Marijuana plants are displayed.
Photo by Anthony Bolante/Reuters

Republicans love local control, except when they don’t

When the voters of Colorado decided to legalize use of marijuana, pot became legal statewide. When voters in the state of Washington decided to legalize use of marijuana, pot became legal there, too. And this year, voters in Washington, D.C., went to the polls and overwhelmingly agreed to legalize up to 2 ounces of marijuana for adult, recreational use.
 
The difference is, unlike every state, the people of the District of Columbia have to worry whether Congress will allow these Americans – who pay federal taxes but have no voice in federal lawmaking – to approve their own policies.
 
In theory, this shouldn’t be too big a problem. After all, congressional Democrats don’t care if D.C. voters voted to legalize small amounts of pot, and congressional Republicans claim to believe in a small federal government that emphasizes local control.
 
But the funny thing about Republican principles is just how malleable they can be. The Washington Post reported overnight:
The District will be prohibited from legalizing marijuana for the much of the coming year under a spending deal reached Tuesday…. The development – upending voter-approved Initiative 71 – shocked elected D.C. leaders, advocates for marijuana legalization and civil liberties groups who earlier in the day had grown confident that the measure would be at least partially protected while Democrats still controlled the Senate.
 
However, with Republicans set to take control of the chamber in January, the defeat suggested that the will of D.C. voters – who approved marijuana legalization last month by a margin of more than 2 to 1 – may be suspended indefinitely.
To be sure, Senate Democrats tried to push back against the change, but House Republicans were insistent – and with a deadline looming, Dems didn’t see this as an issue worthy of a shutdown.
 
So, at the demand of far-right Republicans, the big federal government will crush the popular will of local voters, simply because conservative lawmakers feel like it.
 
Indeed, D.C. is now left in a very awkward policy position, forced on the city by a Congress in which voters have no voice.
 
Specifically, the provision in the spending bill doesn’t undo local voters’ decision, but rather, it prevents any resources – federal or local funds – from being used to implement the voter-approved law. As German Lopez explained:
At first glance, this might seem like a weird approach. DC’s legalization initiative costs nothing; it actually saves the district money to not enforce laws against marijuana possession. The ballot measure actually couldn’t cost money in the first place, since DC ballot initiatives, by law, can’t have a direct impact on the local budget.
 
But the budget bill would prohibit DC Council from spending its time and resources to approve the legalization initiative and send it to Congress. Under federal law, that’s a necessary step for legalization to take effect.
The Republican approach was spearheaded by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who said the District’s policy poses a possible health risk, which compelled him to overrule the local law, regardless of the community’s wishes.
 

District of Columbia, Drugs, House Republicans and Marijuana

Republicans love local control, except when they don't