Georgetown Voice: Capital Cannabis – The campaign to legalize marijuana in Washington, D.C.

“Do not make references to anything illegal or you will be asked to leave.”

For four years, that sign hung at Capitol Hemp, formerly the city’s largest vendor of hemp products and artisan glassware. The Adams Morgan headshop stocked everything a stoner would need—pipes, rolling papers, vaporizer equipment—but, of course, these products could only legally be used for consuming tobacco. Selling tobacco accessories becomes peddling drug paraphernalia when “direct or circumstantial evidence” suggests that the clerk would “reasonably know” the merchandise will be used to consume a controlled substance.

Yet, given these parameters, the store was in compliance with District law and generated over $1 million in annual sales. The underground shop served as the unofficial headquarters of the District’s pro-cannabis activists. D.C. flags emblazoned with the pro-statehood slogan “No taxation without representation” joined paintings of hemp leaves lining the walls. A history of D.C.’s medical marijuana program was printed on the counter. Along with smoking instruments, Capitol Hemp also sold books on medical cannabis and marijuana legalization.

All the while, the owners of the store leveraged their success as small-business owners to advocate for reform of hemp laws. In 2010, Capitol Hemp donated $25,000 to help pass California Proposition 19, a voter initiative that sought to legalize all forms of cannabis, including industrial hemp farming. While hemp is genetically related to marijuana, it is not psychoactive. In the United States, selling hemp products is legal, but growing the plant is not.

Even so, on Oct. 26, 2011, D.C. police raided Capitol Hemp, arresting six people. The officers executed a search warrant for selling drug paraphernalia and suspected drug possession. Tests taken at the scene for THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana, were positive.

In exchange for dropping the charges and returning $350,000 in seized glassware, the owners, Adam Eidinger and Alan Amsterdam, agreed to shut down the store, forcing them to lay off their ten employees.

Two days after police raided Capitol Hemp, officers stormed two other Adams Morgan headshops, again seizing property and alleging the sale of paraphernalia. A few months earlier, Mayor Vincent Gray (D) had publicly come out against selling drug paraphernalia.

Eidinger and Amsterdam were anomalies among headshop owners, who usually refrain from any smack of issue advocacy. Until police raided his store, Eidinger had no reason to believe he was breaking any laws. “Historically, headshop owners have been afraid to be political in any way,” Eidinger said. “We worked it out with lawyers ahead of time to make sure our store wasn’t getting us into trouble. They still used it against us.”

A veteran anti-war and anti-GMO activist, Eidinger decided that the closure of his store meant that it was time for him to head a campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in the District of Columbia. “They still said that if you sell hemp, it’s like code that you’re pro-marijuana. Well, yeah, it is. It is. But they were right. We were a store that believed in the legalization of marijuana, and now we all think that’s what I am. They think that’s what I am, so I might as well do it,” he said. “If they had not raided my store, I wouldn’t have taken a leadership role in the campaign.”

Last month, DCMJ, the campaign Eidinger founded, released a draft of a referendum that would legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults over 21. Possession of up to two ounces would be permitted, as would growing up to six cannabis plants for personal use.

A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling released last April found that 63 percent of D.C. residents would support legalizing marijuana and regulating its sale for adults. Moreover, 75 percent of D.C. residents would approve of decriminalization.

Even though support for legalization has ballooned in recent years, anti-drug taboo remains strong. This obstacle, in addition to the tall legal hurdles the measure faces, poses a challenge for advocates of legalization. Offered as a way to help remedy the racial discrepancies in enforcement of drug laws, the proposed law is so far struggling to gain traction among young, predominantly white residents of the city, whom the drug war seldom reaches.

Despite the obstacles and potential pitfalls, marijuana activists remain confident that they can change the law. With other states eyeing legalization in 2014, D.C. could both provide a symbolic victory to pro-marijuana activists and serve as a model for how the rest of the country should proceed. “It’s a serious change, and it’s such a serious change that it could actually be a flipping point switch for the whole country,” Eidinger said.


Drug laws have been the subject of differential enforcement for decades. A June 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that, nationwide, a black person was 3.73 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010, despite similar rates of usage between the two groups.

In fact, the gap in arrest rates between whites and blacks in the District of Columbia is much greater than the national average. While the arrest rate for possession was about 0.185 percent for white Washingtonians, the arrest rate for black Washingtonians was found to be 1.49 percent.

While many observers would blame the inconsistency in enforcement on racial profiling, there are likely several factors at work.

“There are many reasons for the disparity. It may include some amount of racial profiling by police but it may include other stuff, and probably does,” said Art Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU office in Washington, D.C. “There’s lots more police riding around and walking around in Anacostia than there are in the Georgetown University campus.”

Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the D.C. Police Union, explained the discrepancy by saying that all crime is centered in communities predominantly consisting of minorities. “We’ve had large concentrations of criminal activity that’s been going on for two decades, and that’s where unfortunately, the crimes are located,” he said.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance agreed that police presence factors into the disparity but says there are other factors at work.

“I would say, unquestionably, the reason racial disparities are so stark is that the police are focused in communities of color,” Piper said. “That begs the question, ‘Why are the police not just patrolling certain areas but searching people?’ I’m pretty sure if the D.C. Police Department went into Georgetown and searched people randomly, they’d find a lot of pot. But those searches would probably stop pretty quickly because they’d get a lot of phone calls from affluent people. So, instead, they patrol the areas of people who have less political clout.”

Nonetheless, concerns about racial disparities in arrest rates prompted D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 7) to introduce legislation to the Council decriminalizing possession. Under his proposal, people who are caught with weed would be slapped with a civil fine of $25 instead of facing jail time.

“It’s an issue of social justice,” Wells said in an interview with the Voice last week. “Once you have a criminal charge, you can’t even work on a construction site or get a commercial driver’s license. You may even get kicked out of your housing. The charge dissociates you from society and limits economic opportunities. The ACLU reported that right now, there’s a disproportionate impact on African Americans, and it’s unfair.”

Groups ranging from the ACLU, NAACP, and the Drug Policy Alliance have all expressed support for Wells’s legislation.

“Wells’s bill is a really good start because it ends the mass-arrests of young people of color,” Piper said. “I think once we get rid of mass incarceration, we can have a city-wide conversation about treating marijuana more like alcohol.”

Conversely, while Eidinger thinks that decriminalization would be a positive step, he thinks it wouldn’t go far enough to address the racial disparities associated with marijuana prohibition.

“If you’re going to fine marijuana users $100 or $25 or you’re going to search them and harass and stop them while they’re just trying to go about their business, police are used to doing that,” he said. “I don’t think that much has changed. I mean, the only thing that’s changed is that they’ll put the cuffs on you and they won’t take you to the jail.”

Eidinger also thinks that the Council is only taking up decriminalization now to draw away support for his legalization initiative.

“I think there are nine city councilmembers that are pretty much pro-legalization, but they don’t say it out loud,” he said. “In fact, they’ll only support decriminalization…They want to get decriminalization through the Council and that’s probably going to pass at the end of January.”

Wells’s bill is expected to pass the Council before the end of January. With nine co-sponsors and the support of the Mayor, the measure is assured success.

A few weeks ago, Eidinger said that he would withdraw his proposal if Wells’s decriminalization bill drew support away from legalization. Now, he says, he’ll go forward with his proposal “no matter what.”


DCMJ’s draft proposal only legalizes up to two ounces of marijuana, double the amount that was legalized in Colorado last year. The referendum proposal hasn’t been formally submitted to the D.C. Board of Elections yet because Eidinger is waiting to incorporate comments from the public into the draft proposal.

District law prohibits referendum measures from authorizing new taxation or spending. If the initiative is passed next November, it will only legalize cannabis, not regulate its cultivation or sale. In effect, Eidinger is betting that the measure will force D.C.’s hand to set up such a regulatory scheme, even if it is unwilling to do so right now.

In fact, the Council could vote to modify or even repeal the law if it passes. In addition, since Congress retains the power to overturn D.C. laws with impunity, the federal legislature could also interfere with the law taking effect.

But, first, the referendum needs to make it on the ballot. To do that, DCMJ needs to collect the signatures of at least five percent of the voters in the District, which amounts to about 20,000 names.

To do that, DCMJ needs to organize a campaign and raise money. “DCMJ is going to have to raise $350,000 to run a competitive campaign here, to run a professional campaign,” Eidinger said.


Activism on the issue is further complicated by the continued criminality and the history of cannabis use in minority communities.

“We really are handicapped by the heavy police presence in the city, the long history of abuse on the issue. …The African American community, which has been doing a lot of organizing, has hesitated to do anything public. People are very nervous,” Eidinger said. “I think a lot of cannabis users are afraid to speak out. …You’re trying to change something that’s a criminal activity right now.”

So far, Eidinger says that the pro-legalization activism has noticeably been missing another cohort: young people.

“I feel that most of the activism is coming from people who are in their 40s and 50s and they’re people who have been working on this issue for a long time,” he said. “Where are the really young people, who are probably the most affected? I don’t know, maybe it’s not the college kids who are getting busted, and it’s just poor black kids in Southeast who are getting busted. I don’t know.”

Eidinger points to a common theme in drug policy activism. Whites are much less affected, so they tend to prioritize the issue less. Piper said he noticed the same general trend. “I’ve always found, generally, that there’s a disconnect on this issue in that it is sometimes hard to get younger, white people really motivated, because to some extent, marijuana is already legal for them. Because they’re less likely to be searched, and caught, and arrested, and, if they are arrested, they’re less likely to do jail time,” he said.

No college campus in the District has organized affiliated campaign committees to legalize marijuana in 2014, even though Eidinger’s proposal has been widely circulated. “Someone needs to step up. I mean, where are the leaders?” Eidinger asked. “I want to see the millennial leaders step it up, and I’m calling it out.”

Out of several progressive campus groups, only a representative from Georgetown Solidarity Committee said they may support the proposal in due time. “This [issue] presumably falls under that umbrella, mostly because of the catastrophic impact drug laws have had on urban communities and low-income individuals,” Alexandros Taliadoros (SFS ‘14), an active member of GSC wrote in an email to the Voice. “While it’s possible that Solidarity might support the ballot initiative, we have not discussed it as a group.”


Closer to home, it remains to be seen whether the University will lessen the punishment for students caught in possession of marijuana once it is either decriminalized or legalized. The student code of conduct was changed earlier this year to get rid of the tiered system against which the severity of violations was judged. Now, each violation is taken on a case-by-case basis, though marijuana infractions historically carried a heavier penalty than being caught drinking alcohol underage.

“Federal law prohibits possession, manufacturing, use of marijuana. We continue to comply with federal laws,” Rachel Pugh, director of media relations, wrote in an email to the Voice.

Additionally, there are no formal changes in the works for the student code of conduct. “The Office of Student Conduct is not planning at this time to make any changes to its policies regarding the decriminalization of marijuana,” Whitney Maddox, judicial coordinator at the Office of Student Conduct wrote in an email to the Voice. “Any changes that occur in the policies or the Code of Student Conduct must be discussed and vetted through the Disciplinary Review Committee.”

Georgetown University Police Chief Jay Gruber did not respond to a request for comment regarding how GUPD would change its policies if marijuana is legalized.


For DCMJ, much work remains to be done. Over 5,000 have signed up to help the organization collect signatures, but Eidinger knows only a portion of them will show up.

Still, activists sense a shift in the national conversation on drug policy over the past few years. Asked if he had any reservations for legalization in D.C., Bill Piper wasn’t too worried. “I’m not that concerned because I think the tide is turning very quickly,” he said. “I think 5 years ago, if D.C. legalized or even decriminalized marijuana, it would have been major news. Now, it’s more of the same.”

Given the altered climate, activists no longer have to rely on protests or civil disobedience to get their message across. Now, it’s more about the ground game, like it is for mainstream movements. “Our tactics have changed,” Eidinger said. “We don’t have to get arrested on this issue, we do have to get it on the ballot.”

Source: Georgetown Voice

Reason: DC City Council Wants to Decriminalize Marijuana For “Social Justice,” Not Interested in Legalizing, May Be on the Ballot Anyway

By Ed Krayewski | Sep. 5, 2013 1:43 pm

The city council in Washington, DC is considering a bill, cosponsored by a majority of the council, that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana up to an ounce, making it a “civil offense” resulting in a fine, according to the local NBC affiliate. The primary sponsor of the bill, Tommy Wells, says the bill is a matter of “social justice,” and that he’s not concerned with the legal status of marijuana insomuch as he’s concerned about the 6,000 people, predominantly African-American, that are arrested for “using small amounts of marijuana.”

Activists are pressing for full legalization, pointing out that decriminalization will just cause the black market to expand even more, since everything that makes the possession of a small amount of marijuana possible remains illegal. But Councilman Wells says he doesn’t “believe growing marijuana in your home is really an issue of social justice… I’m not sure that our city is ready to do that.” Wells is right, growing marijuana in your own home is not a “social justice” issue. It’s an issue of rights and freedoms.

Wells’ frankly half-assed attempt at liberalizing the legal regime surrounding marijuana isn’t likely to even meet the narrow goal Wells set out. 91 percent of marijuana arrests in DC may be of black residents, but plenty of Beltway professionals use pot too. They just don’t need decriminalization to stay off the radar of local law enforcement, which largely targets black residents in its drug war efforts (similar tactics are seen in New York City, where whites are more likely to use marijuana but non-whites are more likely to be arrested for it). Wells’ effort isn’t going to make it less likely local law enforcement continues to target predominantly young black men for possession of marijuana. As criminal attorney Paul Zukerberg pointed out to NBC Washington: “Any amount of marijuana, even a roach, a partially burnt marijuana cigarette, is a criminal misdemeanor… Means you get arrested, your name is entered into the national criminal database, you have to go to court, hire a lawyer, and you face jail time. These are things that are permanently on your record… when you’re looking to get a job.”

While Wells’ bill is expected to pass and become law sometime in 2014, activists are working on a measure that would see DC residents vote on legalization in the November 2014 election. “People don’t want to be harassed anymore,” one activist, Adam Eidinger of DCMJ 2014, told NBC Washington. “People want rights.” And whatever pretension to “social justice” the DC city council may have is no replacement for that.

Source: Reason

NBC Washington: Activists to Submit New Marijuana Legalization Proposal

Click here to watch the video

By Mark Segraves | Wednesday, Sep 4, 2013 | Updated 7:20 PM EDT

While the D.C. Council considers decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, a group of activists wants to legalize it and they want D.C. voters to decide.

The majority of D.C. councilmembers have signed on to a bill that would make having less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense that results in a fine — like a speeding ticket — but some activists say that’s not enough. They want to be able to grow their own pot, and they don’t want police to have any authority over it.

“People don’t want to be harassed anymore,” said Adam Eidinger, of DCMJ 2014. “People want rights.”

Supporters of legalizing marijuana appeared before the D.C. Board of Elections Wednesday to get legalization on the November 2014 ballot for voters to decide.

D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who wrote the decriminalization legislation, said his bill isn’t as much about pot as it is the 6,000 people who are getting arrested for it each year.

“About 90 percent of those that are arrested in the District of Columbia for using small amounts of marijuana are African-American,” he said. “We have an issue of social justice and also an issue of overuse of our courts, overuse of our whole justice system and police.”

Decriminalizing pot will lead to confusion, Eidinger said.

“People think it’s legal, though it’s not, and the black market is just going to keep having more customers, I think, because no one is growing it for themselves, and growing it will still be an arrest-able offense,” he said.

He’s concerned the legislation the council is considering will open the door to police harassing young people at concerts and other events.

“I don’t believe growing marijuana in your home is really an issue of social justice, that’s more about legalizing the substance, and I’m not sure that our city is ready to do that,” Wells said.

“Any amount of marijuana, even a roach, a partially burnt marijuana cigarette, is a criminal misdemeanor,” criminal defense attorney Paul Zukerberg said. “Means you get arrested, your name is entered into the national criminal database, you have to go to court, hire a lawyer, and you face jail time. These are things that are permanently on your record so when you’re looking to get a job.”

“It’s a barrier to getting jobs,” Wells said. “Sometimes it’s a barrier to housing, a barrier to getting student loans.”

DCMJ proposed making possession of less than two ounces or growing up to three plants civil rather than criminal offenses, punishable by fines up to $100 assessed by alcohol regulation authorities, prohibiting police from arresting or detaining those in violation in most circumstances.

Attorney General Irv Nathan found a provision requiring offenders under the age of 18 to attend a drug awareness program violates a city restriction preventing ballot items from appropriating taxpayer funds, The Washington Post reported. He also said adding marijuana offenders to the groups protected by D.C.’s Human Rights Act could be a financial liability for the city and possession would remain illegal under federal law and he is unaware of a statute allowing the council to prevent police from arresting individuals in violation of federal law.

So DCMJ pulled the proposal and will submit a new one, possibly this week, Eidinger said.

The bill to decriminalize marijuana is expected to pass the council later this year and could be law by early 2014 – about the same time voters could be asked if smoking pot should be legal in the nation’s capital.

Source: NBC Washington

Washingtonian: Pro-Marijuana Activists Prepare Ballot Referendum to Legalize It in DC

Pro-Marijuana Activists Prepare Ballot Referendum to Legalize It in DC

The DC Council is set to begin debating marijuana decriminalization, but some advocates want the city to go all the way and make it legal to grow and smoke.

By Benjamin Freed, Washingtonian

A proposed ballot referendum that would have sought to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana in DC is off the table, but one of the lead organizers behind it says that’s just fine, because he plans to replace it with one that calls for legalization.

Adam Eidinger, a pro-pot activist who ran the now-shuttered Capitol Hemp stores, withdrew his decriminalization referendum today at a meeting of DC’s Board of Elections. He pulled it following a letter from DC Attorney General Irv Nathan, who wrote up several objections to the ballot initiative. But Eidinger says that Nathan’s objections were more procedural than political, and that in a few weeks’ time, he’ll submit a new referendum that calls for legalizing weed. Decriminalization, he says, was more of a test bubble.

Chiefly, Eidinger says, his original referendum raised an issue in calling for the creation of a drug awareness program to ward off underage residents from getting high. Under DC law, ballot referendums must be revenue-neutral, meaning that they cannot demand the DC Council create and fund any new programs. Despite the noble intention, though, Eidinger says that’s not a deal breaker.

“You can’t write a law that’s going to cost the taxpayers money,” he says. “We can reach our goals without that in there. But our top priority wasn’t to create that program, it was to make the voters feel more comfortable.”

Eidinger says his legalization referendum will still define to whom it would apply. The next initiative will spell out several specific rules about marijuana use, including:

  • Restricting use by people under 21
  • Allowing adults to carry up to two ounces
  • Permitting home cultivation—which Eidinger equates with people who brew their own beer—of up to six plants

Eidinger is especially passionate about that last bit, saying that that a prohibition on people growing their own weed opens up the landscape for a “monopoly.”

“People who grow their own cannabis are patriots,” he says. “They don’t give their money to terrorist organizations or international drug cartels. There’s no money going to a drug dealer.”

A legalization referendum would also go much further than a piece of legislation the DC Council is about to take up. Council member Tommy Wells, who is also running for mayor, plans to introduce a decriminalization bill this fall along with Marion Barry. Under Wells and Barry’s bill, which has at least six co-sponsors—more than enough to pass—marijuana possession would be reduced from a criminal offense to one meriting just a ticket with a fine.

Eidinger says simple decriminalization would only encourage police to write flurries of tickets. He envisions “raids” in which officers inspect bars and nightclubs to see which patrons are holding and issue a thick pad of fines. Under current law, people caught with pot are arrested and booked, a greater drain on police resources.

“It’s going to become a shakedown law,” Eidinger says.

But marijuana arrests are on the rise in DC anyway, according to Metropolitan Police Department figures obtained earlier this year by Paul Zukerberg, a defense attorney who ran for a DC Council seat on a pro-legalization platform. In 2011, the statistics read, MPD made 5,759 marijuana-related busts. And the American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2010, DC police arrested black individuals for marijuana-related offenses 8.05 times as often as white people.

Wells, though, is not convinced that his bill would lead to a wider regime of weed fines. “What I’m doing is decriminalizing the behavior so that we don’t have so many young men getting in trouble,” he says. “Mine is more about social justice. [Eidinger’s] is more about treating the substance as a legal substance. That’s not a social justice issue, that’s about getting a new product into the mainstream that’ll get you high.”

The DC decriminalization bill is modeled a Massachusetts law that went into effect in 2009. Last week, the US Justice Department, which still classifies marijuana as a dangerous illegal substance, said it will not interfere with state and local laws that decriminalize or legalize pot for either medicinal or recreational purposes. The move was a reassurance to DC’s burgeoning medical marijuana field.

Wells and Barry will hold their first public hearing on their decriminalization bill in early October. Meanwhile, Eidinger says he is furiously gathering volunteers—many of them exiting DC Superior Court following marijuana offense hearings—to gather signatures for the final draft of his referendum. He aims to get it on next year’s general election ballot.

Source: Washingtonian