The calendar says it’s April 20, or 4/20, the day for pot lovers to celebrate all things marijuana.
But some were in a more reflective mood as they went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to share stories of how pot use had changed their lives: Wes Philip, 27, of Washington said he had lost his federal job as a program analyst after failing a drug test; Melanie Matthews, 30, a hotel manager from Columbia, Maryland, said she got handcuffed to a bench and spent $2,500 on a lawyer after getting stopped by a police officer in her neighborhood; and Adrian Matthews, 32, of Baltimore, recalled the fear he felt years ago when cops kicked in the door of his mother’s home and found some of her medical marijuana.
With roughly 600,000 Americans facing pot charges every year, this year’s landscape is very much a mixed big for backers of marijuana legalization.
They had unprecedented success at the polls in 2016, with voters in eight of nine states supporting initiatives to expand access to the drug. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provided more happy news last week by unveiling a bill to legalize pot for recreational use across the country by 2018, seeking to join California, Washington and six other states that have already done so.
But the domestic industry remains under a cloud amid worries that President Donald Trump’s administration may soon move to shut down the state operations by enforcing the federal ban against the drug.
The legal limbo is expected to last at least until July 27, the deadline set by Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a Justice Department task force to review U.S. marijuana policies. Sessions, a longtime marijuana foe, announced the plan earlier this month, calling it part of a larger national effort to reduce crime.
Some legalization backers want Congress to vote to end marijuana prohibition before the Trump team takes any action, but those prospects are extremely slim.
To increase pressure on lawmakers, legalization backers made plans for a pot giveaway near the U.S. Capitol on Thursday beginning at noon. Some were in a fighting mood, announcing plans for a “smoke-in” on the steps of the Capitol at high noon Monday.
Each year, supporters of legalization use April 20, or 4/20, as a time to take stock on how they’ve progressed. The number 420 is code for smoking marijuana, dating to 1971, when five friends at California’s San Rafael High School began meeting each day at 4:20 p.m. to get high.
Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, who has introduced a bill to end pot prohibition this year, said legalization backers had made “amazing progress” in the last year, partly by doubling the number of states that allow the recreational use of marijuana.
Voters in eight states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington – and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, while another 21 allow use of the drug for medical reasons.
“Frankly, marijuana has gone mainstream,” Blumenauer said in a conference call with reporters. “I think we are watching a pivot point.”
But many remain worried about what might transpire in coming months: While Trump promised as a presidential candidate not to interfere with state-run pot operations, his Cabinet members have sounded alarms over growing marijuana use.
Sessions said last month that marijuana was only “slightly less awful” than heroin, and he famously said last year at a Senate hearing that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
“Now we have an attorney general who is actively supporting a return to the ’80s war on drugs policies, and you know this administration has been all over the place,” said Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-legalization group.
Department of Homeland Security John Kelly added to the confusion this week. After first downplaying the role of pot in the drug war, he reversed course Tuesday, calling it a “potentially dangerous gateway drug” and saying his agency would continue to arrest and investigate those caught with the drug.
Blumenauer shrugged off the latest news.
“One thing has been consistent — and that is we’ve received inconsistent signals from this administration,” he said.
But with pot quickly growing in acceptance and becoming a multibillion-dollar industry, Blumenauer predicted that no future president will get elected by running on an “anti-cannabis” platform and the Trump team would be hard-pressed to stop the tide.
“I’m quite confident that we will ultimately be successful in working with this administration, despite some confusing signals,” he said.
On Wednesday, NORML hosted a “Faces of Marijuana Prohibition” panel at the House Cannon Office Building to put a spotlight on how the federal ban on pot use had affected “the lives of everyday Americans.”
Shanita Penny, 35, of Denver, told of getting charged with possession of marijuana while driving in Virginia in 2011.
“I don’t feel like I did anything wrong or that I’m a horrible person,” she said. “But to have to go through the court system and everything else, it does do something to you internally. It changes who you are.”
Adrian Matthews said it “really changed my life” when he watched police officers smash through the door of his mother’s home.
“If you’ve ever had a door kicked in, it’s scary. It’s extremely scary,” he said.
Melanie Matthews said she had to work hard to overcome the shame of getting stopped by police when she and a friend drove home from a neighborhood park.
“What began as a late-night walk in the park ended in humiliation, tears and several thousand dollars,” she said. “Emotionally and spiritually, I felt like I was a bad person.”
Wes Philip said he had landed nicely, now working as a consultant after losing his five-year job with the federal government when he flunked a drug test. He called himself a “pretty good bureaucrat” but said he had to give up his federal badge and was escorted out of the building — just for smoking pot in Washington, D.C., where voters had already decided to make it legal.
“My story is not a tragedy – I’m doing well – but it’s a ridiculous story,” he said. “It’s nonsensical to think that the government was willing to lose one of their best employees over an issue so small, over something that is legal in the area where it happened.”