The guy crusading to legalize pot in Washington, DC, is neither stoner nor hipster, pot entrepreneur nor college senior on a lark.
Paul Zukerberg is a 55-year-old attorney, the father of two young boys, a supporter of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, and a longtime DC resident.
“I’m not even a politician,” he tells me. “I don’t know much about DC politics. But I am committed to reforming our marijuana laws. We’re way behind other cities and states.”
So Zukerberg is running for the open at-large seat on the DC City Council, in the hopes of using his seat to reform the city’s marijuana laws. It will be filled by special election in April. You might see Zukerberg and his volunteers collecting signatures at Metro stops. He needs 3,000.
“No,” he says, “We’re not going to put Cheech and Chong on our posters. I am not a fringe candidate. My position is the only one that makes sense.”
After defending clients from marijuana possession raps for the past 27 years, and seeing “heartbreaking cases along the way,” Zukerberg wants to change laws in the District to align them with ones passed in November that decriminalized personal use of marijuana in the states of Washington and Colorado.
“Personal use becomes a civil infraction,” he says. “You get a citation, similar to a speeding ticket. No criminal record. Maybe a fine.”
That may be fine for former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who famously said, “You just inhale, and you live off everyone else.” As governor, he signed a law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
It might be okay with former president Jimmy Carter, who last month came out in support of taxing and regulating weed. Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, suggested in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that it might be time “to amend the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law.”
Under current DC law, possession of a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty for first conviction of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Most first-time offenders get probation.
Does decriminalizing pot in the nation’s capital city stand a chance? I would say slim to none, if the medical marijuana process is any indication.
DC residents passed a referendum allowing medical marijuana in 1998. Congress blocked funding for nearly a decade. With those obstacles cleared in 2009, the city started making regulations. Now, three years into the regulatory process, the first dispensaries might open next month.
City Council chair Phil Mendelson has said there’s a good argument for decriminalizing pot but added, “I don’t think it’s the time for the District to be discussing that.”
Tommy Wells, who takes over as Judiciary Committee chair, sounds open to change. “Everything’s on the table,” he tells me. “How many people are arrested? What’s the impact on cops, courts, individuals? I want to assess the impact on the public safety system at all levels.”
“It’s always on the table,” says Zukerberg. “The question is, who’s going to take the lead? I have seen lives ruined because of a thimble of marijuana. It can derail a career, cause you to lose a job, get you thrown out of school.”
Like his client who was a standout at George Washington University.
“He had a 3.55 GPA,” Zukerberg says, “but he also has a heart valve defect, which gave him excruciating migraine headaches. Marijuana helped ease the pain. One day a resident adviser smelled it. Campus police called the MPD; he was arrested and expelled. For what?”
Zukerberg is short in stature but large in personality. He talks with a hint of New Jersey, from whence he came. “I don’t want to come off as Che Guevara,” he says. He got his law degree from American University, fell in love with DC, and stayed to marry and raise a family.
The majority of marijuana possession cases are brought against African-American males under the age of 21, according to Zukerberg. “It can ruin their lives,” he says. “The last thing they need is a criminal record.”
But few of the marijuana decriminalization laws that have passed would lessen penalties for juveniles. California is the exception. Its decriminalization laws apply to underage smokers, which dropped youth crime by nearly 20 percent in 2011.
That doesn’t make pot smoking good for young, developing brains, like Zukerberg’s two sons. He advocates societal pressure to discourage kids from smoking marijuana.
Zukerberg says he smoked some pot in college and quit shortly after. He hasn’t smoked in years.
Collecting signatures for his petition, Zukerberg tells me he’s been getting “a lot of positive encouragement. Almost everyone I’ve met seems to agree with decriminalization.”
He’s also met with Keith Stroup, founder of NORML, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Stroup has promised to support his candidacy.
What happens if Zukerberg wins a council seat and succeeds in taking possession of small amounts of pot out of the criminal courts?
“I will put myself out of business,” he says. “But it’s worth the sacrifice.”