Originally Published: October 14, 2014 6 a.m.
WASHINGTON - A debate over legalizing marijuana in the nation's capital is focusing on the outsized number of arrests of African Americans on minor drug charges.
The racial justice aspect of the campaign is one of many factors making the District of Columbia's pot legalization push different from what's happened in Colorado, Washington state and other places around the country.
The District is not a state. Pot would still be illegal on federal land, so there would be no lighting up at the Jefferson Memorial or on the National Mall. And Washington remains under the thumb of Congress, which could thwart the will of the voters as it has on other matters where liberal District tendencies clash with conservative priorities on Capitol Hill.
Nonetheless, the District is on track to join Colorado and Washington state in legalizing marijuana. A poll last month showed nearly 2 of every 3 voters favor the initiative, which will be on November's ballot. Voters in Alaska and Oregon also decide this fall whether to legalize pot.
In other places, advocates have argued that pot is no more dangerous than alcohol and should be taxed and regulated by the government. The District, however, is much more heavily populated by black residents, and black people are far more likely to face repercussions for pot possession than white people.
Some drug-policy experts say the race factor means this referendum can't help but change how the nation talks about marijuana.
"I think D.C. is going to probably set off a chain of events in which communities of color generally and cities in particular take on the issue of legalization as a racial justice, social justice issue in a much stronger way than they have so far," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Roughly half of the District's 646,000 residents are black. The American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2010, blacks were eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in the District, and 91 percent of those arrested that year were black.
"It would alleviate a lot of problems," said Kenneth Agee, 46, a HVAC mechanic who plans to vote for legalization. "There may be less violence on the streets associated with marijuana trafficking and sales."
The D.C. Council tried earlier this year to address racial disparities by decriminalizing marijuana, as 17 states have done. Possession of up to one ounce of pot in the District is now subject to a $25 fine, among the lowest in the nation. The law took effect in July, despite an attempt by Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, to block the measure.
Legalization advocates say decriminalization hasn't done enough, citing police statistics that show most of the $25 tickets are being handed out in predominantly black neighborhoods.
"We can tell the police, 'Guess what? It's not even a crime. You don't have to write a ticket,'" said Adam Eidinger, chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, the group that crafted the initiative and got it on the ballot.
The initiative also is notable for what it lacks. Because initiatives in D.C. can't affect the budget, it does not provide for the legal sale of marijuana or set up a system to tax and regulate it. That would be up to the mayor and the council. Voters will also be choosing a new mayor in November to replace Vincent Gray, and both of the leading candidates have said they support legalization.
In Colorado and Washington state, the federal government told the states they must keep legal pot off federal property such as parks and other huge swaths of U.S. land. That could be more complicated in the District, where the situation can change from block to block. The parkland the federal government owns in the District, for instance, includes 59 inner-city squares and triangles.
Because Congress has authority over lawmaking in the District, the initiative wouldn't take effect until a congressional review period that could last several months. The tried-and-true tactic for members of Congress who want to undo local laws in the District is to attach an amendment to a crucial piece of legislation, such as a spending bill that funds the federal government. That's how Congress banned medical marijuana in the city for more than a decade after voters approved it. Medical marijuana is now available.