National and local advocates for marijuana policy reform are using a new poll to kick off a major push for the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis in the District — one that could include the pursuit of a ballot initiative in 2014.
The poll was sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance and financed by Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a company that had backed legalization referendums in four states. Public Policy Polling conducted the automated telephone poll on April 10 and 11, reaching 1,621 registered voters.
It showed two-thirds of D.C. registered voters would at least partially support a legalization referendum similar to the ones passed last year in Colorado and Washington state. Three-quarters of poll respondents favored the decriminalization approach adopted by several states and municipalities, which would turn the possession of small amounts of marijuana from a criminal offense to something more akin to a traffic ticket.
A January 2010 Washington Post survey found residents more closely split when asked whether they favored legalizing the possession of marijuana for personal use, with 46 percent in favor to 48 percent opposed. The Post poll, which carried a three-point margin of error, showed white residents were much more likely to favor legalization (60-35) than black residents (37-55).
The new poll, which did not report a margin of error, found a racial disparity, but a less dramatic one. Both white and black residents favored Colorado/Washington-style legalization, though by different degrees — 77-19 for whites, 53-38 for blacks. Same goes for the decriminalization question, which was supported by 85 percent of white residents and 69 percent of black residents.
There is evidence that national attitudes on marijuana policy have changed in recent years. A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this month found a majority of Americans favored legalization, marking a dramatic shift from even a decade ago, when closer to two-thirds of national poll respondents opposed legalization.
Adam Eidinger, a longtime local activist who is employed by Dr. Bronner’s, said the time has come for city leaders to change District law to reflect popular opinion. ”It’s a popular issue, and up until now the council has ignored it,” he said. “Maybe now they’ll realize the citizens want to to decriminalize at the very least.”
Officials with the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance said they will be lobbying the D.C. Council in the coming months to pursue legislative changes. Mason Tvert, MPP’s communications director, said his group “will be talking to community leaders and elected officials about various options for adopting a more sensible marijuana policy in the District.” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said decriminalization would be a “no-brainer” but legislators “should do more.”
“There is an opportunity to make a clean break from the past and treat drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue,” Piper said.
The new push comes just as the city’s first medical marijuana dispensary is set to open. But city legislators, most notably Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, have been wary of pursuing wide scale decriminalization or legalization — or even a more liberal medical marijuana regime — citing the likelihood that federal marijuana laws will remain in effect and the potential response from the city’s congressional overseers.
“There is a good argument for decriminalizing a drug that is widely used and that results in a lot of arrest records and not having an effect on violent crime,” Mendelson said in December, but “I don’t think this is the time for the District to be discussing that.”
Eidinger said Tuesday that he is prepared to mount a ballot initiative should the council fail to act. He has founded DCMJ — a skeleton organization consisting, he says, “basically me and a few other people in the city who are interested in advancing the issue.”
“The idea is that we need to create a grassroots organization in the city that is going to advance this ballot initiative if we have to do it,” Eidinger said. “Meanwhile, [MPP and DPA] will be accelerating their lobbying. I think it’s unnecessary if the council does their jobs.”
Piper, of the Drug Policy Alliance, acknowledged “internal and external discussions about doing a ballot measure” but “our preference is to work with the council on a set of reforms to reduce incarceration, racial disparities, and drug overdoses.”