Voters in the District should know within weeks whether they will get a chance to follow Colorado and Washington state in legalizing marijuana.
Advocates for a ballot initiative that would bring the country’s divide over the controlled substance to the doorstep of the U.S. Capitol claimed on Monday to have turned in 57,000 signatures, more than double the number needed.
The measure’s chances to qualify for the Nov. 4 ballot may have improved when a group of opponents on Monday said it would not have the financial resources to challenge the validity of the petition signatures. Barring any surprises, that means the District’s Board of Elections will meet in mid-August to certify the measure for the ballot.
Adam Eidinger, head of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, said supporters must shift to a more traditional campaign mode that he expects to focus foremost on voter education.
“We need to reassure the voters in the city that this isn’t too big of a step to take,” Eidinger said. “The public will see very little change, but the cannabis user will no longer have to live in fear.”
The measure would allow people 21 and older to possess as much as two ounces of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to three marijuana plants at home. It does not allow legal sale of the plant. It would be up to the D.C. Council and mayor to develop a system for sale and taxation of the plant.
Voter initiatives in the District are not binding, and have been overturned in the past by the council.
Congress could also get involved. Federal lawmakers tied up the city’s move to allow medical marijuana for more than a decade, and a recent decision by city lawmakers to join 17 states in eliminating jail time for marijuana possession was thrown into question last month by a Republican congressman from Maryland.
Rep. Andy Harris successfully amended a spending bill to preclude the District from making marijuana possession punishable by a fine of just $25. The issue will probably have to be worked out during negotiations over next year’s budget between the House and Senate.
Kevin A. Sabet, a co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), said he also expects a strong grass-roots effort against full legalization in the District.
“I think there is a growing sense that folks have enough of a time dealing with problems of alcohol and tobacco,” Sabet said. “The idea that we’re going to go down this path may be appealing to the 30-year-old blogger in Georgetown, but not the working family in Southeast.”
Malik Burnett, a national organizer for the Drug Policy Alliance and medical doctor by training, said he thinks the opposite is true and that proponents have a strong case to make that legalization is the only way to fight disproportionately high drug arrest rates for African Americans in the District.
“We’re not afraid of a little humor. It’s okay to laugh when people think about cannabis; we’re human beings. But at the same time, there are serious matters at play,” Burnett said. “A tremendous amount of people are going to jail for something that is otherwise humorous. If we can bring that to and end through Initiative 71, all the better.”