Congress: Dopelessly Devoted To Disenfranchising DC

The “cromnibus” spending bill currently making its way through the Congressional duodenum contains some discouraging news for the 70 percent of DC residents who voted to end prohibition in the capital last month:

The sweeping omnibus appropriations bill includes a provision that appears to prohibit the District of Columbia from spending any taxpayer funds to carry out marijuana legalization. It does not, however, affect a separate decriminalization measure passed by the City Council this spring, and leaves the city’s medical-marijuana infrastructure intact. The exact meaning of the language, which Republicans and Democrats appeared to be interpreting differently, will be more clear when the House and Senate Appropriations Committees issue full reports explaining the legislation’s implications.

House Republicans had been pushing for language in the bill that would have upended legalization, decriminalization, and medical marijuana. But negotiators whittled the language down to target only the most recently passed initiative, which has yet to be implemented. The omnibus spending bill must be passed by Dec. 12 to avoid a government shutdown, so even those opposed to the measure are unlikely to scuttle the bill’s passage because of the high stakes involved if the omnibus fails.

Still, there may be a loophole allowing the initiative to proceed:

 The text of the bill says no funds “may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated” with recreational use of drugs illegal under federal law. “Some advocates I’ve spoken with aren’t so sure” the bill blocks legalization, Marijuana Majority chairman Tom Angell told The Huffington Post. “It all hinges on the definition of the word ‘enact.'” Angell explained that the question is whether Initiative 71, which voters approved in November legalizing recreational marijuana, should be considered “enacted” on Election Day, or whether “enacting” means the District Council transmitting the initiative to Congress for review, which has not yet occurred.

“I’ve heard good arguments on either side,” Angell said, “and I think it’s up in the air now, especially since press reports from earlier on Tuesday quoted unnamed congressional staffers as saying the bill would allow D.C. to move forward with legalization. Ultimately, it may take a court case to decide what ‘enact’ means.”

Tim Lynch fumes:

As a constitutional matter, the Congress can set policies for the District of Columbia, but this is an awful move.  No vote on marijuana reform, just override the voter-approved measure by inserting language into a gigantic spending bill. Isn’t it interesting that such tactics never seem to be used to downsize the federal government and reduce its powers?  Why not zero out the budget for the DEA or the Export-Import Bank?

“How’s that going to play politically?” Allahpundit asks:

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.

Advocates are planning to march from the Justice Department to Capitol Hill tonight in protest. Not all of the news is bad, though: the bill also blocks the DoJ from meddling in states that have legalized medical marijuana. Phillip Smith notes the potential consequences of this provision:

If the omnibus budget bill is approved, the spending curb could well halt several pending federal criminal cases, including the case of the Kettle Falls Five, who are being prosecuted in Washington, a state where not only medical but recreational marijuana is legal, for growing medical marijuana within state guidelines. It would also severely cramp the style of the DEA, which has conducted hundreds of over-the-top aggressive raids in medical marijuana states. And it could mark an end to numerous civil asset forfeiture cases brought by US Attorneys in California against dispensaries in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and Orange County.

It’s also smart politics, unlike the baffling move to overturn the will of Capital residents. Chris Ingraham flags a new poll showing widespread public support for the federal government butting out of this issue and leaving it for the states to decide:

That’s one of the conclusions of a survey on marijuana legalization recently commissioned by Third Way, a centrist think tank. Similar to other recent polling, the survey found Americans split on the question of full legalization, with 50 percent supporting versus 47 percent opposed. But the poll found that six in ten respondents said that states, and not the federal government, should decide whether to legalize marijuana. And 67 percent of Americans said Congress should go further and specifically carve out an exemption to federal marijuana laws for states that legalize, so long as they have a strong regulatory system in place.

In short, there’s a lot of nuance here. “Even 21% of those opposed to legalization for recreational use still agreed Congress should pass” a waiver policy for the legalization states, according to the report. The waiver approach isn’t without precedent: Congress issues waivers to states all the time.