not give kids the wrong idea,” she says, “but that’s not happening anymore.”
Despite its many successes, the parent movement began to crumble in the mid-1980s in the face of funding challenges and as the drug war heated up, and professional drug-education programs such as D.A.R.E. replaced what parent-
activists had been doing in their homes.
Still, both women remained active. Nalepka founded another youth-related program in 1998 and ran it for several years, while Pettigrew continued to work with minority families struggling with their kids’ drug problems. And they’re often recognized for their past efforts. “There are still times when a parent will come running over to me in church or at the mall and tell me how grateful they are because the movement helped get kids out of drug use,” Nalepka says.
She says that strong parenting can keep kids away from pot. She and Pettigrew raised their children to avoid drugs, and they went on to live happy, successful lives. But Nalepka and Pettigrew fear that legalization will make that much more difficult for parents today.
The parent movement’s greatest success, Pettigrew says, was making people aware that a problem existed. “We made people comfortable with talking about their kids’ drug use,” she says.
Today, she is trying to bridge the gap between her fears about marijuana’s effects on kids and the troubling rates of drug arrests among African Americans. The best solution, she says, is just what it was in the 1980s — bringing people together. “I would like to see communities come together to sit down and be educated about marijuana’s effects. We need to talk about what we should do, how we should do it, how we handle the problem and how we teach kids.”
“We need this kind of education because legalization affects the people who live here,” she says. “Not the bureaucrats, but the man in the street.”
And Initiative 71 may be just the thing to get her back into action. People started calling her as soon as the measure passed, she says, “telling me, ‘You’ve got to do something, Vonneva.’ As a warrior and an advocate, it’s hard for me to sit back.”
Nalepka’s activist days, however, are over. The parent movement fought the good fight, but times have changed, regrettably, she says.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she says, “to know that we accomplished so much, and now all that seems to have disappeared.”
Dufton is a fellow at the Center for Public Integrity and is working on a book about marijuana activism.