Republican members of the House of Representatives moved in late June to block a new Washington, D.C., ordinance that decriminalizes marijuana.
The House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment June 27 that would prevent District officials from treating simple possession as a civil violation rather than a crime. Though Washington is a home-rule city, it’s still subject to oversight by Congress.
The vote, 28 to 21, was a signal that the full House will try to strip the decriminalization law. But the committee is just the first step in a longer process, one that’s unlikely to lead to defeat of the weed policy.
Even if the full House passes the amendment, which could happen shortly, the Senate must still approve it, and so must President Obama. Democrats dominate the Senate, and they’re unlikely to thumb their noses at the Democratic capital.
There’s little chance Obama would sign the amendment, either. Presidents have approved bills interfering with home rule only three times since 1973.
Still, media breathlessly pointed to the vote as an end to decriminalization – and possibly medical marijuana as well. The District adopted medical weed in 2011, and the first pot dispensaries opened last year.
Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, warned that the bill would affect medicinal pot as well as recreational. The amendment threatens to remove the capital’s marijuana laws and re-criminalize the drug, but some observers say the move could backfire.
Some marijuana proponents have argued that the amendment would strip all marijuana laws in the District, leaving the city with no enforceable restrictions at all. The city’s attorney general’s office said it was reviewing the possibility.
“Basically what would happen is, this amendment, the way it’s written, would not recriminalize or rewrite the laws around criminalization of marijuana,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Police issuing tickets to people who they found to have marijuana on their person wouldn’t be able to do so [and] that would create a sort of de facto legalization.”
The cannabis ordinance, adopted by the District Council and approved by Gray, will remove criminal penalties for possession in the district. Instead, violators will pay a $25 fine, one of the lowest in the nation. The policy is set to take effect July 17.
If the amendment clears the House, the Senate, and the president, it would take effect shortly after that date. Since it only deals with decriminalization policy, not re-criminalization of the drug, it would force cops to stop writing tickets without providing an alternative punishment.
That “would have practical effect of making marijuana possession essentially legal in the Nation’s Capital,” Burnett said.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, Republican of Maryland, authored the House amendment. If it passes, D.C. would be barred from decriminalizing, even though Harris’s home state did so earlier this year.
The vote comes shortly after the House passed a bill blocking federal agencies from interfering with medical marijuana in states that allow it. Still, Harris predicted he would get enough votes to pass the amendment in the full House.
“What the amendment will do is prohibit not only federal funds but D.C. funds to be used to decriminalize marijuana under the current statute,” Harris said.
But supporters of the policy said they would fight to keep decriminalization alive. U.S. Rep. Eleanor Norton, the non-voting House delegate from the District, said she wasn’t surprised by the vote.
“We will simply have to fight,” Norton said. “And fight we will.”