High Hopes: How the District Government Got So Mellow About Pot
Paul Zukerberg just couldn’t get any respect.
The defense attorney-turned-D.C. Council hopeful built his campaign for last April’s at-large election around decriminalizing marijuana. Instead of winning supporters, though, his campaign inspired people to call him and ask him to sell them pot. Apparently, a candidate talking about smoking marijuana was just too ridiculous.
“People called me Old Rufus Pothead,” Zukerberg says. His pro-pot stance earned him 2 percent of the vote on election day.
Three months later, though, Zukerberg doesn’t seem so crazy. Last week, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells introduced a marijuana decriminalization bill that would replace criminal penalties for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana with a $100 fine. Wells’ legislation already has a majority of the D.C. Council behind it. Councilmember David Grosso is working on his own bill that would legalize the drug outright. Suddenly, the District is looking downright pro-pot.
It’s a jarring change for a city government that wasn’t even talking about pot last year, but it’s been a complete one. So suddenly conventional is the wisdom that the District’s drug laws are going to change soon that LL felt like a square even trying to find out what accounts for the switch. If you’re looking to thank (or blame) someone for District pols’ new soft take on pot, though, there’s a short list to choose from: Zukerberg, a soap baron, and the ACLU.
Despite the ridicule he met on the trail, Zukerberg says he started to change minds as the campaign drew to a close. Zukerberg, who’s fond of declaring that District primaries should be on April 20—4/20, dude!—says he was the foil that more established D.C. politicians needed to test the idea. “I don’t have a government job,” he says. “I’m not urine-tested.”
A Council staffer who would only speak on background confirms that Zukerberg’s campaign helped raise consciousness among the political class about marijuana laws and how they affected poor residents.
Zukerberg worked with Adam Eidinger, a longtime District marijuana activist. Eidinger, who ran an Adams Morgan head shop until it was shut down by police, had also been working in a public affairs job with Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, an organic soap business based in Escondido, Calif. After teaming up with the drug reform advocates in the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance, Eidinger convinced David Bronner, the soap company’s CEO, to pay for a Public Policy Polling survey on marijuana attitudes.
The results of the poll, released 12 days before the at-large election, injected marijuana into the city’s political debate as much as Zukerberg’s candidacy had. Cleverly, Bronner’s poll tucked a horse-race question in along with a series of questions about drug policy, which made it harder for reporters to ignore in a contest that saw no other public polls released. While the results of the “who will you vote for?” question weren’t encouraging for Zukerberg (it predicted, correctly, that he would receive 2 percent), another question was better news for his cause: Two-thirds of Washingtonians would back a referendum on legalization. Councilmembers could see that D.C. had changed since 1977, when ministers successfully pressured Mayor Walter Washington to veto a decriminalization bill.
The sea change in Wilson Building politics has the potential to improve lives for District residents, especially the young, black, and poor. A June report by the ACLU found that black Washingtonians are eight times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white residents, even though they use the drug at similar rates. The District’s arrest rate on pot has jumped for all residents, increasing by 62 percent from 2001 to 2010, according to the ACLU report.
The resulting convictions affect residents’ employment prospect, fueling more serious crimes in the city. If D.C. joined the 17 states who have decriminalized the drug, advocates argue, residents could smoke without jeopardizing their futures.
“It’s almost like a bubble has burst,” says Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who co-sponsored Wells’ bill. Mendelson should know—in May, he said it wasn’t the “right time” for decriminalization.
Wells says he began to think more about legislation a year and a half ago, when Councilmember Marion Barry broached the idea on the Council dais. When Wells took over the judiciary committee in January, Barry started regularly asking him about a bill. “Every time I saw Marion, Marion would say, ‘What’s our status?’” Wells says.
Supporting reduced penalties for a drug that’s popular across demographic lines doesn’t hurt Wells’ mayoral candidacy, either. “It didn’t take a lot of persuasion to interest Councilmember Wells in introducing a bill,” says Art Spitzer, the legal director of the ACLU’s Washington chapter.
Wells’ bill, which would also legalize marijuana paraphernalia, takes aim at the racial profiling of black marijuana users by removing the presence of marijuana as a reason police can use for probable cause.
After Wells introduced his bill, Mayor Vince Gray issued a statement saying he is “open to the discussion”—a noncommittal stance that the bill’s supporters are taking as proof that the mayor, at worst, doesn’t oppose the legislation.
Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier hasn’t been as neutral as her boss. Last week, Lanier issued her own call for a “robust discussion,” but raised a host of concerns with the bill, including if it would make it easier for underage users to get high and whether it would increase the potency of the plants.
With 10 votes, including eight co-introducers, behind his legislation, Wells likely doesn’t need to worry about more resistance on the Council. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
“I say if it’s illegal, keep it against the law,” Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander says. That’s awfully tautological for LL’s liking, but Alexander says she has other concerns, like whether users testing positive for the drug could still be denied jobs.
Wells’ bill also hasn’t won over harder-line marijuana advocates. Eidinger, who wants the bill to allow home cultivation along with possession, worries that it will be a compromise that would eliminate pressure for legalization. “They’re going to fuck it up just like they fucked up the medical,” he says, referring to the troubled implementation of D.C.’s medical marijuana program. Indeed, three years after the Council unanimously approved the program, the first gram of medicinal pot has yet to be legally sold.
Eidinger and other advocates are organizing to put a referendum on outright legalization on the 2014 ballot. Until then, there’s Grosso’s bill, which would follow Colorado and Washington state in legalizing the drug for regulation and sale. The independent at-large councilmember cites the same arguments that decriminalization supporters do, including how a misdemeanor marijuana arrest can affect a person’s future.
Grosso knows that feeling personally. His 1993 arrest for possessing less than two grams of marijuana while on a Florida campaign trip became fodder for opponent Michael Brown nearly 20 years later when the two ran against each other last fall. (It didn’t keep voters from choosing Grosso over Brown, who—as the city found out later—had his own, more current legal troubles.)
Grosso backs Wells’ bill, but he says it won’t solve the problem that his bill would: unequal enforcement of the law across races. Because selling the drug would still be a criminal offense, even if possessing small quantities of it wouldn’t, black youths could still be targeted by police, and casual users would still go to dealers who could offer them harder drugs.
“The demand for marijuana is going to go through the roof,” says Grosso. “And therefore more dealers are going to be on the street trying to make a dollar, and therefore you’re going to see more young African-American males going to jail.” Grosso plans to introduce his bill when the Council reconvenes in September.
Both sides of the debate about just how much marijuana to legalize, of course, run into a problem the weed-friendly states out west don’t have: Congress. Part of the District’s Home Rule Charter forbids the District from interfering with what crimes the U.S. Attorney’s Office can prosecute, a prohibition that even the comparatively more modest decriminalization bill could run afoul of.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on whether the bill violated the charter. Congressional lobbying from the Department of Justice or U.S. Attorney’s Office, though, isn’t without precedent. In 1983, the DOJ pushed to kill District laws that would have reduced some offenders’ sentences and allowed for releases when prisons became overcrowded.
Congress has already shown a willingness to use its oversight powers to overturn District crime laws, even without the DOJ’s help. In 1981, the House killed a sex-crimes bill that would have legalized nonmissionary sexual positions in D.C. (LL’s not joking—the law was eventually reformed in 1993.)
Even if the most recent marijuana bills are killed in Congress, though, expect more drug-reform legislation from the newly weed-friendly Council. When LL asked former Councilmember Bill Lightfoot what could explain legislators’ new marijuana-friendly motives, Lightfoot responded with a question of his own: “Wouldn’t you like to have a few seeds you can throw in a pot and put in the closet?"
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post originally stated Adam Eidinger started working for Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps after his Adams Morgan hemp store closed. In fact, he has worked for the company since 2001.
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Graphic by Carey Jordan