According to The Associated Press, a debate over legalizing marijuana in the nation's capital is focusing on the outsized number of arrests of African-Americans on minor drug charges. DC is not a US state.
Marijuana would still be illegal on federal land, so there would be no lighting up at the Jefferson Memorial or on the National Mall. Washington, DC remains under the thumb of Congress, which could thwart the will of the voters as it has on other matters where liberal District tendencies clash with conservative priorities on Capitol Hill.
The racial justice aspect of the campaign is one of many factors making the District of Columbia's pot legalization push different from what's happened in Colorado, Washington state and other places around the country.
Nonetheless, the District is on track to join Colorado and Washington state in legalizing marijuana. A poll last month showed nearly 2 of every 3 voters favor the initiative, which will be on November's ballot. Voters in Alaska and Oregon also decide this fall whether to legalize pot.
Elsewhere, advocates have argued that pot is no more dangerous than alcohol and should be taxed and regulated by the government. The District, however, is much more heavily populated by black residents, and black people are far more likely to face repercussions for pot possession than white people.
Some drug-policy experts say the race factor means this referendum can't help but change how the nation talks about marijuana.
COMMENT: The DC Council attempted earlier this year to address racial disparities by decriminalizing marijuana, as 17 states have done. Possession of up to one ounce of pot in the District is now subject to a $25 fine, among the lowest in the nation. The law took effect in July, despite an attempt by Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, to block the measure.
Legalization advocates say decriminalization hasn't done enough, citing police statistics that show most of the $25 tickets are being handed out in predominantly black neighborhoods.
The initiative also is notable for what it lacks. Because ballot initiatives in the District can't affect the budget, it does not provide for the legal sale of marijuana or set up a system to tax and regulate it. That would be up to the mayor and the council. Voters will also be choosing a new mayor in November to replace Vincent Gray, and both of the leading candidates have said they support legalization.
In Colorado and Washington state, the federal government told the states they must keep legal pot off federal property such as parks and other huge swaths of US land.
That could be more complicated in the District, where the situation can change from block to block. The parkland the federal government owns in the District, for instance, includes 59 inner-city squares and triangles.
Inasmuch as Congress has the authority over lawmaking in the District, the initiative wouldn't take effect until a congressional review period that could last several months. The tried-and-true tactic for members of Congress who want to undo local laws in the District is to attach an amendment to a crucial piece of legislation, such as a spending bill that funds the federal government. That's how Congress banned medical marijuana in the city for more than a decade after voters approved it. Medical marijuana is now available.
Harris said in a statement that he would "consider using all resources available to a member of Congress" to stop legalization. If he attaches an amendment to a major bill, its fate could depend on negotiations between the House, Senate and White House. The District hasn't always been the winner in such deals, even during President Barack Obama's tenure.
Some voters remain skeptical of legalization out of concern that marijuana is harmful to young people. Leaders of an anti-legalization group known as Two Is Enough DC argue that District residents already suffer enough from drinking and smoking, and don't need another legal drug.
"Where are the liquor stores in DC? They're in the poorer communities; they're in the communities of color. There's more cigarette, tobacco advertising in our community," said Will Jones III, the group's lead organizer. "Marijuana has been used to unfairly target our community. Nevertheless, to say that if we have it legal, that's going to deal with the problem, I don't understand that logic."