In a town where even the crunchiest causes have suited-up lobbyists behind them, Adam Eidinger, one of the District’s top marijuana activists, matches his ideals refreshingly well. He sports a military surplus jacket, orange glasses, and a thin, vaguely pharaonic goatee. Eidinger, the former owner of a hemp shop, speaks glowingly about a Washington state concert where the band threw joints to audience members.
At breakfast last week with reporters in Adams Morgan, Eidinger explains how he’s convinced President Barack Obama will legalize the drug by the end of his second term, then light up with House Speaker John Boehner.
“They smoke cigars all the time, and it’s classy,” Eidinger says. Why not a joint too? After breakfast, he invites LL to a weed conference of his own (LL begged off).
Eidinger, the head of local pot advocacy group DCMJ 2014, would make the ideal supporter for Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells’ bill to decriminalize marijuana. Except, as it turns out, he hates it.
“Fuck him,” Eidinger says of the mayoral hopeful.
Wells’ bill to replace criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana with a $100 fine proved popular when he introduced it to the D.C. Council in July, garnering nine other co-sponsors or co-introducers. With more than two-thirds of the Council on his side, Wells’ bill is practically guaranteed passage. But while it’s been a surprisingly uncontroversial success for advocates of decriminalization, it’s also exposed a rift between them and a more radical wing of activists like Eidinger, who want the District to legalize the drug entirely.
The conflict is set to play out over a pot-heavy few months for District politics. On Monday, Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander’s health committee held a hearing on the District’s medical marijuana program, with several witnesses calling for an expansion of the number of illnesses that qualify for it. Also this week, Wells’ judiciary committee was set to hold hearings on his bill on Wednesday and Thursday, including one in Anacostia. (DCMJ is prepping witnesses to promote legalization at the hearings instead.)
Towards the end of the year, Eidinger and his cohort will decide whether they want to proceed with a November 2014 ballot initiative to legalize pot possession and growing small amounts of marijuana. Unless the Council looks ready to pass its own legalization bill, Eidinger says they’ll go through with it.
The dueling bills and initiatives are the culmination of a year that started with the release of a series of reports demonstrating how enforcement of pot laws is slanted against D.C.’s poor African-American residents. At the same time, a poll released ahead of the April at-large race, organized by DCMJ and the Drug Policy Alliance, revealed that District voters were receptive to decriminalization.
If the data created the atmosphere for Wells’ bill, though, legalization advocates fear that it could replicate the same ugly circumstances it was meant to quash. Legalization advocates say their plan would take marijuana out of more dangerous street deals, something Wells’ bill can’t accomplish. Besides, they say, $100 tickets aren’t as disruptive as jail time or as damaging to a career as a conviction, but what’s to stop law enforcement from levying fines just as disproportionately in poorer parts of the District?
“The people that are most likely to receive those tickets will continue to be in those neighborhoods, because that’s where police are focused,” says Grant Smith, a policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Wells says he introduced his decriminalization bill to relieve the immediate effects of the drug war, but he thinks the legalization issue should be put up to the entire city. As for his own vote in a potential ballot initiative, Well tells LL he’d vote to make the drug legal.
Last month, the DCMJ and like-minded groups, including the Drug Policy Alliance and the District’s branch of the NAACP, sent Wells a letter asking him to amend his bill. Among their requests: dropping the fine for possession, legalizing personal growth of three plants or fewer, and expunging previous marijuana possession records.
“Given that poor residents reside in neighborhoods saturated with a police presence, it is poor residents who will likely be disproportionately issued $100 citations for the possession of the marijuana,” the letter reads.
Will their request that Wells turn his decriminalization plan into some sort of quasi-legalization bill work? Well, consider the fate of Councilmember David Grosso’s own legalization bill, which failed to garner a single other backer on the Council when he introduced it in September.
You can thank Congress for that. District politicos were happy to thumb their noses at the feds during the government shutdown (and, in Mayor Vince Gray’s case, crash their press conferences), but when it comes to pot, they’re more reticent. The same legalization that’s so far been tacitly accepted in Colorado and Washington state, councilmembers fear, could provoke an unpredictable reaction from the Hill.
“If Congress didn’t have a thumb over D.C., we’d be pushing for [legalization] right now,” says Dan Riffle, an attorney with the Marijuana Policy Project, which didn’t sign the September letter to Wells.
There’s also a personal angle to the legalization side’s complaints about decriminalization. Eidinger claims that Wells’ staff took his suggestions, only to give advocates too little time to look at the bill before it was introduced. (LL points out this is a common claim from stakeholders on much less controversial bills, too.) Donnie Williams, one of DCMJ’s petitioners, thinks Wells’ bill was backed by some councilmembers who want to use it to take energy away from making the drug legal. “I really think this is being staged to work against legalization,” he says.
It’s tough talk from a group that, until Wells’ bill, was barely part of the political discussion at all. But the legalization crowd can afford to alienate potential allies on pot because there isn’t much opposition to loosening the laws at least a little bit. Trust LL, who initially wanted to write about the District’s pot prohibitionists for this issue, but was unable to find many possible subjects.
Alexander, the only councilmember to vocally oppose decriminalization, has explained her position by saying she thinks what’s against the law should stay that way. It’s a hard slogan to build a movement around.
Without opposition pushing the status quo, then, Eidinger and his cohort can pressure decriminalization advocates. “I’m sick of this Council treating me like shit and treating me like a criminal,” he says.
Even the legalization cohort, though, doesn’t want everything marijuana-related legalized. Eidinger wants any eventual marijuana law to ban home production powered by a particularly fire-prone brand of growing lamps. (Safety first.) The ballot initiative would only allow three mature plants and three seedlings. After a suggestion from the public, the group plans to change to make that limit apply per residence instead of per person—sorry, frat houses.
While the marijuana movement’s malcontents are loud, their effect on the District’s next election might not be. If they want to make an endorsement, they’ll be hard-pressed to find a more pot-friendly mayoral candidate than Wells or fellow decriminalization supporter Jack Evans; Grosso’s not running for higher office, and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser didn’t even back the decriminalization bill.
And ultimately, even Eidinger seems to be trying to be more diplomatic about Wells. Just minutes after his expletive-heavy denunciation of the would-be mayor, Eidinger says he’s thinking about donating to his campaign. CP
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery