Marijuana Activists Hoping DC Won't Leave Legalization Effort High And Dry – DCist.com

“I have to say, I’m a little nervous,” Adam Eidinger admits. “Based on the stack I saw downstairs, that’s under 2,000 signatures.” It’s Memorial Day and Eidinger, the chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, is fretting over the amount of signatures his petitioners have turned in for the week. His goal is to have at least 10,000 signatures by day’s end in order to be on pace with the July 7th deadline to collect at least 22,373.

For the past several years, Eidinger and what’s now known as the Cannabis Campaign have been working diligently to get marijuana legalized in the District of Columbia. In January, they introduced a ballot initiative to legalize the possession and home cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. After some delay from the Board of Elections, the ballot initiative was approved and the group started collecting signatures on April 23, several months after they hoped to begin.

So far, the collection effort has been difficult. At their headquarters—a residential townhouse nestled inconspicuously on Embassy Row between the South Korean embassy and the Mexican delegation to the Organization of American States—a chart tracking their progress is regularly updated. They had collected 18,934 signatures as of Monday, which might seem like they’ve nearly hit their goal. But of those nearly 19,000 signatures, 16,734 have been processed and only 5,360 are valid.

“It’s already been decided that if we bring in less than 15,000 signatures this week we’re going to hire more signature collectors,” Eidinger says. “Everyone wants to get ahead of the pace.” The Cannabis Campaign already has dozens of part-time and full-time signature gatherers—many of whom have traveled from out-of-town for the effort. But the biggest hurdle the Campaign has faced—one that Eidinger didn’t fully anticipate—is just how hard it is to gather valid signatures.

In order for a signature to be valid, the signer must be a D.C. resident and a registered voter, which makes collecting a lot more difficult, since many people who want to sign are either Maryland or Virginia residents, or not registered to vote in D.C. The Cannabis Campaign hands out voter registration cards, and Eidinger says they go through them like wildfire. “We’ve registered about 1,000 people [to vote],” he says.

But there are other issues that have hindered the process. Some clerical, like if the address doesn’t line up with what’s in the Board of Election’s database, or if a signature gatherer writes down the wrong Ward number. “We’re data-entering everything, so we can re-check the validity at the end,” Eidinger says. “We’re getting a new list of registered voters [from the Board of Elections] every two weeks.” And then, of course, there’s just the inevitable passage of time: As time goes on, and more people sign the petition, it gets hard to find people who haven’t.

***

The Cannabis Campaign operates on a Monday to Monday schedule, which means their petitioners must turn in their signatures for the week by close of business each Monday. On Memorial Day, no one in the Campaign headquarters is taking a vacation. There’s about a dozen people in the house going through each signature, entering them into a database and checking their validity. As they’re doing that, collectors are stopping by, handing in a week’s worth of signatures and filing their paperwork to get paid.

Each signature gatherer is getting paid for their work. Originally, Eidinger said he would pay people $1 per valid signature, but he’s since upped the rates. For a part-timer—meaning someone who’s pulling in less than 500 signatures a week—the Campaign pays $1.25 per valid signature for anyone that has a 30 percent or higher validity rate, $1.50 for anyone with a 40 percent or higher validity rate, and $1.75 for anyone with a 50 percent or higher validity rate.

For full-timers—anyone who brings in more than 500 signatures a week— the Campaign pays $2.25 per valid signature, $2.50 if their validity rate is over 45 percent, and $2.75 if it’s over 50 percent. The Campaign will give someone a $100 bonus if they pull in 1,000 signatures in a week with a 40 percent or higher validity rate. One person who Eidinger recruited to help gather signatures collected 600 signatures in less than a week, with about a 40 percent validity rate. “He’s the LeBron James of collecting signatures,” Eidinger jokes.

So where is all this money coming from? Part of it is funding from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, who Eidinger has worked with for many years, as well as from the Drug Policy Alliance. About $20,000 has been raised locally from small donors. “I think total what we’ve raised so far is about $150,000,” says Eidinger, “but we haven’t filed the report yet so i’m not even sure if that number is correct.”

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Matt Cohen.

Recently, the Drug Policy Alliance hired Dr. Malik Burnett, a physician and advocate from Montego Bay, Jamaica by way of Atlanta, Ga., to help work on the legalization effort in D.C. Since starting his new job, he’s been working closely with Eidinger on ensuring the ballot initiative actually makes it to voters in November. “I think things are going pretty well overall,” Burnett says. “Hopefully we’ll be well on our way by the time July 7th rolls around.”

Apart from helping fund the signature gathering efforts, Burnett and the DPA are working on long-term strategies: Bringing in the necessary resources to gear up for the general election in November; working with the D.C. Council, specifically Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) on his own marijuana legalization bill, which differs from the Cannabis Campaign’s ballot initiative as it also introduces taxation and regulation laws; and working on other drug policies in the city. “Who are our [political] allies? That’s where Malik comes in. He plays an important role in figuring that out,” Eidinger says.

Apart from Grosso, the Cannabis Campaign hasn’t received much support from the D.C. Council, other than verbal confirmation from some Councilmembers that they would follow the will of the voters. Eidinger says Democratic mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser and her campaign “have been helpful in advice,” but that’s about it. They haven’t heard anything from challenger David Catania’s campaign, but Eidinger says he’d “rather him say nothing than have him attacking it.”

On Sunday, Eidinger and the Campaign will be joined by Grosso for what they’re calling a “Super Sunday Signature Gathering Blitz” in Capitol Hill for some door-to-door canvasing. They’re planning to hold a small rally in Stanton Park before splitting up in teams to hit the neighborhood with the goal of obtaining 1,000 signatures in a few hours.

***

At any given time, there’s about seven or eight people from out-of-state living in the Campaign’s headquarters with Eidinger, along with even more staying with other Cannabis Campaign board members. After a dismal first week, Eidinger started reaching out to well-known signature collectors in other states that do this for a living—hopping around the country, hooking up with different campaigns to help canvass for signatures. “When the City Paper published that we were hiring people off the streets—which wasn’t exactly true—that whole article made everything here sound ridiculous,” Eidinger says. “It made it sound like the worst place. There’s no smoking in the office. There’s no joint rolling going on.”

Indeed, the vibe at the Cannabis Campaign headquarters more resembles a Presidential campaign than anything else (save for Eidinger stepping outside for the occasional joint break. “But that’s just who I am,” he laughs). And the people he’s recruited are all business. “These guys get out before I get up most of the time,” Eidinger admits. “They’re out of the door by 7 a.m. and out collecting signatures until 10 p.m. or sometimes even midnight.”

A lot of them, whom Eidinger calls the “unsung heroes of American politics,” make their living collecting signatures for campaigns they’re politically indifferent about, because they’re good at what they do and they know there’s money in it. But most who traveled to D.C. for this campaign are doing so because it’s a cause they believe in.

One of those gatherers, 30-year-old Levi Johnson, is doing it for more than money: Next month, he’s going to prison in Iowa on a six-year sentence for possession and distribution of marijuana. Johnson, who is originally from South Dakota but has been living in Denver the past few years, is a medical marijuana card-holder in Colorado, but was caught with nine ounces of marijuana in Iowa, where marijuana—medical or not—isn’t legal.

Johnson says he’s been working and volunteering for marijuana legalization efforts for about five years, in both Colorado and California. He decided to spend his last days before his sentencing (he’s already accepted a plea deal with prosecutors) helping the effort in D.C.

“I’ve been working my ass off,” he says. “I’ve turned in something like 1,300 signatures in the two weeks I’ve been here.” Compared to his work in other states, he says that it’s been a lot more difficult in D.C. “A lot of people are from Virginia and Maryland. It’s been the biggest problem in collecting signatures here.” This is Johnson’s first time in D.C. and he’s mostly been canvassing in Anacostia and Columbia Heights. Most of the people he’s encountered have been really excited about the legalization movement and “are really pumped that it’s been decriminalized.”

***

The end of the day is winding down, and Eidinger is starting to feel a little less nervous. The 2,000 signatures have quickly grown to about 9,000 and more keep coming in. Eidinger just got off the phone with one of his clutch gatherers who said he’s bringing in around 2,000 or so signatures Tuesday.

A few hours ago, Eidinger made some calls to out-of-state gatherers to come help out, some he turned down last week because he didn’t think they’d need them. “I’m trying to get at least six more people,” he said. “At first, I was thinking three, but I think we’re going to need six by the end of the week.”

Now, he’s starting to rethink those calls he just made. With 12,000 signatures gathered in the last week, they’re back on pace for the July 7th deadline, even if only 35 to 40 percent of those signatures are valid.

Since their campaign started, Eidinger has been fielding hundreds of phone calls from people who want to come down and help out in any way they can. “I think if we pass this, this is going to help the whole climate make it so Congress is comfortable,” Eidinger says. “It’s not going to have the opposite effect and piss them off. It’s going to convince them that the time has come.”

As Eidinger sees it, this is marijuana’s moment in D.C. and the Cannabis Campaign is leading the charge.

“I am quite pleased that we are reaching so many people,” Eidinger says. “I know there’s a dialogue starting because of this issue. Some people don’t give a fuck, really, about this issue, but the more they think about it, the more they’re glad we’re doing this.”

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