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You wouldn’t expect it, but the D.C. Cannabis Campaign fits in on Embassy Row. Wedged between the Mexican delegation to the Organization of American States and the South Korean embassy, the campaign’s mildewy, weed-scented townhouse on Massachusetts Avenue NW has the same trappings as its neighbors, including office staff and a fireproof safe (albeit one that holds petitions instead of diplomatic cables).
The activists’ self-proclaimed “embassy” has culturally appropriate decorations in a light-up faux-palm tree, boxes of rolling papers, and stickers for online cryptocurrency Bitcoin. It even has a demanding head of state in campaign boss Adam Eidinger. Call it the sovereign nation of Potistan.
When LL visited on Monday, all was not well in this laidback land. To keep on its targeted pace to collect more than 23,000 valid signatures to put an initiative legalizing marijuana on the District’s November ballot, the campaign’s goal was to receive 7,000 raw signatures Monday. Eidinger expected 4,000. Instead, he got fewer than 3,000. With an average of 65 percent of the campaign’s signatures thrown out so far for reasons like incorrect addresses, the campaign’s first signature collection probably took in only a little more than 1,000 usable signatures.
As volunteers and paid signature gatherers delivered the slim stacks of petitions, a lone campaign worker operated a phone “bank.” Eidinger hunted for his field coordinator, then changed his mind.
“I’m going to smoke,” Eidinger said. “This has not been a fun day.”
After finishing a joint on the porch, Eidinger contemplated writing a gloomy progress letter to his campaign’s primary backers, the Drug Policy Alliance and California-based soap company Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.
Then Eidinger asked LL to deliver a message to simpatico Washingtonians. Here it is: “Why haven’t you brought me back enough signatures? Where are my signatures?”
After months of sparring with the D.C. Board of Elections and the Office of the Attorney General over language for their initiative, the Cannabis Campaign finally received petitions to start collecting their signatures on April 23—too late to post volunteers outside of polling places for the April 1 citywide primary, but still well before the deadline for November. With legal hurdles cleared, no organized opposition, and a January Washington Post poll showing 63 percent of District residents favor legalizing the drug, the initiative seemed destined for success. But Eidinger and his group are facing an unexpected problem: actually getting enough signatures to make the ballot.
Trying to make the November general election means the campaign is working on a tighter deadline than other petition collectors, like labor groups pushing a minimum wage ballot initiative. While the pot advocates would have 180 days to collect signatures if they just want to be included on the next special election ballot after November, whenever that is (and D.C. has been averaging one every year since 2011), the activists have to turn all of their signatures in by July 7 if they want to be on the general election ballot—giving them just 84 days to gather signatures. (They’re aiming for November to legalize pot quicker and because they think a general election gives them a better chance to pass the initiative.)
The slow progress so far has been caused in part by less-than-enthusiastic collection from paid and volunteer workers. The Cannabis Campaign didn’t always have this problem: Before the elections board approved the petitions in April, campaign workers had to endure complaints from reporter-turned-activist Dorothy Brizill about an argument with a pot campaign worker. Eidinger blamed the dispute on overzealousness.
Eidinger could use some overzealousness right about now. In place of it, he’s opted to kick in more money, even though the short-term cash burn could put the campaign over budget. Facing a shortage of petitioners, Eidinger has literally started hiring people off the street as they walk by his headquarters. Signature gatherers who were paid $1 for each validated signature will now get $1.50 if they hit their quotas.
He’s hiring workers by the hour, too, although temp agencies have been leery about sending people to the pot group. Hourly workers can make as much as $25 an hour if they deliver 500 signatures a week.
“I’m starting to realize I should’ve offered more money from the get-go,” Eidinger says.
Facing a signature shortfall, Eidinger tried to cut a deal with D.C. Working Families, the group behind the minimum-wage initiative. In exchange for their help with marijuana signatures, Eidinger offered to have his group help with wage petitions. They haven’t struck a deal so far.
Eidinger’s previous attempts at alliances haven’t worked out so well: He complains that Council and mayoral campaigns haven’t sent him volunteers, despite their support for legalization. The only exception is Ward 6 Councilmember and failed mayoral candidate Tommy Wells, whose marijuana decriminalization bill should go into effect this summer unless Congress intervenes.
“The truth is, we need their fucking help,” Eidinger says.
Future initiatives could face an even tougher signature effort. According to a Board of Election proposal set to be published in the D.C. Register this Friday, campaigns could only submit twice the number of signatures they need to get on the ballot to the board for validation. (Under current law, campaigns can submit as many petitions as they want, hoping enough of them will survive challenges to meet their targets.)
While the regulation won’t be in place in time to affect the Cannabis Campaign, according to a board spokeswoman, the marijuana activists’ average of 35 percent valid signatures suggests that requiring 50 percent of submitted signatures to be valid would make initiatives even harder.
In the end, though, if the pot initiative doesn’t make it to November, it might be the nature of D.C. itself, not regulations or lackadaisical workers, that dooms it. At their Embassy Row HQ, signature-gatherers complained that ambitious, government-minded District residents don’t want to put their names on anything supporting an illegal drug, even if those petitions will just end up locked up in a stack somewhere at the Board of Elections.
“Hey folks, you can sign, don’t be such pusssies,” says Eidinger, before hitting up LL for a signature.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story originally misstated the deadline for when the D.C. Cannabis Campaign needs to turn in its signatures to make the November ballot. The date is July 7, not July 15.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery