Activists in Washington, D.C., plan to submit an initiative by week's end that would put marijuana legalization on the ballot in the nation's capital in November — making the city one of a handful of jurisdictions poised to ask voters to consider the issue this year.
The proposal that is expected to be submitted to the D.C. Board of Elections would allow residents to legally grow up to six marijuana plants per household and possess and transfer up to an ounce of the drug without penalty.
Submission of the ballot language is just the beginning of an arduous process that will require supporters, who have formed a campaign committee and recruited volunteers, to collect thousands of signatures and persuade voters to approve the measure.
Polling last year shows D.C. residents, who 15 years ago overwhelmingly passed a referendum authorizing medical marijuana, support legalization in large numbers.
An April survey conducted by Public Policy Polling gauged support for legalizing the drug at 63 percent.
Getting the issue on the ballot would put the District in line with Alaska, Oregon and California, where legalization initiatives also are underway.
All three states have defeated previous ballot initiatives on legalization, but with Colorado opening the nation's first recreational marijuana dispensaries Jan. 1 and Washington set to begin legally selling marijuana this year, activists think the tide could turn on the East Coast as well.
Unlike in Colorado, the D.C. initiative wouldn't allow shops to sell marijuana in the city. The District's ballot initiative would ban proposals that require an appropriation of money — a mandate that organizer Adam Eidinger said prevents him from including a regulatory or sales component.
"We're trying to preserve the consumer's right to possess it and to use it," said Mr. Eidinger, who is mounting the D.C. Cannabis Campaign through a group called DCMJ.
Because of the restrictions, the ability to legalize the open sale and regulation of marijuana in the city hinges on passage of a law by the D.C. Council.
But elected officials across the country have been slow to warm to changes in drug policy, making legalization through a ballot initiative a more likely reality than legislation, said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
"Generally speaking, the issue has been elected officials are almost always behind the people, especially on drug policy," Mr. Piper said.
In the case of medical marijuana, seven states decriminalized use through ballot measures before Hawaii became the first state to legislatively approve use of the drug in 2000.
"Medical marijuana, as more initiatives passed, there was more of a national debate and legislators couldn't ignore it," Mr. Piper said. "The debate now, because of Colorado and Washington, has broken out and it's going to be very hard for legislators to ignore it."
A CNN/ORC International poll released Monday indicated that 55 percent of people surveyed nationally said marijuana should be made legal, with 44 percent opposing.
D.C. Council member David Grosso introduced a bill last year to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana, but the legislation has no co-sponsors and has not been scheduled for a hearing.
Mr. Grosso, at-large independent, said he intentionally did not seek any co-sponsors for the bill because he didn't want to derail efforts underway to pass a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. That bill, which 10 of 13 council members have co-sponsored, garnered broad support as lawmakers discussed the disproportionate impact drug arrests have on black youths in the city.
Sixteen states have decriminalized marijuana, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. More, including Maryland, are expected to consider the issue during upcoming legislative sessions.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, this week said he was abandoning a bid to decriminalize the drug in the state but will pursue making the drug available for medical use.
Mr. Piper said an advantage to D.C. approval of a decriminalization bill first is that it would allow council members to spend more time vetting regulations for a legalization measure.
"I don't think that the council is hesitant as much as it's a complicated issue to set up a regulatory structure," Mr. Piper said. "But if the council doesn't act, the people probably will."
Mr. Grosso applauds the grass-roots effort to get marijuana legalization on the ballot but said legislation through the D.C. Council could be more efficient.
"I think it's great they want to put the money into that, but I'm more hopeful that we can get this done sooner than that," he said.
He thinks his colleagues will have to be persuaded individually to support marijuana legalization. "I think we are up to seven or so people I can count on to pass legalization in the District," he said.
Even if adopted by voters, the ballot initiative would have to withstand congressional scrutiny. The battle over access to medical marijuana, which Congress put on hold for more than a decade, is still fresh in the minds of marijuana advocates.
"It's not likely that Congress would veto an initiative that we pass here," said Dan Riffle, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It is more likely that Congress would pass a rider that would obstruct the bill."
D.C. voters supported a medical marijuana program in 1998, but a congressional rider known as the Barr Amendment delayed it until 2009. Rule-making and legislative process to govern the program delayed implementation another four years, with the first dispensaries opening last summer.
Some worry that a failed attempt at legalizing recreational marijuana use could do irreparable harm to the city's medical marijuana program, which officials are still working to expand.
"The only concern you have is, if they take any steps to prevent legalization, that they would use language broad enough to prevent use of medical marijuana here," said Mr. Riffle, whose group, along with the Drug Policy Alliance, sponsored the April PPP poll that was financed by Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps.
After a shift in the public's attitude about marijuana usage and increased publicity for D.C. autonomy, Mr. Eidinger said, activists could seize on any congressional opposition as an opportunity.
"If all that gets stopped by a congressional block, an appropriations rider, it's still a win because it will become a national story at that point," Mr. Eidinger said. "It would be a rallying cry for the statehood movement in the city."
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