Amidst excitement over voters in two states and the District of Columbia passing marijuana legalization measures on Tuesday, a significant development in the future of national marijuana policy went largely unnoticed.
While passage of adult-use marijuana laws in Oregon and Alaska demonstrate a clear continuation of the national trend toward legalization, DC’s Initiative 71 will probably have the greatest historical impact, since it practically forces Congress to confront the new political realities around marijuana reform.
Leading up to election day, there was speculation that Republicans would use their expanded majority in the House and their newfound control of the Senate to successfully block DC’s law, which allows adults to legally possess two ounces of marijuana and to grow up to six plants.
That now looks less likely, since stopping the measure’s implementation during a mandated 30-day legislative review period would require majority votes in both the House and Senate, as well as President Obama’s signature. Another option available to anti-legalization lawmakers would be to attach a rider to a spending bill blocking implementation of the District’s new law, which U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) has vowed to do.
In the past, we could have expected to see the Republicans nearly unified in blocking a marijuana legalization law in the District. But times have changed. Harris’ efforts will face significant opposition from an unlikely quarter: members of his own party who understand that opposing marijuana legalization has increasingly become too unpopular to touch. Dozens of House Republicans this summer voted in favor of various marijuana-related amendments on spending bills, with 49 voting for medical marijuana.
When asked about the DC law on election day, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a leading GOP presidential contender, said, “I’m not for having the federal government get involved. I really haven’t taken a stand on … the actual legalization. I haven’t really taken a stand on that, but I’m against the federal government telling them they can’t.” This general sentiment was even reflected in comments by conservative Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) in September: “That’s a state issue … That should be for the Kansas legislature and the governor to decide, not federally.”
For legalization advocates, having a powerful GOP senator as an ally is a new development, one that could favorably change the course of history for marijuana legalization. Like any major presidential contender, Sen. Paul attracts significant media attention that views his every move through the lens of political strategy and posturing. That Paul has staked out such a strong position in favor of letting states decide their own marijuana policies will be at the forefront of the minds of Republican leaders in Congress as they try to navigate the issue among their rank-and-file members.
Paul’s efforts to fight back against his own party could prove costly and embarrassing to Republican leaders in Congress. If Republican leaders are wise, they will decline to help Harris block the law, recognizing that marijuana is far more popular than they are.
There are still a number of questions about how the new DC law will work. Because the initiative does not allow for legal sales (only the possessing and growing of plants), the DC City Council has announced that it will likely pass emergency legalization at some point modifying the initiative to allow for legal retail sales. That would bring the city tax revenue. It would also give the regulatory authorities in DC more confidence that they are complying with the strictures of the Justice Department’s marijuana policy. Leading up to the vote, many questioned whether the Justice Department would treat DC’s law the same as it does other state laws, which it said Wednesday it would.
Tuesday’s victories thrust marijuana legalization to the forefront of the national debate and ensured that it will be a major issue for presidential candidates in the 2016 election cycle. After all, marijuana legalization is new enough that only one sitting president has had to deal with the federal-state conflict. Among presidential swing states, a marijuana legalization measure will be on Nevada’s 2016 ballot. Colorado already has a well-established adult-use law. With nearly 18 million people now living in states that legalized marijuana and another 157 million Americans living under medical marijuana or decriminalization laws, voters are eager to find out how the next president will treat state marijuana laws.