Voters in the District of Columbia passed Initiative 71 on Tuesday, voting to legalize the possession of recreational marijuana. The ballot measure, which was supported by 69 percent of voters, will now move to a congressional review period before implementation by the D.C. Council.
Initiative 71 allows individuals over 21 to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and cultivate as many as six plants, as long as only three or fewer are mature. The legislation does not allow the sale of recreational marijuana, but individuals may freely give up to one ounce of the substance and sell or use marijuana paraphernalia. D.C.’s marijuana initiative does not put a tax system in place, since voters are not allowed to directly establish a tax system.
Residents voted Tuesday to legalize marijuana in Oregon and Alaska as well.
The initiative was widely expected to pass, though a recent Washington City Paper poll placed support for legalization at 52 percent, much lower than eventual voter support.
“There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use. But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level — the health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization,” the New York Times editorial board wrote in its endorsement of the initiative.
In accordance with the D.C. Home Rule Act of 1973, the legislation is subject to a 60-day congressional review period. If Congress chooses not to act, the bill will become law. However, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and other congressmen have already expressed their intent to block the initiative.
“Actions by those in D.C. will result in higher drug use among teens,” Harris said in a written statement to The Washington Post. “I will consider using all resources available to a member of Congress to stop this action.”
To do so, Congress would have to pass a resolution rejecting the initiative, which would then require the president’s signature. After D.C. voters passed legislation legalizing medical marijuana in 1998, Congress delayed its implementation until 2009.
After the initiative’s passage, around 70 activists, campaigners and supporters gathered at the Meridian Pint Bar to celebrate legalization in the District by drinking local beer in support of D.C. charities.
D.C. Cannabis Campaign Press Officer Zack Pesavento (SFS ’08) noted that while D.C. was on the forefront of marijuana policy initiatives, ensuring that the bill passes through Congress remains a major hurdle.
“I think that the District of Columbia is really moving the conversation forward on marijuana legalization,” Pesavento said. “We still need to make sure that Congress doesn’t interfere with the bill. If there’s no interference we could see the initiative’s visions go into effect as soon as April. That means by about this time next year we could start seeing the first legal crop of marijuana in the District of Columbia.”
Cannabis Campaign Chair Adam Edinger, who proposed Initiative 71 to the D.C. Council, was enthusiastic about the results and did not see Congress as likely to interfere.
“This is a big day for justice, we’re ending marijuana arrests once and for all,” Edinger said. “I don’t think there will be any problems with [congressional review].”
Since the bill does not allow for the sale of marijuana, the D.C. Council will write a bill governing taxation and regulation, but will only be able to do so following congressional review. The council already passed legislation Oct. 28 to seal the criminal records of D.C. residents who have been convicted of non-violent marijuana-related crimes, and Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced legislation to start the regulation process at the end of October.
“I know Councilman Grosso wants to have stores open in under 12 months, he’s shooting for nine months,” Vanessa West, manager of the Metropolitan Wellness Center, a D.C. medical marijuana dispensary, said. “But that sounds like an overshot in my opinion.”
West was glad to see the bill pass, but she was skeptical that the legislation would pass anytime soon.
“I am very cynical when it comes to legislation going through congressional review,” she said. “I know that when anything dealing with marijuana, abortion or guns, anything dealing with those three things in the District of Columbia, typically congressional Republicans tend to object.”
Will Jones III, founder of anti-legalization group Two Is Enough D.C., felt his group gave its best effort in opposing Initiative 71, but still worried about the impact of the legislation on the District’s society.
“We did as much as we could, we went to community meetings, we spoke with individuals, we handed out fliers,” Jones said. “We still believe the same thing — that if it goes into effect it’s going to have a devastating impact on the city, particularly on the African-American community.”
Jones said that the group will not disband, as TIE D.C. plans on opposing the taxation and regulation bill in the D.C. Council but will not take an official position on the congressional review because of its implications for D.C. home rule.
“We’re just going to work to minimize the impact of the passage of the legislation in our communities, that’s really why we’re out here, just out of genuine concern. There’s no one on our team who thinks that marijuana is some moral, terrible evil,” he said.
Both people for and against Initiative 71 saw the issue as having racial repercussions. Jones feared that marijuana would be advertised and sold to poor minority communities, pointing to a Washington Post poll before the election that showed support from blacks at 56 percent, compared to 74 percent from white voters.
“We’re still quite confident that in a lot of the poor and minority communities this is not what we want,” he said.
Pesavento disagreed, pointing to discrimination in criminal justice enforcement as creating divisions between races.
“I think voters in other states have already made the case about it being an issue of personal freedom, but I think we also made the case here that it’s also a civil rights issue, because we’ve seen not only a historical legacy of discriminatory enforcement of marijuana prohibition. But even under the decriminalization law we were still seeing the majority of tickets being issued in neighborhoods that are traditionally home to communities of color,” Pesavento said.
Students were generally supportive of the legislation as well. Bryan Doremus (COL ’15) supported the passage of the initiative based on its criminal justice effects.
“I think it’s a great move forward,” Doremus said. “I think it will get rid of a lot of biases in the justice system, especially in D.C.”