Washington DC’s Board of Elections ruled that marijuana legalization activists have collected more than enough signatures to place Initiative 71 on the November ballot. District residents will join Alaskans voting on Ballot Measure 2 and Oregonians voting on Measure 91, marking the first time in American history where back-to-back national elections have featured three major marijuana legalization votes (legalization in Washington and Colorado passed in 2012 while Oregon failed that year).
“It is clear from the number of signatures the campaign was able to submit that citizens want a major change in DC’s marijuana laws,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, DC Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The policies of prohibition in the District have been borne on the backs of people of color for decades; District residents can put an end to this discrimination.”
Drug Policy Alliance is reacting to the news by instituting the “Legalization Ends Discrimination” campaign. Recently, Washington DC’s council voted to decriminalize personal possession of marijuana with just a $25 citation. That response followed reports that in 2010, African-Americans comprised 91 percent of all marijuana arrests, even though white and black use rates are similar and African-Americans represent less than half of the District’s population.
Maj. Neill Franklin, the director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a retired cop from nearby Baltimore, Maryland, explained that “The District has one of the country’s highest rates of racial disparities in arrest and is right at Congress’s doorstep, where more and more political leaders from both sides of the aisle are beginning to follow their constituents in recognizing that drug policy reform is one of the most effective ways to address the problems of our current criminal justice system.”
“Marijuana decriminalization is not enough to end racial disparities in marijuana arrests, as we’ve seen in DC and cities like New York and Chicago,” added Dr. Burnett, referring to statistics showing racial minorities still receive the brunt of enforcement actions even under decriminalization.
But Washington DC residents face a legalization hurdle that Oregonians and Alaskans do not: The US Congress, which has final authority over all legislation and budgets in the federal district. When the District voted on medical marijuana back in 1998, former Rep. Bob Barr infamously included language in an appropriations bill that forbade the DC Board of Elections from counting the votes. When courts intervened and required a vote count, they found 69 percent of residents voted in favor. So then Rep. Barr added an amendment that forbade DC money to be spent implementing medical marijuana. It took until 2010 for Congress to relent and allow DC to run its medical marijuana program. (Ironically, after leaving Congress, Bob Barr became a pro-medical marijuana lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project.)
DC’s congresswoman, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, has made it clear she will not tolerate such shenanigans this time around. “We will not let history repeat itself,” Norton said. “Republicans tried to prevent DC from voting on an initiative in 1998 to legalize medical marijuana, and after voters approved it, blocked its implementation with an appropriations rider for more than 10 years. We are not surprised that Republicans are threatening to again use the power of the federal government to block the will of the voters of a local jurisdiction. Many Republicans abandon their professed support of local control of local affairs when they have an opportunity to bully the residents of the District, who cannot hold them accountable at the ballot box. We have already begun working with our allies to protect the will of DC voters.”
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