The most shameful aspect of American government is that the citizens who live in the nation’s capital technically lack basic democratic rights. They not only lack representation in Congress, but also Congress has the ability to invalidate any local law approved by local government.
Harris’s amendment was designed to abuse this almost never used power to prevent D.C. from implementing their new marijuana decriminalization law, even though the law was overwhelmingly approved by the council and strongly supported by the citizens of the district.
Ironically, Harris apparently didn’t put enough thought into his amendment so it might after the opposite effect he intended, since the local decriminalization law will likely go into effect before this amendment could be signed into law. From the Washington Post:
District lawyers are now exploring whether he might have actually moved to, in effect, legalize marijuana possession instead. [...]
If the amendment — which bars the city from spending any funds to “enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution [of marijuana and other drugs] for recreational use” — then takes effect after the decriminalization statute is officially on the books, the city would be in the odd position of having a decriminalization law that it could not enforce.
The core issue is about far more than just marijuana policy, though. The fundamental question is do all American citizens have a basic democratic right to set their own local laws. Harris and everyone who voted for this amendment believe we don’t. They have no problem supporting a system of taxation without representation.
Hopefully, the Senate Democrats will make sure to strip this provision from the bill. Democrats could have permanently ended this disgraceful practice by granting D.C. statehood in 2009; but they failed to act, leaving 650,000 people at the mercy of Congress members, like Harris, who don’t support the basic principles of democracy.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy
Photo by Gage Skidmore under Creative Commons license