This Election Day was a resounding victory for marijuana policy reform, as voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC passed referendums to legalize the plant. One of the places among the three is different from the rest – namely, DC, in which the Capitol Hill itself is located, is a special district under more direct control from Congress.
This is significant in two ways. One – people have legalized marijuana in Congress’ backyard at the very moment this federal legislative body is unwilling to loosen the grip of prohibition and that is symbolically powerful. Two – since Congress has the power to directly repeal local laws in DC, it is a barometer indicating how much willingness remains with the federal overlords to undermine the will of the people across the country. We all know that drumming up the War on Drugs is now not only bad policy but also more and more evidently bad politics due to changes in American public opinion, but a measure on how much leftover momentum drug warriors still possess among federal legislators will be helpful in calibrating local strategies to respond to any intimidation from Washington.
On this, we have some recent updates. The new chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the committee in charge of reviewing DC laws, is Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Johnson stated that he was open to let DC’s reform law stand but wanted to hold Congressional hearings about it. He was quoted in a Roll Call blog as saying, ”That’s a relatively complex issue … we’re not enforcing federal law … right now I’m just sitting here watching the states’ experiment and seeing how that happens.” While this is a non-committal stance and we cannot be sure legalization in DC would be safe under his watch, his words were a far cry from the ferocious Congressional reaction to the passage of medical marijuana in DC in, when then-drug warrior Bob Barr was able to convince his colleagues to pass an amendment to disallow even counting the votes casted for the measure.
Johnson’s House colleague, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) years ago wanted to continue Barr’s prohibitionist crusade in the nation’s capital by trying to block its medical marijuana law. This round, however, while he stayed vocally opposed to reform, seemed less enthusiastic, saying “There’s not much I can do about it,” suggesting that even someone like him has learned the lesson that blatantly going against voters’ wishes does not benefit him politically. What we are seeing here is, besides a few stubborn holdouts and clowns like Andy Harris, that the general inertia on the federal legislative level may be too weak to block the overwhelming avalanche of local reform measures, and that is encouraging to us as reformers working on the state and local level.
We certainly see a tussle developing on Capitol Hill about what to do with legal marijuana that would blossom just miles away. If the voters’ voice ultimately is respected, albeit certainly reluctantly by Congress, then it will further embolden states and localities to take a similar stand. If Congress’ irrational hostility towards either marijuana legalization or DC local autonomy leads to it shutting down legalization in the capital city by strong-arm tactics, citizens of all states then should take it as a wake-up call, if they have not realized already, that Congress isn’t their friend and is more than willing to impose its own outdated will without any pretensions of local control. In the latter case, the model legislation advocated by Peace on the Streets, P.E.A.C.E (Preventing Excessive Allocations for Cannabis Enforcement) Act, would be even more necessary for states to resist impending federal encroachment.