This Is What Happens When You Try To Get Congress High

Good times... but also arrests. But also good times.

WASHINGTON ― By design and tradition, the Senate moves slowly.

Or maybe it just feels slow.

That was one of many questions surrounding an event held Thursday just one block from the U.S. Senate. Local marijuana advocacy organization DCMJ was marking the unofficial cannabis holiday on April 20 ― better known as 4/20 ― by handing out free joints to members of Congress and their staffs. The event was being billed as a ― wait for it ― “Joint Session For Congress.”

The scene was a bizarre confluence of buttoned-up Washington politicos and cannabis enthusiasts. Sheepish bureaucrats in pressed khakis presented their official IDs to volunteers as DCMJ officials barked the play-by-play over a megaphone. (”Send our love to Tulsi Gabbard!” one exclaimed after a staffer for the Democratic Hawaii congresswoman received his two joints.) Curious Republican staffers kept their distance (”Y’all here to watch the weed thing?”) as volunteers in T-shirts stamped with slogans such as “DOPE NATION” and “Make America Kind Again” handled crowd control. Wonky congressional reporters shuffled about beside local potheads who inquired whether they absolutely needed to be a congressional employee to get a J. (”Guess I gotta go buy me a bag now!” exclaimed one disappointed onlooker wearing a bucket hat patterned with marijuana leaves.) One activist from Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes cannabis legalization, handed out bags of Cheetos with anti-marijuana talking points stapled to them.

Put another way, what transpired Thursday was arguably the year’s foremost gathering of Washington navel-gazers and people who literally gaze at their navels because they’re stoned out of their minds.

Volunteers with DCMJ hand out joints during the 1st Annual Congressional Joint Session pot giveaway to credentialed Hill staf
Volunteers with DCMJ hand out joints during the 1st Annual Congressional Joint Session pot giveaway to credentialed Hill staff and the media near the Capitol on April 20, 2017.

The event was ostensibly being held to raise awareness of legislation in Congress that would allow the District of Columbia to regulate the sale of marijuana ― voters in 2014 passed a referendum allowing for the possession and consumption of small amounts of marijuana but did not specify how to regulate its sale. Attempts by the D.C. Council to regulate the sale of marijuana in the District have hit a roadblock in Congress, which has veto authority over the council.

“It’s the same hypocrisy that governs everything else around here,” said a staffer for the House’s chief administrative officer, who asked that his name not be published. He said he had begun smoking marijuana regularly six months ago to manage chronic pain.

“Look around, you can talk to other people and find out how common [marijuana use] is,” said Tyler, a District resident and volunteer who asked that his last name not be published. “I’m not the only one ― it’s not just white guys with long hair that smoke weed, man.”

But for all the hazy revelry on display, the event underscored a very serious matter ― one that organizers certainly wanted attendees and journalists to ponder ― can you legally hand out pot one block from the U.S. Capitol? The answer is complicated.

While federal law still prohibits marijuana consumption, a 2013 memo issued by the Obama administration effectively left enforcement and regulation up to the states, and the Trump administration has yet to reverse it. A number of local events in which cannabis seeds were handed out for free have gone off without interference from the authorities, and several delivery services have sprung up in which customers purchase a product ― such as a box of cookies or bottle of juice ― and receive a small amount of marijuana as a “gift.”  

However, the District of Columbia is entwined with the federal government in ways the 26 states that have passed laws loosening marijuana regulation ― or outright legalizing consumption ― are not. While someone may be inclined to take advantage of Washington’s consumption laws in one of its beautiful parks, many of the District’s outdoor spaces are actually managed by the Interior Department.

Adam Eidinger, right, of DCMJ, and RachelRamone Donlan, left, are stopped from handing out joints during Thursday's pot
Adam Eidinger, right, of DCMJ, and RachelRamone Donlan, left, are stopped from handing out joints during Thursday's pot giveaway. The joint handout began again shortly thereafter.

That jurisdictional tension was on full display Thursday, as U.S. Capitol Police arrested a number of organizers, including DCMJ’s director, Adam Eidinger. While officials allowed the event to proceed, the Capitol Police later attributed the arrests to the organizers’ intention to distribute marijuana.

“At approximately 12:18 p.m. today, United States Capitol Police (USCP) officers began arresting several individuals after witnessing them distributing marijuana in public view to passersby at First and Constitution Avenue, NE,” said the statement from USCP spokeswoman Eva Malecki. “Under federal law, it is unlawful to possess marijuana.”

In an interview with The Huffington Post, DCMJ Communications Director Nikolas R. Schiller said the location of the giveaway was chosen not just to raise awareness of their legislative agenda, but to highlight the apparent contradiction between what types of substances congressional staffers can and can’t consume.

“There’s a lot of trade organizations that have events with free alcohol,” Schiller said, “and staffers can go and have their free alcohol. It’s not a big deal.”   

Schiller added that the giveaway’s location ― on the corner of First Street Northeast and Constitution Avenue ― was the closest the group could get to the Senate without leaving D.C. territory (most federal offices in Washington sit on federal land out of the jurisdiction of the D.C. government and police).

While organizers said upward of 30 congressional staffers had come forward to claim their free weed in the first hour alone, the actual number was significantly less, owing in no small part to the numerous television cameras trained on the table organizers had set up to distribute the joints. With Congress on recess, there were no lawmakers around to take advantage of the giveaway ― though few legislators likely would have shown up even if they were in town.

That said, members of Congress and their staffs aren’t under terribly close scrutiny when it comes to drug use. As Schiller noted, members of Congress and their staffs are not subject to the drug testing statutes that keep other federal employees, including contractors who work in Congress, from consuming marijuana.

“Hill staffers that work for members of Congress are not required to submit urine tests, while the contractors like janitors are required to,” Schiller said. “After cleaning so many toilet bowls at work, someone might want their own bowl, yet they could lose their job.”