The national marijuana legalization debate is moving into the backyard of a Republican-controlled Congress, now that the District of Columbia has voted to legalize growing, possessing and sharing small amounts of pot.
Voters in Oregon and Alaska also approved legalization initiatives, joining Colorado and Washington state, where pot is already legally available.
But while states out West enjoy both autonomy and distance, federal lawmakers have the power to quash any District law they don’t like. And with legalization getting a foothold on the East Coast for the first time, the District’s initiative could force Congress to make decisions affecting the future of legal pot nationwide.
“Members of Congress are literally going to be witness to these changes,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which spent heavily to push all three ballot initiatives. “It’s a form of educating the members of Congress in a way that some members would not get educated, depending on the states that they’re from.”
All laws in the nation’s capital are sent to Capitol Hill for review. Congress rarely invokes that power, but when members do want to block District policies, they can attach amendments to unrelated, omnibus legislation too critical to be vetoed. Congress routinely bars the spending of local tax dollars on abortions for poor women using this strategy, and delayed medical marijuana in the District for more than a decade.
The District voted 69-31 percent Tuesday to approve the growing, possessing or sharing of up to two ounces of pot and up to three mature marijuana plants for personal use. Months earlier, a decriminalization law took effect, limiting the penalty for possession of a personal-use amount to a $25 ticket.
But it could take months at least before pot-smoking is totally OK in the District. Elected officials and advocates can’t even agree whether the Congressional review period lasts 30 days while the House and Senate are both in session, or 60.
Also, the initiative doesn’t provide for the legal sale or taxation of marijuana.
Democratic mayor-elect Muriel Bowser said Wednesday that she won’t let it take effect until the D.C. Council implements rules that she said could be “similar to how we tax and regulate alcohol.”
D.C. Cannabis Campaign chairman Adam Eidinger vowed to challenge any delay, which he said could thwart the will of the voters for years. Colorado allowed home cultivation for more than a year before its first marijuana dispensaries opened, he noted.
“Three plants or less doesn’t need to be taxed and regulated,” he said. “They don’t regulate people who brew their own beer.”
The incoming mayor has no immediate power over the initiative but once she takes office in January she could introduce a bill that delays implementation until a regulatory scheme is enacted.
Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, tried to block the decriminalization law, and said Wednesday that he’ll try to block legalization as well, arguing that drug use among teenagers will rise if they fail to stop it.
But polls have shown a majority of Americans favor legalization, and Republicans are far from united in opposition.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee that oversees the District, said Tuesday that the city’s pot laws should be left to local officials. Paul also has sought to block the federal government from interfering with states’ medical marijuana programs.
If the Republican-led Congress does try to quash the initiative by amending some bill President Barack Obama won’t veto, it could force him antagonize his base after advocates pointed to the huge racial disparities in marijuana arrests in the nation’s capital.
In Florida, 58 percent of voters were for legalization of medical marijuana on Tuesday, narrowly missing the 60 percent needed to amend the state’s constitution.
“This is just the first battle, and I plan to win the war,” said Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, who vowed Wednesday to begin working on another try in 2016.
Other legalization advocates plan a big push for similar initiatives on 2016 ballots in California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, Nadelmann said.
Legalization opponent Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said his side would need to respond in kind. Tuesday’s votes were “a bit of a wake-up call before 2016,” he said, noting that legalization advocates had vastly outspent opponents this time.
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