DC to ease pot laws? Not so fast, says GOP

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If voters in the nation’s capital try to ease marijuana restrictions next week, a House Republican is hoping to block them.

Recent surveys show D.C. voters will likely approve a proposal to legalize small amounts of the drug for recreational use when they go to the polls on Tuesday — a large step beyond the District’s marijuana decriminalization law, which took effect earlier this year.

But Rep. Andy Harris says legalizing the drug would run afoul of federal narcotics laws and also threaten the health and safety of D.C. residents, particularly teenagers.

The two-term Maryland Republican, a member of the Appropriations Committee, is eying legislation to nullify the legalization initiative, if it passes, as part of the government funding debate that will dominate Congress’s lame-duck session.

{mosads}”The federal government should enforce federal law regardless of whether local citizens try to legalize marijuana,” Harris said this week in an email. “If legalization passes, I will consider using all resources available to a member of Congress to stop this action, so that drug use among teens does not increase.”

The threat was immediately condemned by Democrats in Congress and D.C.’s City Hall, who are accusing Harris and the Republicans of unwarranted meddling at the expense of local voters.

“The District of Columbia will not tolerate any legislative bullying, whether it is from Rep. Andy Harris or any other Member of Congress,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Tuesday in an email. “The marijuana referendum, should it pass, is the will of the people. It is democracy in action.”

The office of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) piled on Wednesday, urging Congress to “respect the will of District voters and their elected leaders.”

“To do otherwise does an insult to the democratic ideals on which our nation was founded,” said spokeswoman Doxie McCoy.

In a sense, the issue has spun traditional partisan politics on its head, as Republicans — usually in favor of scaling back federal powers — are arguing for Congress to override the wishes of local voters; and Democrats — historically advocates for a robust federal government — are essentially adopting a strong states-rights approach.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he’s broadly in favor of D.C.’s right to govern itself, but there are limits.

“I’m kind of naive, I guess. I thought federal law trumped state and local law. I thought that’s why we had a supremacy clause,” Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, told The Hill on Friday.

The District’s latest ballot initiative would make it legal for those over 21 years old to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana, grow a small number of cannabis plants in their homes and transfer up to an ounce of the drug to another adult — if no money changes hands.

A Washington Post poll released last month found that voters support the measure by a whopping 65 percent to 33 percent.

Behind Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), the Oversight Committee’s subpanel on Government Operations has staged a series of hearings this year examining the enforcement of marijuana laws, given the gaping discrepancy between federal statutes and those adopted by states like Colorado and Washington.

Mica has been a sharp critic of the trend toward marijuana decriminalization and legalization in D.C. and beyond. His office said Wednesday, however, that the committee has no immediate plans to examine D.C.’s legalization law if it passes next week.

It’s not the first time the D.C. marijuana debate has raged this year.

Over the summer, Harris led the charge against D.C.’s new decriminalization law, which drastically curbs penalties on some recreational use of marijuana. Under that law, those found carrying small amounts of the drug, or smoking it in the privacy of their homes, face civil fines of $25 in lieu of misdemeanor charges.

Harris’s amendment would have nullified the law by barring either federal or local funds from being used to implement it. House Republicans adopted the language as part of D.C.’s 2015 funding bill. But the Democratically controlled Senate never took up the package, and the stopgap spending bill that Congress passed last month excluded the provision.

Norton, meanwhile, says the legalization measure should survive for reasons beyond simple voter preference. Adopting the ballot initiative, she argued, would also help address the racial discrepancies surrounding drug arrests. 

“Blacks are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than non-Blacks, and 91 percent of all those arrested for marijuana are Black, although Blacks and Whites use marijuana at the same rate,” she said in her email. “No Member of Congress has the right to intervene with the city’s attempts to erase almost unheard-of disparities.”

Norton might not have to fight too hard, at least this year, as even some Republican critics of D.C.’s legalization push say Congress simply won’t have the time or the appetite to take up that fight before the next Congress arrives.

“We have other knitting to attend to,” Gowdy said.

Tags Andy Harris Cannabis laws District of Columbia Eleanor Holmes Norton John Mica Trey Gowdy Vincent Gray Washington DC

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