D.C. Council Expected to Follow Voters’ Lead and Tax and Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol
Congressional Interference Will Prove Politically Difficult
According to NPR and USA Today, voters in the District of Columbia have approved Initiative 71, a ballot initiative that legalizes possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for adults over the age of 21 and allows individuals to grow up to six marijuana plants in their home. D.C. laws prevented the ballot initiative from addressing the taxation and sale of marijuana, but the D.C. Council is currently considering a bill that would tax, regulate and strictly control the sale of marijuana to adults.
“This was the first legalization campaign in which the racial disproportionality of marijuana enforcement played a major role,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Initiative 71 sets the stage for the D.C. Council to create a new model for legalizing marijuana – one that places racial justice front and center.”
Drug Policy Alliance and its sister organization, Drug Policy Action, provided significant financial assistance and played a leadership role in the Initiative 71 campaign – coordinating efforts around coalition building, voter outreach, and advising on the drafting of the law. DPA’s Dr. Malik Burnett also co-chaired the initiative’s campaign.
D.C., which has the highest per capita marijuana arrest rate in the U.S., has taken a series of steps to reform its marijuana policies over the past year. African Americans make up about half of D.C.’s population – yet they make up 91 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession, even though black and white people use and sell drugs at similar rates.
Statistics like these prompted the D.C. Council to pass one of the most far-reaching decriminalization bills in the country earlier this year, replacing criminal penalties for marijuana possession with a $25 fine. However, even under decriminalization, data from the Metropolitan Police Department revealed that 77% of tickets were written in communities of color.
“The people of D.C. have voted in favor of ending racially-biased marijuana prohibition,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The harms caused by the war on drugs are not fixed with this vote alone; the real healing begins with the D.C. Council developing a tax and regulate system which is based on racial and social justice.”
To take effect, Initiative 71 must be transmitted to the Congress through the D.C. Council, where it will face 30 days of congressional oversight. If Congress does not take action on Initiative 71, it becomes law.
While Congress could conceivably block Initiative 71 from taking effect, it is unlikely that it will do so. The most expedient way to do this would be to pass a congressional resolution of disapproval. But this resolution would have to get through both the House and Senate and be signed into law by the president, all within the 30 days that the bill is before Congress. Alternatively, Congress could attach a rider to an appropriations bill prohibiting D.C. from spending any money to implement the law, but all indications are that 2015 spending (to be finalized in December or possibly early next year) will be handled through a continuing resolution or an omnibus budget deal with no riders.
Roll Call reported today that U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) expressed opposition earlier today to any effort by Congress to block implementation of Initiative 71. Sen. Paul is presently the top Republican on a Senate panel with oversight over local D.C. affairs.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has articulated plans to defend the will of D.C. voters against any effort in Congress to block Initiative 71. “Blacks are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than non-Blacks, and 91 percent of all those arrested for marijuana are Black, although Blacks and Whites use marijuana at the same rate," Congresswoman Norton said. "No Member of Congress has the right to intervene with the city's attempts to erase almost unheard-of disparities.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson also plans to support the will of D.C. voters by transmitting Initiative 71 to Congress without delay. “I will treat Initiative 71 in the same manner as I would any measure passed by the Council and transmit it to Congress without delay. I will urge prompt Council action to adopt any necessary implementing legislation,” he said.
The D.C. Council is currently considering legislation, introduced by Councilmember David Grosso that would tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Last week, D.C. Councilmembers Vincent Orange and Jack Evans held a public hearing on the bill. The Drug Policy Alliance joined the NAACP, ACLU and other civil rights, anti-poverty and labor groups in urging the D.C. Council to dedicate new revenue and jobs that could emerge from taxation and regulation to communities most harmed by the war on drugs.