How One Republican Could Stop DC From Legalizing Weed

Maryland Congressman Andy Harris is on a relentless crusade to stop the nation's capital from getting high.

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Dec 5 2014, 10:39pm

​In November, nearly 70 percent of voters in Washington, DC, cast ballots in support of legalizing weed for personal use. But in one of the more bizarre quirks of American democracy, those votes could now be invalidated by one Republican Congressman, whose relationship with the District goes no further than Capitol Hill steakhouses and smoking patios.

With the deadline looming for Congress to pass a spending bill to keep the government running, House Republicans are fighting to include a provision in the national budget that would forbid DC from using any funds to legalize marijuana. The amendment, known in Washington-speak as a rider, is sponsored by Maryland Republican Andy Harris, Congress's loudest and most relentless defender of prohibition, who has made it his personal mission to make sure kids in DC aren't getting high.

GOP House leaders have gotten behind the amendment, and are insisting it be included in the omnibus spending bill currently under negotiation in Congress. According to the Natio​nal Journal, House Speaker John Boehner and Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers, the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, are both in favor of limiting the city's power to enact the legalization law, known as Initiative 71, and are pushing to include Harris's measure in the final budget bill. A spokesman for Boehner confirmed in a statement to VICE that "the Speaker obviously supports the provisions in the House-passed bills," but added, "we are not directly engaging with Democrats on this issue."

Democrats, including President Barack Obama, are opposed to the rider, and to Congress's attempts to meddle with the District's laws in general. Several Republicans have also indicated that they are opposed to blocking DC's legalization law, signaling a bipartisan shift away from ​hawkish federal drug policies. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, the incoming chair of the Senate subcommittee that oversees DC, has​ said that he doesn't think the federal government should get involved in local affairs. And earlier this year, many House Republicans joined Democrats in passing a measure to block the De​partment of Justice from using funds to target medical marijuana providers operating legally under state laws.

Given this bipartisan attitude, marijuana advocates in Washington were in​itially bullish on the prospect that the law would survive congressional challenges. Beyond the question of legalization, activists argued that it would be a bad look for Republicans to block a law that was widely seen as a victory for racial justice in a city where black people account for the vast majority of marijuana arrests. (A 2013 ACLU​ report found that black people account for nine in 10 marijuana arrests in DC, despite having equal usage rates as whites.)

But they may have underestimated their opponents' zealous commitment to telling people how to live their lives. That's because, despite the general opposition to Harris's rider, it is unclear if Democrats have the political will to force Republicans to remove if from the final budget bill. There are literally hundreds of riders attached to the bill, including amendments targeting Obama's immigration order and the Environmental Protection Agency, and only one week left to negotiate before funding expires and the government shuts down, so making sure weed stays legal in DC is hardly anyone's priority.

The White House has previously threate​ned to veto any legislation that meddled with DC's autonomy, but it's hard to imagine the president shutting down the government over weed. The truth is, Congress doesn't have a problem telling the city how to spend its money. According to a press release from DC's non-voting congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the House appropriations bill contains two other DC-related riders—one to prohibit the city from enforcing its gun control laws, and another to stop it from spending local funds on abortion services. Both are likely to make it into the final bill.

A spokesperson for Norton's office said she "is involved in conversations with House and Senate leaders and the White House asking that they hold fast against Republican efforts to carry House interference with D.C. home rule into the final bill."