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Congressional budget poised to partially block pot legalization in D.C.
    #761120 - 12/09/14 08:35 PM (1 year, 10 months ago)

Above: Initiative 71 supporters celebrate on Nov. 4 as early returns showed the ballot measure to legalize pot in the District headed to overwhelming victory. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

By Aaron C. Davis and Ed O'Keefe December 9 at 3:55 PM

Despite overwhelming voter support, Congress would block sales of pot in the nation’s capital under a deal that emerged Tuesday to keep the federal government funded far into next year, according to senior congressional aides with knowledge of the negotiations.

The spending package remained fluid late Tuesday, and the aides cautioned that details could change. But asked about the prospect for Congress to restrict marijuana legalization in the District, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) conceded that it appeared likely to remain part of the final bill.

“The District of Columbia should do what they want to do,” Reid said, adding that he opposes congressional limits on how the city implements Initiative 71 to legalize marijuana.

If the tentative deal holds, it would represent a slightly better outcome than congressional aides had floated Monday, in which the District would have been prohibited entirely from implementing the measure backed by 7 in 10 D.C. voters.

But many warned that the partial constraints might prove to be a worse outcome, potentially leading to chaos for lawmakers and police officers trying to rewrite and enforce city drug laws.

The ballot measure was written to allow for possession of up to two ounces of pot and home cultivation of up to three mature cannabis plants. It left up to city lawmakers the accompanying regulatory structure for how to legally sell and tax the plant.

Under the provision being contemplated in the federal spending plan, the D.C. Council and mayor would be prohibited from spending city tax dollars to develop and implement such a system.

The congressional interference appeared likely to thrust an unwelcome decision on Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D).

Bowser forcefully said last month that she would not allow Initiative 71 to take effect without companion legislation to create legal sales of the drug. As a council member, she said this year that she feared legalization without legal sale would lead to de facto open air drug markets in the nation’s capital.

The day after the Nov. 4 election, Bowser vowed to implement the will of voters and specifically to do so by regulating marijuana similar to the manner in which the city oversees alcohol sales.

In a statement, Bowser said the deal remains in flux, and she did not address how she might respond if it comes to pass.

“I call on all members of Congress to respect the will of D.C. voters and reject any attempts to violate our right to self-governance,” she said.

Other D.C. Democrats were more forceful and directed anger at senators of their own party.

“I certainly don’t know why Democrats would agree to block legalization while we still control the White House, we still control the Senate — and who knows, they may even need Democratic votes to pass this,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

The District’s nonvoting member of Congress said she had been locked out of the decision-making process entirely. “I don’t even know which Democrats are in the room. . . . I cannot tell why Democrats would want to give Republicans a head start to do what they are going to be able to do, I suppose, in less than a month” when Republicans take control of the Senate.

A senior congressional aide cast the latest version as less of an affront to D.C. autonomy because it would not invalidate the will of voters by blocking implementation of Initiative 71. But the aide acknowledged that a prohibition on a tax-and-sale system would not comport with the spirit of home rule that Congress granted the city more than four decades ago.

Kimberly Perry, head of D.C. Vote, an organization dedicated to voting representation for the District in Congress, said any limits on how the city could implement the legislation would be unacceptable.

“If reports are true, members of Congress from both parties bargained away the rights of the people of the District of Columbia and in doing so compromised the core democratic values of the United States,” she said in a statement. Perry urged members of Congress to “vote against this attempt to undermine democracy.”

Congressional Republicans have previously used a similar technique to put limits on how the heavily Democratic city carries out liberal social policy, including spending its own tax dollars to fund abortion coverage for the poor.

For 11 years, congressional Republicans also used a similar spending “rider” to prevent the District from implementing a voter-backed measure to allow sales of medical marijuana.

Spokesmen for House and Senate budget negotiators declined to comment and said that the budget deal will not be final until it is released.

Earlier Tuesday, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.),the most outspoken congressional critic of D.C. pot legalization, said any deal between Democrats and Republicans would signal bipartisan skepticism of marijuana legalization for recreational use.

Following a speech Tuesday at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which was interrupted repeatedly by marijuana advocates, Harris said a deal would “show fairly broad-based support in Congress against legalization.”

Harris said he had no qualms about continuing to interfere and to turn back the results of the Nov. 4 election. On that day, voters in Alaska, the District and Oregon chose to legalize marijuana, but only the D.C. vote is subject to oversight by Congress.

“The fact is the Constitution gives Congress the ultimate oversight about what happens in the federal district,” Harris said.

D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who has authored a bill for the District to allow legal sales of pot, issued a news release in response to the apparent deal titled “Don’t Blunt D.C.’s Election.”

“It is disheartening and frustrating to learn that once again the District of Columbia is being used as a political pawn by the Congress,” Grosso said. “To undermine the vote of the people — taxpayers — does not foster or promote the “limited government” stance House Republicans claim they stand for; it’s uninformed paternalistic meddling.”


Edited by SleepAid (12/09/14 08:37 PM)

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