At 4:20 a.m. on a recent day, a group of marijuana activists, passing around the occasional joint, stood in line outside the Russell Senate Office Building for the first day of the confirmation hearings of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., nominated to be attorney general. They wanted the man who once told his colleagues that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” to see them inside – and to smell their pot-stained clothes.
These dozen or so activists are part of DCMJ, the group formerly known as the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, which was behind the unlikely but successful effort to legalize marijuana in the nation’s capital in 2015. They didn’t achieve the reforms they had hoped for under President Barack Obama, but his administration did adopt a policy of noninterference with state marijuana laws.
They now fear that a Justice Department led by Sessions could set back efforts nationwide to legalize marijuana and could cripple D.C.’s local laws.
The activists have protested outside Sessions’ Capitol Hill office with pot in their pockets a few times since he was nominated, and they plan to take their demonstration to Inauguration Day, with 4,200 pre-rolled joints free for the taking.
“The marijuana giveaway would not happen if Jeff Sessions wasn’t nominated as the attorney general,” said Adam Eidinger, the head of DCMJ. “It is not a smoke-in; it is a giveaway, and people can smoke them when they want.”
In D.C., it is legal to possess up to two ounces of marijuana on city land. But it is illegal to possess it on federal land, which makes things complicated in a city where about 29 percent of the total area is federal land.
D.C. law also bans marijuana sales, as well as smoking in public places.
On the morning of the inauguration, Eidinger and other activists plan to march from Dupont Circle to the Mall, along the way handing out marijuana joints to anyone who is interested. A few marijuana groups have been holding sessions over the past couple of weeks to roll the joints. They said they won’t encourage people to smoke them along the inauguration parade route, but presumably some people will.
Eidinger said the intent is to urge President-elect Donald Trump to confront the issue of marijuana laws and take a firm stance on the issue. Trump said during the campaign that he supports medical marijuana and thinks states should decide whether they want to legalize the drug – a softer stance than Sessions has stated.
“We are trying to force Donald Trump to clarify what he meant in picking Jeff Sessions, in terms of marijuana,” Eidinger said.
Eidinger stressed that all the marijuana for the giveaway was donated and that volunteers will not hold more than two ounces at any point – all in keeping with city laws. But if people smoke the marijuana or take it onto federal land, they would be in violation of city and federal laws.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, suggested at a news conference on inauguration logistics that police would not be seeking to arrest people smoking marijuana that day.
“We’re going to be prepared for a peaceful demonstration of First Amendment rights,” Bowser said. “That wouldn’t be our first priority.”
Because of D.C.’s proximity to Congress, Eidinger sees it as his group’s responsibility to take the fight to the federal level, both to push for expanded marijuana legalization and to protect the city’s laws.
Because D.C. is not a state, Congress has the power to meddle in local affairs. It is illegal to purchase marijuana in the District because Congress passed a law in 2014 effectively preventing the D.C. government from regulating the sale of marijuana.
“We’re defending our local laws, and we’re showing people that we still care,” Eidinger said. “And we are pushing for federal reform, which protects our local laws.”
In recent weeks, DCMJ has hosted a number of “Smoke Sessions” protests, in which activists go to Sessions’s Senate office with marijuana in tow. Eidinger said that staffers there have never called for them to be arrested and that he has had conversations with some of them about marijuana reform. One time, Eidinger said, his group gave the senator a shirt that said “Great Americans Evolve on Cannabis.”
On the first day of Sessions’ confirmation hearings, the activists wore red shirts with slogans like “Great Americans Use Cannabis” and wore their signature Phrygian hats – conical hats that symbolize harmony.
“I’m here to let Mr. Sessions know that my daughter is 9 years old, and she uses cannabis to control her seizures, and that doesn’t make her or me a bad person,” said D.C. resident Dawn-Lee Carty.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Perry Stein