Hundreds of protesters advocating for marijuana legalization in Washington, DC got into a 30-minute standoff with police and members of the Secret Service after they tried to carry a 50-foot inflatable joint near the White House on Saturday.
The demonstration called for President Barack Obama to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I controlled substances, a classification reserved for drugs with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Although 23 states and Washington, DC now allow some form of medical marijuana, weed remains listed alongside heroin, LSD and other hard drugs in the Schedule I category.
The dispute over the massive fake joint began early in the day as the protesters marched near the White House at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street. Adam Eidinger, the founder of DCMJ, a medical marijuana advocacy group that organized the demonstration, told VICE News that several police officers were "wedged" between protesters and the large joint during negotiations over whether or not they could proceed.
The cops eventually yielded and passed the situation off to members of Secret Service, who blocked the giant fake doob from entering Lafayette Park in front of the White House for security reasons. Eidinger said the Secret Service claimed the inflatable, which had the words "Obama, deschedule cannabis now!" written on the side, created a "sniper issue."
"People could use the joint as a cover, it's an open area," Eidinger said. "It's a vulnerable spot in front of the White House. You could have a mass murderer there. So we listened. We're not here to be dangerous."
The protesters complied by deflating the joint and then holding it up as a banner while they continued their rally outside the White House. The event culminated just before 4:20pm — a time closely associated with cannabis culture — when the protesters staged a mass smokeout after a prayer by a church group that considers marijuana to be a holy sacrament.
"They blessed the cannabis, we all said amen and lit up at 4:17," Eidinger said. He explained that the smokeout began a few minutes earlier than planned because organizers were worried that police might have been prepared to crackdown on pot smoking at 4:20.
"The police were extremely alert but not really moving in on us," Eidinger said. "It was a sensitive issue and we were ready to challenge the law. We had strength in numbers." He estimated that there were around 300 people smoking weed outside the White House.
Eidinger said there were no arrests, but a spokesperson for DC Metropolitan Police could not immediately verify if that was indeed the case. There were reports of some protesters receiving $25 tickets, including a woman who runs a local head shop called Capitol Hemp. Eidinger said the woman accidentally blew marijuana smoke into a police officer's face.
In 2014, voters in Washington, DC overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative that legalized possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for adults 21 and over, and permitted residents of the nation's capital to grow up to three plants. The law took effect last February, but Congress, which controls the city's budget, prohibited the establishment of a regulatory framework that would have allowed for retail sales of the drug. So while weed is technically legal in DC, the city does not gain any tax revenue from it, and it's still against the rules for individuals to buy and sell it. It's also still against the law to smoke pot in public.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen