It's a sunny Monday after the election, and the Rev. Teresa Smallwood of the Israel Baptist Church in Northeast D.C. is explaining why she decided to campaign vocally for an ultimately successful measure to legalize marijuana.
A warm, bespectacled African-American woman in her mid-50s, Smallwood doesn't look like your typical poster child of the marijuana-reform movement, and until just a few weeks ago, she wasn't. "As an individual I do not support the use of marijuana," she tells me in a meeting room just off the church's main sanctuary. "And if the racist connection hadn't been made, I can't say I would have joined the effort to legalize as quickly."
Smallwood got on board after local advocates called her up to lay out the problems with the law from a civil rights perspective. While whites and African-Americans use marijuana in roughly equal measure, 91 percent of all marijuana arrests in the District were of African-Americans, according a report by the American Civil Liberties Union's D.C. chapter, which analyzed arrests by police district. And while the number of whites arrested for marijuana stayed roughly constant between 2001 and 2010, the number of African-Americans arrested rose from 3,228 to 4,908 despite an influx of white, Asian, and Hispanic residents during that period.
Numbers like that were enough to get Smallwood to join nearly a dozen other interfaith leaders from around the District in an October press conference calling for an end to the prohibition of marijuana in Washington. "I'm an associate minister with a brain and the ability to articulate my beliefs," she said, adding that the current system of controlling marijuana is destructive for families in the African-American community.
Amid increasing awareness of racial inequalities in drug-policy enforcement, that message appears to have struck a nerve.
On Nov. 4, D.C. residents voted resoundingly for Initiative 71, a measure which would allow residents to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and grow up to three plants in the privacy of their homes. While it's less encompassing than some of the movement's other recent wins, which legalized the sale as well as the possession of marijuana, the campaign in D.C. marked the first time reformers framed the debate so starkly in terms of race.
"This is the first place in the country where the discourse has been focused around the question of racial justice—and the way in which the war on drugs and the war on marijuana in particular has been used to disenfranchise African-Americans," said Seema Sadanandan, policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of D.C.
Working in conjunction with the ACLU, the D.C. chapter of Drug Policy Alliance used slogans like "Legalization Ends Discrimination" and "Refocus Police Resources" to underscore problems with existing enforcement practices.
Other states, meanwhile, have framed legalization as a matter of health concerns or economic imperatives.
In Alaska, for instance, the Marijuana Policy Project poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into an ultimately successful campaign to regulate marijuana like alcohol. Pot advocates there and in Colorado felt that dispelling fears about the harms of marijuana by contrasting it to alcohol was the best approach, while Oregon and Washington state argued that legalization is safer than prohibition. (MPP is already at work on efforts to push similar ballot measures in another five states in 2016.)
But D.C.'s effort was more popular than any statewide initiative in the country, passing with nearly 70 percent of the vote—all but one of D.C.'s 143 precincts voted for it. Measures in Oregon and Alaska passed with 56 percent and 52 percent of the vote, respectively, while initiatives in Colorado and Washington state passed in 2012 with 55 percent and 56 percent.
There are caveats to drawing too many lessons from those numbers. D.C. is, after all, not a state and functions in many ways much more like an urban metro area. It's also overwhelmingly progressive. Yet there's ample evidence that the success of the initiative in the District was due in no small part to the fact that the message simply resonated. Deeply.
A Washington Post poll shows that while District residents were split evenly on legalization four years ago, by January of 2014 they supported legal sales of marijuana for personal use by almost 2-to-1. The shift in opinion within the African-American community was particularly pronounced. While just 37 percent of African-Americans in the District supported legalizing possession of small amounts of the drug in 2010, by 2014 that number had jumped to 58 percent. This as criminal-justice reform has emerged nationally as a possible area for bipartisan consensus.
Whether the emphasis would work as well in whiter cities is unclear. A recent study published in Psychological Science, for instance, suggests telling white people the criminal-justice system is racist actually makes them more likely to support it. And Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell thinks D.C.'s tailored campaigning might not be the best choice everywhere. "Racial-justice messaging about marijuana reform clearly resonates with some constituencies—like progressives and people of color—better than others," he said. "It's a good thing that there are so many real and legitimate reasons to change marijuana laws that advocates can choose from."
Still, D.C. advocates certainly see possibility in making racial injustice the dominant paradigm for reform.
"It will be fundamentally different from the way it's been done all across the country," Malik Burnett, a former surgeon and policy manager at DPA, said of the way the District's new legalization initiative will be rolled out. "Hopefully it will be a model for how marijuana legalization proceeds going forward."
D.C.'s newest ballot measure builds on a series of other moves to remove restrictions on marijuana in the District. Medical marijuana was first legalized in D.C. in 2010, though the first medical-marijuana dispensary didn't open until last year. And earlier this year, the D.C. Council decriminalized the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, reducing the penalty to a $25 fine.
The latest D.C. campaign was inspired in part by an insight made by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, who said in a recent conversation with DPA's Asha Bandele that certain things about how legalization was happening elsewhere in the country didn't sit right with her. "Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?"
That observation, and others like it, spurred D.C. reformers like Councilmember David Grosso, who helped bolster Initiative 71 earlier this year, to emphasize that if and when a system for taxing and regulating marijuana is set up in the District, the proceeds should go to help communities hardest hit by the war on drugs.
While D.C. has yet to establish a system for taxing and regulating the sale of pot, and Congress could intervene to make implementation impossible (yet another racially-loaded justice issue), Grosso is already ticking off what he would like to see done with any possible future profits. Incentivizing small black-owned marijuana businesses, investing in job training east of the Anacostia River, and subsidizing more affordable housing all make his short list of ways to give back to affected communities. "That we do some form of reparations for the communities that were heavily impacted in the District—that's something I definitely want to do," Grosso concluded.
Back in the meeting room of the Israel Baptist Church, Smallwood tells me nascent efforts like these, ones which would promote reparations for damaged communities, are precisely the reason she wanted to get involved. "The church has a responsibility to the poor," she said, smoothing her red sweater, the small silver ankh around her neck glinting. "Is it a matter of justice to legalize marijuana? Well, it is if you see that enforcement has a racial animus."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.