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The biggest loser in the CRomnibus: the rights of DC residents

A petitioner holds up forms for the marijuana legalization campaign in Washington, DC.
A petitioner holds up forms for the marijuana legalization campaign in Washington, DC.
DC Cannabis Campaign
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The White House's logic for passing the CRomnibus spending package is simple: it's not getting any better next year. The alternative to passing it was passing a clean three-month spending bill, then the newly Republican Congress passing an even worse bill in March. Sure, the CRomnibus still lets the new Congress insert more riders in September, but at least you buy a few months.

The general merits of this argument aside, there is one important issue for which it just doesn't apply at all. Had the CRomnibus failed and been replaced by a short-term continuing resolution, the effort to block marijuana legalization in Washington, DC, would have been permanently defeated. Democratic leaders, from Barack Obama to Harry Reid just didn't care enough about that issue to crush the bill. They should have.

How killing the CRomnibus would have saved marijuana legalization

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The John A. Wilson Building, where the DC Council is located. (Andrew Wiseman)

That item works by banning the DC Council from spending time and money certifying Initiative 71, the ballot measure legalizing marijuana. Without it, the council could certify the measure, pass accompanying legislation setting up a system for legal sales, and then wait out a 30-day congressional review period. If Congress doesn't act during that period (and Obama's veto, a certainty when the provision is not tied to a must-pass spending bill, means it wouldn't) then the bill becomes law. Marijuana is legal in DC.

In other words, killing the CRomnibus in the House, or vetoing it, would have bought DC enough time to legalize marijuana. Congress could theoretically still repeal it after the fact but it can't "defund" legalization in a spending act the way it just did. It couldn't bar the DC Council from certifying a measure that's already certified. The sales provisions could be stripped but that'd still leave possession and growing legal. The vote of 69.4 percent of DC residents wouldn't be nullified.

Why saving marijuana legalization matters


A marijuana plant. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images News)

It's easy to dismiss the importance of ensuring marijuana legalization in DC. Pot policy tends to be treated as a laughing matter, and DC is admittedly the third smallest state/quasi-state by population. But it's still, substantively, among the most important riders in the CRomnibus. DC had a higher marijuana possession arrest rate in 2010 than any other state (perhaps understandably, as it's the only city-state): 846 arrests per 100,000 residents, which works out to about 5,091 arrests total.

That's over 5,000 people a year paying fines, doing community service, and going through probation; it's over 5,000 people who'll forever have to check the box on job applications asking if they've ever been arrested, among many other consequences for employment, government benefits, child custody, and more. DC also has the second biggest gap between black and white arrests of any state: 1,489 arrests per 100,000 black residents versus 174 per 100,000 white residents. Black Washingtonians are over eight times likelier to be arrested for the same crime, when there's no evidence of any racial gaps in actual marijuana usage.

Legalization would severely weaken that specific form of institutionalized racism, would spare thousands of people from serious consequences for what is a totally victimless crime, and would provide a new revenue stream for the city. It's good policy that will make thousands of lives better.

Why saving Initiative 71 matters

Eleanor Norton

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who should be able to vote in the House but is not. (Douglas Graham / CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

Reasonable people can disagree on marijuana legalization, especially given that DC has already opted to decriminalize small-scale possession (which now results in a $25 fine rather than arrest). Drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, for example, argues that the Colorado/Washington model of legalization risks dangerously commercializing the marijuana market and that making it legal to grow, possess, and use marijuana, and to give it to others for free, while keeping sales illegal, might be a better model.

But whatever you think about the substantive matter at hand, it's offensive on just about every level that this decision is being made by Congress. DC voters are American citizens. They voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana. In any other jurisdiction, that vote would be respected. The Justice Department has backed off now that Colorado and Washington allow recreational sales and use. But Congress has decided that DC citizens are not worthy of the full rights of American citizenship, and that their votes can be nullified by people who don't live in DC and weren't elected by district residents.

Yes, DC isn't a state. That was a mistake in the original Constitution, one which Congress voted overwhelmingly to correct by passing the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment in 1978 (the states failed to ratify it). You don't even need a constitutional amendment though; the current plan of statehood advocates is to redefine the "District of Columbia" as various pieces of federal property in DC (the US Capitol, White House, Supreme Court, National Mall, etc.) and admit the rest as a new state, "New Columbia," by a simple majority vote of Congress, just as every other state has been admitted. (You'd probably want to repeal the 23rd Amendment to avoid giving the First Family 3 electoral votes, but that's a technicality.)

The terrible excuses for DC's non-statehood

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Rep. John Mica (R-FL), seen here holding a fake joint, thinks the DC Council will improve as the city gets whiter. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Opponents of statehood have their reasons, none of them good, and most of which imply we ought to deny statehoods to a whole battery of existing states. It's bad to give the people staffing the national government representation? Well, no, they're human beings with rights, but even if that were a bad idea you'd need to disenfranchise much of Maryland and Virginia too. DC leaders are too corrupt? They're certainly less corrupt than RodBlagojevich or George Ryan, yet Illinois statehood is somehow not in question. It's too small a state? It's bigger than Wyoming and Vermont. It's controlled by a single party? So what?

Claims that DC is incapable of governing itself have a particularly ugly subtext to them. In the 1960s and 1970s, congressional leaders thought DC couldn't manage its own affairs explicitly because of its black majority. Opposition from racist Southern Democrats stopped Lyndon Johnson from achieving statehood. When Walter Washington, the city's first black mayor, sent his first budget to Congress, Rep. John McMillan (D-SC), the chair of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, sent him a truckload of watermelons to "celebrate."

That attitude isn't gone from Congress. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), a senior member of the House Oversight committee (which have authority over DC), mused that he'd like to turn DC over to Maryland and possibly disband the DC Council. At the very least, he said, he hoped the council would "get some new blood here because the District's demographics are changing." Translation: maybe DC will be able to govern itself if it gets a little more white.

Obama just didn't care enough

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President Barack Obama speaks at the Walker Jones Education Campus in Washington, DC on July 21, 2014. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Obama supports DC statehood. "It’s not as if Washington, DC, is not big enough compared to other states," he said at an event at a DC school last year. "There has been a long movement to get DC statehood and I’ve been for it for quite some time." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is on board too. So is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

"Not having Congress nullifying massively popular local law" is a much, much smaller ask than statehood. It's just asking Congress to treat DC the same way it treats any other municipality in America. Achieving that should be worth letting Republicans pass their preferred spending package a couple months earlier.

But Obama didn't think it was. Reid didn't either. While Pelosi opposed the CRomnibus, she didn't mention DC autonomy as a reason why. Cory Booker (D-NJ) raised the issue on the Senate floor, but he was basically alone. The current Democratic party leadership is rhetorically committed to DC self-governance, but they're not willing to do anything to fight for it.

I'll admit that I have a personal stake in this matter. I live in Washington, DC. I was one of the 115,050 people who voted to legalize marijuana here, and would like our vote to be respected. I've bought and used marijuana here and would appreciate the ability to do that legally. But you don't have to live here, or support marijuana legalization, to lament the damage Congress and Obama have now done to DC voter rights.

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