Congress to allow legal possession of marijuana in D.C. -- but not sales

Consider this a correction to the rapidly outdated WaPo story in Headlines this afternoon. As of last night, it looked like Republicans were going to add a rider to the spending deal being worked out between the House and Senate that would, effectively, overturn the results of the referendum held among D.C. voters last month. Fully 70 percent of Washingtonians who turned out voted yes on a resolution that would legalize public possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and allow residents to grow up to six marijuana plants themselves. Congress gets veto power over municipal laws passed in D.C., though, even when there’s supermajority approval among local residents. Looked like this would be a classic case of Washingtonians being denied the sort of basic self-governance that state residents enjoy and that federalists typically defend.

But now the deal’s been tweaked. Crisis averted?

Negotiators will include language in a must-pass omnibus appropriations bill that will restrict the city from using any funds to enact regulations around the voter-approved legalization initiative through Sept. 30, 2015. The District will still, however, be able to maintain the legalization measure passed by voters in November. D.C. residents over the age of 21 will be able to possess and cultivate personal quantities of marijuana, as the ballot initiative stated…

House Republicans, particularly Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers and junior appropriator Andy Harris of Maryland, had been vehemently pushing for language in the bill that would block both decriminalization and legalization. But Democrats objected, and the two sides reached a compromise that would block funding for any expansion of the ballot initiative, while still allowing the city to legalize marijuana.

Speaking at a press conference shortly after the passage of D.C.’s legalization measure, Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser announced her intent to craft a system for the legalized sale of marijuana in the District. “I see no reason why we wouldn’t follow a regime similar to how we regulate and tax alcohol,” she said at the time. Now such moves — which many supporters view as necessary to making legalization work — will be impossible, for the time being.

You can possess it, you just can’t acquire it unless you’re growing your own. Legalized possession was designed to be merely part one of a two-step process, though, the second step being legalized sales, of course. If you’re looking to undercut the local black market and the gangs who profit from it, obviously you need people to be able to buy the drug legally too. As it is, by freezing D.C.’s transformation to a legalized regime mid-stream, Congress might end up making the black market worse: There’s bound to be some extra buyers now that the sanctions on possession have been lifted, but since illegal drug dealers retain a monopoly on sales, those buyers will become new clients of theirs. And maybe that fear is part of the Republican strategy here — by keeping sales illegal (by refusing to allow federal funds for new regulations), the GOP may have left Washington’s city government with no choice but to suspend legalization of marijuana possession too and deny the gangs those new clients. That way Republicans get to block the entire legalization process while being able to say that, technically, they respected the democratic will of Washingtonians by allowing the recently-passed referendum to stand.

How’s that going to play politically? Well, per last month’s exit polls, a majority of voters nationally favor legalizing marijuana — but that majority has dropped seven points, from 58 percent to 51 percent, since last year. Maybe the 2013 number is an outlier or maybe, as more states vote to legalize, voters think the shift is happening too fast. Only 31 percent of self-identified conservatives support legalization, so the GOP should be fine with its older, more right-wing base, even if that means irritating libertarians and younger adults. As for Washingtonians, they can still enjoy the drug publicly for now provided they can get their hands on it, which, if you’re unwilling to buy from a gang member, isn’t easy to do: If I’m not mistaken, the nearest state where sales are legal is Colorado, some 1,500 miles away. But look on the bright side, DCers. At the rate deep blue Maryland is going, weed should be freely available there sooner rather than later — assuming the state’s new Republican governor doesn’t veto a legalization bill, of course.

Exit question: Republicans can insert a rider that makes funding the government contingent upon banning marijuana sales in D.C. but not contingent upon stopping Obama’s executive amnesty, huh?

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Jazz Shaw 8:01 PM on December 06, 2022