I got a firsthand look last week at the greening of the nation's capitol.
Marijuana is legal in Washington D.C. Voters approved the law last fall by a margin of nearly 70 percent. The measure didn't allow for retail stores but residents can grow up to six plants and possess up to two ounces.
D.C. decriminalized marijuana possession almost two years ago. A fine structure is in place similar to what we now have in Philly: a $25 civil citation. The District also runs a quietly successful medical marijuana program. Their safe access law was passed more than a decade ago though implementation was blocked by Congress until last year.
Congressmen Andy Harris (R., Md.) and Joe Pitts (R., Pa.) tried to block the full legalization measure as well. But the District's Mayor Muriel Bowser stood up for voters. Bowser was backed by members of the House and Senate. President Obama even weighed in saying it would be wrong to interfere.
Six months later, the change is positive and visible.
The roof deck of a German-themed restaurant in the Northwest section of the city hosted a private party for marijuana advocates and activists from around the country who had gathered for national NORML's Fly-In Lobby Day. Among the liters of beer and platters of schnitzel, the locals casually rolled fragrant joints. They took them down to a closed off alley beside the building usually reserved for cigarette smoking. Amid lively conversation about reform bills in Congress they enjoyed some of the local produce.
The restaurant's owner approached me in the alley. He cheerfully and earnestly asked how his establishment could have more of these events and successfully cater to the cannabis crowd.
Yet despite the new level of freedom for the District's cannabis consumers, federal law has not budged.
Perhaps nowhere else in the country is the dichotomy between local and federal marijuana policies more apparent. Much of D.C. is actually federal property. Possession of any amount of marijuana on federal land can get you up to 6 months in prison, 5 years of probation and a $5,000 fine. It's a fact I know all too well. I'm still serving probation for having a single joint at Independence Hall National Historic Park.
On Wednesday, May 20, about 100 citizen marijuana advocates gathered in an auditorium at George Washington University. We would hear from some professionals about effective advocacy.
Presenting were: NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre, Ghost Group's Aaron Houston, Bill Piper form the Drug Policy Alliance, attorney Eric Sterling, Lauren Padgett of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Russ Belville from PortlandNORML in Oregon, Kevin Mahmalji from Colorad, Kevin Oliver of Washington State NORML, Sharon Ravert from Georgia's Peachtree NORML, author and policy analyst Paul Armentano, NORML's founder Keith Stroup, Dan Viets of Missouri NORML and Mitch Earleywine of the national NORML Board of Directors.
The main take-away points: Dress well, bring literature, follow up on contacts, keep to a single bill or issue.
You can listen to the presentations here courtesy of 420Radio.org.
Armed with tips, tricks and information we stormed the Hill the next day.
We arrived first at the Capitol Visitor Center for a talk with Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee. Rep. Cohen has backed reform bill and also grilled members of the Department of Justice and DEA on their enforcement of prohibition. He received an award from NORML.
Next we traveled the cavernous underground tunnels connecting the Capitol building with the congressional office buildings. Many of us made appointments with the staff of our local delegation. Then we spent the rest of the day cold-calling
There are about a dozen reform measures active in the US House and Senate. Plenty to talk about.
The Senate office buildings are modern, with glass walkways and pristine elevators. Each Senator has a reception area with art and displays from their home district. Cory Booker from New Jersey is a freshman, so his office was a bit smaller. In his lobby, Booker has a two-panel portrait of the Warren St. bridge with its famous "Trenton Makes, The World Takes.". Bob Casey from Pennsylvania has a cavernous reception area with massive jars of candy to feed the sugar craving of lobbyists.
Over on the House side, the offices are frumpier. Most congressmen have smaller offices with the feel of a cubicle business space rather than politics. Still, we were amused to see the Democratic Caucus Room in the Longworth House Office was number 1420. We took turns covering up the 1 and taking pictures.
On the Hill that day the Senate Appropriations Committee was voting on a funding bill for Veterans Affairs. Sens. Steve Daines (R., Mont.) and Jeff Merkely (D., Ore.) added an interesting measure. Although thousands of vets across the country can access cannabis under state programs, VA physicians are not allowed to even discuss the therapy with their patients. Also, unlike their civilian counterparts, VA doctors cannot recommend medical marijuana. But in an 18-12 vote the committee worked towards changing that fact. The measure was narrowly defeated in the House the week before and must now return to the lower chamber for reconsideration.
The language of the VA funding bill represents just how complex the issue of cannabis has become in federal politics. Still, the small move was an overall gain for the issue.
Mike Whiter, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who lives in Philadelphia, has experienced the benefits of cannabis firsthand.
"When I got home from Iraq in 2006 and was thrust into the VA healthcare system, I was very ill, I was over-medicated and I was suicidal," Whiter said. "In 2012, at the age of 35, I decided to stop taking pills and start using cannabis instead. After six years of living as a zombie, cannabis saved my life."
Scott Murphy, president of Veterans for Safe Access and Compassionate Care said, "Veterans throughout America will benefit because of this vote."
I had a very productive day. Staffers working for 11 politicians from nine states were intently interested in my personal experience and the appeal for federal decriminalization. We were always greeted warmly. A surprising number of staffers showed they were knowledgeable about the issue.
Overall, I could feel the momentum of marijuana reform singing on the rails. It is still miles away from federal legislators, but it's moving fast.
Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.