The big prizes on Election Day were Oregon and Alaska, the second and third states, respectively, to legalize recreational pot. But there were other pro-weed victories that attracted less attention, and two of them now pose a direct legal challenge to federal drug policy.
Voters in Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly legalized pot Nov. 4, making their city the largest to end prohibition at the local level. Meanwhile, halfway around the globe, the tiny island territory of Guam adopted medical marijuana.
These are small wins, in terms of overall population, but they may offer an unexpected path to reform at the federal level. Both places are federal zones; Guam is a federal territory while D.C. is a federal district. And the new direction they’ve chosen could chip away at resistance in Congress and elsewhere.
D.C. soon to be legal
Cannabis is now legal under state law in Colorado and Washington, and soon will be in Alaska and Oregon. It will also soon be legal in the District of Columbia, unless Congress intervenes and overturns the vote.
But weed remains illegal in all circumstances under federal law. That means the federal government could step in and nullify the votes in both D.C. and Guam.
The vote in the District was overwhelming: Nearly 70 percent of voters supported legalization. The new policy won’t be complete until the District Council enacts policies to regulate legal marijuana sales, but that’s expected soon.
D.C. has home rule, meaning local officials have final say over most local matters. But Congress always holds the power to reject District policies that conflict with federal law. At least one congressman has already threatened to push through legislation overturning the legalization vote.
Rep. Andy Harris, whose Maryland district borders Washington, D.C., tried earlier this year to scrap a decriminalization law passed by the District Council. He got his bill past the House but failed to win enough votes in the Democratic Senate.
Obama unlikely to alienate heavily Democrat D.C.
Republicans will soon control the Senate, making it easier for Harris this time around. But President Obama must also sign any legislation nullifying District policy, and he’s unlikely to antagonize the heavily Democratic city.
Congress could also try to kill medical marijuana in Guam, though that too would require Obama’s signature. The territory is of little political importance to Democrats or Republicans on the mainland, but that also makes it easier for Republicans to overlook: Conservative voters aren’t going to make much of a fuss over something that happens in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
If both votes stand, in Washington, D.C., and in Guam, it would mark a new chapter of federal tolerance. The feds already claim to take a hands-off approach to state-level reform, but that policy is informal. Allowing reform to continue in zones it directly controls could be a sign of much greater change at the federal level.