Politics and Pot: Will D.C. Marijuana Initiative 71 Stand?

The Republican Party won enough races in this month’s elections to take control of both the U.S. Senate and strengthen their majority in the House of Representatives. Other victors were supporters of legalized marijuana. By a margin of over 2 to 1 (96,899 yes votes to 42,495 no votes), Washington, D.C. residents approved Ballot Initiative 71 (“I-71”), which, if enacted, legalizes certain marijuana personal use and home cultivation. The Republican takeover of Congress is certain; the actual implementation of I-71 is not. These two election victories may prove to be intricately related as a failure or significant delay in implementing I-71 could ultimately result from the Republican victory.

Under I-71, individuals 21 years of age or older can legally possess, use, purchase, or transport up to two ounces of marijuana within the District.  Moreover, individuals can legally possess, grow, and harvest up to six marijuana plants in their homes with no more than three flowering plants.

Are concerns about Congressional Republicans’ intentions to block I-71 well-founded? Already, at least some Congressional Republicans are targeting I-71 as undesirable legislation. The question is – how many? Maryland Representative Andy Harris has vowed to use all his power to block I-71’s implementation. Previously, Representative Harris unsuccessfully attempted to restrict the District’s budget authority as part of an overall strategy to sideline the District’s Simple Possession of Small Quantities of Marijuana Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2013 that decriminalized the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. In addition, Congress previously delayed D.C.’s enactment of its medical marijuana laws for over a decade by stalling the budget for their implementation.

If such concerns are well-founded, how would Congress prevent a D.C. voter initiative from being enacted? Under the Home Rule Act, the D.C. Council Chairman must submit I-71 to both houses of Congress for approval. To invalidate I-71, both houses of Congress need to pass a joint resolution of disapproval within thirty days after receiving I-71 from the Chairman. If such a joint resolution became law, it would repeal I-71. Given that President Obama can veto such a joint resolution, this seems (thankfully) unlikely.

Another more likely option is that Congress would tie District funding for I-71 to federal spending bills to effectively prevent a budget for its implementation. Unlike states, the District of Columbia is overseen by the federal government. Consequently, the District’s laws and budget must be approved by Congress.

Why would Congress delay or attempt to prevent implementation of a ballot initiative that was overwhelmingly passed by the D.C. electorate? One reason that a Republican Congress may attempt to thwart I-71 is to stymie a swelling wave of national consensus that favors laws decriminalizing marijuana. Congressional Republicans may also undermine I-71 to try to slow down pro-marijuana momentum that they may view as bordering on unstoppable following successful marijuana legalization initiatives in Alaska and Oregon in addition to Colorado and Washington, states where commercial marijuana operations are currently legal under state law.

In addition, arguments about stopping a pro-marijuana groundswell also tie into the more obvious, yet likely true, reason why Republicans would want to eliminate or delay I-71 – politics. Congressional Republicans have traditionally made it a party priority to take tough positions on criminal issues, including our nation’s drug laws. As the now dominant political party in control of the District, the possible legalization of marijuana possession and use under the Republican’s watch does not really complement the party’s overall election strategy for 2016. Ultimately, Republicans may determine that cementing a reputation of being tough on crime and drugs warrants “pulling out all the stops” to prevent I-71’s implementation.

If Republicans decide not to get involved with I-71, the measure will be effective thirty days after being transmitted to Congress. If they act through an official resolution of disapproval or through the budgetary process to block or delay the bill’s implementation, D.C. residents may have to wait for their democratically voiced vote on marijuana to become effective. But D.C. residents are patient – they have waited hundreds of years just for the right to elect a representative to Congress, the legislative body that may ultimately decide to overrule their initiative. Some things, like I-71’s implementation, are worth the wait.