Will Jones III is hitting the streets of Washington, D.C., with a simple message: marijuana should remain illegal.
The 24-year-old has emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of legalizing pot in the nation’s capital, where voters next month are set to decide if the city will follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington state.
Jones, who is African-American, says his position on pot is personal. He's witnessed the impact of cannabis on relatives and friends. He says he watched as promising academic careers gave way to daily smoking habits. His girlfriend's Ph.D. research — studying the use of illicit drugs — also further convinced him.
Most of all, Jones says, he grew annoyed by the pro-pot campaign’s message to black residents that legal cannabis is fundamentally a civil rights issue.
In Jones’ view, marijuana legalization is just another way to sell vice to the African-American community. "The number one issue is the industry that we're going to see through marijuana," he told Fusion. "I see a disproportionate amount of liquor stores and tobacco advertising targeted towards us, so what is of huge concern is we're seeing a third industry that's ready to follow in those footsteps."
On Oct. 14, Jones spoke with community leaders in D.C.'s Ward 7 about marijuana legalization. (Ted Hesson/Fusion)
A November ballot initiative in D.C. will give voters the chance to allow the cultivation and possession — but not sale — of limited amounts of cannabis. Activists working to legalize pot in the nation's capital took a different approach than in other parts of the country, focusing on marijuana law reform as a civil rights issue and not necessarily as a mechanism to generate revenue.
In 2010, nine out of 10 people arrested for marijuana possession in the District were black, even though whites represented about half of the population and used the drug at a similar rate, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The disparity in arrests opened the door to a legalization campaign meant to win people over by appealing to a sense of racial justice, and not just touting the economic benefits (or good times) that would accompany a legal cannabis industry.
By all indications, the ballot initiative should pass. A poll conducted last month by NBC4, The Washington Post and the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found 65 percent of likely voters would support it.
While the main argument for legalization in Washington is social justice, black residents don’t appear to be overwhelmingly convinced. The strongest support for legalization comes from whites, 74 percent of whom would vote for the measure. The majority of black voters favor legalization, but it's a relatively narrow swath — 56 percent.
"Since when has the African-American community polled the lowest for a civil rights issue?" Jones said. "It's really propaganda."
While a strong majority of white voters in D.C. back legalization (74 percent), a smaller number of blacks support it (56 percent). (Andy Dubbin/Fusion)
Jones has been taking his campaign into neighborhoods across the city, hoping to convince voters to oppose the marijuana law reform. He formed a group called "Two Is Enough D.C." to make the point that alcohol (which he uses occasionally) and tobacco (which he does not) present enough of a problem. Pot is already decriminalized in the District, Jones argues, and legalization will only pave the way for it to become a predatory industry.
Marijuana arrests dropped precipitously once the city's decriminalization law took effect this summer. During a two-week period following decriminalization on July 17, the D.C. police department recorded only 26 arrests. Officers made 203 arrests during the same period in 2010, according to data provided to Fusion by the American Civil Liberties Union.
During a recent campaign stop in D.C.'s Ward 7, an area in the northeast part of the city that is 95 percent black, Jones made his case against legalization in front of two dozen local leaders, including several candidates for city council, who gathered at a library. The neighborhood — across the Anacostia River and away from the reach of the city's white gentrifying population — offered the chance to convince black residents to oppose legalization.
Jones found an ally in Ambrose Lane, Jr., the chair of the Ward 7 Health Alliance Network, a group that works to address health disparities in certain parts of the city. Lane, who is African- American, believes legalization will negatively impact young people. “Children will have more access to it because it will be in the home, because it will be legal,” he said. "To me, it’s an experiment, there’s nothing proven about what it will do and what it can do.”
A flier created for the "Two Is Enough D.C." campaign (Ted Hesson/Fusion)
The resistance to legalization among black residents appears to largely fall along generational lines.
Roughly three out of four voters ages 18 to 44 support the marijuana initiative. That support melts away with older residents.
"I think that's the difference in the African-American community, that you're seeing an age separation," said Eric J. Jones, one of the city council candidates who attended the meeting in Ward 7. "Obviously, those 40 and over definitely have a lot more concerns."
While community leaders met inside the library, I spoke with some younger residents outside. The sample was small — a few people — but the responses were unambiguous.
Jaesun King, 30, works at a supermarket in Bethesda, Maryland, and was visiting the library to pass time before work. He feels strongly that marijuana should be legal.
"My opinion is, you never heard of anybody dying over marijuana. You never heard of anybody catching any diseases from marijuana," he said. "I'm all for it. I can honestly say that I smoke marijuana and I hope that they legalize it."
Two young mothers heading into the library had similar thoughts.
"I think it should be legalized," said Tenisha Gorman, 21. "Mainly the people I see using it, they're still functioning.” The government allows companies to sell tobacco "when cigarettes give you cancer," she said.
Decriminalization isn't enough, according to 22-year-old Neekah Maynor, because it leaves users vulnerable to prosecution. "Is it legal or is it not?" she said. "Everybody has that question."
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.