Will D.C.'s Pot Legalization Fall Prey to Meddling Congress?

It’s not like Representative Andy Harris didn’t warn us. When District of Columbia voters last month overwhelmingly passed Initiative 71, the ballot measure to legalize marijuana in the District, the Maryland Republican threatened to use “all resources available to a member of Congress to stop this action.” And when it comes to preventing D.C. from exercising home rule, the arsenal of available resources is quite well stocked.

Harris, the origin story of whose marijuana vendetta must be a Maureen Dowd–style special-brownie overindulgence that left him shattered, has for the past year made it his personal mission to prevent the people who didn’t vote for him from getting what they voted for. His latest nefarious plot is a rider, attached to the 1,600-page budget deal released Tuesday night, which prohibits D.C. from using its funds to enact the legalization of marijuana.

The bill also continues the amendment that blocks D.C. from using its own locally raised taxes to fund abortions for lower-income women. “Getting the Medicaid ban removed would require strong leadership that we unfortunately just don’t have on Capitol Hill right now, amid all the heightened political posturing,” says Val Vilott, the board president of the volunteer-run D.C. Abortion Fund. There are other sneaky budget components: restrictions to the Clean Water Act, slashes to financial reform and campaign finance rules, and loosening of school lunch standards. 

The House passed the bill Thursday night, and it seems likely the Senate will pass it this weekend to avert a government shutdown. (It is worth mentioning, too, that no small number of government workers who would suffer in a shutdown live in the District.) House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other liberal Democrats came out against the bill, but largely in response to the financial rules included—after all, they don’t represent District residents, either. But just in case anyone gets any ideas about giving congressional voting power to D.C. residents, another rider also prevents the District from using funds for “any petition drive or civil action which seeks to require Congress to provide for voting representation in Congress for the District of Columbia.”

Harris is quoted as saying that marijuana is “dangerous to the developing brain,” but no word yet on his thoughts of the danger of locking up citizens—disproportionately non-white citizens—for nonviolent charges related to its useNot everyone has the same job security as David Brooks, who can admit in The New York Times to having smoked regularly as a teenager (and thus can say, from personal experience, that no one else should).

Washington, D.C.’s (non-voting) member of Congress, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, had offered an amendment that would strike the rider from the bill, and also issued a statement saying that the rider couldn’t prevent legalization because the November initiative was “self-executing.” If that’s true, it’s possible that marijuana could still be legal (it’s already decriminalized in the District, despite Harris’s best efforts) without the City Council being able enact any regulation or taxation. This interpretation of the rider might be the only thing D.C. leaders can rely on, especially in the face of years of successful congressional meddling in D.C. on issues from abortion to gun control. But of all the home-rule issues the District of Columbia has had to defend, Harris’s pet crusade might have awoken a (very contentedly) dozing giant.

The marijuana reform movement unites drug policy reformers with civil libertarians, and motivated pot enthusiasts with racial justice activists. If people outside the District aren't paying attention to the reproductive rights of women in that city, they might at least be paying attention to the current national trend of relaxing drug laws. D.C. voter turnout was higher in the 2014 midterm elections than in those of the recent past (38.5 percent of registered voters, a significant increase from 29 percent and 30 percent in 2006 and 2010, respectively), and the marijuana initiative may very well be the reason for the mobilization. When I went to the Initiative 71 watch party on election night, I spoke to more than a few people who said this was the first midterm election in which they had voted, or the first time they had volunteered for a campaign.

Adam Eidinger, who chaired the pro-initiative D.C. Cannabis Campaign, told me—and many others—in November that he would move to Harris’s district and work against the congressman should he prevent the initiative from being enacted. Eidinger and other activists spent Wednesday in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, and people took to both Twitter and the Capitol to protest. Local band Jack on Fire also got in on the action with the release of the song “Andy Harris Needs to Smoke Some Weed.”

Obviously, all of this could lead to nothing except another decade of inaction—the District’s medical marijuana law stalled in Congress for more than a decade, after all. But perhaps this is the part of the movie when the self-righteous overlord realizes he’s underestimated the will and strength possessed by the regular people he views as his subjects.


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