The District should set aside the warnings of its attorney general and let voters decide whether they want to legalize marijuana possession in the nation’s capital, advocates for the measure argued Tuesday before the D.C. Board of Elections.
The band of marijuana advocates is seeking to make the District one of the first East Coast cities to legalize marijuana possession. If it successfully gets the measure on the November ballot, legalization has a strong chance of being approved, according to a recent Washington Post poll, and it could hasten the arrival in Washington of a debate that has simmered mostly in Western states.
Last week, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan urged the Elections Board to reject the proposed ballot initiative, saying it would put at least one aspect of D.C. law in conflict with federal law.
He warned that federal law would still require the city to kick out those residents of public housing who are convicted of drug possession, even if D.C. law no longer considered it a crime.
Adam Eidinger, a leading activist for the initiative, played down Nathan’s concern, saying that there was nothing the District could do about the conflict or the fact that it might disproportionately expose low-income residents to continued marijuana prosecution.
“The civil rights issue is the federal government, not us. We’re trying to alleviate the problem,” Eidinger said. He stressed repeatedly that the measure was “not perfect” and that it would largely leave the details of implementation up to the D.C. Council.
To Irvin’s criticism about rental units, Eidinger said that any landlord, public or private, would still have the right to write into a lease a prohibition against having marijuana.
“It’s like signing a lease that says you can’t have a dog in your apartment,” he said.
Some members of the Elections Board appeared skeptical, but the board promised to vote and disclose its majority opinion within seven days.
As introduced, the initiative would allow people 21 or older to have as much as two ounces of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to three plants at home. It would also allow marijuana growers to transfer, but not sell, small amounts to others and legalize the sale of cannabis paraphernalia.
Should the board agree that the proposal is suitable for the ballot, backers would have to collect the signatures of more than 25,000 city voters for it to qualify.
Advocates say they would stand a better chance of getting enough signatures if it is approved in time to collect signatures outside polling places on the April 1 primary.
Next week, the D.C. Council is expected to give final approval to a measure to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana but leave smoking in public a crime akin to carrying an open bottle of alcohol.