By: Philip Stevens
Previously on Legislation and Policy, I addressed several reasons conservatives could support the full legalization of marijuana while retaining the core values of conservatism. I laid out a case for what I thought to be a both reasonable and logical plan towards legalization. In short, I argued the conservative “doctrine facilitates the process of legalization better than any other.” Recently though, Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky introduced a bill backed by 221 Republicans and 20 Democrats which would approve spending to undo the recent decriminalization in the District of Columbia. The decriminalization currently states possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is no longer a criminal offense, but a civil offense punishable by a fine of $25. The bill also works to loosen the District’s historically strict gun-control laws, defunding enforcement of the ban on open-carrying.
Contrary to the conclusions of my previous post, Republicans will not accept legalization of marijuana. Such a proposition is idealistic, and legislators know that even with sufficient votes, it would splinter the conservative voter base. Federal decriminalization is far more probable. It would lighten the burden on federal and state police and court systems, decreasing the control of the federal government over private activity. However, when packed into a spending bill that mangled with other issues such as gun-control decriminalization, it cannot get far. The recent Republican push to strengthen Washington D.C. gun rights combined with the decreased funding for decriminalization alludes to the future of the Republican Party. There are two simple lessons I think to be learned from this recent move by House Republicans.
First, it is apparent that Republican legislators do not support the decriminalization of marijuana. Understanding this policy helps to understand the sort of campaign Republicans will be running in state congressional elections ahead as well as the 2016 Presidential election. Previously, I mentioned how Democrats will continue to support marijuana legalization more than Republicans. However, decriminalization is a separate issue. Decriminalization does not carry the same message of acceptance of law-breakers. It does not condone drug-use as many conservatives dread. Decriminalization also does not withhold punishing pot-users, at least when using in public.
However, as evidenced by the new bill, Republicans are continuing their trend against decriminalization. Worrying though, is not a change in D.C. law, but instead their defiant stance on this issue. Key voting groups such as Millennials, Latino Americans, and African Americans continue to stray away from the Republican platform. House and many Senate Republicans may retain their offices into the future. However, without these key voting groups, the oval office will remain distant. African American males are thought to be arrested more frequently for marijuana possession. Further, Millenials have the highest support for legalization out of any generation. The 2008 presidential election was costly, and the 2012 election demonstrated Republicans lost some campaigning prowess from the 1980s. Republicans cannot forgo catering to such important and growing segments of the American voter base.
Second, Republicans are convinced of the importance of comprehensive gun-control legislation. (I won’t delve into the intricacies of the new D.C. handgun-ruling, as my colleague has already done so quite comprehensively). Publicized gun-related crimes are ingrained in recent memory. Even though homicides committed with a firearm have dropped since the 1990s, the issue of gun control remains stained in the American consciousness, due to the recent horrific massacres including Sandy Hook, Navy Yard, Santa Monica, and Aurora. Democrats have responded with proposals restricting access to weapons and increasing background checks. Republicans however, with increased momentum for the national pressure for legislative response to mass shootings, are working to instead ensure law abiding citizens have greater control over their firearms.
The recent bill reinforces the Republican goal for the nation. By aiming their sights on one of the most staunch gun control territories, Republicans hope to demonstrate the superiority of their position. Further, with Judge Scullin of the District Court for the Northern District of New York, recently ruling against the constitutionality of DC’s historic open-carry ban, Republicans may have momentum needed to ensure their constituents’ support in future elections.
Where does this leave the city of Washington? As a federal district, it has a limited role in affairs regarding its federal budget. Mayor Vincent Gray warned such action may require shutting down the city’s medical marijuana program. Also, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting House member representing the District, called into question Rep. Massie’s bill, saying “Rep. Massie may think D.C. will be one of the most permissive gun jurisdictions in the country — where you can openly carry assault weapons in the street and get a gun with no background check — but he’s wrong.” Delegate Norton is likely correct and such a bill is unlikely to pass the Senate. However, the bill accurately showcases the Republican platform and its membership’s overwhelming agreement on two key issues; pot and guns.