Loose Lips

The Weed Candidate

With few exceptions, D.C. politicians are dull. They have no flair for the dramatic, they are not highly quotable, they do not light up the room. It’s as if God allotted a set amount of personality for D.C. politicians, and Marion Barry used it all up.

The current crop of candidates for the at-large D.C. Council special election aren’t much different. They are a cautious lot; they don’t stick out or say things that might get them into trouble. With less than two months until the election, none of the candidates has managed to generate significant buzz.

But one of the seven is trying to make himself the exception—a defense attorney running as the race’s cranky truthteller, unafraid to throw elbows or stake out politically unpopular positions. Paul Zukerberg is the campaign’s quirky uncle who thinks the path to the Council dais is doing whatever’s the opposite of what a typical politician would do. He probably won’t come anywhere close to winning, but at least he’s spicing things up.

For starters, Zukerberg has staked his campaign on one main issue: decriminalizing marijuana. (A large share of Zukerberg’s legal practice is representing accused pot smokers.) The Wilson Building has been in no rush to even ponder relaxing the laws on pot, and no one’s talked much about it in other recent local races. Decriminalization is different than legalization; Zukerberg says the city should assess civil fines to people caught with small amounts of pot, not criminal penalties. He says the only reason the idea hasn’t gotten much attention is because D.C. politicians are afraid to talk about the toll unfair drug laws have on District residents.

“It’s the largest civil rights issue we have in the District of Columbia,” Zukerberg says during a recent interview. He cites statistics showing that D.C. leads the country in per capita marijuana arrests and the fact that black residents are eight times more likely to be arrested for lighting up than white residents. “We’re saddling a lot of African Americans, mostly young black males, with criminal records.”

Zukerberg notes that several states and big cities have moved recently to either legalize or decriminalize marijuana and says D.C. is falling behind in a national trend because feckless local politicians are afraid of upsetting the federal government. The D.C. Council legalized medical marijuana in 2010, but the city has yet to see a single prescription for medicinal pot filled. Meanwhile, residents of Colorado and Washington have voted to legalize pot, and cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have decriminalized it.

“This is a company town, and I don’t work for the company,” Zukerberg says.

Since you’re wondering: Yes, Zukerberg says he used to smoke pot when he was a younger man. But the 55-year-old father of two, who lives in Adams Morgan, says he no longer partakes simply because he’s gotten too old: “Those days are behind me.”

Nowadays, Zukerberg’s new drug is D.C. politics. He sees himself as the antidote to politicians and candidates who seek a Council seat because they need the money or the status that comes with it. He may be taking that nonchalance a little too far: Zukerberg has eschewed typical campaign things like serious fundraising, putting together a campaign staff, or sending out mailers because he says that stuff is mostly useless and overrated.

“I don’t think that more junk mail is going to carry the day,” he says. “I’m just trying to talk common sense to people and see if they respond to it.”

Zukerberg hasn’t been shy about attacking his opponents, something none of his opponents seem particularly eager or willing to do. He essentially called former Loose Lips columnist-turned-D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute advocate Elissa Silverman a hypocrite for unsuccessfully challenging his nominating petitions after she advocated on behalf of a ballot initiative that came up a few signatures short of qualifying to go before voters. “The so-called, self-described ‘integrity candidate’ is not fooling anyone,” Zukerberg wrote in a press release, and then accused Silverman on his blog of not wanting the homeless to be able to vote. Silverman says “that’s not true, obviously” about her stance on homeless voters and that her challenge was legitimate because she didn’t think Zukerberg had the requisite 3,000 valid signatures. And when Zukerberg accused the Board of Elections of violating city laws by not updating its voter rolls, the BOE responded with a strongly worded statement saying Zukerberg’s claims were “wholly inaccurate and have absolutely no merit or basis in fact.”

The son of a self-taught musician who was a big wheel on the bar mitzvah and Jewish wedding circuit in Paterson, N.J., Zukerberg moved to D.C. 30 years ago to go to law school at American University. He said he was drawn to criminal defense law because he likes going to trial and he “just can’t stand when someone gets the raw end of the deal.”

As a young lawyer in the ’80s, Zukerberg had a front-row seat to many of the city’s social ills. He defended drug dealers, prostitutes, and people trying to get released from St. Elizabeths mental hospital. Zukerberg also practices personal injury law, won millions in backpay for underpaid D.C. retirement home workers, and helped a D.C. cop beat a bribery charge. If he somehow wins and the Council decriminalizes marijuana, he says, a “lucrative part of my business will go down the tubes.”

One thing Zukerberg made sure LL noted: how rare it would be for a councilmember to advocate for something that would hurt his personal bottom line. Unfortunately, that does indeed set him apart from other politicians.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • DC Guy

    I'm sorry, but the biggest civil rights issue in the District is the lack of voting rights for the residents of the city. Pot is way down the list, though the thought is a good one, if it can be properly taxed and dispensed.

    I do agree with his assessments otherwise.

  • drez

    It’s the largest civil rights issue we have in the District of Columbia,” Zukerberg says during a recent interview
    No, it's the unequal access to high quality education.

  • RealDC

    Interesting candidate. He was pretty impressive at the ward 4 forum's candidates forum last week.

    Decriminalization of marijuana is overdue but not legalization. Too many young folks are getting "caught up" with simply weed charges that are hurting their future. Again, government should be in the business of helping not hurting people.

    "Stuck On Zuck"!.....Mmmm.... we'll see

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  • Cass

    This gent would make an interesting council member. Not sure what his chances are, but he likely be better than the alternatives.

  • Sceptic

    Dull? Don't short, wriinkled up, old, rice lovin', career criminals in bow ties count for something?

  • Busted

    I'm well aware of the need to reform our pot laws. I recently got busted in Maryland with one gram of weed, a tiny amount. I was at a music festival and cops saw me with a container of weed in my hand and confronted me.

    While our pot laws are not the most important thing we need to deal with, they're pretty damn important. I'm lucky enough to afford a lawyer who will make the charge disappear. Folks who don't have $900 to spend on that are going to have a record. Maybe they don't respond to the summons, then they have an arrest warrant and so on and so on. For what? A tiny amount of weed?

    Willingness to take a tough stand is something I like in a candidate. It's one thing if that stand is crazy - banning all abortions for example. It's quite another when it's entirely reasonable and good but every other politician is tight-lipped about it.

  • Medical Cannabis Patient

    "The D.C. Council legalized medical marijuana in 2010, but the city has yet to see a single prescription for medicinal pot filled."

    First, no doctor in America can write a "prescription" for medical cannabis, instead they can only offer a form of free speech called a "recommendation." Journalists need to get their facts straight when they use the word "prescription" because it clearly shows they have no clue about medical cannabis laws in America. Until cannabis is removed from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, there will be no prescriptions.

    Second, the fact that the DC government requires patients to sign a form saying they are violating the law shows that the DC government does not know the law. How can Congress approve medical cannabis for District residents, but at the same time the DC government say that they are breaking the law? DC is beholden to the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to allow medical cannabis to people in need and Congress has approved not one, but two pieces of legislation from the DC Council concerning medical cannabis. Had Congress to chosen to exercise its exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, they could have prevented medical cannabis from reaching sick patients, but they haven't.

    Third, the fact that its been 3 years since Congress approved medical cannabis for DC residents and there is still no medicine shows that the DC government does not want medical cannabis and does not care about helping the sick. Had David Catania & Phil Mendelson not rewrote DC's medical cannabis ballot initiative, sick patients would have their medicine by now (in fact they would have had it in 2010). Instead we get a tired line of "we want to play it safe & slow and not end up like California" which is wholly inaccurate and a weak argument. DC will never be California, DC can never lead America on any social issue because its citizenry live under the thumb of Congress. Moreover, patients should be able to grow their own supply of medicine like they do in all other states with functioning medical cannabis program. The Obama administration, which has been worse than the Bush administration when it comes to medical cannabis, said it would not go after patients who grow their own medicine, but what does DC do? Catania & Mendelson changed the law to create exactly what the DOJ said they were against-- for-profit companies selling medical cannabis.

    Lastly, the current crop of Councilmembers need to be activists, like Zuckerberg, not lackeys. As long as they are second-class citizens, they need to take every opportunity to rub their less-than-citizen status in the face of Congress. This means passing decriminalization laws, tax & regulate laws, and other laws that go up against Congressional action or inaction. Otherwise they'll continue to be treated like the bunch of lap dogs they are currently are.

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  • RealDC

    @medicalcannibuspatient- Great post, you exactly right!

    Being under the "thumb " of congress is not the worse issue facing DC residents it is being subject to the POOR leadership of this council! Mendeslon and Catania are the WORST!!

    DC's weak leadership is the problem not the the Feds and our leadership is why we cannot get representation in Congress!!

  • noodlez




  • tony

    noodlez: I LOVE MY PEOPLE BUT GOT DAMN. LOL!!!!!!!!!!!

    Boy, that's some funny azz shit.lol!

  • ward411

    i am not interested in paying my tax dollars to someone who has done NOTHING for this city and who couldn't tell me anything about this city other than the block he lives on...

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