A group has formed to combat the legalization of marijuana in the District, an issue residents will vote on this fall.
“Two. Is. Enough. D.C.” is “a movement by a diverse group of Washingtonians” to fight “the scourge of a third legal recreational drug” alongside alcohol and tobacco in the District, founder Will Jones III announced at a news conference Wednesday morning.
Standing outside Bible Way Church in Northwest Washington with an assortment of local politicians and activists, Jones said his organization would campaign against legalization with billboards, ads on Metro, videos, signs, leaflets and community events. In front of banners that juxtaposed joints against high school diplomas and the Washington Monument, Jones challenged Adam Eidinger, campaign chairman for the pro-legalization D.C. Cannabis Campaign, to a public debate.
Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana was decriminalized in the District in July and is now subject to a $25 fine. On Nov. 4, city residents will decide whether to go a step further and legalize the drug.
The most high-profile speaker at Wednesday’s news conference was former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I), who once crashed his convertible into a concrete barrier at the Capitol while under the influence of prescription drugs. He has since made addiction and mental illness treatment a personal cause, and since retiring from Congress in 2012, he has become an outspoken critic of marijuana legalization. Kennedy chairs Project SAM, a national organization formed to combat legalization measures across the country.
If pot is made legal, Kennedy warned, vulnerable youths will be “targeted by some slick Madison Avenue advertising firm that wants them to use legalized marijuana. It’s a green light for people thinking that it’s okay for commercial enterprises to make money off the suffering and mental illness of young people.”
Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative Kathy Henderson warned that “this poison” would make D.C. communities unsafe for senior citizens.
“You will see people at bus stops, you will see people at restaurants, public places,” she said. “You will be smoking vicariously.”
Other speakers included Howard University psychiatry professor William B. Lawson and former D.C. Superior Court justice Arthur Burnett, who said that he had seen “thousands” of cases where alcohol contributed to homicide or rape. The domestic violence case involving former Ravens running back Ray Rice, Burnett said, was an example of the harm legal drugs can do, and he predicted an increase in welfare and foster care cases if marijuana is legalized.
Jones and others pushed back against one of the arguments made in favor of both decriminalization and legalization — that African Americans are far more likely to be arrested or ticketed for marijuana use. Recent studies found that D.C. police had among the highest arrest rates for marijuana possession in the country and that African Americans accounted for eight of every 10 arrests.
“It’s naive and troubling” to argue that “legalizing marijuana will end racial injustice,” Jones said.
On the contrary, he and other speakers argued, legal marijuana would be marketed most heavily to, and have the worst impact on, young African Americans.
Results from an unscientific survey of Washington Post readers
Fear that legalization could lead to addiction among black youths has driven many older black D.C. residents to oppose legalization in the past. Those fears were reflected in a Washington Post poll earlier this year that found that 63 percent of Washingtonians, but just 40 percent of black respondents 50 and older, favor legalization. Seventy-three percent of younger black residents support legalization. There is no such age difference on legalization among white residents.
The legalization initiative 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. Selling marijuana would remain illegal, but the drug could be freely given from one person to another. If the ballot measure is approved, supporters say they expect the city to step in and create a legal sales framework.
The anti-legalization group has not registered as a campaign organization, according to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance. Jones said Wednesday that he is filing that paperwork. The D.C. Cannabis Campaign has questioned whether the group is operating legally.
“They’re going to take this on as a finance issue?” Kennedy said indignantly when asked at the news conference about a possible campaign-finance complaint. “Is that the best argument the legalizers have? Let them file their finance complaint!”
Jones, a 24-year-old Maryland native, said his group has been supported by Project SAM but received no financial pledges from Kennedy’s organization or any “big money.” He is planning to set up a crowd-funding campaign, he said, and has so far relied largely on “grass-roots” donations from Bible Way Church and other supporters. Ronald L. Demery Jr., who also spoke Wednesday, has made anti-drug campaigns a personal cause. The pastor said he had seen the negative impact of pot in his family. Jones said he was similarly motivated by the effect marijuana has had on members of his family.
Malik Burnett, vice chairman of the pro-legalization campaign, attended the news conference and told reporters afterward that his opponents were spreading “misinformation.”
“All of the information you heard today are talking points that come from the 1980s,” Burnett said. He pointed to evidence that youth marijuana use and highway fatalities have decreased in states that have legalized the drug.
“I don’t think this group is representative of the D.C. community as a whole,” Eidinger said before the news conference. But, he said, he would be willing to participate in a debate on the issue.