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D.C.'s Marijuana Vote Faces Congressional Review


Now, voters in several states this week also gave support to legalizing marijuana. Oregon and Alaska approved regulating retail sales, like the states of Washington and Colorado already do. Washington, D.C., approved letting those 21 and older grow and possess small amounts of marijuana. The district's law, though, faces review by Congress. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: D.C.'s ballot measure passed 2-1, so it's not hard to find supporters. Twenty-four-year-old federal worker Sam Bonar was playing ultimate Frisbee on his lunch break yesterday.

SAM BONAR: I don't think it's going to affect usage at all. If anything it stops young people from doing it because it de-stigmatizes it.

LUDDEN: A block away, 32-year-old Steven Mile also voted yes.

STEVEN MILE: It has been a failed policy. It's led to lots of horrific consequences, like the mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders, has a severe disproportionate effect on disadvantaged communities.

LUDDEN: Such arguments have had a big impact in a city that's majority black. Earlier this year, D.C.'s city counselors cited the racial disparity in marijuana arrests when they voted to decriminalize the drug. That downgraded possession of small amounts to a $25 civil fine. And yet racial disparity is not the key issue for all African-Americans. Fifty-one-year-old Robin Ham says in her neighborhood, she's already afraid of men hanging out and getting high. She often works the late shift.

ROBIN HAM: When I park my car, I call my son - please come outside and walk me through this breezeway, because they're standing there and they're smoking.

LUDDEN: Now Ham thinks more people will smoke dope with impunity, and that makes her worry for her own kids and others.

HAM: If they legalize marijuana, then there's going to come PCP, crack. I think it's going to lead to more crime, kids not going to school. And then that's going to cause a big, big problem.

LUDDEN: D.C.'s police chief has said the bulk of marijuana arrests come from neighbors and passers-by calling police. She denies the department's officers - mostly black themselves - target African-Americans. Still, support for legalization among city residents is overwhelming.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today's public hearing is for the purposes of hearing testimony...

LUDDEN: Last week, even before the vote to legalize, the city council debated a bill to tax and regulate marijuana sales. D.C.'s mayor-elect fully supports legalization. That leaves only the soon-to-be Republican Congress as a potential barrier, a notion that angers legalization supporter Steven Mile.

MILE: It'd be just another example of how we're second-class citizens here in D.C.

LUDDEN: Earlier this year, Republicans in the House tried hard to block D.C.'s law decriminalizing marijuana possession, an effort that failed in the then-Democratic-controlled Senate. Now, the new Congress will have 60 working days to review this latest bill.

TOM ANGELL: Taking time to overturn the will of the voters on a popular issue like marijuana legalization would be a pretty politically stupid move.

LUDDEN: Tom Angell chairs the national advocacy group Marijuana Majority. He says when he first started pushing the issue 15 years ago, people laughed. Even supporters found the notion of making pot legal ludicrous.

ANGELL: Fast-forward to today - we have legal marijuana in four states and the nation's capital and medical marijuana in nearly half the states in the country. So this has quickly become a mainstream issue.

LUDDEN: In a dramatic shift, national polls now show solid majority support for legalization. This week's votes are all the more remarkable, Angell says, since young voters don't turn out as much in midterms - just wait until 2016, he says. Even more states are planning their own ballot measures. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.