Republican Congress May Not Act To Block Marijuana Legalization In Washington, D.C.


Somewhat missed in Election Day’s Republican landslide was the fact that a referendum to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes had passed overwhelmingly in Washington, D.C. In the wake of that victory, though, was the question of whether or not the newly Republican Congress would try to block implementation of the measure under their power to block pretty much any law passed by the City Council or voters in the District of Columbia. So far at least, there doesn’t seem to be any inclination by Republicans to touch this issue at all:

Looming over the District’s historic decision this month to legalize marijuana has been another mandate that voters delivered on Election Day: A Republican majority on Capitol Hill with the power to interfere with the measure when it goes to Congress for review.

But congressional Republicans appear to have other things on their minds.

“To be honest, that’s pretty far down my list of priorities,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who was maneuvering late last week to force a vote on U.S.-Iran nuclear talks.

“I haven’t given it one thought,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who CNN reported Friday was mapping out a presidential run.

“Focused on other things,” added Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who will lead Senate oversight of the country’s military campaigns in Iraq and Syria when Republicans regain control of the chamber in January for the first time in seven years.

Republicans also are focused on making good on promises for early battles with President Obama on immigration and to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. In all, in the first days of Congress’s return to Capitol Hill since the election, there appeared to be little to no appetite for Republicans to pile on the vexing issue of marijuana legalization.

In fact, Republican congressional leaders may keep marijuana off their plate in the new year by design, said Cully Stimson, a senior legal fellow who tracks the issue for the conservative Heritage Foundation.


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), celebrated in libertarian circles, said on Election Day that the D.C. measure was an issue for city voters to decide. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a favorite of family-values groups, has repeatedly blasted Obama for not enforcing federal drug laws.

Last week, as Republican leaders preached party unity and a need for teamwork to defeat Obama on broader issues, Paul and Cruz declined to comment on the D.C. marijuana measure.

“The preferred option may just be to not divide the Republican caucus on a divisive issue,” Stimson said. “Democrats and pro-pot advocates will work to cleave off libertarian-leaning Republicans. I could see [House Speaker John A.] Boehner . . . or [soon-to-be Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell saying, ‘We’re just not going to bring it up.’ I could see it playing out that way politically.”

Stimson, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, said a brawl between conservative and libertarian factions within the GOP is inevitable later next year, when Congress must decide whether to reauthorize provisions of the Patriot Act that allow for domestic surveillance. “Do you really want to pick at that scab too early?”

Such political considerations seem poised to benefit the almost 7 in 10 D.C. voters who backed Initiative 71. The ballot measure that passed Nov. 4 legalizes possession of up to two ounces of marijuana in the nation’s capital. It also allows city residents to grow up to three mature plants at home.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he intends to codify the initiative into law and transmit it to Capitol Hill for review early in January.

That would start the clock ticking on a 30- to 60-day review period.

Unless Congress acts to block it during that window, marijuana legalization would then become law. Such a block has happened only three times in 40 years, and it would require not only the House and Senate to both pass a bill, but the president to sign off on the congressional measure halting the District’s law.

With the District’s residents having spoken overwhelmingly on this issue, there really is no reason for Congress to block the measure in this case. Admittedly, there are going to be some issues about how legalization will impact activity in the parts of D.C. that are under Federal Government jurisdiction, such as the various monuments and the National Mall, but that strikes me as something that can be resolved rather easily. As a broader point, though, if the residents in D.C. want legalized marijuana then I don’t see why the Federal Government should be stepping in to stop them from having it.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. stonetools says:

    Let’s see if the Republican Party departs from the their preferred mode of crapping on the nonrich and minorities, just because they can. Usually they punch downwards in the interests of the rich and powerful, but sometimes they do so just out of spite.
    In this case there is no big business reason not to allow legalization, so I hope they’ll allow it.

  2. BecBec says:

    I hope they don’t waste time on this. Let the states and DC pass whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the constitution. They have bigger fish to fry.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    There’s legal weed in California, thus Silicon Valley. If they can manage, DC can manage. The more complex work is being done in Cupertino and Mountain View – DC work is easy.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Legalized marijuana is another way to impose taxes on people who aren’t rich. Republicans will love it.

  5. James Pearce says:

    ““The preferred option may just be to not divide the Republican caucus on a divisive issue,” Stimson said. “Democrats and pro-pot advocates will work to cleave off libertarian-leaning Republicans. I could see [House Speaker John A.] Boehner . . . or [soon-to-be Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell saying, ‘We’re just not going to bring it up.’ I could see it playing out that way politically.””

    I don’t mind the benign neglect approach from Republicans, but I’m still going to vote for the advocates, and –sorry, Libertarians*– those guys are on the left.

    * Libertarians, especially those who write for Reason, seem to have become the foremost critics of legalization. Not much help that….

  6. Sock Puppet #9 says:


    there is no big business reason

    I would think big pharma is not thrilled about legalized weed, as it is often a better choice for people with various health problems than the stuff they produce.

  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    I wonder how long it will take for:

    1. A progressive politician getting caught buying weed, and thus becoming a stereotype/fundraising bonanza for right wingers.

    2. A anti-drug culture warrior getting caught (and drug warriors supporting him/her regardless).

    My money would be on #2 first.

  8. Hal_10000 says:

    “We’re more worried about other things” is politician code for “this debate is over; we just can’t admit it right now”. The Republicans are saying the same thing on gay marriage.

    However …

    In this case, I don’t think benign neglect is enough. There are still federal laws on drugs, international treaties and a DEA that loves to launch raids even on legal growers. Right now, these legal growers are (somewhat) safe if the Administration decides to leave them alone. But history tells us that when the government *can* crack down, it inevitably will. All we need is an AG or a President who opposes pot and DEA raids will blossom. We can not have people who only escape serious jail time and ruin because it is the pleasure of the President to leave them alone.

    Congress actually needs to pass a law respecting the rights of the states to do this. A law was proposed by Ron Paul and Barney Frank, but they are both retired.

  9. Cheri Berman says:

    I doubt they will do anything because I think most of them are smoking way too much of it.