- The Washington Times - Monday, September 9, 2013

A D.C. Council member plans to introduce legislation next week that would legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana for recreational use in the nation’s capital — the latest in a series of proposed steps to loosen the District’s drug laws.

Ten of the city’s 13 council members have signed on to a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, virtually assuring some type of reform in the near future.

On Tuesday, a senior Justice Department official is scheduled to address a Senate committee on the decision not to block legalization of recreational marijuana use in Washington and Colorado, which was approved through referendums last year.

But passage of a similar law in the District likely would test the boundaries of the Obama administration’s willingness to look the other way — with even pro-pot activists carefully considering their strategy in the federal government’s backyard.

D.C. Council member David Grosso, who plans to introduce legalization legislation when the council returns from summer recess Sept. 17, said he will be monitoring remarks made at the hearing for guidance as he continues to work on the bill’s final draft.

While the fervor surrounding legalization initiatives grows across the nation — with the Marijuana Policy Project announcing Monday its goal to legalize pot in 10 states by 2017 — Mr. Grosso said it might take a few attempts before such legislation could pass.

“I’m not holding my breath this year, but I’m hoping to get the debate out there,” said Mr. Grosso, at-large independent. “If we’re going to have alcohol legal in this country, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t have marijuana legal.”

A step too far?

While D.C. Council members have demonstrated broad support for a bill that would decriminalize marijuana possession, the same cannot be said for legalization.

“The motivation for decriminalization simply has been the issue of the war on drugs and the disproportionate impact on African-American youths getting criminal records,” said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, a sponsor of the decriminalization bill. “The impetus behind legalization would be, ‘This substance is OK and should be regulated.’ That’s fundamentally a different initiative.”

Mr. Grosso said his bill would outline a tax and regulatory scheme for marijuana sales, allow residents to grow small amounts of the drug on their property, and establish licensing and enforcement requirements to be handled by the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration.

The decriminalization bill before the council would make possession of an ounce of marijuana or less a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine and require forfeiture of the drug.

Excluding Colorado and Washington, 15 states have some form of marijuana decriminalization on the books, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. But no single standard exists. In Nevada, a 2001 law classifies possession of up to an ounce of marijuana as a misdemeanor on first offense, and a violator can be fined up to $600. In Vermont, which adopted decriminalization laws this year, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana counts as a civil infraction, and a violator can be fined $200.

Federal ambiguity

The Obama administration last month gave a tepid nod to legalization laws in Washington and Colorado, with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. telling those states’ governors that he won’t sue to block their laws. The Justice Department also issued guidance to its prosecutors nationwide telling them to put average users at the low end of their priorities.

Memos issued during President Obama’s first term sent conflicting messages to marijuana advocates, particularly those in the medical marijuana industry who saw dispensaries in some states raided or shuttered.

The ambiguity has riled marijuana advocates, who expected more support from the president for decriminalization.

As a U.S. Senate candidate, Mr. Obama told Illinois college students in January 2004 that he supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use or possession, a debate video shows.

“I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws,” Mr. Obama said during a debate at Northwestern University. “But I’m not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana.”

While passage of a decriminalization bill seems all but assured in the District, activists are mixed in their support of legalization efforts with some worried that by pushing the envelope the city could set itself back in the long run.

“There is no question that is where things are going eventually, the question is timing,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, citing recent polling that put D.C. residents’ support for marijuana legalization at 63 percent.

A press release issued by the group Monday announced support for legalization efforts in 10 states but omitted the District. The decision was made in part because federal oversight could threaten a reversal of any law, Mr. Riffle said.

“The fact that it’s under Congress’ jurisdiction might incline us to wait a little bit longer than we would otherwise,” Mr. Riffle said.

A ballot initiative

For more than 10 years, Congress blocked implementation of the District’s medical marijuana law, which was approved by voter referendum in 1998.

But noting the eventual success of that ballot initiative, other pro-pot activists see the grassroots approach to legalization as a more viable option.

Hoping to put the matter before voters, activist Adam Eidinger plans to submit an initiative by Friday to the D.C. Board of Elections that would put marijuana legalization on the 2014 ballot. Last week, Mr. Eidinger withdrew a previously submitted initiative that would have reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, pledging to pursue legalization instead.

“I think a ballot initiative will make it harder for Congress to interfere without a political cost,” Mr. Eidinger said, adding that a ballot initiative could galvanize politicians who otherwise might be too timid to support legalization. “Smart politicians will adjust their position on this and will be more willing to explore this.”

Although Mr. Riffle called a legalization ballot initiative “a slam-dunk,” legislation would require more convincing.

“I totally agree that small amounts of marijuana should not put someone through the criminal justice system,” said council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat. “I don’t know that I’m willing to go all the way toward legalization.”

Council member Anita Bonds, who along with Ms. Cheh is supportive of the decriminalization bill, echoed her uncertainty.

“We haven’t discussed at all what I’ll call ‘pot cafes,’” the at-large Democrat said. “I’m not there yet, but I’m certainly open to hearing what the public has to say about it.”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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