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Pot backers in Washington, DC, get legalization on November ballot

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Washington voters in November will decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use, injecting the nation’s capital into the growing political push to roll back prohibition on the drug.

The city’s board of elections on Wednesday said a measure qualified for the ballot that seeks to let residents grow cannabis indoors, share it with friends and possess as much as 2 ounces of pot. Buying or selling it, though, would remain illegal.

The effort in the District of Columbia, whose laws are subject to oversight by Congress, will provide a test of the federal government’s tolerance toward a movement to legalize marijuana that has spawned campaigns around the country.

“This is the war on marijuana’s Waterloo,” Adam Eidinger, who is leading the campaign, said. “If we can pass it here in Washington, short of Congress overturning it, then the country really has changed.”

Colorado and Washington state this year became the first to begin regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana for recreational use, a result of measures approved by voters in 2012. While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the U.S. government has allowed the experiments to continue, which has encouraged other campaigns.

Pot sales

In November, measures to tax and regulate marijuana sales are on the ballot in Oregon and Alaska. Similar efforts are under way for 2016 in at least half a dozen states, including California, Arizona and Nevada, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based group that advocates loosening restrictions on the drug.

The legalization push has been bolstered by shifting public sentiment. In October, a Gallup poll of 1,028 American adults found 58 percent said the drug should be legalized, the first time a clear majority had done so. In January, a survey released by the Washington Post found that 63 percent of district residents favored legalization.

Julia Hon, a 32-year district resident originally from Seattle, said she supports the city measure, citing the early results in her home state.

“From what I understand, there’s been some positive effects from it,” said Hon, a graduate student. “I think it’s a trend. There’s momentum for it.”

Among friends

The D.C. ballot measure would allow residents 21 and older to grow as many as many as six plants inside their homes, though only three could flower at a time. It would also permit residents to give as much as 1 ounce to friends.

Eidinger said limits on ballot measures that affect city revenue kept his campaign from seeking to legalize marijuana sales. He said a successful outcome may encourage action by the city council, where one member, David Grosso, in September proposed a bill to regulate marijuana much like alcohol.

The ballot campaign follows a decision by the city to make possession of as much as 1 ounce of marijuana punishable by a fine instead of potential jail time, after city officials found that the law disproportionately affected black residents.

Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat who will leave office after being defeated in the primary election, declined to comment on the ballot measure. Councilmember David Catania, who is running for mayor as an independent, supports legalization, said Brendan Williams-Kief, his chief of staff. Muriel Bowser, the city councilmember who won the nomination, is in favor of letting voters decide, said spokesman Joaquin McPeek.

‘Enough drugs’

Chrissy Gass, a 25-year old mailroom clerk from the city’s southeast, said she is concerned that the proposal would lead to the further proliferation of drugs.

“It would be really bad for the kids,” said. “There are already enough drugs out here.”

The effort could also face a challenge from the federal government, which exercises a unique oversight of the city. Congress, which has 60 days to review changes to Washington’s criminal law, can veto them by a majority vote. It also must approve the annual budget, giving it power to block specific funds.

The city’s law that removed the threat of jail for possessing small amounts of pot drew pushback on Capitol Hill.

Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican, has attached a measure to a budget bill currently before Congress that would prevent the city from using local or federal funds to implement that law. He declined to comment on how he would respond to the city’s ballot measure, though he said in a statement that “I oppose legalization -- period.”

Eidinger, the initiative supporter, said a veto would put Congress in the position of overturning the results of a popular vote by the city’s voters.

“If they do that, I think there would be a price to pay,” he said.

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