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Just Like 16 Years Ago, Marijuana Vote In D.C. Faces Congressional Obstacles

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If Initiative 71 is approved by D.C. voters in November, residents over the age of 21 would be able to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
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If Initiative 71 is approved by D.C. voters in November, residents over the age of 21 would be able to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.

The votes might be separated by 16 years, but they're on the same issue — and advocates worry that the results could be derailed in much the same way.

Come November, D.C. residents will vote on Initiative 71, which would allow residents over the age of 21 to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants in their homes. If approved, the initiative would expand upon a recent law that knocked down penalties for the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana from possible jail time and fines to a $25 ticket.

But much like in 1998, when 69 percent of residents vote to legalize marijuana for medicinal use, advocates worry that Congress could block Initiative 71 just as it did Initiative 59. Congressional Republicans first attempted to block D.C. from counting votes, but after a court ruled in D.C.'s favor, they added riders to the city's budget prohibiting it from implementing the medical marijuana program. The riders were lifted in 2009.

"Anything’s possible in Washington, D.C. Congress has a way of doing things that are well out of step with the will of the people. But in a democracy the will of the people should be heard, so I hope that the Congress doesn’t step in and try to suppress the vote," says Dr. Malik Burnett, co-chair of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, which spearheaded the initiative.

What's different this time, say marijuana advocates, is national opinion on marijuana — both for medicinal and recreational use.

While only four states had medical marijuana programs when D.C. residents voted in 1998, through this year 16 states have decriminalized marijuana, 20 have medical marijuana programs and two have outright legalized its sale and use. In 1998, the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution opposing medical marijuana programs on a 310 to 93 vote; in May of this year, 219 members voted to approve a bill that would stop federal prosecutions of medical marijuana patients.

"Given that marijuana legalization polls better with voters than virtually any elected official does these days, I don't expect any effort to overturn the initiative to succeed in passing both chambers and being signed by the president. But that doesn't mean that a handful of members who are out of touch with the national pulse won't try," says Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, a group pushing for the liberalization of marijuana laws across the country.

One member that has already said he will try is Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who sponsored a measure that would stop D.C. from implementing its decriminalization law or a legalization measure. It passed the House, but has been opposed Senate Democrats and President Obama.

"I will continue the fight against the legalization of marijuana through my role on the Appropriations Committee," he said today.

In July, Harris said that he was concerned with the impact that decriminalization and legalization efforts could have on minors. A decriminalization law in Maryland applies only to residents over 21, while D.C.'s current decriminalization law does not distinguish by age. The legalization initiative, though, would only apply to those over 21.

Harris also said that the Constitution allows him to legislate for D.C. "If somebody wants voting rights, the Constitution is clear: They go to a state, not the federal enclave, and they have voting rights. If they're in the federal enclave, then Congress is their local legislature," he said in an interview with WAMU 88.5's Bryan Russo.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton says that she's prepared to defend the legalization initiative from congressional interference.

"We are not surprised that Republicans are threatening to again use the power of the federal government to block the will of the voters of a local jurisdiction. Many Republicans abandon their professed support of local control of local affairs when they have an opportunity to bully the residents of the District, who cannot hold them accountable at the ballot box. We have already begun working with our allies to protect the will of D.C. voters," she said in a statement.

In March, a Washington City Paper/Kojo Nnamdi Show poll found that 49 percent of D.C. residents would vote to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, while 33 percent said they were opposed. A January poll by The Washington Post put support higher, at 63 percent in favor of legalization.

The initiative would not allow for the sale of marijuana, though a bill before the D.C. Council would empower the city to tax and regulate the sale of the drug.

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