Marijuana matures at a dispensary in northeast Denver. Colorado voters have legalized recreational use of the drug. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan says a proposed November ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in the nation’s capital should not be allowed to proceed to a vote because the measure would put at least one aspect of District law in conflict with federal law.

In a potential setback for advocates of legalizing the drug, Nathan wrote to the D.C. Board of Elections on Wednesday saying that federal law would still require the city to kick out residents of public housing who are convicted of drug possession, even if District law no longer considered it a crime.

Nathan suggested that the board must reject the proposed initiative at a meeting Tuesday that has been expected to determine whether advocates could begin gathering signatures for the measure.

Adam Eidinger, a leading activist for the initiative, characterized Nathan’s concern as a “technicality,” one that advocates think they could address by changing a few words of the proposed initiative.

Eidinger, nonetheless, said he feared that the Board of Elections on Tuesday could force him to start over, perhaps leaving advocates with too little time to introduce a new proposal, get it certified and collect enough signatures to place it on this year’s ballot.




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“I think this is a little hiccup,” he said, “and I think the bigger issue is voters expect us to have a chance to vote on this, and [it] would be wrong for the Board of Elections to prevent that.”

As introduced, the initiative would allow people 21 or older to possess as much as two ounces of marijuana for personal use and grow up to three plants at home. The initiative as submitted would also allow marijuana growers to transfer, but not sell, small amounts to others and would also 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.

Board spokeswoman Tamara Robinson said its members would take Nathan’s letter under advisement.

Nathan’s opposition to the measure is the second time he has sent advocates scrambling. In the fall, activists withdrew a previous version of the initiative after he lodged several objections.

The back-and-forth comes as support for legalizing marijuana has expanded dramatically in the District, with residents who were split evenly on the issue four years ago now in favor of allowing possession of small amounts of the drug for personal use by nearly 2 to 1, according to a recent Washington Post poll.

Next month, the D.C. Council is expected to give final approval to a partial decriminalization measure.

The bill, which the council gave preliminary approval to this month, would eliminate criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana but leave smoking it in public a crime.

The civil fine for possession would be $25. But smoking in public or on someone else’s property would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Opponents say the half-measure keeps alive concerns about racial profiling in marijuana arrests in the District.