Support for legalizing marijuana has expanded dramatically in the nation’s capital, with residents who were split evenly on the issue four years ago now favoring sales of the drug for personal use by a margin of almost two to one, according to a new Washington Post poll. Washingtonians of every age, race and ethnicity — black and white, teenage and elderly — registered double-digit increases in support for legalization. Overall, 63 percent are in favor. Even among the 34 percent who oppose legalization, nearly half of them support relaxing punishment for marijuana possession to a fine of no more than $100.
The survey comes amid growing momentum across the country to legalize pot. This month, Colorado allowed the first sales of the drug for recreational use, and the state of Washington is preparing to follow suit. Yet the poll places District residents significantly to the left of a more closely divided nation. A new, separate Washington Post-ABC News national poll this week shows voters coast-to-coast split 49 percent to 48 percent on the issue. Other national polls have shown higher support for legalization in the past year, but none as high as in the District.
The numbers also come on the same day when a committee of D.C. lawmakers is expected to take the first major step in decades to loosen the city’s marijuana laws by advancing a bill to reduce the city’s penalty for possession of pot from $1,000 and six months in jail to a $25 civil fine. If passed by the full council, the token fine would amount to less than most city parking tickets and would run counter to federal penalties for simple possession of $1,000 and on year in jail, which could still be enforced on the Mall and other federal properties within the District. A band of District activists has also filed a ballot initiative that could put the broader question of legalization before city voters in November.
Majority support for legalization in the nation’s capital, home to the federal law-enforcement agencies that most adamantly oppose it, could hasten the arrival on the East Coast of a debate that has largely simmered in western states. Ballot measures in Alaska, Arizona, California and Oregon this year could legalize marijuana in a contiguous, 1,800-mile swath stretching from the nation’s border with Canada to Mexico.
“There’s still a federal law that says it’s a no-no, and yet states are starting to legalize it. In my lifetime, what’s out West comes East. At this point, I think it’s inevitable,” said Richard Smith, a Northwest businessman who deals in scrap metal. At 68, Smith is among the 38 percent of District senior citizens who support legalizing marijuana — up from just 26 percent in 2010. Smith says he simply no longer cares: “I argue with my kids all the time. My middle daughter, I know she smokes once in a while, but she makes good decisions. I told her to read books, books on prohibition, and you’ll see where it’s going.”
The proposal before the D.C. Council would eliminate criminal penalties for possession, instead fining those violators $25, and allow for tickets of $100 for those caught smoking in public. Minors would also have a letter sent home to their parents. The ballot initiative for which supporters would have to gather signatures to qualify for the November ballot would rival that in Colorado, allowing residents age 21 or older to possess as much as two ounces of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to three plants at home. The initiatve would also allow individuals to transfer, but not sell, up to one ounce of the drug, and it would permit the use and sale of paraphernalia. Because of federal oversight of District governance, the measure would have to go to Congress for review if passed.
The Post poll found that the dramatic expansion of support for legalization over the past four years was driven in part by a complete reversal of opinion among African Americans. In 2010, 37 percent were in favor of legalization and 55 percent were opposed. Now, that number has flipped, with 58 percent of African Americans in favor and 39 percent opposed. In the past, many older blacks have opposed legalization out of the fear that it could lead to addiction among black youths. Those fears are reflected in the poll. Just 40 percent of blacks age 50 and older favor legalization, compared with 73 percent for younger blacks. There is no such age difference on legalization among whites in the city.
But the overall change in opinion could reflect the recent effort by civil rights groups to call attention to the disproportionate arrest of African Americans on marijuana charges. A study released by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in July said nine out of 10 people arrested on the charge of simple drug possession in the city were black. That report came on the heels of another from the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming that the District is arresting more people than ever for marijuana possession: 60 percent more in 2010 than a decade earlier, with black residents accounting for much of the increase.
The Washington Lawyers’ study also said that more African Americans were being arrested for drug crimes even in white communities, although statistics show that an equal number of whites and blacks are believed to use drugs. In repeated public statements on the issue, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has not disputed the numbers, but she has insisted that her department doesn’t target African Americans and that the numbers are explained in part because more arrests tend to occur in higher-crime parts of the city with a greater police presence.
In Ward 1, for example, which includes part of historically black Shaw but also Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan, African Americans accounted for 81 percent of the more than 1,200 drug arrests in 2011 — even though they make up about one-third of the population. “I don’t care one way or another about legalizing it,” said Renee Matthews, 49, a Northeast resident who works as a receptionist at a teachers’ organization downtown. “But it shouldn’t be criminalized if the penalties are harder for African Americans.” Charles Dorsey, 60, who lives off Benning Road in Southeast, agreed. “Marijuana is so prevalent. People are using it all over; there are no real medical harms in using it — liquor causes more harm.”
Still, African American women are among the least likely to support legalization, with 51 percent in favor to 45 percent against. Chuquita Berry, a homemaker in the Marshall Heights neighborhood, said she opposes both legalization and attempts to lessen penalties because she fears a rise in impaired driving as well as “major negative impacts” on her neighborhood. “The law needs to remain the same,” said Berry, 34. “You could see the negative effects on children, teenagers, adults. It would create more of a problem.”
African Americans aren’t the only ones driving the trend. Their share of the city’s population has fallen below 50 percent over the past four years. Since the 2010 census, the District’s population has mushroomed by 45,000 people, a 7.4 increase, with many newcomers young and white. More than three-quarters of whites under age 40 favor legalization. One is Will Hardy, 34, who returned to the District after eight years away and is working at a Starbucks near Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill while he figures out a way to combine his loves for music and politics — perhaps by working on issues of royalties for artists.
“I smoke pot and I’m a highly functioning critical thinker — perhaps not at Starbucks, but in my personal life,” Hardy said. “The prohibition on pot has been lost in terms of its social goal — to calm a social problem. It’s creating a social problem, not calming it.” D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) is leading the council’s first step toward decriminalizing marijuana in the bill expected to pass his public safety committee Wednesday. Wells and seven others initially introduced a bill last year to limit penalties for marijuana possession to $100. After public testimony, Wells said $100 could be too punitive for poor residents and students caught with marijuana.
Under Wells’s bill, fines would be lowered to $25. Those caught smoking marijuana in public could be fined $100 and have their paraphernalia confiscated; minors would also have a letter sent home. “We know that 90 percent of those charged for small amounts are generally young African Americans. For those, a $25 fine and losing whatever paraphernalia will be an impact,” Wells said. Wells said he thinks it would be prudent to monitor the rollout of legalized marijuana in Colorado and elsewhere for at least a year before making a decision on whether the District should go the same route — a step that would likely set up a confrontation with Congress over the issue. As it is, the $25 fine for possession would rank behind only Alaska as the most forgiving of the 17 states that have eliminated jail time for marijuana possession.
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