It Looks Like Pot Will Soon Be Legal in the Nation's Capital, Maybe in Oregon Too (Alaska Is Iffier)


Office of Andy Harris

Seven weeks before Election Day, a new Marist poll finds that 65 percent of voters in Washington, D.C., favor Initiative 71, which would make it legal for adults 21 or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants at home. The survey, sponsored by The Washington Post and the local NBC station, found that just 33 percent of voters opposed the initiative, with 2 percent undecided. "Voters in the District of Columbia are poised to follow Colorado and Washington state into a closely watched experiment to legalize marijuana," the Post concludes. "The results show an electorate unshaken—even emboldened — nine months after legal marijuana sales began in Colorado and six months after D.C. lawmakers stripped away jail time for possession, making it just a $25 offense."

The initiative's 2-to-1 advantage is especially impressive in light of the Yes on 71 campaign's meager resources. The Post says the measure's backers "have almost no money in their campaign account and may not run a single ad." Yet "support seems increasingly hardened."

The Post notes that "a complete reversal of opinions among African Americans," who account for half of Washington's population, helps explain the initiative's popularity. Although white residents are still more likely to favor legalization, black residents are much more inclined to vote that way than they used to be. Four years ago, 55 percent opposed legalization, and now 56 percent support it.

Concerns about the racially disproportionate impact of marijuana prohibition probably have a lot to do with that dramatic shift in opinion. Nationwide, according to a 2013 ACLU report, blacks are about four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, even though they are about equally likely to smoke pot. In D.C., blacks are eight times as likely to be busted for pot. D.C. also has a far higher marijuana arrest rate than any other jurisdiction in the country: 846 per 100,000 residents in 2010, compared to 535 in New York City (D.C.'s closest competitor) and a national average of 256.

Because of restrictions on the policy changes that can be made through ballot measures in D.C., Initiative 71 does not legalize commercial production or sale of marijuana, although it does allow people who grow it at home to transfer up to an ounce at a time "without remuneration." Legalization of the cannabis industry would be left to the D.C. Council, which could be overridden by Congress. Congress also could block implementation of Initiative 71, as it did for years with Initiative 59, the medical marijuana measure that D.C. voters approved in 1998.

The last congressional effort to stymie marijuana reform in D.C., led by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), consisted of an amendment that would have barred the District from spending public money "to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution" of a controlled substance. The House approved Harris' amendment in June, but it was dropped from the final version of the spending bill. Harris plans to try again if Initiative 71 passes.

The prospects for legalization in Alaska look considerably dimmer. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted at the end of July put support for Measure 2, that state's legalization initiative, at 44 percent, with 49 percent opposed. In a survey by the same organization last May, 48 percent of voters favored Measure 2 and 45 percent were against it.

Support for legalization in Oregon seems to fall somewhere between the numbers in D.C. and Alaska. Last May a DHM Research survey commissioned by Oregon Public Broadcasting found that 54 percent of voters favored "legalizing marijuana for adults 21 and older," as  Measure 91 would do; 38 percent were against legalization, and 9 percent were undecided. A June poll by SurveyUSA found that 51 percent of voters favored legalization, including commercial production and distribution, while 41 percent were opposed and 8 percent were undecided.

Amendment 2, which would make Florida the first Southern state to approve medical use of marijuana, is also ahead in the polls. As a constitutional amendment, it needs 60 percent support to pass. A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted in July put support at a whopping 88 percent, which helps explain the opposition's hilarious hysteria.

I considered "Where Pot Might Be Legal Next" in a column last July.