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DC adds race to nation's debate on legalising ganja

Published:Tuesday | October 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM
In this photo taken October 9, 2014, Adam Eidinger, chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, puts up posters encouraging people to vote yes on DC Ballot Initiative 71 to legalise small amounts of marijuana for personal use, in Washington. Ap

WASHINGTON (AP): A debate over legalising marijuana in the nation's capital is focusing on the outsized number of arrests of African Americans on minor drug charges.

Pot-legalisation supporters in Colorado and Washington state also spoke about racial justice, but their voters are mostly white and their campaigns focused more on other issues. The race factor hits closer to many more homes in the District, where nearly half the population is black.

And that means this referendum could change how the nation talks about marijuana, some drug-policy experts say.

"I think DC is going to probably set off a chain of events in which communities of colour, generally, and cities in particular take on the issue of legalisation as a racial-justice, social-justice issue in a much stronger way than they have so far," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Patchwork

There are many other differences between the District and states that have legalised pot. The city is a patchwork of local and federal land, and there will be no lighting up in front of the White House or at the Jefferson Memorial. Also, Washington remains under the thumb of Congress, which could thwart the will of the voters as it has on other matters where liberal District tendencies clash with conservative priorities on Capitol Hill.

Nonetheless, the District is on track to join Colorado and Washington state in legalising marijuana. A poll last month showed nearly two of every three voters favour the initiative, which will be on November's ballot. Voters in Alaska and Oregon also decide this fall whether to legalise pot.

Roughly half of the District's 646,000 residents are black. The American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2010, blacks were eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in the District, and 91 per cent of those arrested that year were black.

"It would alleviate a lot of problems," said Kenneth Agee, 46, a heating and air-conditioning mechanic who plans to vote for legalisation. "There may be less violence on the streets associated with marijuana trafficking and sales."

addressing racial disparities

The DC Council tried earlier this year to address racial disparities by decriminalising marijuana, as 17 states have done. Possession of up to one ounce of pot in the District is now subject to a $25 fine, among the lowest in the nation. The law took effect in July, despite an attempt by Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, to block the measure.

Legalisation advocates say decriminalisation hasn't done enough, citing police statistics that show most of the $25 tickets are being handed out in predominantly black neighbourhoods.

"We can tell the police, 'Guess what? It's not even a crime. You don't have to write a ticket,'" said Adam Eidinger, chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, the group that crafted the initiative and got it on the ballot.