Congress Is Going to Stop DC from Legalizing Weed

Either that or it's going to create an unregulated legal weed zone in the nation's capital.

Dec 11 2014, 8:50pm

Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

​ On a freezing Wednesday night in downtown Washington, DC, Adam Eidinger and a group of tightly bundled marijuana legalization advocates marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Building. It was ostensibly a march to protest Congress' continued meddling in DC's home rule, but it was as much a metaphor for how little attention Congress was paying them. They'd been left out in the cold again.

Congress is poised to pass a more than $1 trillion spending bill that includes measures blocking the Dist​rict legalizing marijuana. The provisions have outraged local activists and politicians in the city, where voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing recreational marijuana by nearly 70 percent, but lawmakers are charging ahead with the bill anyway.

"At this point I'm ready to commit acts of civil disobedience to see that this initiative is passed," Eidinger told me, standing outside of the Justice Department last night. "If a policy maker refuses to address the issue, sitting down in their office to uphold the will of the 147,000 people who voted for this is a justifiable act, and we're going to continue to do acts of civil disobedience until they recognize the election. This is human rights violation taking place."

Eidinger and some of his fellow advocates had spent the past two days staging a sit-in in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office, trying to get congressional leadership to scrap the provisions, but to no avail. The activist said he got a bit of face-time with one of the majority leader's staffers, but Reid himself never showed up.

The inclusion of the provision blocking DC's marijuana law is a victory for Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris, who has been leading the crusade against legal weed in the nation's capital. Harris and leaders on the House Appropriations Committee tucked the provision into the middle of the massive 1,600-page spending bill that Congress has to pass on Thursday in order to prevent a government shutdown.

The amendment prohibits federal and local funds from being used in DC "to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or reduce penalties associated with the possession, use or distribution" of marijuana.

DC politicians have condemned the move as an affront to democracy. "To undermine the vote of the people—taxpayers—does not foster or promote the 'limited government' stance House Republicans claim they stand for," DC City Councilmember David Grosso said in a statement this week. "It's uninformed paternalistic meddling."

But Harris, one of the biggest anti-pot crusaders in Congress, is having none of it. "That's the way the Constitution was written," he sai​d in an interview with Politico Wednesday, responding to criticism from DC officials and residents. "If they don't like that oversight, move outside of the federal district to one of the 50 states that is not covered by the jurisdiction of Congress as a whole."

That's a charming message to the roughly 600,000 people who live in DC, a city where black residents were eight times​ more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites.

Initially, supporters of the legalization initiative were hopeful that Senate Democrats and the White House w​ould stick up for them. But in the end, no one appeared to have the political will to risk a government shutdown in order to protect DC autonomy. Earlier this year the Obama administration threatened to veto a spending bill that included Harris's rider. In a July statement, the White House sa​id it "strongly opposed" provisions "preventing District from using own funds to carry out locally passed marijuana policies." However, a White House statem​ent on the new spending bill released Thursday doesn't mention DC, and urges Congress to pass the legislation.

Top congressional negotiators didn't even bother to tell Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's representative in Congress that the provision had made it into the final bill. Not that she can vote on it anyway.

However, there is confusion about what exactly the Harris provisions will mean for legal weed in Washington, DC. It's unclear from the if the amendments will block the city from enacting legalization altogether—the initiative has already passed, and after all, how much money does it take to not enforce a law?—or simply block the DC Council from passing legislation to tax and regulate sales of marijuana.

DC officials have said that they still plan to let the legalization initiative stand, even if the city is barred by Congress from regulating or enforcing the law. Norton t​old Roll Call that, ""based on a plain reading of the bill and principles of statutory interpretation, the District may be able to carry out its marijuana legalization initiative." And in a reversal from previous statements, city's mayor-elect, Muriel Bowser, reportedly said Wednesday that she'd allow unregulated marijuana if Congress blocks the city's attempts to tax and regulate it.

If that happens, Harris will be responsible for creating an unregulated legal weed zone in the heart of the federal government. Quite a legacy for Congress's most rabid prohibitionist.

Eidinger said he agrees with Norton's assessment, but adds, "We're not settling for that because we should have autonomy. We should be able to write our own laws."

In many ways, it's been business as usual. Republicans in Congress blocked DC's medical marijuana laws for more than a decade. And as in past years, the "cromnibus" also blocks the city from operating needle exchanges and funding abortions, except in cases of rape or incest, among other provisions.

In a case of seriously mixed messages, the same spending bill will also block the J​ustice Department and DEA from interfering with legitimate medical marijuana operations in states that have legalized pot. The Republican-controlled House passed a similar me​asure by surprising margins earlier this year.

"The US House voted five times this year to let states set their own marijuana policy and we believe we can repeal this DC rider at some point," the Drug Policy Alliance's Bill Piper said in a statement to VICE. "We will win in the end."

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