Congress Tightening Grip on DC Marijuana Legalization

Published on May 2, 2017, By Tom Angell

Marijuana News Politics

In a little-noticed provision buried on page 633 of Congress’s new bill to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year, lawmakers are moving to further crack down on Washington, D.C.’s ability to spend its own money to legalize and regulate marijuana sales.

Low-level possession and cultivation of cannabis is already legal in the nation’s capital under a ballot measure that District of Columbia voters overwhelmingly approved in 2014. But the city has been stymied from moving ahead to legally regulate and tax the marijuana market under a series of annual Congressional riders enacted in recent years.

Known as the “Harris Amendment” after its sponsor, Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD), the rider contains two parts: One provision mandating that the city can’t spend any federal funds on legalization and a second that strips it of the power to spend its own locally-raised money on ending prohibition.

But under the new funding legislation the scope of the ban would be even further expanded.

Here’s how it appears in current law under an appropriations bill signed by President Obama in December 2015:

Sec. 809. (a) None of the Federal funds contained in this Act may be used to enact or carry out 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.

(b) 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.

In the new spending bill that must be enacted by Friday in order to keep the federal government funded through September 30, Congress is broadening the reach of the rider’s second part. It now reads (underlined emphasis added):

(b) No funds available for obligation or expenditure by the District of Columbia government under any authority 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.

The key difference is that while the former version only barred the District from spending money allocated in a given year’s specific funding bill on legalization, the new version prevents the spending of any money to regulate marijuana.

Advocates have pushed the District Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser to use the city’s contingency reserve funds to pay for marijuana legalization, something that they argue would be allowed under current law. A few Council members agreed and asked the mayor to act, though she didn’t.

“We urged @MayorBowser to do this 7 months ago,” Councilmember David Grosso tweeted on Tuesday when informed about the new proposed Congressional rider.

Now, with the broader language set to be enacted by Friday, marijuana law reform advocates are expressing frustration that D.C. officials haven’t made using all available options a bigger priority.

And they are pointing out that the mere fact that Congressional Republicans are moving to broaden the language shows how the city could have acted but didn’t.

In a budget request in 2016, President Obama moved to amend the rider to let D.C. freely spend its own money on legalization, but Congress didn’t adopt the reform. Instead, House appropriations leaders introduced broader language similar to what’s in the new bill being considered this week. The 2016 measure never made it to the floor, however, and the federal government has since been funded by a series of short-term extensions known as continuing resolutions, thus keeping the initial language in effect.

If the broader language is enacted this week, as is expected, D.C. will be barred from spending any of its own money on legalization for the rest of Fiscal Year 2017. But because annual appropriations bills only cover individual fiscal years, there will soon be a battle over the D.C. language for 2018’s spending legislation. That could include votes in House and Senate committees and on the floor of either chamber.

If it comes to that, anything could happen. Bipartisan majorities in the past few years have approved several marijuana amendments aimed at increasing states’ abilities to enact their own policies, though it is unknown how many members who voted for those measures would extend the same rights to the nation’s capital.

For now, the pending FY2017 appropriations bill isn’t all bad news for marijuana law reformers. It continues current policies preventing the U.S. Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis and industrial hemp laws.

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