Adam Eidinger (left) and Dr. Malik Burnett (right)
Marijuana legalization is going to be on the ballot in three big jurisdictions this November: Alaska, Oregon and Washington D.C.. Of the three D.C.’s Initiative 71 should be the one most interesting to watch unfold.
Here are 4 reasons why:
1) Racial justice will be front and center – “The overarching theme of the campaign is Legalization Ends Discrimination,” Dr. Malik Burnett, the D.C. Policy Manager from the Drug Policy Alliance told me. “We are looking to have Washington D.C. be the first jurisdiction to legalize marijuana in a racial justice context.”
The huge racial disparity in marijuana arrests has helped galvanize support for reform across the country, but while the issue has played a role in the other legalization initiative campaigns so far it hasn’t been the top message other places for a simple reason. In Colorado (4.4%), Washington State (4.0%), Oregon (2.0%) and Alaska (3.9%) the African-American population is well below the national average of 13.2%. By comparison roughly half the people living in D.C. are black. In addition D.C. has a history of some of the worst racial disparity in marijuana arrests anywhere in the country. The ACLU found that nationally Blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, but in D.C. the disparity was an incredible 8 to 1.
It is telling that according to campaign spokesman Adam Eidinger,”The Anacostia metro station was our most productive signature gathering spot.” It is the main public transportation hub for a predominantly black section of the District.
2) Possibility of federal interference – Polling indicates Initiative 71 should easily be approved by the voters but that doesn’t guarantee it will become law, because the citizens living in our nation’s capital have been denied basic democratic rights. Despite the people of D.C. having no representation in Congress, the federal government has the ability to overturn any local D.C. law. While this power is rarely used, Congress did abuse it to stop the D.C. initiative legalizing medical marijuana in 1998 and currently Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) is working on an effort to stop Initiative 71. The White House has said they view marijuana reform in D.C. as a states’ rights issue and oppose interference in local D.C. laws. This extra hurdle makes the initiative’s path more difficult and even means this local law could turn into a national fight in Congress.
3) The first place that marijuana regulations could be written entirely by a legislature
– The laws governing election in D.C. mean initiative 71 can only do things legalizing possession of up to two ounces for adults and allow limited home growing. Unlike campaigns in Colorado, Washington State, Alaska and Oregon, the DC initiative was legally prevented from including provisions to legalize, tax and regulate the sale of marijuana. But if the initiative becomes law members of the D.C. Council
plan to quickly move forward with their own tax and regulate measure, potentially the first of its kind anywhere in the country. Of course this will give Congress yet another chance to interfere.
It will be interesting to see how the laws governing the marijuana industry end up different when they are written by elected legislators instead of by activists who need to make sure their rules can’t be made to sound bad in a opposition ad. Since half the states don’t even allow initiatives this potentially could give us a better idea of how legalization is likely to take shape in much of the country.
4) D.C. is a major media center – Most major national news organization have big D.C. bureaus. As a result many of the top people in the news industry live in District, work there, shop there, have friends there or at least travel there frequently. This gives the media a D.C./East Coast bias when it comes to thinking what is important. Having legalization literally taking place in their own neighborhood could change how and how often the issue is talked about by national news programs in a way victories in western states won’t.
While the initiatives in Oregon and Alaska are will both probably more important because they are farther reaching and will directly impact more people, these initiatives have a fairly simple path forward. The unique demographics, politics, and legal situations surrounding D.C. will make its legalization measure a more complicated but also a more interesting fight.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy