The campaigns for and against legalizing marijuana in the nation’s capital are not exactly sophisticated — no targeted robo-calling, no TV commercials, no get-out-the-vote drive.
The Yes side instead papers streetlamp poles with signs that say just “Legalize.” The No side counters with its simple slogan, “Two. Is. Enough. D.C.,” meaning that legal alcohol and tobacco give Washingtonians all the mind-altering substances they need.
The head of the No campaign, Will Jones, says he has never smoked pot, doesn’t drink except at weddings and believes marijuana is an expressway to heroin and the like. The head of the Yes campaign counters with an assurance that weed “is nontoxic and no one has ever overdosed from it.” “Believe me,” said Adam Eidinger, “it would have happened to me by now.”
D.C. voters will be asked Nov. 4 for a simple yes or no on legalizing marijuana, which the city decriminalized this year, replacing arrests and possible jail time with a $25 fine for possession of up to one ounce.
But in the hazy world of marijuana law — an alternate reality in which two U.S. states have declared the substance legal even as it remains banned under federal law — nothing is simple.
In the District, the contradictions get kicked up considerably: If the initiative passes, it would become legal to possess or grow small amounts of marijuana but not to sell or buy the stuff. The D.C. Council is talking about waiting months, or even a year, before taking the next step and passing a scheme to allow sales, taxes and regulation. In the meantime, even if Congress were to allow a Yes vote to stand, the city would become a place where having marijuana is legal but getting it requires illegal acts or a magical appearance of seeds or the finished product.
That leaves even some of the most fervent opponents of marijuana prohibition wondering just what the ballot proposal might accomplish.
Elsewhere across the country, this fall’s votes on marijuana policy would have real and swift impact. Alaska and Oregon voters will decide whether to make state-regulated sales legal, much as Colorado and Washington state have done. In Florida, the ballot includes a measure that would allow medical marijuana, as 23 states and the District do.
But even though recent polls show a large majority of D.C. voters favor Initiative 71, “I don’t expect Congress to sit back while the nation’s capital legalizes marijuana,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).
Wells — who successfully pushed for the decriminalization law that went into effect in July — will vote for legalization, but he questions whether the council would then act to turn the capital into the kind of weed free-for-all that Denver has become. Advocates on both sides agree: Anyone who thinks Congress would approve turning its headquarters city into the American Amsterdam must be high.
For the 750 clients — up from 75 in May — who get their medical marijuana at Takoma Wellness Center on Blair Road NW, the debate is already over.
After a 45-minute consultation with Jeffrey Kahn, the rabbi-turned-pot-purveyor who owns the dispensary, customers step into the sales room and choose among flowers (Blue Dream, Kush, Sativa Afghani, with a gram ranging from $12 to $20), pre-rolled cigarettes ($7.95 each), and concentrates (tinctures and hash varieties that pack more punch than the smoked weed.)
Although he has yet to turn a profit, Kahn’s business, which shares an old strip shopping center with a Chinese takeout and a liquor store, has picked up sharply in recent weeks, since the D.C. government loosened restrictions on the city’s three dispensaries and three cultivation centers. The new rules allow each grower’s crop to increase from 95 plants to 500 and greatly expand the list of chronic and serious conditions for which physicians can recommend marijuana.
As a result, the fastest-growing categories of conditions for which Kahn’s clients seek relief are gunshot wounds and epilepsy.
At $560 an ounce, Kahn’s Sativa Afghani is about a third more expensive than it would be on the black market, according to dealers. But many people “want to feel like law-abiding human beings,” Kahn said, and are willing to pay a premium for safe, homegrown pot.
Still, although Kahn, 62, supports the initiative, he’s not sanguine about making the drug so easily available that people can get it without counseling on the right strains, dosages and forms of ingestion for their conditions.
“It’s hard to imagine how marijuana could be safely used without some kind of educational program,” he said. “It’s not the kind of product any adult should be able to just buy off the shelf.”
Legalization would help shift the supply chain toward local growers, Kahn said: “If you buy on the black market now, you’re not going to suffer major legal consequences, but you bought that from the Mexican cartel. A long, heavy chain of misery is attached to that half-ounce of marijuana.”
Kahn has no illusions about the District becoming a landscape of storefront pot shops anytime soon. And he doubts that many people would grow their own even if it were legal to do so. “Growing marijuana is not the easiest thing to do, as I have learned,” he said. “It takes four months to grow, and it’s a lot of work.”
As of Oct. 6, 1,362 D.C. residents had registered with the city Health Department to get medical marijuana. Many thousands more buy pot on the black market; about 14 percent of city residents have used marijuana in the past year, compared with 11 percent nationwide, according to federal surveys.
Some buy on the street, and some have connections, such as a Northwest man in his 50s who has been selling in the District for 25 years. The man has mostly professional clients — lawyers, government contractors, lobbyists, journalists — who come by his home at appointed hours to make their purchases.
He supports legalization and doesn’t worry about losing business if the trade goes legit. “It’s almost a pointless vote,” he said, “because Congress would never let there be stores all over. I just don’t see how this could practically work. Especially in this city, people want privacy.”
They also want legal weed. According to an NBC4/Washington Post/Marist poll conducted last month, D.C. voters support the initiative, 65 percent to 33 percent. Two of the three mayoral candidates — Muriel E. Bowser (D) and David A. Catania (I) — support legalization; Carol Schwartz (I) does not. White voters are far more likely to support the change — 74 percent approve — than blacks, 56 percent of whom say they’ll vote yes.
Race turns out to be at the core of the legalization debate. The council’s decision on decriminalization was driven by evidence that African Americans are much more likely to be arrested for possessing pot than are whites, despite survey data showing the races to be equally likely to use the drug.
As of 2010, the District had a higher marijuana arrest rate than any of the 50 states, and it ranked seventh nationally among nearly 1,000 counties analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Eighty-eight percent of those convicted of marijuana possession in the city last year were black.
But advocates differ on what to do about those disparities. Arthur Burnett spent 31 years as a judge in the District; now head of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition, he says legalization would not keep young black men out of jail, because marijuana would be more readily available, leading more young people to harder drugs.
“Scratch the surface of most homicides and rape cases, and the perpetrators were high on drugs, including marijuana,” he said. “Although marijuana may not be a gateway drug scientifically, it does introduce people to a culture where they get drawn into other drugs.”
Burnett says opposition among older blacks to legalization stems not from moralism, but from practical experience: “Black communities already suffer from a liquor store on every corner,” he said. “Elderly black voters see the connection between the derelict wino hanging on the corner and the potential for more young black men strung out on marijuana on that corner. Do we really want to substitute mass incapacitation for mass incarceration?”
Jones, the 24-year-old leader of the anti-legalization campaign, said he’s seen too many peers lose their way in a fog of marijuana use and then find it hard to get back on track because of arrest records. “It’s selfish thinking to legalize something just for yourself, without thinking about the impact on society,” he said. “Is this something that’s good for our community? Is it going to help people get jobs?”
Eidinger, a former head-shop owner who has devoted many years to pressing for more liberal marijuana laws, acknowledges the racial gap and said his campaign is “making a sincere effort to reach out to African Americans who are concerned.”
“The older African American population has been devastated by the drug war,” he said, but he believes legalization would diminish the harm marijuana does to young people by curbing arrests that make it harder for them to find jobs.
“Experimentation is inevitable,” Eidinger said. “This is just another human activity that can get out of hand. But locking people up doesn’t address it.”
Eidinger thinks a thriving pot industry would be a source of jobs and tax revenue: “Someone could supplement their income by $1,000 or $2,000 a month with a grow in a room in their house or in outdoor space. This is a cash crop.”
Even if Initiative 71 passes easily, neighborhood pot shops are a long way from opening. Although the city can pass its own laws, Congress retains the right to nix those laws at will and has done so when the city nudges the frontiers of social policy.
From 1979, when the District was barred from using local tax dollars to help low-income women pay for abortions, to 1998, when Congress prohibited D.C. officials from counting the votes in a referendum on legalizing medical marijuana, the District has been less than its own master.
On marijuana, especially, Congress has kept the city on a short leash. The District was eventually permitted to announce results of the medical marijuana referendum — 69 percent of voters said yes — but a ban on any legalization efforts wasn’t lifted until 2009. The city passed its medical marijuana bill the next year.
Already this year, Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican congressman, has sought to block funding for decriminalization in the District. He attached an amendment to an appropriations bill, an oft-used method of imposing Congress’s will on the city, and has promised the same maneuver against legalization. Harris’s amendment didn’t make it to the latest version of the spending bill, so decriminalization in the District appears safe for now.
Whether a block on legalization would get through both houses of Congress probably depends on whether Republicans gain control of the Senate in next month’s elections.
“This fight doesn’t end with the vote,” Eidinger said. “It just becomes a democracy issue then.” If Congress were to let a Yes vote stand, even the legalization advocate wants to avoid the District becoming a marijuana mecca like Seattle or Denver, where open-air use has become common. “I have a 10-year-old, and I don’t want to see this turn into the pot festival capital,” he said. “That would blow people’s minds here. Congress would freak.”