The city of Washington, DC, is a marijuana policy hothouse these days. It's expanding its medical marijuana program, it has a new decriminalization bill set to go into effect Thursday with House Republicans trying to stop it, it has a marijuana possession and cultivation legalization initiative poised to make the November ballot, and it has legislation that would allow for the taxation and regulation of marijuana commerce already pending before the city council. Now, the White House is weighing in too.
The "Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014," adopted by the council in April, replaces criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana with a $25 civil fine for possession as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and any paraphernalia used to consume or carry it.
DC's decriminalization effort has clearly caught the attention of House Republicans -- one of whom, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), introduced an amendment to the DC appropriations bill to block its implementation. That amendment has already won a House committee vote.
Late last month, the House Appropriations Committee adopted Harris's amendment. If included in the 2015 federal budget, the rider would block the District from carrying out any law, rule or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce criminal penalties for marijuana.
That has sparked irate reactions from both DC elected officials and advocates alike.
"These Members violated their own principles of limited government by using the power of the federal government to dictate to a local government how it can use its own local funds," DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said in a statement after the vote. "They apparently could not keep their own states from decriminalizing marijuana, so they have turned to a district where they are not accountable to the citizens to do what they couldn't convince their own states to do. Their constituents may be surprised to learn that their Members are spending their time interfering with the local laws of another district instead of devoting their time to issues affecting their districts and the nation."
"That Congressman Andy Harris would try to kill DC's efforts to stop arresting people for marijuana possession is beyond disturbing," said Dr. Malik Burnett, DC policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "This amendment is an affront to the District's right to home rule, while ensuring that thousands of District residents continue to be arrested and suffer the collateral consequences associated with a criminal record. Congress should be following DC's example and end racist marijuana arrest policies, instead of defying the will of the people and reversing their decision."
DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton sticks up for her constitutents. (house.gov)
District residents have begun organizing a boycott of Ocean City, MD,
part of Rep. Harris's congressional district, as a show of their disapproval his intervention in District affairs. That was an idea that came from none other than Washington, DC, Mayor Vincent Gray.
"It's become a sad tradition that members of Congress with no ties to the District use their outdated, undemocratic and unjust authority over the District's budget to further their own political and personal agenda," Gray said in a pre-4th of July statement.
Councilmember and mayoral candidate David Catania even stormed Harris's DC office after the vote demanding to discuss his efforts to block the District from implementing decrim. Harris wasn't there.
"I'm here to address what has become a congressional pastime, which is interfering in the local affairs of the District of Columbia," Catania said at the time.
And now, the effort to block the District from implementing decrim -- or any other marijuana reforms -- has caught the attention of the White House, which yesterday slammed it in no uncertain terms.
"[T]he Administration strongly opposes the language in the bill preventing the District from using its own local funds to carry out locally-passed marijuana policies, which again undermines the principles of States' rights and of District home rule," the White House said in a statement of administration policy on the Financial Services and General Government Administration Act of 2015, which contains appropriations for DC. "Furthermore, the language poses legal challenges to the Metropolitan Police Department's enforcement of all marijuana laws currently in force in the District."
(The statement of administration policy also criticized Congress for including a ban on the funding of needle exchanges in the District, as well as language restricting the District's ability to provide abortion services.)
"It is great to see the White House accepting that a majority of Americans want marijuana law reform and defending the right of DC and states to set their own marijuana policy," said Bill Piper, DPA director of national affairs. "The tide has clearly shifted against the failed war on drugs and it's only a matter of time before federal law is changed."
The White House wasn't the only group trying to send a signal to Congress yesterday. The DC city council passed a pair of emergency resolutions opposing Rep. Harris's effort to use congressional oversight to block the District from spending any of its locally-raised revenues to enact marijuana reform.
Harris's amendment would, if passed by the Congress, also block the District from enacting the results of the looming marijuana possession and cultivation legalization initiative, which is all but certain to make the November ballot after organizers handed in more than double the number of signatures needed to qualify. And it would block the District from implementing the putative legislative follow-up to the initiative, which would allow for taxed and regulated marijuana commerce in the District.
But that amendment still has not passed the House, let alone the Senate, and now, the Obama administration has made clear that it does not approve of it, either. That puts the administration on the side of the District, its voters (who consistently approve of marijuana legalization in polls), and its elected officials. House and Senate Republicans would be up against a city united against their interference in the District's domestic affairs, backed by a president who agrees with the District. While the Republicans are always eager to pick a fight with the president, this could be one fight they think twice about.