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Nation's Capital Takes Next Big Step Toward Legalizing Marijuana

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Marijuana legalization advocates delivered a petition for a ballot initiative to the D.C. Board of Elections on Monday. | Dmitriy Norov via Getty Images

Thousands of residents of Washington, D.C., have signed a petition calling for the nation's capital to join Colorado and Washington state in legalizing recreational marijuana.

The petition, submitted Monday by the D.C. Cannabis Campaign to the D.C. Board of Elections, bears 58,000 signatures, more than twice the number needed to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot in November. The board is expected to rule on the validity of the signatures by the middle of August.

The proposed law would allow adults to possess up to two ounces of pot on their person and would permit the cultivation of up to six marijuana plants at home. It would not legalize the sale of marijuana, because a current law bars D.C. voters from doing so via ballot initiative. The D.C. Council, however, is considering a bill that would essentially undermine that law by allowing the District to tax and regulate commerce in marijuana.

"Even once we've legalized marijuana and stopped putting people in jail for it, it is important for us to regulate it in a way that is done responsibly for the District," said the bill's sponsor, Councilmember David Grosso (I), on a Monday press call organized by the Drug Policy Alliance, a key group behind the legalization effort.

Supporters of both the bill and the ballot initiative argued on the call that marijuana prohibition disproportionately harms African Americans, echoing a concern that has long been raised by opponents of the war on drugs. According to a Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs report, nine out of 10 people arrested for drugs in the District from 2009 through 2011 were black, although blacks make up only slightly more than half of the city's population. Government surveys show that blacks are no more likely than whites to use marijuana.

The ballot initiative is just the latest of several recent efforts to lower the barriers to marijuana use in Washington, D.C. The District's first medical marijuana dispensary opened late last year. In March, the city council reduced the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of pot from arrest and jail time to the equivalent of a parking ticket. According to a Washington Post survey, support for marijuana legalization in the District has climbed from about 50 percent to more than 60 percent in the last four years.

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) hopes to stop that trend. Last month, he introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit the District from lowering the penalties for marijuana possession. His amendment could also bar the use of election board funds to print any ballots with the pot legalization initiative.

"Passing marijuana decriminalization bills for teenagers is not the way to lower D.C.'s shamefully high rate of drug abuse among teenagers -- and certainly not the way to create a job-skill environment to deal with skyrocketing teen unemployment in the District, especially among minority youth," Harris said in a statement at the time.

In response, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and the voting rights nonprofit D.C. Vote called for a boycott of shorefront vacation spots in Harris' district, accusing the congressman of acting in "wanton disregard" of the views of D.C. residents.

On Monday's call, Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, suggested Harris' efforts were a mere blip in the campaign to legalize marijuana around the country.

"Alaska and Oregon are also voting on legalization in November, and in 2016 we're expecting a number of other states, including California, to vote," Piper said. "There's no question that prohibition is coming to an end, and marijuana is going to be taxed and regulated. The question is when."

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