Jeff Chiu / AP

DC pot legalization hits red light

Amid wins in other arenas, pot reform groups face rider that might sink plans to legalize marijuana in nation’s capital

Congress’ 2015 spending bill could defy the will of hundreds of thousands of Washington, D.C., residents who voted in November in favor of Initiative 71, which legalizes recreational marijuana.

The House and Senate, which control the budget for the District of Columbia, decided Tuesday night to include a rider in the spending bill, which allocates funds for the next fiscal year. The rider aims to stop D.C. lawmakers from using federal funds to enact the marijuana legalization law, set to go into effect by May. 

But legalization advocates say there is still hope that Initiative 71 can proceed, depending on the interpretation of language in the current spending bill. They say the measure was already enacted in November, when more than 70 percent of voters cast ballots in its favor.

“I think House Republicans are picking on D.C. because they can get away with it,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-marijuana reform group. 

But Piper insisted that decriminalization — which took effect in July after a city council vote and congressional review — is safe, even if full legalization is under threat. Under decriminalization, a person found with up to an ounce of marijuana faces only a $25 dollar fine and not criminal charges. The legalization measure would eliminate any penalties for possession of up to two ounces and three plants. 

Given nationwide trends in favor of marijuana decriminalization and legalization, Piper believes that reform advocates would win if the matter were up for open debate on the floor of Congress. The lawmakers will have to renew that rider ever year for it to stick, so Piper remains optimistic even if his side loses this round. 

He agrees with those who say the law was enacted as soon as voters gave it their blessing, a position shared by others in the D.C. power structure.

And even if Initiative 71 falls flat completely, Robert Capecchi, D.C. policy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which seeks to lift laws against marijuana, said the district’s lawmakers could direct the Metropolitan Police Department not to arrest people for possessing small amounts of pot.

“They could just ignore it and act like 71 is in effect, regardless of what Congress says. I think it would be a strong statement for D.C. home rule,” Capecchi said.

In contrast to other legalization efforts in the states of Colorado and Washington that have hinged largely on libertarian principles, Initiative 71 was successfully sold to D.C. voters as a way of reducing the deep racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests. African-Americans — about half of the city’s 650,000 people — face pot arrest rates almost eight times those of white Washingtonians, according to an ACLU study.

Despite recent widespread calls for policing strategies that respond to the communities served, staunchly anti-pot legislators in congress have tried to scuttle the law D.C. voters passed. Outspoken opponent Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who says he fears legalization “will result in higher drug use among teens,” introduced a version of the rider. 

But at least one Republican far more powerful than Harris, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., spoke out last month against meddling in the city’s affairs, Capitol Hill news outlet Roll Call reported. Paul and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won a related victory in the budget bill, funding research into industrial hemp farming to help Kentucky farmers, Piper said.

Marijuana policy reform advocates separately point to what they see as a major victory in the budget bill: an amendment that prevents the federal government from spending any money to prevent medical marijuana laws.

Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who can speak to Congress as a representative of the city but cannot vote, has said D.C. legalization opponents — especially Harris — are in for the “fight of their lives” if they try to undermine the city’s sovereignty.

Initiative 71 was “enacted when it was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November and was self-executing” Norton said. “Therefore, it can be argued that the legalization of small amounts of marijuana can proceed.”

Addressing House Republicans in a Rules Committee meeting on Wednesday, Norton offered an amendment that would counter Harris’ rider.

“I urge the majority to live up to its professed support for the principles of federalism, limited government and local control of local affairs by not interfering in the local laws of the District of Columbia," she said. 

The committee rejected Norton's amendment Wednesday evening, according to a press release from her office, and one congressional source said legalization opponents are confident.

“This [rider] will definitely block legalization,” the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told Al Jazeera. “Initiative 71 isn’t enacted until after the Congressional review period has ended. Therefore the language will stop enactment.”

D.C.’s home rule laws, put in place in 1973 after Washingtonians protested for greater representation, give the district’s citizens the right to vote for mayor, city council and U.S. president. They also vote for a congressional delegate, who is allowed to address fellow legislators and introduce legislation but can’t vote — so other legislators from far-flung parts of the country have final say over the city’s budget. Two shadow senators have even less power. 

“It really is only D.C. that is getting screwed,” Piper said. “Every place else is being left alone.”

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