The 21st century has been marked by calls across the United States for the legalization of marijuana, with lobbyists and college students coming together in advocacy and protest.
Under federal law, the use and possession of marijuana is illegal, but state-level policies differ significantly. In 29 states and Washington, D.C., medical marijuana is legal. However, this figure drops when it comes to recreational marijuana, which is permitted in only nine states and the District. Given D.C.’s status as a federal district, its history with marijuana is a story defined by grass-roots activism.
The first legislative action for legalization in the District came in 1998. Initiative 59, a ballot proposal that sought to legalize medical marijuana, passed with 69 percent of the vote in November 1998.
However, implementation of the proposal was delayed when former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) proposed an amendment blocking the initiative and prohibited action on marijuana legalization in D.C. After a long legal battle, which included the American Civil Liberties Union got involved, Congress finally voted to overturn the Barr Amendment in 2009.
Four years later, medical marijuana was legalized in the District.
A D.C-based organization focused solely on ending marijuana prohibition, Marijuana Policy Project was one of the groups that promoted Initiative 59. Founded in 1995, MPP works to reform marijuana policy through lobbying, public education and ballot initiatives. Morgan Fox, MPP’s director of communications, explained how the organization lobbied Congress to legalize of medical marijuana in D.C. in an email to The Hoya.
“MPP was heavily involved in getting the District’s medical marijuana program started, and we have consistently worked to increase the program’s efficacy and patient access,” Fox wrote.
Since its founding, MPP has been involved in ending marijuana prohibition across the country and keeps tabs on current legislation being considered by Congress. Its major objectives include changing policies and laws, such as removing criminal penalties for marijuana use.
“Our goal is to make marijuana legal for adults and regulated like alcohol, ensure safe and reliable access for people that use marijuana for medical purposes, and make treatment for problematic marijuana consumption non-coercive,” Fox wrote.
In the District, the next move came in 2014 when the D.C. Council decriminalized the possession of marijuana. The law, which was signed by former Mayor Vincent Gray (D), posed civil fines rather than jail time for offenses and prohibited police from acting upon smelling marijuana.
Congress again tried to thwart the law’s implementation by blocking funding. The Harris Amendment, proposed by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), barred the D.C. government from spending funds on decreasing drug penalties. In response to the Harris Amendment, activists launched a boycott of Harris’ district in Maryland. The boycott prevailed, and decriminalization went into effect in July 2014.
Congress may maintain authority over the District, but its residents still take an active role in local affairs. Collective action was key in the 2014 ballot initiative for the legalization of recreational marijuana use, known as Initiative 71, or the Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014.
D.C. businessman Adam Eidinger was instrumental in the proposal of Initiative 71. In 2013, he co-founded DCMJ, an organization dedicated to fighting for equal rights for marijuana users and growers in the District. DCMJ, which briefly switched to the D.C. Cannabis Campaign in 2013, eventually grew into an effort that included both D.C. residents and people from across the country
“We decided to form a new organization that would focus on home cultivation, a type of legalization without commercialization that was possible under D.C.’s Home Rule Act, which gives us the right to do ballot initiatives,” Eidinger said in an interview with The Hoya. “We started by collecting signatures from people in front of the D.C. Superior Courthouse.”
The signatures in front of the courthouse were pledges of support. After receiving signatures, Eidinger’s efforts expanded into a grassroots campaign to change the law. Throughout the process, 200 different signature collectors worked with the organization, and the whole operation was run out of Eidinger’s house.
His efforts paid off: About 65 percent of voters approved Initiative 71 on Nov. 4, 2014, and it went into full effect Feb. 26, 2015. While the law does not make marijuana universally legal, it grants persons over 21 years old permission to possess up to two ounces of marijuana, grow up to six plants and transfer marijuana to another of-age individual without payment.
Despite the decriminalization and legalization of recreational marijuana in 2014, Georgetown’s policy on marijuana remains firm. Per the 2017 code of student conduct, the possession, use and manufacture of marijuana is prohibited. Violations of the policy are typically resolved by administrative action or hearings.
While the work of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign may be over, DCMJ still has unfinished business. The group still meets often and focuses on organizing demonstrations. On Feb. 28, DCMJ plans to stand in solidarity with human rights groups at the Embassy of the Philippines to protest Filipino President
Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Other causes the DCMJ advocates for include rights for home cultivators, veterans and college students.
Marijuana use, whether it is medical or recreational, is prohibited on college campuses that receive federal funding, such as Georgetown, as they must comply with federal laws. DCMJ plans to have events and demonstrations this year for college students — the next one is April 4. The organization emphasizes strong connections with its members to keep them engaged and enthused.
“The one thing I have learned from this that can be transmitted to any other politico in the city who is trying to work on an issue is that you have to form a community around your issue that meets regularly and has friendships and has social life that people actually find enjoyable,” Eidinger said. “If it’s all politics and no social life, it won’t work.”