District voters will vote on whether or not we want to legalize marijuana on November 4, 2014, but our vote will not be the final word on the matter because only in a democracy does the vote of the people count. Recently, New York Times Editorial Board endorsed legalization in the District and other states but it is unfair to lump the District’s efforts with those of Alaska, Oregon, and Washington State and Colorado before us. The comparison is misleading because only in the District of Columbia is the voice and vote of the citizens meaningless and by high noon on November 5, 2014, we should know if ideologues in Congress want to interfere with our new law. We could pass this referendum with an overwhelming majority but one or two members of Congress along with a President averse to standing up for our right to control our own affairs could overturn our vote without our advice or consent.
Policy debates around marijuana have demonstrated that we in the District really are the last colony on American shores. In 1998, District voters with a majority 69% of the vote voted to legalize medical marijuana but Congress, as it is constitutionally allowed to, initially intervened and forbade us from using our own tax dollars to count the votes on the referendum and then used riders from allowing us to implement legalized medical marijuana for over 12 years after we voted for it. Even though the vast majority of our budget comes from locally raised revenue our budget still must be approved by Congress. Congress, our democratically elected legislative branch of government forbade that the District count its own votes. American democracy in not alive and well in the shadows of the Capitol in fact American democracy is denied to those of us living in that building’s shadows.
Earlier this year after the District Council (state legislature) passed a law to decriminalize marijuana Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) began working the Halls of Congress to either overturn our law or to prevent us from spending our own money to implement it. Mr. Harris hails from a state that already has decriminalized marijuana yet he used his perch in Congress in an effort to bully the District and to make a point on a law that he could not even prevent in his home state. Marijuana, abortion, and other policy issues are issues usually left for the states and the courts to deal with except for here in the District. Mr. Harris picked on us because he could and only statehood for the District of Columbia can prevent these efforts to subvert the voice of the people and our elected representatives.
While we have the opportunity to vote on marijuana legalization like the states our path toward legalization will undoubtedly be much rockier. We have no Senators to defend us. We have no voting member of the House to defend us. We have a President who has used us as a bargaining chip in the past simply because he could. We sadly are not a state and time and time again ideologues in Congress remind of us that fact when they act to manipulate our laws or use us as bargaining chips in budget negotiations.
We are not a state and our effort to legalize marijuana cannot be separated for our yearning to be on equal footing with the 50 states. We pay taxes, fight in wars, and fulfill all obligations of American citizenship yet we are denied representation in Congress and are not the final arbiter of our own local affairs. Fundamentally our right to vote is more important than our right to smoke and while we might overwhelmingly vote for marijuana legalization on November 4th come November 5th at high noon there might be a fight a-brewin’ between the District and Congress. I hope we’re ready for it, I am.