Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote, wants Congress to let D.C. manage its own affairs. (Courtesy of DCVote)
The recent action by the United States Congress to nullify the District’s marijuana legalization program has upset city residents who say that federal lawmakers should stay out of the District’s local affairs.
On Nov. 4, District voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 71, legalizing marijuana in small amounts. Nevertheless, the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 11 and the U.S. Senate on Dec. 14 successfully added a rider to the $1.1 trillion appropriations bill that would deny funds to implement marijuana legalization in the District. City leaders are upset.
“Congress moved to overturn a ballot initiative passed overwhelmingly by D.C. residents,” Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote, said. “That is an outrage and offends the fundamental principles of democracy. In response, we release the following statement: ‘Any attempt by Congress to preemptively block the elected government of the District of Columbia from passing any law is unconscionable.’”
The House passed the appropriation bill with the anti-District rider, 219-206 and the Senate followed with a 56-40 tally. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who was born in the District, issued a statement on Dec. 11 saying that “this omnibus undermines the democratic will of the citizens of the District of Columbia,” and voted against it. President Obama has indicated that while he doesn’t support many provisions of the bill, he will sign it to keep the government in operation until September 2015.
The effort to gut the District’s marijuana laws is led by U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who represents Maryland’s Eastern Shore. However, his state colleague, U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) doesn’t like what Harris has done. “Members of Congress are treating the District like it’s a fiefdom.” Van Hollen said Dec. 12 on NewsChannel 8’s “News Talk with Bruce DePuyt. “They say they support local government except when it comes to the District. This is an example of Congress at its worst.”
Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution gives Congress power over the District. Power to elect politicians to govern the city was given to residents in 1973 when the Home Rule Act was passed by Congress, but federal lawmakers still have the final say over the city’s budget and laws.
Colorado, Washington state, Alaska, and Oregon have legalized marijuana and several states are in the active process of considering it. The action by Congress to attempt nullification of the marijuana legalization process doesn’t surprise D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large).
“Here we go again,” Grosso said. “They could not go into their own jurisdictions and do this. They have nowhere else to go so they treat us like second-class citizens.”
What bothers Grosso is Obama’s inaction regarding the matter. “The president of the United States is not defending our rights,” he said.
On Dec. 15, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he will ignore Congress and work toward implementing the pro-marijuana initiative. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said the bill’s attempt to gut the city’s marijuana laws will not work. “Based on the plain reading of the bill and principles of statutory interpretation, the District may be able to carry out its marijuana legislation initiative,” she said. “Under the alternative reading, Initiative 71 has already been enacted, it is self-executing, that no further D.C. funds or action are needed, and will take effect after the expiration of the congressional layover period,” she said.
The District’s DC Appleseed for Law and Justice, a think tank, concurs with Norton, but has gone further. “The bill passed by Congress is an appropriations bill and as a result, the language in that bill doesn’t overturn the District’s initiative; all it does is provide that ‘None of the funds contained in the act may be used to enact any, law, rule, or regulation ‘legalizing marijuana possession,” according to an analysis of the bill on DC Appleseed’s website authored by Executive Director Walter Smith. “Provided the District uses none of those FY2015 funds to pay for any activities regarding Initiative 71, the District can proceed with those activities.”
The analysis said that the District can use its reserve funds to pay for marijuana legalization, pointing out that the District used its reserve funds to keep the city government operating during the federal government shutdown of 2013 and Congress didn’t object.
Still, the issue for residents is congressional interference. “We do not believe that Congress should spend a lot of time interfering with the ability of the citizens of the District of Columbia,” Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Anthony Lorenzo Green tweeted recently.