D.C. voters to consider legalizing pot Tuesday

WASHINGTON — Andre Murphy had hit rock bottom.

After years of escalating drug use and a couple of overdoses that nearly killed him, a robbery conviction landed him in prison. Along the way, his habits had ruined family relationships and prevented him from holding a job.

Those three years locked up changed him.

Twenty-two years later, the native Washingtonian remains clean, not having used drugs since the day he walked free.

Murphy now owns a business, and in what free time he has, he volunteers with more than a handful of social service programs.

He’s also dead set against Initiative Measure 71, which would legalize possession of marijuana for personal use in the District.

“I think marijuana is a gateway drug,” Murphy says from the basement of his church in Northwest. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and starts using crack,” he says. “This is a process, and marijuana grooms you for harder drugs.”

While there isn’t consensus on that claim, personal experiences animate people on both sides of the legalization debate, which D.C. voters will decide Nov. 4.

Unlike Colorado and Washington state, which became the first in the nation to legalize marijuana for recreational use, Initiative 71 provides no mechanism for the sale of recreational pot. D.C. already allows the sale of medical marijuana.

It would allow people 21 years of age and older to posses 2 ounces of marijuana for personal use. It also outlines a maximum of six cannabis plants — only three could be mature — that a resident could grow at home.

Though the selling of marijuana would remain illegal, the initiative would permit sharing marijuana with another person of legal age.

“Initiative 71 is being billed as a legalization measure, but really it’s just full decriminalization,” says Phil Wallach, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

It’s personal

Valencia Mohammed is an outspoken supporter of legalization.

“I take this personally,” says the former school board member. Her son Imtiaz turned to marijuana after the killing of his 14-year-old brother in 1999.

“For him, it was like alleviating the pain,” Mohammed says. “He went through a lot. It was his way of escape.”

But multiple arrests for small amounts of marijuana ultimately led to jail time.

Mohammed believes the system is set up to take and destroy lives over nothing more than a joint.

Black men face are disproportionately arrested on marijuana possession charges, even though pot usage rates among whites and blacks are roughly equal.

From her perspective, the D.C. Council’s action this summer to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana doesn’t go far enough.

Young black men are still being harassed by police, she contends. Campaigning is her way of standing up for others like her son.

“All this time it was an herb,” she says about cannabis. “Let’s treat it like we would herbs.”

National green movement

Two other states join the District in considering marijuana legalization Tuesday. Analysts believe that list will be longer in 2016. Another state — Florida — has medical marijuana on the ballot.

While Colorado and Washington state only began selling pot for recreational use this year, political leaders, health officials and researchers have been keen to learn about the impact.

In Colorado, marijuana sales have gone up month by month, although it is not clear how much of that may be a result of tourists flooding in.

“The rate of teen use, which is measured through surveys, has suggested that either there has been no change in teen use since legalization has come through or that there has been a reduction in teen use,” says John Hudak, who is also a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

His colleague Wallach focused his research on Washington state.

“They’ve invested a lot of resources into being able to track the effects of marijuana legalization,” he says. “Unfortunately, Initiative 71 and the bill being considered by the (D.C.) council doesn’t really do that right now.”

One aspect of Initiative 71 that both sides agree on is that an approval would likely catch the attention of Congress. But it’s unclear whether members of Congress would step in and attempt to stop marijuana decriminalization in D.C.

“If we were going to go by precedent, yes [they would], but perhaps not,” says Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. “Since the District’s referendum went on the ballot, two more states have referendums, and I don’t expect anybody to interfere.”

But Adam Eidinger, a D.C. activist who chairs the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, hopes Congress gets involved.

“Congress, I think, will take this as an opportunity to revisit federal marijuana laws,” Eidinger says.

He calls decriminalization a “political band aid.”

“We still have an injustice taking place,” he says, in reference to arrests for marijuana possession.

He also contends legalization would make the city safer, with no need for relying on dealers in the shadows.


A yard sign encourages voters to legalize marijuana in D.C. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

Local business

Mayor Vince Gray has already called on outsiders to mind their own business.

“I think this decision should be made by the people who live in the District of Columbia, and frankly it should be respected, and there should be no intervention from the House or the Senate or anybody at the federal level,” he says.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has not taken a public position on the issue. She believes it should be up to the community.

“It’s not much different to us, to policing,” she said recently at the Hill Center. “To me, I think the bigger issue with the whole marijuana debate is health issues, not so much the policing issues.”

Supporters of legalization see it as a significant hurdle in tackling the racial disparity in arrests, while giving adults the right to use something that they believe is far less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco.

Murphy, the recovering addict, fears a different result.

“It’s just a matter of time before you get a new crop of addicts,” he says.

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