How Republicans in Congress Working Feverishly to Block Legal Marijuana in the Nation's Capital

The Washington, DC city council approved marijuana decriminalization earlier in 2014. District voters went even further than the council in last month's elections, approving an initiative to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of pot with a whopping 70% of the vote.


Now, congressional Republicans are working feverishly to block the District from putting the results of this exercise in democracy into effect. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) is leading a House effort to block federal funds being used for DC pot law reforms. Harris has crafted an amendment to the DC appropriations bill that would bar the use of federal or local funds to implement the reforms, and Rep. Harold Rodgers (R-KY), head of the House Appropriations Committee, has agreed to include Harris's amendment in the bill.

And, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been deeply involved in DC marijuana reform efforts, "Democrats are rumored to be cutting a deal with Republicans" that would sacrifice legalization in order to save decriminalization.

House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hasn't exactly quelled those rumors. At a press conference last Friday, she said she supported the District's autonomy, but stopped short of saying any Republican moves to block the implementation of decriminalization or legalization would be a "deal breaker" on agreement for a broader appropriations package. (Republicans are also seeking to use the appropriations bill to overturn DC firearms safety laws.)

"I have expressed concerns about treating the District of Columbia in a fair way, respecting home rule," Pelosi said. "I'm not saying any one of them is a deal breaker, but I’m saying this is an array of concerns that we have: clean air, good food standards, workplace safety, fairness to the District of Columbia, how the top line dollar is allocated within the legislation."

That not-so-ringing endorsement of the District's ability to democratically determine its own drug policies, as well as the rumored deals, has prompted DPA and other reform supporters to ramp up the pressure on congressional Democrats. In an open letter to the Democratic leadership today, a number of civil rights and other advocacy groups, including DPA, DC Votes, and the DC branches of the ACLU, NAACP, and NOW, called on the Democrats to grow a backbone.

"As you conclude negotiations over the FY15 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill, we urge you to reject all efforts to include undemocratic restrictions on DC’s rights," said the letter addressed to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). "As you know, the spending bill passed by the House included new provisions that would interfere in the District of Columbia’s local affairs, including language intended to overturn the results of a local voter initiative. The undersigned organizations advocate on diverse issues, but are united in our opposition to the inclusion of social policy riders targeting the District of Columbia in the appropriations bill."

"Democratic leadership made it clear they would stand with voters on this crucial racial justice issue, and push back against Republican opposition to the DC law," said Michael Collins, policy manager at DPA's office of national affairs. "Democrats have always made claims of supporting DC home rule now is their chance to stand with 70% of voters in the District who voted for marijuana reform," Collins said.

Advocates are particularly dismayed given the racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws in the District. According to a 2013 ACLU report, not only did DC have the highest per capita number of pot possession arrests—more than three times the national average—but it also saw black people arrested for pot possession at a rate more than eight times that of whites. In that regard, DC was second, trailing only the state of Iowa among the 50 states.

The Republican efforts to interfere—and block these moves to reduce racial disparities in the District—takes on added salience in the context of weeks of protests nationwide over racially biased policing.  

"In light of recent events in Ferguson and New York, it is particularly disturbing that Congress would choose to overturn the will of the voters in a majority black city," said DPA policy manager and vice-chair of the DC Cannabis Campaign, which was responsible for the passage of Initiative 71, the legalization initiative. "DC voters chose to reform their marijuana laws, which have a direct impact on how communities of color interact with police. Congress is poised to undermine that."

But the Republican Party is no longer a monolith when it comes to marijuana law reform. On at least five votes this year, some Republican legislators voted in favor of such reforms. It is questionable whether the GOP could block DC's reforms on a straight up-and-down vote. By tying the effort to the broader appropriations bill, however, the issue is placed in the hands of the congressional leadership, and that could leave the District hanging out to dry. It's time for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to stand up for the District and for democratic principals, the advocates say, and they are prodding them today. 

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