Tuesday’s election results were no big surprise to those of us who have a memory longer than four years. I am a Democrat by inclination, which is not to say I am inclined toward those Democrats who ran this time around, and by run, I mean as far as possible from their own President. Baffling! People cite President Obama’s allegedly terrible popularity rating, which at around 41%, is not great, but is about par for the second term if you aren’t Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or Dwight Eisenhower, and your country isn’t completely fed up. It’s also a hell of a lot better an approval rating than, say, that of Congress, which, at 13% is the second lowest it’s ever been, beaten only by Itself last November, when it was at an all-time low of 9%.
So the country decided to believe that the President’s alleged failed policies (arguably false) and Congress’s inability to do anything (demonstrably true) merited a change in the balance of power. As we do, every mid-term election.
What is interesting about this particular election is that when actual policy came up for vote in state ballot initiatives, the results reflected positions considered to be traditionally Democratic: Yes to raising minimum wage; Yes to decriminalize marijuana for personal or medical use; Yes to background checks for guns; Yes to requiring insurance to cover birth control; and No to constitutional “personhood” amendments. I kind of don’t care if some of the governors in these states are Republican, if the people who live there are finally voting in their own best interest.
Washington, DC also overwhelmingly passed an initiative to legalize marijuana for personal use this time around, not because it’s a city full of potheads, but because a disproportionate number of black people are arrested and jailed for possession, even though the rates of use among blacks and whites is equal. The vote in DC — like Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington — was about treating weed like booze and tobacco, substances that are not particularly healthy for you, but do not rise to the level of getting shot over or jailed (and sometimes disenfranchised) for, like heroin and cocaine.
No one is suggesting that everyone should now light up all over town. In fact, residents would not be allowed to smoke pot or even carry it on any of the streets that are designated federal land, like the White House or the Mall, because possession is still a federal crime. The law also prohibits the sale of marijuana and restricts the amount you can have on you (or grow) as well as the age at which you can have or grow it (21 and older).
But none of this may get anywhere, because the District has to run any legislation it passes by the United States Congress, which can overturn any of DC’s laws it doesn’t like for any reason at all, even for (or especially) political reasons. In the recent past, Congress has overturned DC laws on restricting gun sales, needle exchange programs for combating spread of HIV/AIDS, and requiring insurance to pay for contraception — positions deeply opposed by most Republicans, who generally lead these override votes. When DC citizens voted for marriage equality in 2010, it was immediately threatened with nullification by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-OH. That effort failed, but DC is often treated as a policy playground for members of Congress who want to score political points in their home districts.
So before anyone gets too excited about the District overwhelmingly enacting a sensible drug policy law, let’s see whether the new Republican Congress will overcome its natural aversion to big government and decide to trample on it.