D.C. supporters of marijuana took a hard punch after House Republicans flexed their muscle against outnumbered Democrats looking to legalize the drug.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) vowed to continue the fight to protect D.C.’s home rule after the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment blocking the District from decriminalizing marijuana.
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) on June 25, prohibited the District of Columbia from spending any of its locally-raised revenues to carry out any law, rule or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce criminal penalties for marijuana. The amendment was directed at a recent law passed by the District of Columbia replacing jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use with a $25 fine.
“The vote by the Republican-led committee violated the central tenants of the Republican Party—limiting the power of the federal government and devolving that power to local governments,” Norton said. “Rep. Harris, a Tea Party supporter, threw his local control principles to the wind. With this vote, Republicans would expand the power of the federal government by overturning a local policy.”
“Rep. Harris, whose state recently decriminalized marijuana, appears to be following in the most exploitive tradition of some Republicans who try to use D.C. to establish their conservative bona fides and raise their national profiles by interfering in the District’s local affairs,” Norton added.
District allies appeared ready for a fight.
“It is outrageous that members of Congress are trying to overturn a locally-enacted law that has the overwhelming support of D.C. voters and the D.C. Council,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “That Rep. Harris is picking on a majority Black district and no other jurisdiction with marijuana decriminalization is very telling. His own state has decriminalized marijuana but he’s not interfering with it.”
A 2013 study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union of the nation’s capital found that Blacks are eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in D.C. than non-Blacks. In fact, in 2010, Blacks constituted 91 percent of all marijuana arrests in D.C., despite the fact that data show Whites and Blacks use marijuana at similar rates.
Advocates decried the attempt by Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee to interfere and potentially block efforts by D.C. lawmakers to eliminate racial disparities that have long persisted in the enforcement of D.C.’s marijuana laws.
“D.C. lawmakers recently decriminalized marijuana possession because the people of the District of Columbia demanded an end to the disproportionate arrest of African Americans for small amounts of marijuana,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, D.C. policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. “Any effort by Congress that would block D.C.’s efforts to reform its marijuana laws denies the people of the Nation’s Capital the democratic right to pursue racial and social justice.”
Last month, the House voted to block the federal government from prosecuting users and sellers of medical marijuana in states that permit the substance. Twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana, 18 states have decriminalized marijuana, and two states have legalized marijuana. A February poll by the Pew Research Center poll found that 54 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization.
“Here we go again,” said Anise Jenkins, executive director of Stand Up! Free DC. “It’s our tax money and we are being told how to spend it. It is D.C. law now, no matter how you feel about decriminalization—we should make the decision—not Congress.”
D.C.’s marijuana decriminalization bill is undergoing a 60-day congressional review period and is expected to take effect in mid-July.
“How dare Rep. Harris deny District voters what they have determined should be their local criminal codes, especially when residents in Maryland do not agree with his policy. He has no moral right to exert this unlimited power over us,” said Anise Jenkins, executive director of Stand Up! Free DC.
For many, the effort by Harris is contradictory to way in which the White House is moving.
“Attorney General Eric Holder has said he wants to work with Congress on a solution to the state-federal conflict, and a majority of the House has voted for initial reform,” said Kris Hermes, media liaison for Americans for Safe Access. “ It’s time for Harris and his out-of-touch allies in Congress to step aside and allow the District of Columbia and the twenty-two states that have passed medical marijuana laws to implement them without federal interference.”
For more than 10 years, Republicans used a rider to block the District from legalizing medical marijuana. Norton was able to remove that rider in 2009.