The smell near the Columbia Heights Metro station Wednesday night was unmistakable. A lit joint in hand, Tony Lee stood outside a residence talking with friends as the evening bustle passed them by, no one paying the group of men any special attention.
“The community I’m in, everyone engages in smoking,” said Lee, 34, a District resident who runs his own small construction firm. Plus, he said, if he’s not smoking, he detects the odor of other people getting high throughout the city on a daily basis anyway.
“I’ve grown accustomed to it,” he said.
This casual attitude to marijuana — and the distinctive waft that accompanies the smoking of it — seems to be the new norm in the District in the year since the city voted to legalize possession of small amounts of pot.
According to a new Washington Post poll, 57 percent of District residents say they smell marijuana at least once a month. And of those residents, 45 percent say the smell of the once-illicit substance doesn’t bother them at all; 17 percent say it doesn’t bother them “too much.” Fewer than 4 in 10 respondents say the smell irks them at least to a degree.
This prevalent public perfume may be a new feature of the nation’s capital, but it builds upon findings of increasing support for looser marijuana laws.
Last November, 70 percent of District residents voted in favor of Initiative 71 — a ballot measure that legalized the growing and possession of small amounts of marijuana. The measure took effect in February, and since then, support for the law has not weakened.
Sixty-nine percent of residents still support the law, according to the poll. The numbers most notably break down along generational lines: Only 41 percent of residents 65 and older support marijuana legalization, but the number jumps to 64 percent among those 40 to 64 years old and to 82 percent among those under 40.
There is also a gap between the rate at which black and white residents support the new law. The poll found that 79 percent of whites are still in favor of the law and that 60 percent of blacks support it. But, while lagging behind support among white residents, support among black D.C. residents has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2010, a Post poll found that just 37 percent of black D.C. residents favored legalization.
This continuing support for the law is similar to what played out in Colorado, where 55 percent of voters supported legalization in 2012. Since then, support for the Colorado law has remained steady, according to Quinnipiac University polls.
“It continues to be a hot-button issue for the under-40 voter group, and any politician that discounts the influence of this generation in the future won’t be in politics very long,” said Adam Eidinger, an activist who helped lead the political fight to pass Initiative 71 and owns a marijuana paraphernalia store in Adams Morgan. “No one in the local government can take credit for this issue. The only reason why this moved is because the people spoke out.”
Support is relatively even across the city’s wards, and in Wards 1, 7 and 8, residents report smelling marijuana more often. In Ward 1 — including U Street NW, Adams Morgan and parts of Columbia Heights — 70 percent of residents say they smell marijuana once a month or more. That dips to 62 percent in Wards 7 and 8, but frequency stands out east of the Anacostia River: Thirty-two percent say they smell marijuana “every day.” In Wards 2 and 3, only 8 percent say they smell weed daily.
“People aren’t as discreet as they were before it was legal,” said Wuan Smith, 21, a Ward 8 resident who says he smokes regularly in his Congress Heights apartment. He said he smells marijuana smoke from others in his neighborhood just as frequently.
Smoking in a private home in the District is legal under Initiative 71. The law allows residents to possess as much as two ounces of marijuana, to grow plants in their homes and to consume marijuana in private — noncommercial — places.
In July 2014, activists pushed for marijuana first to be decriminalized. Later, they pushed for legalization, framing the issue as one of civil rights, citing statistics showing that 9 in 10 people arrested for pot possession in the District between 2000 and 2010 were black, although blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates.
Since the law has been in effect, arrests for possession have predictably plummeted. In 2013, before marijuana was decriminalized or legalized, D.C. police arrested 1,215 people for pot possession.
So far this year, all D.C.-based police forces — including those of federal agencies — have arrested only seven people for marijuana possession, according to statistics from the Metropolitan Police Department.
“I don’t find [the smell] super offensive,” said Lena Amick, 24, a Columbia Heights resident who says she doesn’t smoke but voted in favor of Initiative 71 because of the unequal arrest rates. “People can choose to do what they want to do.”
Although possessing marijuana is legal, selling it remains illegal. Because the District is not a state, Congress has the power to overturn city laws. Republican members of Congress tried to prevent Initiative 71 from becoming law but ultimately just blocked the city’s ability to pass laws regulating drug sales.
According to the Post poll, 74 percent of residents think the city should be allowed to regulate and tax the sale of marijuana. Even many older residents who oppose marijuana use are in favor of the District’s having regulatory authority: Sixty-six percent of those 65 and older support this, compared with 41 percent in that age group who support legalization in general.
“I didn’t vote [to legalize marijuana], because they didn’t have all the ducks in a row,” said John, 64, a retired electrician who declined to give his last name, citing the sensitivity of the issue. “You have street vendors still. You are still promoting illegal sales.”
He and his wife have lived in Ward 5’s Bloomingdale neighborhood for more than 30 years and say they smell marijuana coming from their neighbors’ back yards more than before.
“We are not so much bothered,” he said. “It’s just that when people come into our home, they may think it’s ours.”
The Post’s poll was conducted Nov. 12-15 among a random sample of 1,005 adult District residents reached on landline and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus four percentage points; for results in individual wards, error margins range between plus and minus nine to 13 percentage points.