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Congress Could Block D.C. Marijuana Legalization Initiative

On Nov. 4, D.C. voters approved a marijuana legalization initiative.
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On Nov. 4, D.C. voters approved a marijuana legalization initiative.

The District's residents may have voted by a ratio of 2-to-1 to approve a ballot initiative legalizing the possession of marijuana, but Congress could well undo it with far fewer votes — none of which would be cast by anyone representing the city.

Congressional Republicans are considering including a provision in a must-pass spending bill that would block D.C. from implementing the legalization initiative, which would remove all criminal penalties for the possession of less than two ounces and allow residents to grow up to six plants in their homes.

The news was first reported by the National Journal, and confirmed to WAMU 88.5 by the office of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that legislators were currently negotiating a spending bill that has to be passed by next week, and were considering all policy provisions — known as riders — included in other spending measures that passed the House this year.

In July, the House passed the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2015, which included a prohibition on the use of local and federal funds in D.C. to "legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance," including marijuana.

That rider came the same month that D.C. decriminalized marijuana, knocking down penalties for the possession of one ounce of marijuana to $25.

Rogers' spokeswoman said that the marijuana rider is "within the scope of negotiations" on the current spending bill.

That rider was authored by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland), who said he opposed any moves to decriminalize or legalize marijuana. It was opposed by the White House, and never passed the Senate.

According to Jonathan Amar, a spokesman for Norton, she is aware of the move and is working to stop it. "The Congresswoman has been in constant contact with her allies in the House and Senate to ensure that such a rider is not included in the omnibus," he said.

After D.C. residents voted to legalize medical marijuana in 1998, congressional Republicans blocked the measure from being implemented for over a decade. In the Nov. 4 election, 70 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of the marijuana legalization initiative.

Other provisions that could make their way into a final spending bill include one prohibiting the city from using its funds to pay for abortions for low-income women, and another gutting the city's gun laws.

Another Kentucky Republican, Sen. Rand Paul, has said that D.C.'s marijuana legalization initiative should be allowed to stand.

Even if the initiative escapes the spending bill, it still faces 30-day review period after the D.C. Council transmits it to the Hill.

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