A large majority of residents in the nation’s capital now favor legalizing weed, according to a new poll by The Washington Post. That marks a remarkable and very rapid turnaround from just four years ago, when only about half the District backed legalization.

Every group polled, from young to old and black to white, saw major increases in their support for legal pot over the past four years. In all, 63 percent backed the idea, according to the poll, which was released Jan. 15.

american-flag-and-weed“I don’t care one way or another about legalizing it,” Renee Matthews, 49, told the Post. “But it shouldn’t be criminalized if the penalties are harder for African Americans.”

Indeed, arrests are more common and penalties harsher for blacks and other minorities who are caught with pot than they are for whites – even though all races use at essentially the same rate.

The problem is especially pernicious in the capital, where 90 percent of those arrested for marijuana offenses are black. African Americans make up less than 50 percent of the city’s residents. Surprisingly, though, more whites want legalization than blacks: 73 percent versus 58 percent.

Other Washingtonians support legal pot for different reasons. Richard Smith, 68, said the coming tide was unavoidable.

“There’s still a federal law that says it’s a no-no, and yet states are starting to legalize it,” Smith said. “In my lifetime, what’s out west comes east. At this point, I think it’s inevitable.”

Support for legalization seems to grow across the country almost by the day. A separate poll by The Washington Post and ABC News found 49 percent of Americans support it while 48 percent oppose it. But those numbers are well outside the findings of several other recent mainstream polls, all of which found statistically significant majority support for legal weed.

Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational pot. The first retail stores to sell the drug opened across Colorado Jan. 1, and shops are expected to open in Washington State in the spring.

In D.C., plans are advancing for cannabis reform. Medical marijuana is already sold blocks from the doorstep of the FBI, and a bill to decriminalize the drug just passed a committee of the District Council.

Legalization vs decriminalization

The policy, if it passes the full council in coming weeks, would turn weed crimes into civil violations. A fine of $25 – less than most parking tickets – would be imposed for simple possession. The rules wouldn’t apply on federal property such as the Mall, however, where fines of $1,000 and penalties of one year in jail would still apply under federal anti-marijuana law.

At the same time, a ballot initiative is under way to fully legalize cannabis. Activists need 25,000 valid voter signatures to get the proposal on the November ballot. If they do, and it passes, it would go before Congress for final review – and, most likely, defeat, at least as things stand now.

But even if legalization falls short, support for decriminalization is very strong. Even about half of those who oppose legal pot said they want to see penalties reduced to small fines, as the council is considering.

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