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Congress Moves To Block D.C. Marijuana Legalization Approved By D.C. Voters

On Nov. 4, D.C. residents approved Initiative 71, which legalizes the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
On Nov. 4, D.C. residents approved Initiative 71, which legalizes the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana.

Congress is moving to block the implementation of a marijuana legalization ballot initiative that was overwhelmingly endorsed by D.C. voters in November, tucking a provision prohibiting the city from spending any money on the measure into a massive $1.1 trillion, 1,600-page spending bill unveiled on Tuesday night.

Just as legalization proponents had feared, the spending bill includes a rider that "prohibits both federal and local funds from being used to implement a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use in the District," according to a summary posted on the website of the House Appropriations Committee.

If passed, the prohibition would remain in effect through Sept. 2015, but could be extended by the incoming Republican majority in future spending bills.

On Nov. 4, close to 70 percent of D.C. voters backed Initiative 71, which legalizes the possession of less than two ounces of marijuana and allows residents to grow up to six plants in their homes. The initiative followed a July law that decriminalized the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, dropping the fine to $25.

Critics on Capitol Hill have said that they are concerned with the health impacts of marijuana use, and that legal marijuana would only increase usage among children. But they have been limited in what they can do to states that have decriminalized or legalized marijuana, and instead have turned their attention to D.C. — a federal city under congressional control.

The bill would prohibit D.C. from using of any funds to "enact any law, rule or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance." That language largely came from Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland), who in July unsuccessfully tried to block the decriminalization law.

Though some advocates have argued that implementing the ballot initiative would cost nothing, some officials say the simple act of transmitting the measure to Capitol Hill for a 30-day review as is required would expend funds. It would also preemptively kill a bill introduced by D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) that would allow the city to tax and regulate the sale of marijuana to adults.

The existing decriminalization law would apparently remain intact, as would the city's medical marijuana program, which serves 1,877 patients. The spending bill would actually prohibit the Department of Justice from moving against any state — including D.C. — with a medical marijuana program.

Hints of the rider drew swift condemnation from D.C. activists and officials on Tuesday.

"They're allowing the overturning of an election," said Adam Eidinger, chair of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, which spearheaded the ballot initiative. "It's outrageous. They don't have to do this."

“The decision by Congress to override a local DC election result is unconscionable," Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote, an organization that fights for District voting rights and autonomy.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton questioned why congressional Democrats would have agreed to the rider.

"I would be at a loss to explain why Democrats would agree to block D.C. marijuana legalization on their watch. We control the White House and the Senate and House Democratic votes may be needed to pass the omnibus," she said.

Despite those protests, this would not be the first time that a D.C. issue has become a bargaining chip in congressional budget fights.

In 2011, President Obama said he would concede on D.C. funding for abortions for low-income women. The move enraged local activists and elected officials, who protested — and were arrested — during a demonstration on Capitol Hill. The new spending bill again block funding for abortions.

"It is disheartening and frustrating to learn that once again the District of Columbia is being used as a political pawn by the Congress," said Grosso.

The congressional action would mark the second time that a local vote on marijuana has been derailed. In 1998, 69 percent of D.C. residents voted to legalize medical marijuana, but congressional Republicans blocked the measure from being implemented for over a decade.

Harris' July rider was opposed by the White House, but it remains unclear if President Obama will veto the spending bill over the new marijuana rider.

And even if he does, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sounded pessimistic about the prospects of removing the measure from the spending bill, which is expected to be voted on this Thursday.

"If they put it in there, it's going to be hard to take it out over here, but I oppose it," he said.

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