D.C. marijuana vote: Will GOP Congress undo legalization?

D.C. votes to legalize recreational marijuana, but the last word rests with the now-more-conservative Congress, which reviews all legislation passed by the District.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
Adam Eidinger, chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, poses for a portrait at the DC Cannabis Campaign headquarters, where he works in support of DC Ballot Initiative 71 to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use, in Washington on Oct. 9, 2014. The measure passed, but Congress has the final say.

Washington, D.C., voters gave a thumbs up to legal recreational marijuana in Tuesday’s midterm election. But before residents can legally light up, the new Republican-led Congress, as well as President Obama, will have to say either, “Go for it,” or, “Sorry, dude.”

Given dramatic shifts in how Americans view pot – a key target of the “war on drugs” – the majority vote in the District mirrors similar legalization votes Tuesday night in Alaska and Oregon, which followed Washington and Colorado in legalizing a drug still classified by the US government as a highly illicit substance, along the lines of heroin or LSD.

So far, the US Justice Department has cautiously allowed state legalization experiments to move forward to complaints from some conservatives, who say that marijuana and a weed-hazed, hippie culture is not benign. 

But with Washington, D.C., voters now pressing the issue, it could force Congress and the White House finally to weigh on legal marijuana. A 2014 Pew poll suggested that 54 percent of Americans now support marijuana legalization.

By law, Congress reviews all legislation passed by the District, which has no voting representation on Capitol Hill. US lawmakers have 60 days to review new laws in the District, and Rep. Andy Harris, an anti-legalization Republican from Maryland, for one, has vowed to make it an issue.

Of course, even if Congress ultimately stays mum, that alone will speak volumes, especially given what Tom Angell, the head of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, told The Huffington Post last night:

"It's going to be increasingly difficult for national politicians to continue ignoring the growing majority of voters who want to end prohibition." What's more, he added, "Now the road to the White House quite literally travels through legal marijuana territory."

The pot-in-the-capital theme comes at an interesting time, especially given a midterm election that seemed to steer America to the right, with Republicans taking the reins of the Senate and shoring up power in the House.

Opposition to legalized marijuana remains strong in some parts of the electorate, especially in the Bible Belt. But while the GOP has been historically associated with the war on drugs, some Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul, a potential presidential aspirant, have begun to express interest in legalization. They oppose prohibition on constitutional grounds, and they also wish to reach out to younger, more socially liberal voters.

“[Tuesday’s] results are particularly encouraging since voter turnout during a midterm election is typically smaller, older, and more conservative,” said Rob Kampia, the executive director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit that advocates for legalization, in a statement. “Clearly, support for ending marijuana prohibition spans the political and ideological spectrums.”

Congress has largely stayed out of the legal battle lines set up over pot by voters in the West. But that’s a luxury politicians may no longer have, as proponents of legalization vow to continue what’s become a state-to-state march, similar to the gay marriage movement, that banks on changing cultural mores around marijuana consumption.

At the same time, the legalization question was framed very differently in Washington, D.C., than in other parts of the country.

The referendum, for one, was posited largely as a civil rights issue, citing statistics that show young black men are targeted for marijuana arrests (in some counties, by a 10-to-1 ratio compared with whites) even though younger whites, on average, are more likely to smoke pot and carry the substance.

What’s more, the law approved by D.C. voters Tuesday veers away from legalization efforts in other states. Instead of putting in place a commercial licensing and enforcement framework, the D.C. initiative doesn’t allow commercial activity, but simply legalizes possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and six plants. The only way the plant material can change hands, by law, is charity, or “grow and give.”

In some ways, Congress may find the D.C. gambit more palatable than other state experiments – and may, some suggest, even see it as a model.

The problem with the emerging “Big Marijuana” movement, critics contend, is that it, like the alcohol industry, provides incentives for an industry to peddle its products to younger demographics in search of profits. Concerns about pot use becoming more prevalent among kids remains at the forefront of opposition to legalization.

“If the goal is to allow adults to toke up in peace – without the hassle of finding a ‘420-friendly’ physician and pretending to have some ailment – and to stop arresting so many users and low-level cannabis dealers, disproportionately poor and minorities, it can be done without involving the ‘potrepreneurs’ now hoping to cash in on the Green Rush,” writes Mark Kleiman in Slate.

The D.C. model, Mr. Kleiman adds, “might be a big improvement on the current prohibition … [since] eliminating organized marketing would likely lead to a much smaller increase – if any – in cannabis abuse than we would expect if we sell pot the way we now sell beer.”

While the pro-legalization referendums were big news, Tuesday’s voters weren’t all sold on weed. While the voters of Guam, a US protectorate, approved a medical marijuana bill, Florida – that super Southern battleground state – just said no to medical marijuana.

And to the north, the voters of Lewiston, Maine, also decided they’re not ready for legal recreational pot in their town.

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