Our nation’s capital may well be the next jurisdiction to legalize recreational marijuana dispensaries. And if that occurs, it will inevitably help shape the debate in Congress over marijuana policy.
That is, of course, important for the 658,893 people who live in the District, and the 6,033,737 people who live in the metropolitan area, but it will also be a helpful step in eventually persuading Congress to remove federal impediments to full legalization at the state level.
Every member of Congress, all 435 House members and 100 senators, maintain two homes: one in the home state district where they were elected, and a second in DC, where they spend at least three days each week when Congress is in session. And while many of these elected officials from around the country currently hold exaggerated views of the dangers of marijuana smoking, simply living here and seeing the sky doesn’t fall when prohibition is ended and marijuana is legalized, is likely the most effective way for us to continue to build support for legalization in the Congress. There is nothing more persuasive than personal experience.
Many in Congress have made their reputations and based their election campaigns on the backs of the victims of the long war on marijuana smokers, and they are not likely to change overnight. Indeed, most will continue as long as they think it is a winning political argument in their home district. But seeing the nation’s capital embrace legal marijuana with few, if any, unintended consequences, and lots of measurable improvements in the criminal justice system, the police-community relations, and the quality of life in the District, will help temper the perspective of all who live here, including those members of Congress.
The Tortured History of Marijuana Policy in the District
Constitutionally, the District of Columbia is controlled by the US Congress, and since 1973, when Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, the city has enjoyed a degree of local control, electing a mayor and a 13-member City Council to determine local laws and policies. However, each new law is subject to a 30-day review by Congress before becoming effective. Should the Congress wish to override a local law, they have that legal authority.
While the Congress does not often directly override a District law enacted by the elected City Council, they do on a more regular basis use the budget process to stop the District from adopting a policy opposed by a majority of the party then in control of Congress, by enacting a rider to the DC appropriations bill that bars the District government from spending any money to advance the targeted issue. And marijuana policy in the District has at times been the target of the anti-marijuana zealots in Congress.
When DC residents originally passed Initiative 59 in 1998 with 69 percent support, legalizing the medical use of marijuana, Congress, led by Republican Rep. Bob Barr from Georgia, at the time a leading anti-marijuana crusader, quickly passed a budget amendment banning the District from spending any money to implement the measure. That ban was repeatedly renewed with each new budget and stayed in effect for a decade, until 2009. Following the lifting of the ban, the City Council passed legislation licensing medical dispensaries, three of which currently operate in the District.
Similarly, when Initiative 71 was approved by 70 percent of the voters in 2014, legalizing marijuana for all adults in the District, Republican Rep. Andy Harris, an anti-drug warrior from rural Maryland, led a successful effort, supported by top congressional Republicans, to add a rider to the DC appropriations bill banning the use of any money to implement legalization, a ban that remains in effect until October 1, 2015.
Harris had initially claimed his amendment blocked Initiative 71 from taking effect, and threatened to have the mayor arrested should she implement the new law. But the DC Attorney General held the initiative took effect despite the budget amendment (allowing the new law to take effect did not require the expenditure of any funds), although the amendment would preclude the City Council from moving forward to establish recreational dispensaries. The question now is whether the anti-marijuana coalition in Congress will have the votes to include the ban in the appropriations bill currently being considered. At least for now, it appears likely they will not.
The Budget Battle Ahead
When Obama sent his proposed 2016 budget to Congress earlier in the year, he did not include any ban on spending District funds to legalize marijuana (the ban against using federal funding was retained), taking the position that this is a matter for the District to decide, not the Congress.
And while the latest House Appropriations Committee budget did contain the ban, when the Senate Appropriations Committee recently completed their District appropriations bill, the ban was not included.
So the issue will be resolved in conference committee, where the real behind-the-scene horse-trading often occurs, and there is a fair chance the ban will not be included in the new budget.
If that occurs, you can expect the DC City Council to move expeditiously to establish a system to license commercial growers and retail recreational marijuana shops. There is near unanimous support for this step among the council, and from Mayor Muriel Bowser. And it is helpful that DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier has been a public supporter of marijuana legalization, stating at a press conference that marijuana is no big deal, and that “alcohol is a much bigger problem.”
So whether Congress likes it or not, their members may soon be spending roughly half of their time living under full marijuana legalization, including retail stores. This is a development that can only be helpful to speed along changes in federal law.