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Late last week, a nondescript townhouse sandwiched between embassies on Massachusetts Avenue NW was a hive of activity as campaign workers thumbed through thousands of pages of signed petitions. They checked the signatures against a D.C. voter database, dutifully counting those that were valid and scrapping those that weren't.
The work was part of a homegrown campaign to legalize the possession of marijuana in the nation's capital, one involving 300 signature-gatherers — many from outside D.C., most paid — and an estimated budget of $165,000.
"Initiative 71 is part of what will ultimately be a two-step process," says Dr. Malik Burnett, co-chair of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign. "It allows adults over the age of 21 to possess up to two ounces of marijuana on their person and allows adults over the age of 21 to grow up to six plants in their home."
Today, the campaign will turn in those signatures — some 58,000 in all — to the D.C. Board of Elections. They only need 23,000 valid signatures from registered D.C. voters to get on the ballot, but proponents say that they averaged a 52 percent valid rate, likely putting them over that threshold.
That the signatures are being turned in at all is seen as a victory in and of itself. Adam Eidinger, who leads the campaign, fought with D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan earlier this year over whether the initiative could legally be put to voters. The elections board sided with Eidinger, but the signature-collection process started slowly — some 5,000 signatures were gathered in the first two weeks of the campaign, half of what Eidinger estimated was needed to exceed the high bar set by city regulations.
But after he started paying signature-gatherers — $1.50 to $2.25 per signature, depending on how many were submitted and how many of those were valid — the campaign picked up pace, collecting signatures from residents across the city. According to Eidinger, the campaign collected most signatures in wards 7 and 8, where they also registered new voters. (He says 5,000 voters registrations from across D.C. were submitted to the elections board.)
The signatures will be submitted only a week before a law takes effect in D.C. decriminalizing the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, but organizers — who have been collecting signatures since April — say that only full legalization will cut down on marijuana-related arrests that predominantly target black residents.
"New York and Chicago have had decriminalization on the books for quite some time, yet there is still a tremendous amount of arrests in those cities — particularly in communities of color," says Burnett, who also works with the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors loosening drug laws across the country.
"Here in D.C., which has the highest per capita arrest rate for marijuana possession in the country, we feel as though legalization is the most appropriate step to eliminate the racial disparities around possession arrests."
This won't be the first time that D.C. residents vote on a marijuana ballot initiative. In 1998, residents overwhelmingly approved an initiative legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, but Congress prohibited the city from implementing the program until 2009. Last month, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), inserted a budget rider forbidding the city from implementing its decriminalization law — and Burnett admits that they run the risk of having the legalization initiative derailed by Congress.
"We hope that D.C. has the right to determine its own laws as any other jurisdiction in the country would have," says Burnett. "Republicans interestingly are always talking about big government interference and local issues, and this is like the quintessential example of that."
Harris' office did not respond to a request for comment.
Once the signatures are submitted, the elections board will have to certify that the required 23,000 are valid. The initiative would not allow marijuana to be sold, though there is a bill before the D.C. Council that would empower the city to tax and regulate its sale.
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