Debates about drug legalization tend to take place in exotic places like Uruguay and the state of Colorado. Now that it's reached into their own backyard, members of Congress are freaking out.
GOP Rep. John Mica assuring himself a place in the history books. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Debates about drug legalization tend to take place in exotic places like Uruguay and the state of Colorado that US political elites in Washington, DC, can dismiss as far away dens of nefarious hedonism. So it hit a bit closer to home a few weeks ago when the local city council voted overwhelmingly to decriminalize pot in the streets of DC, raising the specter (in the most paranoid minds, at least) of choom gangs harassing lawmakers as they make their way between Capitol Hill and swanky parties with corporate lobbyists.
Mayor Vincent Gray quickly signed the bill, which would render most possession offenses civil violations with fines rather than jailtime, as is already the case in 17 states ranging from Alaska to New York. And normally, that would be that. But because this is our nation's capital, one where the mostly black population has lacked legitimate representation since America's founding, federal lawmakers on Friday morning held a goofy hearing about what the crazy natives have been up to. In fact, if both houses of Congress were to pass a bill blocking the DC law before it goes into effect this summer, all it would take is a signature from Mr. Choom Gang himself to negate it entirely.
Given the way the hearing started, that outcome did not seem completely beyond the realm of possibility.
"Marijuana is an addicting substance. There’s a myth out there that it’s not," said Republican Congressman John Fleming of Louisiana, who annnounced plans to introduce a bill blocking the decriminalization law during a break from the proceedings. The GOP chair of the House Oversight Committee that conducted the hearing, Rep. John Mica, went so far as to brandish a fake joint apparently assembled by his staff—"They have more experience," he said—and warn that pot is a gateway to more serious drugs, a refrain most of us have been hearing from cranky old people our entire lives. (Mica complained there was no way to submit the doobie to the congressional record: “I can’t submit this … as I said, it’s a faux joint.")
But legalization advocates I canvassed immediately after the hearing are confident the law will survive, in part because the national trendlines are clear at this point—even many Republicans don't want to look like old school drug warriors anymore, as it just kills them with young libertarians. And advocacy for the DC bill centered on the fact that weed arrests disproportionately affect black youth even though they use the drug no more often than whites, not the idea that we should be free to get high.
"The DC decriminalization bill is fundamentally about racial justice," said Seema Sadanandan, program director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital and one of the experts who testified at the hearing. "We don't want this to become a flashpoint for some partisan battle." (To his credit, Rep. Mica acknowledged the racial bias in drug arrests to be a problem, even if he was skeptical decriminalization would fix it.) The strategy is poised to bear fruit.
"DC decriminalization will take effect in mid-July," Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, e-mailed me confidently. "There's no way Congress can stop it before then. Fleming's resolution will never pass, and even an appropriations rider would come long after decriminalization takes effect."
The rider he's talking about is a more surreptitious way lawmakers might block DC's decriminalization plans. Indeed, it's how they gutted a medical marijuana ballot initiative city voters passed in 1998. Each year, the House of Representatives passes a financial services funding bill that includes money for the District of Columbia, and theoretically lawmakers could include language prohibiting any of that cash from being spent on enforcing the new law. But because the spending bill isn't likely to pass until late this year—if it passes at all, no slam dunk given how dysfunctional Congress has been lately—DC's new law will have already become reality. Turning back the clock on drug policy would be a stretch given the way the national winds are blowing, especially when combined with the crystal clear implications for the city's youth.
"It seems increasingly unlikely that congressional leadership will see interfering with DC's decriminalization law as a smart political move," said Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority, a national legalization advocacy group. Of course, that doesn't mean the old dudes who run this country can't keep acting like reactionary buffoons to remind us how out of touch they are.
Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.