In the Cromnibus, a Harsh Toke for D.C. Legal Weed?

The GOP tried to crush the will of a majority of Washington residents—but in the fine print are high hopes.

A woman rolls a marijuana cigarette as photographed on August 30, 2014 in Bethpage, New York.

Photographer: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

He was the star of the Heritage Foundation’s anti-marijuana panel, but Maryland Representative Andy Harris had a devil of a time getting heard. On Tuesday morning, as Harris explained the scientific case against legal weed, District of Columbia activists kept leaping from their chairs and heckling him.

“We don’t know what the long-term health impacts is for both adults, but especially for youth,” said Harris.

“Don’t tread on DC!” shouted a woman as she was directed out of the room. “Respect the will of District voters!” 

A minute later, even as Harris averred that he did “support marijuana research,” another activist rose up and shouted past the security guard who was removing him.

“Legalization is about DC home rule,” the activist said. “The people have spoken, the majority of people have spoken!”

What explained the rage at Harris? Simple: The congressman, a rangy and bespectacled doctor with an M.D. from Johns Hopkins, was responsible for an infamous part of the must-pass, end-of year spending bill. (A combination of a continuing resolution and an omnibus package, the bill has been indelibly dubbed “the Cromnibus.”) He had pledged to prevent the District of Columbia from implementing a voter-passed initiative that legalized marijuana. Sure enough, on pages 660 and 661, the bill prevented funds from being spent to “enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes."

It had been 16 years since the Congress last undid a District voter referendum. Funny enough, that had been the 1998 Barr Amendment, which blocked a city-passed medical marijuana reform. That amendment’s eponymous sponsor, Representative Bob Barr of Georgia, eventually apologized and did his penance with a lobbying contract at the Marijuana Policy Project.

A generation later, with legal marijuana polling at majority support nationally, Harris and fellow Republicans gave voters a reminder: They’d elected a Congress that thought otherwise.

“I think legalization is a bad idea at this time, and I think this deals with it in a pretty responsible way,” Harris said Wednesday morning, after the full spending bill was introduced to House Republicans. When asked why the District seemed to be so easily traded away in negotiations, he laughed. “The Constitution gives Congress clear authority over the federal district.” 

District voters are aware, and they resent the meddling. Crank callers have been ringing Harris’s congressional office and asking him about garbage delivery–you know, if he’s so interested in ruling them. Jack on Fire, a local band, has recorded a song with the subtle title “Andy Harris Needs to Smoke Some Weed,” which asks over a strummed guitar why a member from mostly rural eastern Maryland wants to meddle with Washington.

I know black voters scare you to death

And your constituents largely prefer meth

But just listen to this: my advice in this song?

Let us run our biz and have a hit of this bong

The songsters and protesters are overlooking an important fact. They’ve nearly won. Earlier in 2014, the D.C. council decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, and Congress moved to block that. In this bill, all Congress is letting itself do is prevent D.C. from becoming another Colorado, with head shops and edibles businesses. 

“We are not going to interfere with decriminalization at this point,” Harris said, “but legalization cannot proceed. This bill doesn’t do anything to medicinal marijuana.”

As far as Harris understood it, the bill left decriminalization intact. That’s how D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton read it, too, though she saw an opening for further legalization. 

“Unlike the Harris rider, the omnibus rider does not block D.C. from 'carrying out' enacted marijuana policies,” Norton said in a statement. “D.C.'s Initiative 71, it can be argued, was enacted when it was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November and was self-executing–i.e., it did not require enactment of any rules for its implementation. Therefore, it can be argued that the legalization of small amounts of marijuana can proceed."

If Norton is right, the marijuana prohibitionists have been flummoxed. On Norton’s side are quite a few quiet Democrats who think that the rider was considerably better than promised. Even Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a Californian who’s advocated marijuana decriminalization for years, was short on criticism. He’d succeeded in attaching a rider that prevents any funds trickling to the DEA to enforce “laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.” The focus on the District’s plight probably helped his cause.

“There’s a give and take,” he said. “If we had to make a compromise on the Washington end of it, that was probably necessary. I’m very happy my amendment got through. That’s a major step forward on the whole marijuana issue.” 

It was still a step around the District of Columbia, which lacks voting representation and is vanishingly unlikely to get it under a Republican Congress. (A 2009 effort to create this died, in a Democratic Congress, when Senate Republicans attempted to link it to a bill legalizing the carrying all firearms in the city.) It prevented, for the foreseeable future, the creation of a marijuana industry that 65 percent of voters said they wanted. Republicans saw no problem with that. The Constitution clearly gave the people elected in 435 House districts and 50 states the power to run D.C. 

“Congress has always been involved in the financing of what goes on in D.C., it being a federal district,” said Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers. “I don't think it oversteps our bounds.”

That was the argument made by Louisiana Representative John Fleming, a doctor like Harris, and another speaker at the accidentally boisterous Heritage Foundation confab.

“That’s the way the Constitution is set up,” said Fleming. “Remember, we live here too. We have a say. I don’t want to be driving, I don’t want my wife to be driving, among drug drivers.”

Fleming had been taking a speech about the medical dangers of marijuana to events like the Conservative Political Action Conferences, where fairly young crowds were completely unmoved. They didn’t know better.

“There’s a lot of money to be made from legal marijuana, but I think the social cost is much higher than any benefit from that,” said Fleming. “By social cost, I don’t just mean the impact on families. I’m talking about the disease and disorders that we’re going to have to treat. One gentleman who is a psychiatric expert came up [after the panel] and reminded me that we know the rate of schizophrenia in marijuana users is twice that of non-marijuana users.”

In (partial) victory, neither Harris nor Fleming was talking much about the impacts of other sins. In the 2014 election cycle, when neither man faced a real challenge, Fleming received $7,500 in campaign money from the National Beer Wholesalers Association, and Harris received $5,000. He’d basically matched Fleming with another $3,718 from Diageo, a liquor trade association; the Louisianan only got $1,000 from the Distilled Spirits Council. But he insisted that liquor industry lobbying played no role in the push against D.C.’s marijuana law.

“Really none, as far as I can tell,” said Harris. “This is about the science of the damage marijuana does, just as the arguments about the prohibition of smoking come from a scientific basis.”

Fleming agreed with that. “There is a high social price to pay from alcoholism as well, and I’ve had conversations with them,” he said, referring to lobbyists. “There’s just no going back to prohibition with alcohol. Alcohol has been accepted by our civilization for centuries. Why would we want to do that with marijuana?”

Erik Wasson contributed reporting.