Spending Bill That Blocks Marijuana Reform Also Blocks Federal Interference With Marijuana Reform


Office of Dana Rohrabacher

Here is a revealing snapshot of the conflicting impulses at work within the Republican Party: The same omnibus spending bill that blocks the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Washington, D.C., demands that the federal government refrain from interfering with the legalization of marijuana for medical use in Washington, D.C. Both riders were sponsored by House Republicans who are generally viewed as conservative.

The anti-legalization amendment, introduced by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), prohibits the District of Columbia from spending federal or local funds to "legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution" of marijuana or any other Schedule I drug. In June an earlier version of the Harris amendment, attached to another spending bill, passed the House Appropriations Committee by a mainly party-line vote, but it was omitted from the final legislation because of resistance from Senate Democrats.

The medical marijuana amendment, introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), prohibits the Justice Department (which includes the Drug Enforcement Administration) from spending money to "prevent" D.C. or the states from "implementing…laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana." The Rohrabacher amendment passed the House last May with support from 219 members, including 49 Republicans. A Senate version, co-sponsored by Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), was introduced in June but never got a vote.

Explaining his motivation for opposing marijuana reform, Harris says he worries that legalizing adult use, or even reducing the penalties for it, "will result in higher drug use among teens." His position is conservative in the sense that he wants to retain the current policy of prohibition, which was imposed at the federal level 77 years ago. It is also conservative in the sense that it expresses animosity toward the countercultural values that cannabis continues to represent in the minds of many right-wing Republicans.

Rohrabacher's attitude toward marijuana reform can be described as conservative as well, since he prefers local control to congressional dictates. Last month he joined Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s congressional delegate, in urging his colleagues to respect the will of the voters who overwhelmingly approved marijuana legalization in the District on November 4. Rohrbacher argued that trying to block legalization in D.C. or in Alaska and Oregon, where voters also said no to marijuana prohibition last month, would flout "fundamental principles" that "Republicans have always talked about," including "individual liberties," "limited government," and "states' rights and the 10th Amendment."

Strictly speaking, "states' rights" do not apply to the District of Columbia, which was created by Congress and is subject to much more extensive federal control than the states are. As Harris notes, "D.C.'s not a state." But the arguments for federalism—in particular, the idea that political decisions should be made at the lowest feasible level to facilitate citizen influence, familiarity with local conditions, policy experimentation, and competition among jurisdictions—apply to D.C. as well as the states. Last year Rohrabacher introduced the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, which reflects his federalist approach to drug policy. It would lift the federal ban on marijuana in states that decide to legalize the drug for medical or recreational use. 

Paul, who like Rohrabacher believes drug policy should be handled mainly at the state and local levels, agrees that Congress should not interfere with the District's choices in this area. "I think there should be a certain amount of discretion for both states and territories and the District," he told reporters on Election Day. "I'm not for having the federal government get involved."

The two marijuana riders, in short, pit venerable conservative principles against blind hatred of a plant. Which agenda represents a more promising future for the Republican Party?