Advocates seeking to legalize marijuana in the District turned in 57,000 signatures Monday in a bid to put the issue on the November ballot, but a federal lawmaker working to stop the city from easing its drug laws says a measure before Congress would trump any such vote.
The number of signatures proponents submitted in support of their initiative, which would make it legal to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and to grow up to six marijuana plants in one’s home, far exceeded the number they needed.
Supporters were required to collect 22,500 valid signatures, representing at least 5 percent of registered voters in at least five of the city’s eight wards, to qualify for the ballot, according to the D.C. Board of Elections.
“We wanted there to be no question that we had enough signatures,” organizer Adam Eidinger said as he stood outside the Board of Elections office with two boxes of signed petitions on display.
The elections board now must vet the signatures to make sure they are from legally registered D.C. voters — a process that includes a 10-day challenge period.
The submission comes two weeks after lawmakers on Capitol Hill inserted language in a major spending bill pending congressional approval that would block the District from using funds to reduce penalties for any “recreational use” of marijuana, leaving it unclear whether “ballot initiative 71” would be dead on arrival even if it does pass in November.
“It is our belief that if our amendment becomes law, it would block legalization,” said Chris Meekins, a spokesman for Rep. Andy Harris, who introduced the amendment blocking any reduction in criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
Mr. Harris, Maryland Republican and a physician, sponsored the “rider” to the budget bill, saying he worried about the way marijuana usage affects brain development in young people. It was a response to D.C. Council’s approval this year of a bill to remove criminal penalties for people found in possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. The Council bill is set to take effect later this month.
Drug policy reform advocates also believe the rider could spell trouble for the legalization initiative.
“One of the problems is no one is entirely sure what his amendment would do,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s a concern because the amendment could overturn the will of the voters.”
A similar budget rider, known as the Barr amendment, blocked the start of the District’s medical marijuana program for more than a decade after it was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1998.
Though Mr. Harris has said his amendment was not meant to bring the city’s medical marijuana industry to a halt, others are concerned it could jeopardize that as well.
City attorneys are still reviewing the amendment to determine what effect it could have on decriminalization and legalization efforts as well as the city’s now functional medical marijuana program, said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
The mayor and advocacy group D.C. Vote have encouraged boycotts in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Mr. Harris’ district, as a means of protest.
Supporters of the marijuana legalization initiative also plan to lobby members of Congress to encourage them to drop the amendment before the overall spending package is passed.
“We are planning on fighting him,” Mr. Eidinger said. “We’re going to ask the Republicans to not whip this vote and to let Republicans vote their conscience because I think many agree they shouldn’t be messing with local laws.”
The full House will still have to consider the entire bill, and a compromise will have to be drawn with the Senate’s spending plan — which observers say is unlikely to include a similar restriction.
But if the amendment stands and initiative 71 is passed, whoever is elected as the city’s attorney general in the same Nov. 4 election may also have a role in how the matter is reconciled.
“The D.C. Office of the Attorney General is going to have to do some interpreting and it may end up in court,” Mr. Piper said.