If California legalizes pot, will D.C. follow?
If they aren't already, elected officials in the District should be keeping close tabs on this year's election in California.
On Wednesday, advocates for legalizing marijuana officially secured enough signatures to put a referendum on the California ballot this November asking voters to legalize and tax pot.
And, judging by recent legislation in the District, what starts in California often eventually makes it way to the left-leaning District.
San Francisco's decision in 2007 to ban plastic bags, for example, was one impetus for the District's recently enacted bag tax. And San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome launched the modern same-sex marriage movement when he issued marriage licenses to gay couples in 2004 -- long before the District took up the issue.
And California voters approved a referendum allowing for the medical use of marijuana in 1996 - two years before voters in the District approved a similar referendum. The District's medical marijuana law is only now being implemented because it was tied up for years on Capitol Hill.
But if California voters approve the legalization of marijuana - which remains an if, because polls show a potentially close election - how long will it be before pro-pot advocates seek to petition a similar measure onto the ballot in the District?
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, estimates it would be six years or less before the marijuana legalization debate makes its way to the District.
"California, like it or not, really pushes American politics and business in one direction or another," said St. Pierre, noting the issue is also expected to soon land on the ballot in Nevada and Oregon. "I am going to guess four to six years after the citizens of California pass something like this, there is either an initiative here or the city council takes it up."
Already, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) has been grumbling publicly that some of the District's drug laws need to be reformed because too many residents are being locked up for drug possession. But Council member David A. Catania (I-At large), the chairman of the Committee on Health, and other council members have made it clear they do not want the medical marijuana legislation pending before the council to spiral into a debate over outright legalization.
A Washington Post poll conducted in January found District residents were split on whether they supported legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Forty-six percent of residents favored the idea, but 48 percent opposed.
But while 60 percent of whites supported legalizing marijuana, only 37 percent of African-Americans felt that way, largely due to strong opposition among older black women.
A debate over marijuana legalization wouldn't be entirely new terrain for the District. In 1977, the city council approved legislation to decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of the drug. But then Mayor Walter E. Washington vetoed the measure, citing the possible effects the law would have on city youths.
And even if legalization advocates won a referendum over the issue in the District, Congress would ultimately have the power to block it from taking place.
It's hard to see Congress staying out of that debate. But who would have guessed six years ago that the debate over whether to legalize same-sex marriage in the District would have been such a snooze this year on Capitol Hill?
March 26, 2010; 2:39 PM ET
Categories: Tim Craig
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