Most handouts on Capitol Hill go to airlines, defense contractors and banks, but for a few sunny hours on Thursday afternoon, anyone with a congressional ID and a burning love of freedom could pick up free joints from merry mischief-makers in red and green hats.
Christmas hadn’t come early to Congress. Instead it was 4/20, the unofficial high holy day of marijuana smokers, and a local pot group was giving out 1,000 joints across the street from the Capitol to protest congressional interference in the District of Columbia’s ability to regulate the local use and sale of the drug.
The colorful head coverings were Phrygian caps, worn in ancient times by the people of central Turkey and more recently associated with liberation causes, including the abolitionist movement, explained Jessica Laycock, a lobbyist for DCMJ, the local pot-advocacy group that organized the event. She had traded in her pantsuit for a tank top and a Jamaican-flag fanny-pack for the day. Minutes after she spoke to a reporter, she was arrested by the Capitol Police, illustrating the crux of her movement’s dilemma.
Public support for marijuana legalization has never been higher—57 percent of Americans, according to one survey last year—but with weed opponents in control in Congress and buzzkill-in-chief Jeff Sessions, who once said “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” at the head of the Justice Department, dreams of achieving a greener future any time soon are beginning to look like a pipe dream.
Under the local laws of the District of Columbia, it is legal to possess and give away small amounts of marijuana, but not to smoke it in public. Under federal law, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 narcotic, the most strictly banned drug classification, and possession of any amount is a crime.
The Obama administration largely refrained from interfering in state-level initiatives that legalized or decriminalized marijuana use, but after years of federal toleration, the Trump administration has signaled its intention of cracking down on recreational use. In February, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer even suggested a link between recreational pot and the nation’s deadly opioid crisis, despite the lack of evidence for such a connection. The administration’s posturing has created uncertainty for the eight states that have legalized recreational pot and for the budding marijuana industry. But the dilemma is especially vexing for the District of Columbia, whose residents voted overwhelmingly to legalize recreational pot in 2014—but have no voting representation in Congress, which oversees the District’s governance.
Congress has thwarted the District’s ability to tax and regulate marijuana with an appropriations rider making it a felony to use any funds to do so, precluding the city from doing things like creating a framework for legal buying or selling of the drug, and prompting Thursday’s giveaway, dubbed “The First Annual Joint Session.”
“This is the kind of action Americans have always taken to break down unjust treatment,” said the District’s non-voting congressional representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, ahead of the protest. Norton, a Democrat, characterized federal resistance to legalization as “irrational and unjust.” “I am stunned that we have to go through this after Prohibition,” she said. “If there’s any danger to the District of Columbia it’s not being able to regulate.”
But while the protesters can puff and puff, Norton has no expectation that a modification to the rider is going to pass this year.
More achievable is the renewal of the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which bars the federal government from interfering with state-level medical marijuana initiatives and is set to expire next week—another aim of Thursday’s joint giveaway. Ken Grubbs, a spokesman for California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a co-sponsor, said he was “optimistic” the amendment would be part of the next the spending package.
Legalization enjoys support from members of both parties, but with Congress in recess, no lawmakers showed up to the joint giveaway. Grubbs explained that Rohrabacher, who has admitted to using medical marijuana for his arthritis, is “recuperating from a shoulder replacement back in California and won’t be participating in the activities.”
“I do not smoke weed because I represent the District of Columbia, so I better have a clear head at all times,” Norton explained. When asked if she knew any members of Congress to be smokers, Norton declined to narc out her colleagues. “Why would I tell you?” she said.
Dozens of others did show up for the protest and giveaway, whose organizers have also been responsible for several other high-profile acts of civil disobedience, including a hundreds-strong toke session outside of the White House last year.
With news cameras and swarms of police looking on, activists at the corner of 1st and Constitution Avenues, Northeast, took turns at a microphone decrying prohibition, inviting any staffers with congressional IDs to pick up joints and encouraging protesters to keep the sidewalk in front of the Reserve Officers Association of America headquarters clear for pedestrians.
A middle-aged woman timidly approached participants offering them bags of Cheetos. (Counterintuitively, the free munchies were a counter-protest by Smarter Approaches to Marijuana, a group co-founded by former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy that opposes legalizing recreational pot). Three young, preppy men with southern drawls and congressional staffer IDs loitered on the sidewalk several yards away, shunning questions from reporters. One identified himself as a Mississippian. Another had tucked his ID, still attached to a retractable lanyard on his belt, into his pocket. None dared collect their samples.
“Everybody’s scared to go,” said one Republican Senate staffer at Cups & Company in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, where he was salivating over the prospect of hundreds of free joints, but settling instead for a coffee.
Not everybody. A steady stream of eligible Capitol Hill workers made their way to the giveaway, including a young intern for Hawaii Senator Tulsi Gabbard and a man with shoulder-length cornrows who identified himself only as “Smokey the Bandit,” from taking their free samples. After picking up his joints, Duane Thompson, an employee of the Library of Congress, told a local television reporter, “I got a lot of flack from my coworkers saying they would see me on the news.”
Police made several arrests through the afternoon, and according to a Capitol Police spokeswoman, as of 2:30 p.m., one male and two females had been charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Four females had been charged with possession. Though marijuana possession is legal in DC, it violates federal law, and the Capitol Police are federal officers.
“We just want to be left alone,” said organizer Adam Eidinger, who along with Laycock and several other participants, was hauled off by the Capitol Police.
One event organizer, when asked just after 1 p.m. what the activists had planned for 4:20 p.m.—traditionally, tokers’ time to light up —said she thought the hour had already come and gone, blaming a long day in the sun for her warped sense of time. By the time 4:20 did roll around, the police had successfully vaporized the joint giveaway. Instead of a massive public toke-up, only a handful of joint-less stragglers remained.
Despite such setbacks, DCMJ is not giving up. The group is planning to hold a “smoke-in” on the Capitol Steps on Monday. And with 71 percent of millennials in favor of legalization in the latest Pew survey, it is probably only a matter of time before the viridian tide overwhelms the old fogeys in the federal government.
For now though, the motto of America’s chillest liberation movement will have to be “Better late than never.”