Marijuana could be legal in the nation's capital by next year. The D.C. Board of Elections approved a ballot measure on Wednesday that would allow for the possession and cultivation, but not sale, of limited amounts of cannabis.
Legal pot in D.C.—home to the country's anti-drug cops and their allies in Congress—would undoubtedly be a landmark victory in the broader fight to end prohibition. It might even be the vote that tips the scales in the debate over whether to end the federal ban on marijuana.
The funny thing, though, is the initiative in D.C. was never a priority for the big national organizations backing marijuana legalization, which have been focusing their attention on ballot initiatives in Oregon and Alaska. More importantly, they've been setting their sights on the 2016 elections, when a younger, more diverse electorate could turn out to support efforts to knock down state marijuana laws across the country.
But somehow, D.C. crept onto the agenda.
Part of the reason is Adam Eidinger. The 40-year-old marijuana activist doesn't quite fit the Beltway mold. He wears a dress shirt, but with the top button undone and a paisley tie (that's risqué for D.C.). He also eschews the clean-cut look in favor of a dangling bit of facial hair and drives a half-car, half-bike contraption that stands out in a town dominated by tourists on Segways.
He's also a big reason D.C. voters will now have the chance to vote on marijuana legalization in November. Eidinger paid more than $35,000 of his own money to run the signature-gathering campaign for the legalization measure, and he's helped organize the canvassing operation.
While the Drug Policy Alliance, a leading national organization, gave $20,000 to the signature-gathering effort, it was a small amount compared to their past spending to reform marijuana policy. The biggest donations to the D.C. initiative came from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, the all-natural, hippie soap company, which gave more than $100,000 to the campaign between February and July.
Dr. Bronner's isn't new to the marijuana legalization effort. The company donated heaps of money to efforts in other states—but its donation in D.C., when many activists are looking elsewhere, could yield a timely and unexpected national victory.
The timing seems right to push for legalization in the District. A poll by The Washington Post earlier this year found that 63 percent of residents favored making pot legal.
Marijuana backers can thank gentrification for the strong poll numbers. The city has grown increasingly white over the past decade, and white residents, according to the Post poll, are more likely to favor loosening marijuana laws. Among whites, 73 percent backed marijuana legalization; 58 percent of blacks supported it.
There's another reason D.C. may be the tipping point for the marijuana debate. When pot was legalized in Colorado and Washington, the emphasis among activists was more on the irrationality of prohibition (pot is safer than alcohol) and the undue burden that drug enforcement places on taxpayers (your tax dollars could be better spent elsewhere).
In the District, however, the campaign earlier this year to decriminalize marijuana was cast as a social justice issue. African-Americans made up nine out of 10 arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, according to a study by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The D.C. City Council seized on that message when they passed the decriminalization measure this spring, and they'll likely cite those grounds for backing the legalization referendum. If the plant is legalized in November, and survives a 30-day period of review by Congress, one City Council member plans to push a bill to tax and regulate marijuana in the city, which would mean neighborhood pot stores. Again, expect the message to be the same: drug laws are racist, so it would be better for everyone if pot was legal.
There will be some pushback. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who sits on the congressional committee that provides funding to the District government, railed against decriminalization this spring. He told Fusion he will "continue the fight" against all-out legalization.
Another anti-pot activist, Kevin Sabet, the co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), said that formal opposition could emerge "in about a week." He also told Fusion that he still hasn't attracted big donors to the fight in D.C.
But the social message—that drug laws are racist—could resonate beyond the District and turn the vote into a broader referendum on marijuana policy. Councilman David Grosso (I) expects the measure to pass and plans to push for marijuana sales once it's legalized.
"People are ready to move forward and get this done," he said. "They're just tired of watching everyone going to jail…Really, I think it's time and you're going to see overwhelming support."
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.