At the very deliberate time of 4:20 a.m. Wednesday, dozens of D.C. marijuana activists arrived at the Mall. They put on some music, constructed a 42-foot “liberty pole,” and chained themselves to it.
“Chained to this pole, I feel more free than I have in my memory,” said protester David Keniston. “We are living democracy right now.”
Led by the DC Cannabis Campaign, the organization that spearheaded efforts to legalize marijuana in the city, the nearly week-long vigil in which city activists decry congressional meddling into local D.C. affairs began Wednesday.
The activists decided to start the around-the-clock protest on April 15, Tax Day, because, as the city’s license plates say, the District has “taxation without representation.” D.C. residents pay federal taxes, but do not have voting representation in the Senate or House. The vigil is slated to end at 4:20 p.m. on, well, April 20, more commonly known as 4/20 — the marijuana movement’s unofficial national holiday.
“We see a lot of similarities between how the English treated the colonists and how Congress treats D.C. residents,” said Adam Eidinger, the chair of the DC Cannabis Campaign. “Not living in a democracy sucks, and we’re trying to do something about it.”
Eidinger has been trying to leverage the momentum from his successful push to legalize marijuana in the city into an energized statehood movement. An overwhelming majority of D.C. residents voted in November for Initiative 71, which legalized the possession of marijuana in the city.
But in December, congressional Republicans inserted a rider into a massive federal spending bill that said the D.C. government could not spend any money to legalize marijuana in the city. Under the Home Rule Charter, Congress can tell D.C. how it can and cannot spend its funds.
Ultimately, D.C. went through with marijuana legalization, but, while that rider is still in effect, the city is prohibited from passing any further laws pertaining to marijuana legalization, including a law that would legalize and regulate the sale of it.
By drawing attention to what it means for D.C. to lack statehood, Eidinger and other marijuana activists hope the city can put enough pressure on Congress to remove the marijuana rider and all other measures that restrict D.C. from spending its local tax dollars. The protesters hung signs that said “Free DC” and wore red Phrygian caps — conical-shaped hats that historically have symbolized liberty.
So far, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the congressman who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which handles D.C. affairs, doesn’t seem persuaded.
Still, Eidinger said he has about 100 volunteers signed up to take a shift and shackle themselves to the pole this week. DC Vote, an organization that advocates for democracy in D.C., is also participating and plans to donate a portable toilet to the cause. The toilet will have a sign with some variation of “Congress, don’t dump on D.C.”
“Having something that is semi-permanent for a week, and constantly creating chatter is helpful,” said James Jones, a spokesman for DC Vote. “We always like to think that these things are bigger than what we are seeing in front of us.”
On Wednesday morning, the first day of the protest, Eidinger said he did not have a permit, and U.S. Park Police officials arrived at the scene of the pole and threatened to arrest activists if they didn’t leave. Eidinger obtained a permit at around 10 a.m. this morning.
“This ensures that while they are exercising their First Amendment rights, they are doing so in accordance with the requirements for public gatherings within National Mall and Memorial Parks,” spokesman Mike Litterst wrote in an e-mail.
But, if officials do decide to take down the pole, the whole display is set up so that only the people who are chained to the pole will be able to unhook themselves.
“If you want to take it down you are going to have to cut these things off people’s arms,” Eidinger said. “I came here prepared to go to jail if I need to.”