Congress Tightening Restraints on D.C. Marijuana Reform

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The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is taking steps to further crack down on Washington, D.C.’s ability to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana sales.

Possessing and cultivating small amounts of marijuana is already legal in the nation’s capital, as is medical cannabis, thanks to voter-approved ballot initiatives. But under a Congressional rider, the city is barred from spending its own money to create a system of marijuana stores where adults without medical recommendations could legally purchase the drug.

Now, Congressional Republicans are seeking to broaden the scope of the ban to prevent D.C. officials from using a loophole to get around the existing rider by using funds that are untouched by the current block.

Under current law, D.C. officials are barred from using money covered by annual appropriations bills to legalize cannabis commerce:

None of the funds contained in this Act may be used 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 under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.

That specific language has left open the possibility that the city could use other pools of money it has available, such as contingency reserve funds appropriated in previous years, to regulate marijuana sales. Officials told Marijuana.com last year that they were considering doing so.

But new language proposed this week by the House Appropriations Committee, if enacted as part of Fiscal Year 2017 funding legislation, would prevent the city from doing that:

No funds available for obligation or expenditure by any officer or employee of the District of Columbia government may be used 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 under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.

While a committee press release claims that the bill “maintains provisions prohibiting federal and local funds from being used…to further marijuana legalization,” the new language does more than maintain the provision. It significantly broadens it.

The appropriations panel’s Financial Services Subcommittee approved the bill on Wednesday morning. It now heads to the full committee and then, if approved, to the House floor.

D.C. Councilmember David Grosso, who has sponsored legislation to legalize marijuana sales, told Marijuana.com that he wants House Republicans to “get a life and let D.C. elected officials to do our jobs.” 

Advocates expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s incredibly disappointing to see certain House Republicans continue to tie the hands of D.C.’s elected officials when it comes to controlling, regulating and taxing the adult use marijuana market in the city,” Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), said in an email. “Marijuana is and will continue to be legal for adults in the District to possess, use and cultivate. District officials should be allowed to regulate the market as well in order to both better control for the actual harms of marijuana use, and to reap the same rewards associated with regulation and taxation.”

In a statement, Kaitlyn Boecker, policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), agreed, called the move “an astonishing blow to local control” that “may set a dangerous precedent.”

Last year the Senate’s version of the funding bill did not contain any restrictions on D.C.’s ability to spend its money on marijuana reform, but the House-passed language was included in the final Fiscal Year 2016 spending package signed into law by President Obama in December.

The president, for his own part, proposed letting D.C. spend its locally-raised funds on marijuana legalization in his annual budget proposal released in February. It was the second year in a row that he did so.

District of Columbia voters overwhelmingly approved the initiative to legalize possession and cultivation of marijuana in November 2014 by a 70 percent to 30 percent margin. Mayor Muriel Bowser and members of the D.C. Council have expressed interest in building upon that to enact a system of legal and regulated sales, but have appeared reluctant to push the issue with Congress by using the contingency reserve funds.

The new House proposal could spur officials to exercise that option before the language goes into effect and takes the move off the table.

“D.C. elected officials must take a stand,” said DPA’s Boecker. “The Council should move immediately to enact comprehensive marijuana regulation with current reserve funds. Officials have every right to control local policy and to legislate on critical matters of public health and safety. Such attempts at interference in local affairs by Congress are a blow to local control and democracy not only in the District, but throughout the nation.”

Adam Eidinger, the chief proponent of the 2014 legalization ballot initiative, told Marijuana.com that the move by the House gives reformers some evidence to push local officials with.

“The need for this new appropriations language by the House shows their lawyers think the D.C. Council could use reserve funds from 2014 to enact tax and regulate legislation up until at least September 30 of this year,” he said, referring to the end of the current fiscal year. “D.C. Council members could enact such a law if they had the political will.”

Legalization advocates also have other options available if the Council isn’t willing to use the contingency reserve funds.

In past years, the marijuana policy reform movement’s Capitol Hill lobbyists and supporters in Congress have been reluctant to push a House floor amendment to remove the ban’s language from the funding bill out of fear that a loss would jeopardize future reform efforts. But now that reformers are regularly winning House floor votes to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference and to increase military veterans’ access to medical marijuana, that calculus may change.

“I’m hopeful the broadening of the rider does light a fire under our friends on the Hill to mount a challenge and finally remove it,” said MPP’s Capecchi.

Photo Courtesy of Ksu Shachmeister.

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Marijuana.com. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

1 Comment

  1. Long past time for all republicans in congress to lose their offices in Washington. Vote the useless S.O.B.s out of office in November!

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