July 17

While it has gotten almost no national attention, a new law goes into effect in the District of Columbia today decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. If you’re caught with up to a half ounce, you won’t be arrested; instead, you’ll get a $25 ticket. This change, which was passed by the D.C. city council, is now the subject of an argument pitting D.C. residents against Republicans in Congress who are trying to undo it, no matter what the District’s public or elected leaders might prefer.

Here’s what’s really at stake here: On a whole range of issues, congressional Republicans would love to turn a city made up of mostly Democrats (and mostly black Democrats at that) into a kind of right-wing Epcot Center, where you can step out and imagine that, legally speaking, you’re in Texas or Alabama.

This is just one of a number of cases in which conservatives claim to have a firmly held abstract principle that guides their thinking about specific issues, but in practice are almost always concerned about outcomes. They say they value states’ rights — but not if a state wants to do something progressive like legalize marijuana or same-sex marriage. They say that judges should just interpret the Constitution and not make laws — then demand that judges step in to overrule laws they don’t like. This particular brand of hypocrisy is less common on the left only because liberals are less likely to claim that kind of adherence to abstract ideas about government. Liberals don’t say that the federal government is always smarter than state governments, for instance — if you ask them, they’ll say it depends. Which makes for less pleasing bumper stickers, but a more honest kind of policy argument.

The fate of the decriminalization law is still uncertain. Maryland Rep. Andy Harris attached an amendment to the latest appropriations bill forbidding D.C. from enforcing its new law; the bill passed the committee, but has yet to be voted on by the full House. The Obama administration has threatened a veto of the appropriations bill, stating their opposition to multiple provisions in the bill’s current version, including the D.C. marijuana amendment.

But there’s an argument that Congress is actually powerless to stop the change from taking effect. The provision in the spending bill bars the District from spending money to enforce the new law, a common technique in appropriations legislation. But the decriminalization law doesn’t actually spend any money; just the opposite, in fact. Decriminalization doesn’t require D.C. police to do something, it tells them not to do something (arrest people for possession). So Congress can say “Don’t spend any money enforcing this new law,” and D.C. can say, “Don’t worry, we won’t,” but the law could remain in effect. In fact, District lawyers have suggested that Harris’ amendment might inadvertently legalize marijuana in DC completely, since it would bar police from even writing those $25 tickets for possession.

That theory hasn’t been tested in court yet, but meanwhile, other Republicans are trying to be more proactive in changing D.C.’s laws to be more to their liking. Thomas Massie, a freshman Republican representative from Kentucky, successfully added a provision to the DC appropriations bill nullifying all the District’s gun laws. As Roll Call noted, “his proposal would make the District, home to cabinet officials, dignitaries from around the world and the president perhaps the most permissive gun jurisdiction in the country.”

District politicians and advocates have long accused congressional Republicans of hypocrisy, as the party that waxes so poetic about “states’ rights” and “local control” has no hesitation in mucking about with D.C.’s local laws to make them suit the preferences of GOP Representatives from elsewhere. That this charge is so familiar makes it no less true. And even though we rarely discuss it anymore, the fact that 630,000 Americans live in Washington without full voting rights continues to be an appalling stain on our democracy. Republicans have successfully resisted every effort to grant those voting rights, for the simple reason that most D.C. residents are Democrats. Principle is all well and good, but not if comes at the cost of some tiny partisan advantage.

My guess is that Republicans in Congress have no idea just how pained and angry this issue makes D.C. residents. They have no representation in Congress, they can’t pass their own laws without the permission of a bunch of Republicans who look on them with little but contempt, and then those representative have the gall to try to use D.C. for their own right-wing policy experimentation. But if congressional Republicans do have any idea how it makes people in D.C. feel, they obviously don’t give a damn. And no matter how many times you remind them of their supposed commitment to states’ rights, their minds won’t be changed.