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The small and scrappy campaign that could legalize marijuana in Washington, DC

A marijuana plant up close.
A marijuana plant up close.

From the outside, the marijuana legalization campaign in Washington, DC, certainly doesn't look like an effort destined for victory. Instead of full-time staff, Yes on 71 has basically one person doing a bulk of the work. Lacking a big tour bus, the campaign uses volunteers' cars, bicycles, and a tiny orange bike-car called an Elf. The operation won't even air television or radio ads in its last month, instead relying on posters and on-the-ground interactions to sell its message to DC residents.

Despite appearances, DC may be the most likely of all places this November to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Recent polls from the Washington Post indicate that nearly two-thirds of DC voters support legalization. In a typical election, that would be considered a landslide.

Much of that is thanks to changing demographics and a general fatigue with the nation's war of drugs — particularly in DC, where arrests for marijuana have always affected the city's majority of black residents far more than their white counterparts.

But the opportunity to vote on the issue at the polls is in large part due to one man's efforts. Adam Eidinger, the 41-year-old chair of the DC Cannabis Campaign, has been involved with the local legalization effort for 15 years. After so long, next month may be when Eidinger finally sees the victory he's worked so hard to achieve.

Eidinger's activism grew out of personal experiences

Eidinger didn't smoke marijuana in high school. "I was a good boy," he said. "I just drank alcohol." He described himself as "mostly anti-marijuana" at the time, based on years of messages that warned him about the potential risks of the drug.

Adam Eidinger

Adam Eidinger poses in front of Capitol Hemp in 2010. Eidinger owned the now-closed store, which sold high-quality hemp clothing and accessories. (Tim Sloan / AFP via Getty Images)

In college Eidinger tried marijuana for the first time. It's at this stage of his life where he said his worldview dramatically changed: "When I tried marijuana, I felt like, 'Why is this a big deal? Why is this illegal again? People are going to jail for this?' … I feel like they kind of lied to me about pot."

From that point, Eidinger began to question other aspects of the war on drugs. He wondered about a law enforcement regime that disproportionately targets black Americans, who are about as likely to use and sell drugs as others. He questioned why cops should spend so much of their time going after people using a relatively benign substance. He criticized how the war on drugs indirectly funds violent drug cartels by providing them with a black market that they can profit off.

In 1999 a report commissioned by the federal government found marijuana is not addictive, not a gateway drug, and "moderately well suited for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting." That same year, Eidinger began to get involved in marijuana activism, working with the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project for the first time.

Shortly after, Eidinger dedicated himself to the movement, with a focus on the legalization of hemp, a strong fiber produced through the cannabis plant, and medical marijuana. He staged protests at the Department of Justice, White House, and other federal buildings. He was arrested multiple times during these demonstrations — a fact he touts proudly.

A few years ago, Eidinger began to consider a legalization campaign for DC. He first pitched the concept to David Bronner, owner of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and a leading contributor to legalization campaigns around the country. But it wasn't until this past year, following legalization in Colorado and Washington state, that interest really picked up.

"It was ripe this year," Eidinger said. "Everything lined up."

The campaign relies on personal interactions

DC marijuana legalization petitioner

A petitioner holds up forms for the marijuana legalization campaign in Washington, DC. (DC Cannabis Campaign)

Yes on 71 first got started in 2013, when Eidinger parked outside a DC courthouse with a sign that read, "Treat marijuana like alcohol. Ask me how." When people approached, Eidinger would tell them that he was hoping to legalize the drug and needed help. His volunteer list grew from there.

The scrappy nature of the movement hasn't changed since. Eidinger is the only full-time worker. Everyone else — from the communications director to petitioners — lobbies for legalization part-time or on a volunteer basis.

Eidinger estimated that he spends about 80 percent of his time at work. He even resides on the third floor of the building that houses the campaign. The first floor is used as the general headquarters, and the second floor is used for meetings. "I'm throwing my whole self into it," he said.

Unapologetic in his support for marijuana legalization and his use of the drug, he and campaign volunteers hand out papers for rolling joints and smoking filters that prominently read "Yes on 71." As his team talked outside the office on a recent Sunday, Eidinger lit and passed around a joint. "It's not news that the people of the marijuana legalization campaign smoke marijuana," he said. "It would be news if we didn't."

Most of Eidinger's time goes to the fairly routine work of Yes on 71. He talks with his team, prepares posters and other materials, attends events like DC Pride, and travels around the city — on an environmentally friendly bike-car known as an Elf, which Eidinger called "the future of campaigns" — to hang signs and talk to potential supporters.

Traveling around in the Elf "is an icebreaker," Eidinger said. "When you hang up posters, people want to talk to you."

The Elf is definitely an attention-grabber, albeit with mixed success for the campaign's message. When people ask what it is, Eidinger explains that it's environmentally friendly transit, and then he segues into a discussion about marijuana legalization. Some people stick around and even offer to get in touch with Eidinger, while others only seem curious about the strange orange machine blasting reggae music.

Elf DC marijuana legalization campaign

The DC marijuana legalization campaign's Elf bike-car. (German Lopez / Vox)

The experience in large part showcases the campaign's lack of financial resources. Without any television and radio advertisements expected to air in the final months leading up to November's vote, the Elf and posters are the only way to really draw people's attention.

"The act of putting up the posters is a form of outreach, but it also helps measure the success of the message," Eidinger said. "For instance, we'll see how long the posters stay up in Ward 3. Last night I put up a whole bunch in the area. Will they be up in two days, or will someone rip them down when they figure out what the message is?"

Eidinger also gets a lot of help from volunteers, through a list that spans a few hundred people. He said that about five to 10 unsolicited volunteers also show up at the campaign's headquarters on a typical day.

Despite legalization's consistently strong showing in the polls, the campaign could certainly use the help. With so much riding on the ground game, rallying as many volunteers and supporters as possible on the streets of DC could decide whether the initiative succeeds.

"It looks like we have public opinion on our side," Eidinger said. "We just have to make sure people turn out."

There's still some confusion surrounding the initiative

marijuana money

The commercialization of marijuana is a key concern for opponents of legalization, but sales wouldn't be legalized by the District of Columbia's initiative. (Shutterstock)

Eidinger's most visible frustration with his movement is having to deal with the massive amounts of misinformation that remain about marijuana. Beyond the typical misconceptions about the drug's health risks, Eidinger said a lot of DC residents seem to believe that marijuana is already legal — perhaps due to the local decriminalization law that took effect in July, which eliminated criminal penalties for small amounts of pot possession but left a $25 fine in place.

Other times, Eidinger's frustrations are a result of inaccurate messages espoused by the opposition campaign and media. One such message propagated by the opposition, including the Washington Post's editorial board, is that legalization led to increased use among teens in Colorado. But there isn't much evidence for that.

The report cited by the Post suggests teen marijuana use rose after medical marijuana dispensaries were allowed to open after 2007. But teen marijuana use fell steadily between 1999 and 2013, even after possession was legalized in December 2012. (Retail sales didn't begin until 2014, for which survey data is not yet available.)

Colorado high school students marijuana use

The opposition has also said that the legalization initiative would lead to the sales and commercialization of marijuana. Eidinger characterized that as misleading: Although the measure legalizes possession of small amounts, limited home-growing of marijuana plants, and gifting for adults 21 and older, it doesn't allow for direct sales or recreational pot businesses.

Will Jones, founder of the opposition campaign, said that regardless of what the initiative does, it's very likely DC will set up a tax-and-regulate model should voters approve legalization. If that occurs, opponents are worried that the commercialization of marijuana will encourage for-profit companies to sell marijuana to heavy drug users and abusers, who are the marijuana industry's best customers in Colorado since they consume so much pot.

Muriel Bowser

Muriel Bowser, the frontrunner in the mayoral race in Washington, DC, supports marijuana legalization. (Kris Connor / Getty Images Entertainment)

Many of Jones's concerns are rooted in the development of the for-profit tobacco and alcohol industries. The campaign's name — "Two. Is. Enough. DC." — explicitly speaks to that point: With two legal drugs already giving Americans so much trouble in terms of crime and death, why should another drug be legalized?

As one example of the alcohol industry's abuse, Jones pointed out that liquor stores are much more common in minority, poor neighborhoods. Previous studies found the proximity of such stores increase nearby residents' risk of problematic drinking and alcohol use. Jones is worried a similar scenario could happen with marijuana dispensaries. "This is the real civil rights issue in DC," Jones said.

Eidinger acknowledged he would like the local government to set up a regulatory model for sales, but he insisted it's not the initiative's intent. "We want to enshrine the basic rights," he said. "If they go ahead and put a business model in place, the voters didn't approve that."

Two of DC's three mayoral candidates — Democrat Muriel Bowser, the frontrunner in the race, and Independent David Catania, who's second in the polls — publicly support legalization, and they both indicated in a mayoral debate on October 2 that they would help set up a system for retail sales should the initiative pass.

Eidinger and Jones have gone back and forth on which campaign is truly local and where each is getting their funding. But the efforts have, by and large, remained local and small. Eidinger's effort can't maintain a full-time staff, and Jones wouldn't disclose how much his campaign has raised "because it's not as much as I wish."

Eidinger is ready for local and federal opposition

John Mica

Representative John Mica (R-FL) holds up a fake joint during a hearing about the District of Columbia's marijuana decriminalization law. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News)

Getting the initiative on the ballot was difficult. The local board of elections rejected the first draft, and approved the second draft with two of three votes. DC's attorney general tried to challenge the legality of the measure. Congress, which holds a lot of power over a federal jurisdiction like DC, could try to repeal legalization should voters approve it, just like the Republican-controlled House attempted to do with the decriminalization law passed by DC Council.

Should the measure pass, Eidinger said he's ready to ensure the initiative is respected by local and federal lawmakers. Even if — as Eidinger prefers — DC's government decides to set up a regulatory model for sales, he wants to ensure that local officials observe all aspects of the initiative, particularly home-growing.

"I expect them first and foremost to respect the initiative," Eidinger said. "If it violates the spirit of the initiative in any way, that's what I'm going to be focused on."

Aware of potential opposition from Congress, Eidinger said he might lead a march to the Capitol to get federal lawmakers to respect voters' decision. With 15 years already invested in the effort, Eidinger isn't ready to give up any gains without the fights and protests that have become such a big part of his life.

"If the voters approve it, I think they're more likely to defend the vote on principle alone," Eidinger said. "But we'll see."

To learn more about marijuana legalization, check out Vox's full explainer and a previous interview with Mark Kleiman, one of the nation's leading drug policy experts:

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