White House Defends D.C’s Ability to Set Its Own Marijuana Laws
A powerful Congressional committee just prevented two important marijuana law reform measures from being considered on the U.S. House floor.
Late Tuesday night, the House Rules Committee blocked amendments that would allow state-legal cannabis businesses to access banking services and let Washington, D.C. spend its own money to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana sales.
Advocates were hoping for votes in the full House on Wednesday when the body takes up the Fiscal Year 2017 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill. Such spending bills typically operate under what’s called an open rule, meaning that any member can bring any germane amendment to the floor. But in the wake of controversy surrounding gay rights amendments on other appropriations bills in recent weeks, House Republican leadership has cracked down, instead bringing bills forward under structured rules that only allow specific amendments to be considered.
But even though there won’t be House votes this year on banking services for cannabis businesses and rolling back federal interference with D.C. marijuana laws, it doesn’t necessarily mean that progress on those two issues is dead.
When the Senate Appropriations Committee considered its version of the financial services spending bill last week, it adopted an amendment to allow marijuana banking by a vote of 16-14. And unlike the House proposal, it doesn’t contain any provisions preventing the District of Columbia from legalizing cannabis sales. If the relevant language remains intact through passage by the full Senate, the issues will be worked out in a conference committee through which members of both chambers will negotiate and merge the differences between the bills into a single proposal to send to the president.
In 2014, the House approved an amendment to let marijuana businesses bank by a vote of 231 – 192, so there is support in the chamber for the reform, if only it could get past leadership for consideration by members.
During a brief Rules Committee discussion on the D.C. marijuana amendment, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is the District’s nonvoting representative, decried the effort to block the city from being able to set its own marijuana laws.
“Over and over again, devolving power and authority to state and local governments is the theme of this Congress. We want to remind you again that theme should not end at the District of Columbia border,” she said. “Out of respect for the people I represent, especially as full citizens of the United States, and out of respect for American democracy, I ask you to leave democratically-passed legislation to the local legislature in the District of Columbia.”
Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-FL) agreed, saying, “I tire of the continuing arguments of what amounts to a form of abject colonialism by members of this body.”
The White House also weighed in against Congress interfering with D.C. marijuana laws.
“The Administration strongly opposes the restriction in section 809(b) of the bill on the use of both Federal and local funds for regulatory or legislative activity pertaining to recreational use of marijuana, which was approved by D.C. voters,” it said in a Statement of Administration Policy.
The House bill’s current language is actually much broader than riders enacted in previous years. Republicans expanded the scope of the ban to prevent D.C. officials from using a loophole to get around the current rider by using funds that are untouched by the existing block.
Under current law, D.C. officials are barred from using money covered by annual appropriations bills to legalize cannabis commerce. 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 that wouldn’t be possible if the new House language survives the conference committee process and ends up on the president’s desk.
Norton’s amendment to undo the D.C. block was co-sponsored by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Alan Grayson (D-FL).
The banking amendment was sponsored by Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA), along with Rohrabacher and Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Joe Heck (R-NV), Mike Coffman (R-CO) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).
Photo Courtesy of underworld.