Blog Post

Washington, DC Has Long Served as Center Stage for the Modern Drug War

Malik Burnett and Kathleen J. Frydl

Rep. Andy Harris’s (R-MD) recent appropriations rider to block marijuana decriminalization in Washington, DC is by no means the first instance of federal overreach into efforts surrounding drug policy reform in the District of Columbia. In fact, the District of Columbia has served as center stage for the policies which have served to define the modern drug war.

For most of its history, District residents lived under the jurisdiction of laws that they had no ability to make or to change. Prior to the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973, the US Congress set all policy in the District of Columbia.  In fact, mandatory minimum sentencing and no-knock search policy were first established in the District by white southern politicians, who attained prominent committee positions in Congress by virtue of seniority obtained by mass disenfranchisement.

Since World War II, the District has served as the proverbial proving ground for the some of the most radical tactics and invasive tools of the drug war. These tools have always been extraordinarily uneven in their implementation and use, even within the District.  The first high-profile application of mandatory minimums in the District came in the 1954 prosecution of “Catfish” Turner and his associates, all of whom were African American. Because three of Turner’s co-conspirators had prior convictions, they were all subject to mandatory minimum sentences.

In post-trial commentary, the two U.S. Attorneys who prosecuted the case remarked to Washington Post at the time, “As it turns out, this group [the Turner ring] consisted primarily of Negroes…” said U.S. Attorney Thomas Wadden; he went on to add, “the narcotic traffic…knows no racial or geographic boundaries. We have found addiction and peddling among various racial groups and in many parts of Washington.” Clearly, the demographics of the illicit drug market have always been diverse, unfortunately the targets of counter-narcotics efforts do not reflect the same diversity.

More recently, the 1998 Barr Amendment, which effectively prohibited the implementation of the District’s medical marijuana program for over 12 years, is still fresh in the minds of many District residents and patients who have just started to experience the benefits and legal protections afforded to them through this program.  

Despite the aforementioned obstacles, leaders within the District continue their efforts to reform drug policy.  While Congress has relented to some of the District’s demands for self-determination, it is clear that a quiet fervor for interference remains.

Wednesday’s vote in the House Appropriations Subcommittee to defund the District’s marijuana decriminalization program was short-sighted, ill-conceived, and disingenuous.  Rep. Harris, a physician, attempted to justify the move by hiding behind the Hippocratic Oath and claiming that “decriminalization of marijuana will harm D.C. residents, especially youth.”

Unfortunately, the doctor fails to realize that the health outcomes associated with marijuana use pale in comparison to the health outcomes for families and children associated with mass incarceration.

Moreover, given the fact that his own state of Maryland has passed decriminalization of marijuana, this move by Harris smacks of the imperial mentality which dominated DC’s past: a lawmaker who crafts laws that he never imagines will apply to him, or anyone he judges to be like him, but that he nevertheless patronizingly deems to be for our own benefit.

Dr. Malik Burnett is a physician and policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.  Dr. Kathleen J. Frydl is the author of The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973.

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