Watch Party Dispatch: Marijuana Legalization Activists Celebrate in D.C.

(Amanda Teuscher)

Reggae musician Mateo Monk performs his song “Blessed Ganja Herb,” at an election-results watch party in Washington, D.C., on November 4, 2014. District voters passed Initiative 71, which legalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

The party has just started, but the bar is already packed. “Sixty-one percent!” yells the DJ between songs, to a loud eruption of cheers and applause. Not all DJs will interrupt a party to update everyone on precinct returns. But then, this is Washington, D.C., where post-Election night hangovers are as infamous as New Year’s. And this is the watch party/victory celebration of Initiative 71—the ballot measure that would legalize marijuana possession in the District—and supporters are ready to party.

Polls in the days leading up to the election showed the initiative passing by a two-to-one margin, so for those gathering in the vast lower-level bar of Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights, there is little reason to worry. In fact, hardly anyone is watching the dozen or so televisions along the walls showing CNN and local news election coverage. For many, this is the first midterm election they’ve voted in. And Initiative 71, which will later pass with nearly 70 percent of the vote, is the reason.

The DJ stops the music—a healthy mix of Bob Marley, the Police, and Michael Jackson—so Rachel Morrison, executive director of the nonprofit EFFORTS, can say a few words. Her organization, along with DC Central Kitchen, will be receiving proceeds from the evening’s sale of beer from local brewery DC Brau. She tries to tell the crowd about her nonprofit’s work in helping ex-offenders and recovering substance abusers re-integrate into society and find housing. But the din of laughter and raised voices is too loud. People are having too much fun.

It’s hard to accurately define the crowd (besides maybe “overjoyed”). By appearances alone, it’s certainly diverse, if not unexpected. Middle-aged bike shop regulars, tattooed hipsters, 20-something men in suits, and dread-locked hippies with serene smiles bump elbows with scores of people wearing “Legalize It” T-shirts.

“I’m getting claustrophobic,” says a young man in a suit holding a pint of beer, although he doesn’t seem too upset. No one seems too upset, really. The server navigating trays of mac ’n’ cheese and hamburgers through the shoulder-to-shoulder throng of people might be having a hard night, but the mood is one of celebration.

“We are really blown away by the turnout,” says Caroline Phillips, event producer for the Metropolitan Wellness Center, the medical marijuana dispensary that put on the event with the DC Cannabis Campaign. “It’s really great to see how excited people are about this issue.”

Brandon Skall, co-owner of DC Brau, is at the party. “You look around the room and see all the support that’s here, and you realize it’s a social issue,” he says. “It’s time to stop institutionalizing kids for something all kids try.”

Initiative 71 legalizes possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for recreational use, and allows residents to grow up to six plants at home. Residents can share marijuana, but they can’t sell or buy it. (Medical marijuana became legal in D.C. in 2013, after more than a decade of congressional interference.) It’s possible that City Council, largely in favor of legalization, could delay the initiative while they work out a bill that would tax and regulate marijuana, which one city official recently estimated to be a $130 million industry.

Then, of course, there’s Congress. Just this summer, after D.C. passed a law decriminalizing possession (which disproportionately affects non-white populations, who are more likely to be incarcerated for drug offences), Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland introduced an amendment to a spending bill that would have prevented the District from implementing the new law. For many, marijuana legalization is a statehood and autonomy issue; there is at least one “Taxation Without Representation” shirt at this party.

There’s not much discussion at the bar of the fact that the Republicans have seized the Senate, which takes some concentration and a good place next to a television to learn. For the most part, how Initiative 71 will fare in Congress is the only talk of Congress at the party—D.C. doesn’t have a voting member, after all.

“The city council, I’m not worried about,” says activist Alan Amsterdam. “The federal government, on the other hand, is a little different.” Amsterdam (who, fittingly, lived in Amsterdam for 12 years) was a co-owner of Capitol Hemp, which was raided by police in 2012. Wearing a pro-legalization shirt, with his gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, he says he has been working on the issue since the day he used his bar mitzvah money to buy his first plant.

But Adam Eidinger, the chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, says it’s pessimistic to ask whether Congress will interfere on this one. He cites Obama as being the ultimate prevention to any congressional meddling, and vows he will relocate to Harris’s district and make things difficult for the congressman should Harris resume his blockade. “If he wants to challenge my determination on this, bring it,” he says as the DJ plays Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose.”

The growing support for marijuana and drug policy reform should help Eidinger, as will the new crop of activists for whom Initiative 71 was their debut into the world of advocacy. One campaign worker, Tiphanie Williams, 22, stands by the bar with a large sign. She has spent the early part of the evening at a polling place in the affluent neighborhood of Chevy Chase, where she says she received overwhelmingly positive feedback from voters. Williams works full-time and attends school full-time, and says she hopes to continue devoting her free time to issues like minimum wage.

Marijuana policy reform has multiple points of entry for people seeking reasons to get involved, whether it’s racial justice, statehood, or personal liberty, says Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, nods in agreement and adds that the issue seems to have an easy time earning volunteers. “People tend to get excited about marijuana legalization initiatives,” he says.

Meanwhile, a small crowd is huddled at the front of the room, dancing, swaying, and head-bobbing in perfect imitation of fans at a Phish concert, as reggae musician Mateo Monk performs his song “Blessed Ganja Herb.” He wears his long hair in a top-knot, and fits in perfectly, even if the party doesn’t obey all the stereotypes.

Around 10 p.m., Eidinger takes the microphone. “I want to dedicate this to the people who are still sitting in jail,” he says, and calls for a presidential pardon for those incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses. “Bring them home! Bring them home!” he chants. His audience takes a few repetitions to catch on to the chant, but they’re enthusiastic. “It’s official,” he says. “I’m calling the election—we won!”

Beers are raised in toasts; people hug. “This makes my soul feel happy,” says a woman to her friends. “It’s so beautiful.”


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