Did Congress Just Block Marijuana Legalization in DC?

People often complain that Congress doesn’t do anything. The naysayers believe that partisanship has created a gridlock in the legislative branch, preventing any laws from being passed. Well, with less than a month before the new Republican controlled Congress replaces the old divided Congress, senators and representatives are lining up to show that they can get things done. The first item on their list was the No Social Security for Nazis Act (the name speaks for itself). The second item on the agenda is a federal spending bill for 2015.

dc marijuana lawsThat might not sound very interesting, but federal spending bills usually hide all kinds of controversial provisions. Politicians often use these bills to fund organizations they support and defund organizations they oppose. Exhibit A is recreational marijuana in Washington D.C. Last election, voters in the District of Columbia voted to decriminalize and legalize cannabis. That’s hardly surprising. Before November, the local penalty for marijuana possession was a mere $25 fine. Traffic tickets are more expensive than D.C. marijuana fines. So it was hardly a shock when D.C. voters approved Initiative-71, an initiative to decriminalize marijuana, by a solid majority of 70%.

If D.C. was a state, the initiative would have been become law. Under the Constitution though, Congress has final control over Washington D.C. If D.C. passes a law that the federal government doesn’t like, Congress has a month to overturn it. Congress often meddles in D.C.’s politics, blocking nationally controversial laws such as abortion and medical marijuana. Congress is expected to do it again.

The federal spending bill has a provision that would prohibit federal and local D.C. funds from being used to implement an initiative legalizing marijuana. Although the White House had warned Congress against interfering with the marijuana initiative, President Obama will likely sign the bill since vetoing the federal spending bill could result in another government shutdown.

Drug Policy and Progressive Ideals

The most disappointing aspect of this bill is that Congress really didn’t have to take this step. Indeed, both parties could benefit from a change in drug policy.

Democratic leaders in Congress will attempt to portray the bill as a compromise to save the initiative. The D.C. provision would theoretically prevent local D.C. government from creating regulation to sell and grow marijuana, but decriminalization would be preserved. Given the recent racial tensions in Ferguson and New York though, fully defending the D.C. marijuana initiative should be more than justified. Eric Garner died after a police confrontation over cigarettes. Democrats understand that drug enforcement is often arbitrary and minorities are incarcerated more because of drug traffic laws. This was an opportunity to change our archaic drug laws in a tense political climate and Democratic leadership squandered it.

Drug Policy and Conservative Ideals

Republican policy on drugs is even more perplexing. While Democrats understand that drugs lead to more minority arrests, current drug laws are contrary to the principles that Republicans stand for. Republican congressman cannot claim to be the party of limited government and local governance while simultaneously using federal power to block a popular local initiative approved by voters.

Reversing the War on Drugs is more beneficial to Republicans on other political fronts. Illegal immigrants from Central and South America come to the United States because their countries have been turned into cesspools by large drug cartels. These drug cartels are multi-national empires built on the black markets created by our drug laws. We can put up as many walls as want and deport as many illegal aliens as we can, but the long-term solution will be to shut off the drug cartels that are driving illegal immigrants into this country. Republicans cannot stop illegal immigration without changing our drug laws.

It’s amazing how many political issues are connected to our drug policy. Illegal immigration, racial equality, police militarization, and prison overcrowding are all tied into the massive drug system we’ve built. The D.C. initiative was the perfect symbol of change. Instead, Congress has decided to keep a broken status quo. We don’t need Congress to pass more laws. We need Congress to have better vision.

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