- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2014

With little money, a late start and an uphill battle in polls, opponents of the initiative to legalize marijuana in the District are hoping a public debate will give their cause the airtime they can’t afford to buy.

The Two. Is. Enough. D.C. (TIE DC) advocacy group, which formed last month, has until Nov. 4 to persuade the majority of city voters to reject a ballot initiative that would make it legal to grow, use and possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana in the nation’s capital.

Founder Will Jones said his group, which garners its name from the notion that two legal drugs — tobacco and alcohol — are enough in society, is contacting local television and radio stations about hosting a debate in coming weeks between himself and Adam Eidinger of the DC Cannabis Campaign.

Mr. Jones, 24, said a debate would allow him to challenge what he called misleading information that the DC Cannabis Campaign has used to further its cause and to clarify the line between legalization and a D.C. law enacted this summer that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of the drug.

A poll by The Washington Post this year found that 63 percent of D.C. residents approve of marijuana legalization. With the numbers in his favor, Mr. Eidinger said, it isn’t in his cause’s best interest to give his opponents free press, but he is trying to strike a deal under which TIE DC would disclose its financial backers ahead of a debate.

Both groups are due to file campaign finance reports Oct. 27, but neither would disclose fundraising numbers ahead of the deadline.

“The only reason I’ve been hesitant to disclose our donors is it’s not as much as I’d like,” Mr. Jones said. “Unfortunately, today it’s money that talks.”

The filing would be the first report for TIE DC, which formed after the last campaign finance deadline in September. The group — launched with the support of a handful of Advisory Neighborhood Commission members, church leaders and other civic advocates — cites problems caused by alcohol and cigarette use, such as disease and addiction, as concerns they have about the legalization of a third recreational drug.

The September filing for the DC Cannabis Campaign showed that the group had raised more than $200,000 overall — including $85,050 in donations from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a California company that has supported marijuana legalization efforts across the country, and $20,000 from Drug Policy Action.

Recreational pot use is legal in Washington state and Colorado, and residents in Alaska and Oregon are expected to vote on legalization initiatives this year. During a debate Monday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said state voters were “reckless” for legalizing recreational marijuana, citing a lack of information about the health effects of retail pot.

If legalization is approved Nov. 4, it would be the second time this year that the District has loosened its drug laws. The D.C. Council passed decriminalization laws this summer to replace criminal penalties for possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana with a $25 civil fine. On Tuesday, the council gave initial approval to a bill that would allow nonviolent marijuana offenders to have their criminal records sealed.

Meanwhile, legalization would enable D.C. residents to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes and possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana.

The ballot initiative would not legalize the sale of marijuana, but city lawmakers likely would devise regulations to allow sales transactions and pot shops in the wake of the initiative’s approval. Two mayoral candidates have pledged to do so, leading opponents of legalization to question how the drug would be marketed in the city.

Mr. Jones fears a legalized marijuana industry would focus advertising on black and minority communities and that companies would target marijuana products to children.

“The question is, ‘Do we want to see this repeating?’ Alcohol and tobacco have a higher targeting towards the African-American community and minority communities,” he said. “In Colorado, they’re not supposed to be targeting kids, but why are they making gummy bears and Pop Tart marijuana products?”

Mr. Eidinger said those concerned with marijuana marketing should voice their concerns to the D.C. Council, which would have the opportunity to regulate those matters, not oppose the ballot measure outright.

“This initiative doesn’t result in businesses opening up. We are not talking about marketing at all,” Mr. Eidinger said. “The council should be held accountable for that.”

The D.C. Council was responsible for devising a regulatory scheme for the city’s medical marijuana program after it was approved through a ballot initiative.

Drug and alcohol use are already prevalent among teenagers in the District. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 32.2 percent of D.C. high school students said they use marijuana and 31.4 percent said they use alcohol.

Mr. Eidinger agrees with some of his opponents’ concerns, such as marijuana marketing to children. But he said other pronouncements, including classifying marijuana as a gateway drug, are based on ideas “disproved for more than decade.”

“They are making emotional arguments, but they are not arguments based in science and the facts,” Mr. Eidinger said. “Their argument is that you keep two more dangerous substances legal while keeping a less-dangerous substance illegal.”

D.C. lawmakers this summer said it was necessary to decriminalize marijuana to address racial disparities among those arrested for marijuana possession. Mr. Jones is concerned that the same message has continued to be used unchecked for legalization support even after marijuana possession was made a noncriminal offense.

Young black men, those most often arrested for marijuana possession, could face discrimination in other ways if the drug is legalized, Mr. Jones said.

“Is legal marijuana going to help our youth?” he said. “Even if it’s legal, a lot of employers are not going to let people on the job having recently used marijuana.”

Unless better drug testing technology is developed to pin down specific time frames for marijuana use, there is no simple solution, Mr. Eidinger said.

“I think it’s going to take years of marijuana being legal to find the best approach,” he said.

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