Politics

How Congress Could Kill DC’s Pot Legalization Movement

CREDIT: DC Cannabis Campaign

Alaska, Florida, Oregon and Washington D.C. could all vote this November to legalize some type of marijuana usage—but only in the nation’s capital could the will of the people be overridden by officials elected in a far-away jurisdiction. Under its current status as a federal district, DC must submit every law and budget it passes to Congress for approval, though it has no vote in that Congress.

In the past, lawmakers from Arizona to Kentucky to Maryland have used this power to force the District to stop subsidizing abortions for low income residents, loosen their gun laws, funnel public money to private schools, and bar the city from decriminalizing marijuana possession.

Now, with a legalization measure before voters in just a few weeks, DC’s vulnerability to federal interference was a key concern at a Senate hearing this week on whether to admit DC as the nation’s 51st state.

Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), who chaired the hearing and also introduced the bill for DC Statehood, said in his opening statement, “In recent years, Congress has shown less of an inclination to meddle in District of Columbia affairs than it has in the past, but the fact remains that my colleagues and I can – if we choose to – overrule the voters of the District of Columbia and their local officials on any local issue we want.”

Carper noted that out-of-state politicians often use DC’s budget as a political football. “Without their own vote in Congress or the ability to spend money and pass laws without Congress’ consent, the District of Columbia is, at times, used as a political pawn by some Members looking to impose their own agenda on the city without regard for the views of the citizens who must live with the consequences,” he said.

The ballot initiative slated for this November’s election would allow residents older than 21 to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and to cultivate a small number of marijuana plants at home. Should it pass, the City Council and mayor would be tasked with developing a system to legalize the sale and tax of the drug.

If it passes, Congress would have a 30 to 60 day window to review and possibly strike down the law. And those are congressional working days, not regular calendar days, so the process could drag out for many months. But their ability to “meddle” doesn’t end there.

Local attorney Paul Zukerberg, a current candidate for Attorney General of DC, explained to ThinkProgress: “Congress always has power to legislate affairs for the District of Columbia. And even if they don’t just target DC, they could change the federal marijuana laws so they’re enforced even in states where it’s been legalized.”

He added, “We’re hoping they respect the decision of the local voters. I think this is a matter better addressed by local people who understand their own needs and aspirations.”

Earlier this year, the City Council voted 10 to 1 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, reducing a former penalty of six months in jail to a $25 dollar fine. The measure also bans local police from stopping and searching someone based solely on the scent of marijuana.

The long-time effort to decriminalize gained momentum from two studies released last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which found that D.C. police had among the highest arrest rates for marijuana possession in the country and that African Americans accounted for eight out of 10 arrests though they use the drug at rates equal or below their white counterparts.

The campaign behind this fall’s legalization effort, known as Initiative 71, unveiled two slogans this week that reference those findings: “Vote to refocus police priorities” and “legalization ends discrimination.”

“The growing sentiment around the nation, whether in DC or the states, is we don’t want to arrest and give criminal records to people who use small amounts of marijuana,” said Zukerberg.

Though it’s the issue that has made his career, Zukerberg said the fight for statehood is about more than just the desire to toke up in peace. “Statehood is more important than any one issue, including the decriminalization of marijuana,” he said. “It’s the most important civil rights issue we face today.”

This sentiment was echoed by nearly all who testified at the congressional hearing for statehood. Though DC’s non-voting delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton celebrated the fact the measures targeting DC were left out of the temporary budget up for a vote this week, both she and DC Mayor Vince Gray noted that without statehood, the threat will always be there.

“We have to be wary of a Congress that at any time can overturn local laws,” said Gray. “We are treated as a federal agency, subject to the political whims of Congress, rather than a municipality or state government.”

It was the first hearing on DC statehood in more than two decades, and even proponents weary from past failed efforts expressed excitement about the record number of co-sponsors of Carper’s bill: 107 in the House and 17 in the Senate.

But Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), the ranking member on the committee and the only other lawmaker to show up besides the committee chair, threw some cold water on advocate’s hopes, saying, “The bill has no chance of success in this chamber and is dead on arrival in the House.”