Because of What Congress Just Did, DC May Have The Most Bizarre Marijuana Policy in the Country

December 13th 2014

Alex Mierjeski

On Thursday, we published a story about how Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland led Congress' effort to bar Washington, D.C. from implementing its landmark referendum legalizing marijuana—yes, the same one that passed with 70% of the vote last month. He did so by slyly inserting language into Congress’ massive budget bill, which is expected to pass in the next few days. We also covered Harris' connection to the health care industry, which supplies his largest amount of campaign contributions. In particular, Harris has received campaign donations from Maryland’s Emergent BioSolutions, whose Epsil product treats common side effects of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Any legal access to marijuana then, which is regularly prescribed to stave the deleterious effects of cancer and chemotherapy, is a direct competitor to Emergent. Thus, Harris is a vigorous opponent of marijuana legalization who also receives campaign contributions from people who stand to lose money when marijuana enters the market.

But in the wake of the bad news, some hopeful news has emerged. Thanks to contentious politics and a potential loophole in the language in question, D.C. could not only have legalized weed—it could have unregulated legalized weed.

But first, if you’re in need of a primer on how it’s possible for an out-of-state representative to halt a local legislative initiative that passed by such a huge margin in the first place, here are some things to keep in mind.

Residents of the capitol are ruled by Congress, but lack representation in Congress. Under what’s known as the Home Rule Act of 1973, they can vote for a local council to pass legislation and handle District issues, but ultimately Congress controls the D.C. budget and may overturn local legislation tied to it. This of course means that someone like Harris can introduce a “rider” to a Congressional bill effectively blockading a popular, democratic push forward—and that’s just what he did.

The amendment to the massive $1.1 trillion spending package passed in the House on Thursday prohibits federal and local funds from being used to “enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule 1 substance.” (Under federal regulations, marijuana still classifies as a Schedule 1 illegal substance.) In other words, Congress decided that no federal monies could be used to implement D.C.’s legalization referendum.

That obviously didn’t sit well with legalization activists, voters, or D.C. politicians, who feel it is a blow to their sovereignty.

D.C.’s Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, at first an opponent of unregulated legal pot, told the Washington Post that, in light of the spending bill’s stipulation, she could switch her position.

“My job is to uphold the will of the voters, and the voters overwhelmingly support legalizing marijuana in the District,” Bowser said.

Support for legalization isn’t just relegated to local politics and picketers, though. Even the White House is standing with D.C. voters on this one.

“We do not believe that Congress should spend a lot of time interfering with the ability of the citizens of the District of Columbia to make decisions related to how they should govern their community,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

And thanks to the wording of the rider clause banning funding for D.C. legalization, that belief may hold water. Although the language ostensibly prohibits spending money to “enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce” pot-related penalties, it doesn’t necessarily repeal the legalization law that was “enacted” when D.C. voters passed initiative 71 last month.

According to Eleanor Homes Norton, DC’s non-voting Congressional delegate, the initiative “did not require enactment of any rules for its implementation…therefore, it can be argued that the legalization of small amounts of marijuana can proceed."

If this does happen, Washington, D.C. could be the first place in the country to have legal, unregulated marijuana.

Harris and his Beltway ilk have stood firmly in opposition to reforming marijuana laws for years, their arguments rooted in the antiquated anti-drug policies of the 1980s. He has been called an extremist and has fought decriminalization laws in D.C. that shifted pot possession to a civil penalty and a $25 fine.

“Relaxing [marijuana] laws clearly leads to more teenage drug use,” Harris said. “It should be intuitively obvious to everyone that if you legalize marijuana for adults, more children will use marijuana because the message that it’s dangerous will be blunted.”

But despite Harris and company’s fear-mongering tactics, studies show that for the last three years, a majority of Americans have favored legalization and also that young adults are using the drug less now than they did in 1970s. What’s more, the argument that legalized weed will lead to droves of stoned kids failing to keep up in school is debunked by any other legalized vice.

It will be interesting to watch how this all plays out, and indeed how it will develop as a new Republican-controlled Congress takes over next month. But for the time being, D.C. could very well create a marijuana policy as strange as they come.