In a Washingon Post op-ed piece published last Friday, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) defends his attempt to block marijuana legalization in the nation's capital. Harris and his co-author, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) argue that 1) marijuana is dangerous, 2) Congress has the constitutional authority to dictate public policy in the District of Columbia, and 3) allowing marijuana legalization there "would create legal chaos."
Harris and Pitts devote most of their words to the first point, which is the least relevant. Marijuana, like every other psychoactive drug, can cause problems when used inappropriately or excessively. But as the president and his drug czar have admitted, marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol in that respect. Last month D.C. voters overwhelmingly agreed that it makes no sense to treat cannabis consumers like criminals when drinkers suffer no such harassment and punishment. Harris and Pitts evidently disagree. But if, as they claim, they believe "the people of the District should have a local government that is tailored to their needs," why override the voters' judgment on this matter?
Harris and Pitts are right that Congress has the legal power to do so, but that does not mean it should. Nor does that mean it has. As I have pointed out, the rider that Harris inserted into the omnibus spending bill Congress passed last week bars the District from spending money to "enact" laws decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. But Initiative 71, which legalizes possession, home cultivation, and sharing of marijuana, was enacted the day that voters approved it by a 2-to-1 margin. It takes effect automatically unless Congress passes (and President Obama signs) a joint resolution rejecting it. Congress must do so no later than 30 legislative days after D.C. Council President Phil Mendelson officially transmits the initiative, which he still plans to do next month. "The duty to transmit is not discretionary in my view," Mendelson told reporters yesterday. He elaborated in an interview with Roll Call:
I'm not trying to defy anybody. I'm responsible for transmitting the initiative. I have a very clear requirement in the Home Rule Act to transmit the legislation. Congress has the ability to step in when that legislation is transmitted, so I don't see anything that's provocative here and I certainly don't intend any provocation.
The problem for Harris is that getting a joint resolution passed (let alone getting the president to sign it) before the review period elapses would be much tougher to accomplish than attaching a rider to a must-pass spending bill at the end of a legislative session. So he will continue to insist that his rider not only blocks the D.C. Council's plans to license and regulate marijuana businesses but also nullifies Initiative 71, even though there seems to be a strong legal case that he's wrong.
Assuming Harris is wrong, will "legal chaos" ensue? Harris and Pitts worry that "individuals possessing an amount of marijuana legal by District law could find themselves arrested and prosecuted after they walk into a federal building or step into a federal park." But the same sort of potential exists in states that legalize marijuana. In fact, the federal government controls more of the land in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state than it does in Washington, D.C. Yet Colorado and Washingtion, which legalized possession two years ago, seem to be managing all right. Cannabis consumers in Alaska and Oregon likewise will have to keep in mind the risks they face if they venture into a federal courthouse or national park with weed in their pockets. Probably they will prefer such chaos to a more orderly system in which they can be arrested everywhere they go.