D.C. residents will vote in November on whether to legalize marijuana use in the nation’s capital after elections officials voted Wednesday to place the question on the ballot.
The three-member D.C. Board of Elections voted unanimously Wednesday morning to approve the ballot initiative, certifying that activists gathered the tens of thousands of voter signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot.
Several of those activists attended Wednesday’s meeting and cheered the vote, which puts D.C. further down the path of joining Colorado and Washington as the only places in the nation where marijuana possession and cultivation is fully legal.
“In a democracy, the voice of the people should be heard,” said Malik Burnett, a doctor and leader of the D.C. Cannabis Coalition, an umbrella activist group that said it collected more than 57,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Tamara Robinson, a board spokeswoman, said the petition, turned in July 17, had 27,688 valid signatures. To qualify for the November ballot, 22,600 signatures were required.
A Washington Post poll taken this year showed high rates of support for marijuana legalization among District residents. But the legalization effort could be complicated by efforts in Congress to forestall the city’s moves to liberalize its marijuana laws. A House budget bill passed last month included a provision to block not only a legalization effort but a decriminalization bill passed by the D.C. Council this year that is now in effect.
The effort to keep the District from loosening its marijuana laws was led by Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican in Congress.
In April, Maryland also joined the third of states that have passed similar laws eliminating jail time for pot possession.
Harris, a doctor who represents the Eastern Shore, argued that the D.C. law was “bad policy,” assessing a fine of just $25. He also argued that the law has no drug-treatment component, even for minors, and that the fine for a young teen who is caught with a joint would be half that of the city’s $50 ticket for underage smoking of a cigarette.
Harris even took his objections to Twitter. In reply to a tweet from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) about Harris’s opposition of the law, he wrote, “Decriminalizing marijuana will harm kids. U don’t have to be a dr to know that — though I am.”
Sixteen years ago, D.C. activists gathered signatures and marijuana legalization was placed on the ballot. Then Congress stepped in, and city officials were not even allowed to count the votes.
Burnett said he was not sure how Congress would ultimately react to this legalization effort, but he said that the vote “will send a message that D.C. is serious about reforming its marijuana laws.”
The ballot initiative, if enacted, would legalize the possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana for personal use. Residents could grow up to six cannabis plants within their residents and give up to one ounce of marijuana to another adult without penalty. It would also legalize the sale and use of drug paraphernalia.
Burnett noted that the initiative would not legalize the sale of marijuana, but he said he expected the D.C. Council to step in if voters approve the measure and pass legislation to regulate sales.
Another leader of the campaign, Adam Eidinger, said he is preparing for an anti-legalization effort to emerge. The legalization push has so far moved forward without much opposition.
“This is the Waterloo in the war of marijuana,” he said of the D.C. vote. “If they [those opposing legalization efforts] can’t win this battle here, it’s over for the whole country.”
Despite the high stakes, Eidinger said he was not especially concerned about congressional intervention. “Overturning an election is a serious matter in the 21st century,” he said. “It is a moral issue. . . . I really don’t think Congress wants to pick this fight.”
Victoria St. Martin and Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.