SHHHHH! HAVE YOU NOTICED? Everyone's gone for the holidays. It's only us, the people who live here. Now we can talk about something. entre nous , so to speak. It's about Washington. Something has been happening. It's called local politics.
Time was when it didn't exist. Time was when covering the District Building as a reporter was like having the church beat - the old church beat, anyway. There was no controversy, no real power and no real opposition. There were no real Republicans and no real Democrats and, because no one could run for anything, no real politicians. Something would happen or a pronouncement would be made and you couldn't find anyone to say anything about it. It was like covering Maryland under Marvin Mandel when the Republicans thought it was treasonous to criticize the governor. Washington was always like that.
No more, though. Now everyone and his uncle are running for mayor. The chairman of the City Council, Sterling Tucker, is running for mayor and Marion Barry, a member of the Council, is running for mayor and even - surprise, surprice - the mayor seems to be running for mayor. As a result, you get the City Council playing politics with every bill that comes along and then the mayor playing politics by either signing a bill or vetoing it and everyone just having a whale of a time. On the rent-control bill, for instance, the mayor showed the Council some political moves that some thought were beyong him.
It was a wonderufl thing to behold.
There are political junkies like me who have been waiting a long time for this. There are those like me who just love this sort of thing. We love it for what it says about democracy and we love it for the sheer fun of it.We believe, for instance, that a good political fight, like true wit, is its own justification. So it is something of a sad duty to say that we might be having too much of a good thing. Some thought this was the case with the rent-control bill, but the argument probably can be better made with something called "The District of Columbia Uniformed Controlled Substances Act of 1977."
The bill was largely the work of City Council member David Clarke and his judiciary committee and by the time they finished it was 73 pages long and covered quite a lot of ground. In the end, though, it became known as the bill that would decriminalize marijuana possession although, strictly speaking, it would have done no such thing. It would have left the matter in the hands of the criminal authorities, but it would have substantially reduced the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana and it would have changed the method of dealing with first offenders. They would have been issued something akin to a parking ticket.
As marijuana bills go, this was not a bad one. The best one, of course, is one that legalizes but regulates possession and use, treats it the way alcohol is treated - but that seems to be an impossible goal. The nation has been spooked on the stuff, buying whole canards like the one that says that marijuana leads, as day follows night, to heroin usage. It does no such thing and the proof of that is the millions of people use or have used marijuana and have not turned to heroin.
Clarke, however, is a politician and politicians have to live in the real world and so he fashioned a bill that could pass the City Council, not one that would win the hearts of potheads the world over. At the very least he got himself a bill that was a lot better than the existing law, which can get you a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for mere possession of an ounce of less of marijuana even if you're of those who sees marijuana as a danger to society, you can argue that the Clarke bill is a step forward. It sets a reasonable penalty and makes enforcement easier.
No matter. The mayor vetoed the bill. He vetoed the bill in a message that set out his objections, but his main reason for the veto was transparently political. He said, for instance, that the proposed law did not distinguish between adults and juveniles. Clarke says it does and a reading of it supports his view, but even if he's wrong, even if there's something in there only a lawyer could see, the mayor had plenty of time to alert the Council. This, after all, was not an emergency measure.
The fact of the matter is that the marijuana bill is a hot potato. The fact of the matter is that the bill was opposed by an organization called the committee of 100 ministers, which represents some of the city's black clergymen. It is a group with considerable political clout, but it is a group with no known expertise when it comes to marijuana.
The point is not that the ministers should not be listened to and the point is not that politics is not a wonderful thing. The point, instead, is that politics is not a wonderful thing. The point insteads, is that this was not the time or the place to play politics. The present law is a travesty. It could not beaplied equally and impartially without half the city going to jail and it continued to make criminals and official drug offended out of persons who are neither. It's a bad lack and it needs to be changed.
That's not a matter of politics. It's a mat ter of principle.