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Pot policy took something of a leap forward in D.C. this year, as the city not only moved to drop criminal penalties for possession, but also expanded its medical program and even broached the possibility of implementing a Colorado-style system of legal retail sales for recreational users. Until Congress stepped in, that is.
In mid-July, D.C. dropped the penalty for possession of less than an ounce of pot to a $25 ticket—less than what you’d be charged for littering or most parking offenses. The law was premised on a simple idea: Far too many people, primarily black men, were earning themselves criminal records for otherwise harmless transgressions of the city’s punitive drug laws.
Later that month, Mayor Vince Gray signed a bill that dramatically expanded the city’s 18-month-old medical marijuana program: Instead of limiting access to patients suffering from a short list of maladies, he left the decision on whether to use marijuana for medicinal uses up to the doctor and the patient. Since then, the program has expanded dramatically. On July 31, there were 738 registered patients using medical marijuana, while on Dec. 8 there were 1,877.
There were other victories, too. In November, the D.C. Council approved legislation that allows residents who were arrested or convicted of marijuana possession to petition to have their records sealed; some 20,000 residents could benefit. Lawmakers also signed off on a measure that prohibits employers from testing job applicants for marijuana until after they’ve been offered the job.
But pot’s biggest win came on Nov. 4, when 70 percent of D.C. voters cast ballots in favor of Initiative 71, which legalize possession of anything under two ounces of marijuana and allow residents to grow up to six plants in their homes. Only one precinct of the city’s 143 voted against it—and the margin between “Yes” and “No” there was only nine votes.
Of course, for every step forward D.C. takes, there’s usually 535 it could be forced to take back—courtesy of the city’s overlords on Capitol Hill.
After Gray signed the decriminalization bill, Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who represents Maryland’s Eastern Shore—home to alcohol-soaked Ocean City—threatened to block its implementation by inserting a provision into a spending bill prohibiting the city from using any money on it. Despite the fact that his own state had passed a similar decriminalization law, Harris said he was worried about how marijuana could affect children here.
Harris was surprisingly honest about why he chose to interfere in D.C.: because he can. “If somebody wants voting rights, the Constitution is clear: They go to a state, not the federal enclave, and they have voting rights. If they’re in the federal enclave, then Congress is their local legislature,” he said in July.
The Senate refused to play along over the summer, but Harris kept at it. This month, Congress passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that included a rider that, on its face, would seem to prohibit D.C. from spending any money to implement Initiative 71 or further consider legislation introduced by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso that would allow the city to tax and regulate the sale of pot.
Despite the rider’s approval on the Hill, pot and D.C. voting rights advocates say the provision’s vague wording may actually spare the initiative. (It’ll boil down to how lawyers define a single word: “Enact.”) Still, Grosso’s hope to establish a tax-and-regulate system is likely dead. It’s a frustrating reminder that despite 40 years of home rule, we’re still at our core a colony of Congress.
And when it comes to pot, it’s something we should be used to. It was in 1998 that congressional Republicans blocked the city’s voter-approved medical marijuana program from taking effect, delaying it for 11 years. But how much have drug politics changed nationally since then? This month’s spending bill included a provision protecting medical marijuana programs in D.C. and elsewhere from—get this—the federal government.