Next Week Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. Vote on Recreational Pot—And It's About More Than Just Getting High

If those three measures pass, more states will be added to the list of places where healing from the drug war can begin, places where people will no longer face jail time because of a little nugget in their pockets.

Photo by Evan / Flickr.

Crossing Fourth Avenue South on a trendy block in Seattle’s industrial SoDo district this summer, I couldn’t miss Cannabis City, Seattle’s first and, at the time, only recreational marijuana shop. On the days when the store was stocked with leafy product, no one could miss it. The line of eager customers outside the building stretched all the way into the parking lot of the neighboring sandwich shop.

For people in New York, where I grew up, purchasing legal marijuana remains a dream.

As a reporter, I skipped the line and strolled right in—after showing my ID. “Geez, you’re a baby,” the doorman said, reminding me of my recent induction to the world of legal booze and now—in Colorado and Washington at least—legal buds.

Inside, glass water pipes and bongs decorated the walls and sat high on shelves. The real treat, however, was below them inside glass cases: opaque black bags full of green buds.

Brianna Jones, 22, traveled from California just to purchase some, her first experience legally buying weed. She bought a gram of Sweet Lafayette and a green Pulsar 7, a dry-herb vaporizer.

“It feels kind of historic in a strange way,” Jones said, comparing the moment to the years after the prohibition of alcohol was lifted in 1933. She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Canadians crossed the border to experience the moment, and Jones saw an old-timer join the crowd with the help of his cane.

“For him to just leave his home, stand in line, and wait—that’s huge,” she said.

For people in New York, where I grew up, purchasing legal marijuana remains a dream. But it could become a reality for residents of Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. Next week, voters there will decide whether to legalize recreational pot. That’s exciting because, as a Latina, I know how marijuana prohibition disproportionately affects people of color, especially at home where black New Yorkers are about four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white New Yorkers.

If these three measures pass, more states will be added to the list of places where healing from the drug war can begin, places where people will no longer face jail time because of a little nugget in their pocket.

What marijuana injustice looks like

Shapriece Townsend left his grandmother’s house in Brooklyn, New York, one October night in 2012, headed to the shelter where he was staying. He was rushing to make curfew when an unmarked vehicle sped up and cut him off on the sidewalk, pushing him up against a fence. Two officers, one a sergeant, jumped out.

“You fit the description,” the officers said.

“What description?” Townsend responded.

The police said a robbery had just occurred in the neighborhood and that Townsend looked like the suspect: a black male wearing a hoodie. He denied stealing anything, but the officers didn’t stop there.

“Do you have anything you’re not supposed to have?”

After searching Townsend, the officers discovered $5 worth of pot in his pockets, about a quarter of a gram. Townsend was arrested and sent to Brooklyn Central Booking Jail to spend the next three days, including his 19th birthday, behind bars.

“There was no room to sleep, a bunch of roaches crawling around,” Townsend says. “It was just disgusting.”

Under New York state law, possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana should get you a fine—not an arrest. But possession becomes a class B misdemeanor and can result in an arrest if the herb is "open to public view" or burning.

When police stop and frisk people or tell them to empty their pockets, marijuana goes from being in their personal possession to being in open to public view, says Alyssa Aguilera, political director of Voices of Community Advocates & Leaders, a grassroots organization in New York state dedicated to serving low-income people impacted by the drug war, HIV/AIDS, and mass incarceration.

Townsend’s three nights in jail caused him to lose his job, the result of a stop and frisk. Last year, 191,558 stops were made, and 85 percent of those targeted were black or Latino, according to data the New York Civil Liberties Union compiled from the New York Police Department database.

Police officers were given the right to stop and frisk in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, but it’s supposed to apply only if the suspect is believed to be armed, not if the individual is merely suspected of carrying marijuana. Only 2 percent of frisks in 2012 revealed a weapon, according to the NYCLU.

As for marijuana arrests? Marijuana possession offenses are the top arrest category for the entire stop and frisk program, totaling 5,307 arrests in 2012—including Townsend’s.

Washington, D.C. had 846 marijuana arrests per 100,000 residents—3.3 times greater than the national rate.

The whole state’s per capita marijuana arrest rate is high: 535 per 100,000 residents. The District of Columbia alone is worse than New York state: It experienced 846 marijuana possession arrests per 100,000 residents—3.3 times greater than the national rate. New York will hit No. 1 if the ballot measure passes in D.C.

Alaska’s not doing too hot, either. Seventy-five percent of its juvenile drug arrests were for marijuana between 2000 and 2011.

This could change very soon though. The majority of Alaskans support legalizing. A recent survey showed 55 percent believe marijuana should be legalized with regulation similar to alcohol, as the bill’s name, Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, suggests. As for our nation’s great capital? It legalized medical marijuana in 2011 and decriminalized the herb earlier this year. So, hey, you never know.

Grassroots brings the grass

Alison Holcomb, criminal justice director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, authored I-502, the Washington marijuana law. The organization began addressing marijuana law reform because of marijuana’s pervasive role in the War on Drugs. Holcomb says the ACLU-WA sees the War on Drugs “not only as an utter failure to address substance abuse but, more importantly, a policy that is proactively damaging individuals, their families, and entire communities through misguided strategies.

“Four decades into the war, we have not seen significant impact on either use or abuse rates,” Holcomb says. “Instead what we’ve seen is an escalation of incarceration in the United States to the point that the land of the free and the brave is now the No. 1 jailer in the world.”

But thanks to marijuana reform laws, Washington and Colorado pot smokers don’t have to worry anymore about sitting behind bars.

“It’s no coincidence that Washington and Colorado were the first,” says John Davis, vice chair of the National Cannabis Industry Association, who has been working on drug policy reform for more than 20 years. According to Davis, two grassroots organizations took the lead in those states to make recreational marijuana legal: Sensible Colorado, which pushed Amendment 64, and Seattle Hempfest, where Davis sits as chair of the board of directors.

Sensible Colorado started in 2005, and as its Executive Director and Amendment 64 Co-Director Brian Vicente says, “It’s the rare nonprofit organization that has accomplished its mission.” After years of protesting, petitioning, organizing, and advocating, Sensible Colorado helped make marijuana legal in Colorado.

Seattle Hempfest, which has been educating the public and advancing marijuana policy reform for 23 years, started as a “humble little gathering of stoners,” according to its website, but it’s grown into a festival full of performances, speeches, and smoke—all to advance cannabis policy reform.

Its speakers have ranged from politicians like former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn to businesspeople like David Bronner, owner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, who also contributed $100,000 to the D.C. campaign. The 2013 Hempfest featured an I-502 booth where many signatures were gathered, says Vivian McPeak, Hempfest’s executive director.

Initiative 502 wouldn’t have been possible without Hempfest, Holcomb claims. “What it represented was a significant city tolerating people coming together and talking about marijuana, advocating for change in the laws, and very blatantly partaking in marijuana use in a public park,” she says. Seattle Hempfest was the “starting point in being able to open up this conversation” in Washington state.

Now, the conversation continues. Adam Eidinger, chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, started to organize back in 2010. He and local community members started the D.C. Patient Cooperative, dedicated to advancing medical marijuana policy. But after his head shop, Capitol Hemp, was raided in 2011 by police for suspicion of selling weed, he and other residents decided to focus on recreational marijuana instead. Thus, the D.C. Cannabis Campaign was born.

The campaign landed Eidinger a night in jail, a house full of campaign volunteers, and, eventually, Initiative Measure 71 on the ballot. “Just thinking about it is almost post-traumatic,” he says. “It was so hard.”

But all that organizing, which started with a small group of volunteers standing outside the courthouse with signs that read, “Treat marijuana like alcohol. Ask me how,” made it possible.

Eidinger expects the ballot to pass. Capitol Hemp is now closed, but at least other head shop owners may operate their businesses worry-free.

As for New Yorkers like Townsend? Their futures are looking brighter and greener: A medical marijuana bill passed earlier this year, and the state Senate introduced the Fairness and Equity Act on July 9, which would decriminalize all possession of marijuana—whether it’s hidden, in plain sight, or burning—and vacate any convictions that happened before the law was implemented.

“What [they] have done is taken the brave step of being leaders and realizing that no one’s ever done this before."

Since his arrest, Townsend has taken a stand and worked with VOCAL to bring change to New York. He rallied this past summer outside NYPD headquarters in Manhattan calling for an end to racially biased marijuana arrests with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries by his side. He’s spoken to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and has been up to Albany, New York, to meet with legislators. If the Fairness and Equity Act passes, removing the marijuana arrest from his record, he’ll be able to return to school and become a computer technician. Or maybe he’ll publish his poems on love and life.

It’s up to the voters

After four years of D.C.’s residents fighting for legalization, pot may just become legal. But it’s not just up to them. It’s up to individuals elsewhere who care, like the out-of-state people who helped on Eidinger’s D.C. campaign. According to Aguilera, political director of VOCAL, this issue becomes personal when loved ones are “continually criminalized for a behavior that not only poses no public safety threat but happens in every corner of New York.” And “only certain types of people are having those laws enforced upon them.”

What the United States is witnessing today comes from the efforts of activists like Davis who have made marijuana reform a life goal. It’s thanks to individuals like Townsend who aren’t afraid to tell their stories. It’s thanks to the voters of Washington and Colorado who welcome change.

“I think that what [they] have done is taken the brave step of being leaders and realizing that no one’s ever done this before,” Holcomb says.

I’m back in New York now, unable to go to a store and pick my choice of pot. I’m not even safe smoking weed in the privacy of my own home because I could be arrested. But one thought comforts me: That shouldn’t be for long.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story reported that Prohibition ended in 1920, and that D.C.'s marijuana arrest rate is 846 marijuana possession arrests per 1,000 residents. Both errors have been corrected.

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