Fear and Loathing Versus Hope and Change with the DC Cannabis Campaign

When you live in a cutting-edge state where marijuana is legal, it’s easy to forget how far behind so much of America still is.

Photo courtesy of Gregory M. Schwartz

With marijuana having been legalized in Colorado and Washington state, there were activists who decided it was high time to go for legalization in the nation’s capital. Hence, the D.C. Cannabis Campaign was launched this spring to collect the signatures to get Voter Initiative #71 on the fall ballot in the District of Columbia.

When members of the campaign feared that they might not obtain the 22,373 valid signatures from registered District voters by the 7 July deadline, organizers sought to bring in reinforcements from afar. A handful of activists from California and other distant states soon took up residence at the campaign’s headquarters on Embassy Row to help push the initiative over the top.

The “Legalization of Possession of Minimal Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014” seeks to bypass the District’s strict medical marijuana requirements and allow residents to grow and possess for recreational usage. It would allow D.C. residents who are 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use; to grow up to three mature cannabis plants in their residence; to transfer up to one ounce to another person; and use or sell drug paraphernalia for the use, growing, or processing of marijuana or cannabis.

It seemed at first glance like it would be easy to get D.C. residents to sign, what with the economic boom Colorado has been experiencing since legalization went into effect on 1 January 2014. But the California activists soon received a wakeup call about the socio-political state of affairs in a major Eastern metropolis like D.C. When you live in a cutting-edge state like California where marijuana is practically legal, it’s easy to forget how far behind so much of America still is.

There’s a large contingent of uptight people in the D.C. area who apparently still buy into the old “Reefer Madness” propaganda campaign of the '30s, as well as some older folks from the African American community who responded with comments like, “Don’t we have enough problems as it is?” Never mind that legalization in Colorado brought in over $10 million in tax revenue in the first half of 2014. It garnered $1.9 million for school improvements and a 5.2 percent decrease in violent crime since this time last year (according to a recent status report from the Drug Policy Alliance.) All while civil society in Denver failed to collapse.

Then there was “the Snowden factor”, as campaign communications director Nikolas Schiller called it in a Washington Post interview, describing the climate of fear in which numerous federal workers declined to sign out of concern they could suffer repercussions at their jobs. Yet at the same time, the campaign had a handful of courageous volunteers from the federal sector who felt it was their patriotic duty to help the campaign collect signatures, including a gregarious fellow, name unknown, who said he works for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The uptight types were rather predictable, however. What came as a surprise was an encounter with a pack of incensed Young Republicans outside a Washington Nationals baseball game in late June. A true climate of fear and loathing was in the air as the young thugs took passive aggressive umbrage at this reporter’s canvassing efforts outside the ballpark subway station. There were five of them, all in their late teens or early 20s and all dressed in patriotic red, white and blue, even though the Fourth of July was still a week away.

“You’re trying to legalize marijuana in Washington, D.C.?” one of them asked in an incredulous and offended tone. “That’s the plan,” I responded, handing them one of the campaign summary cards.

Perhaps their reaction shouldn’t have been such a surprise, given the state of propaganda that passes for the mainstream media in this era. But it was still a bit startling to suddenly be the object of such obvious venom. I waited a minute while they examined the card I’d given them, perhaps unwisely, before I realized how furious it would make them. They huddled a few yards away looking at it, with steam practically coming out of their ears. I may as well have been burning the American flag as far as they were concerned. It was easy to see they’d like to do me bodily harm, if they could just figure out how to corner me away from the crowd. A quick exit down into the Metro station seemed like the wisest course of action.

But then there was the opposite reaction from many of D.C.’s African American youth, who thought the initiative was a most excellent idea. A co-worker and I met one such young man while canvassing outside an organic grocery store in the city’s Petworth area. The talented young rapper named "Syrius Black" was so stoked about the campaign that he stood nearby for awhile, rooting us on to successfully canvas each approaching person. The African American youth demographic was easily the campaign’s top booster citywide. It merely speaks to the state of affairs in D.C., where African Americans were eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites from 2001-2010 (according to a 2013 to the ACLU report, “Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests”).

When Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are a-Changing” in the early ‘60s, he couldn’t possibly have realized how prophetic the song would remain 50 years later. But such is the genius of a timeless classic with lines like: “Come senators, congressmen / Please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway / Don’t block up the hall…” Those lyrics were timely as ever when Maryland congressman Andy Harris (R, MD-1) introduced an appropriations rider on 25 June that could prevent the D.C. Board of Elections from using its funds to print the ballots that include Initiative #71. The policy rider could also impede the District of Columbia’s decriminalization of marijuana law that was set to take effect in mid-July.

“The decision of House Republicans in the Appropriations Committee to prevent the ballot initiative from going forward is an affront to the core of Republican belief against big government interfering in the lives of citizens,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, the D.C. Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, in a campaign press release. “By attempting to keep in place the criminal penalties for possession of marijuana, Congress is saying that they want more people of color to go to jail.”

But in an intriguing turn of events, the Obama administration spoke out on the issue on 14 July and declared in a statement that it “strongly opposes” the Harris amendment attached to the House spending bill that includes the D.C. budget. The statement went on to say that the amendment “undermines the principles of States’ rights and of District home rule”, clearly suggesting that the White House believes marijuana policy should be left to individual jurisdictions.

“It is great to see the White House accepting that a majority of Americans want marijuana law reform and defending the right of D.C. and states to set their own marijuana policy,” said Bill Piper, the Drug Policy Alliance’s director of national affairs, in a press release. “The tide has clearly shifted against the failed war on drugs and it’s only a matter of time before federal law is changed.”

The D.C. Cannabis Campaign turned in over 57,000 signatures to the board of elections on 7 July and remains hopeful that voter initiative 71 will appear on the D.C. ballot on 4 November. Anything less would be a grievous affront to the concept of American democracy in action.


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