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The House delivered an expected blow to D.C.’s plans to legalize marijuana last night when it voted in favor of a spending bill that contains a provision intended to block Initiative 71—-the D.C. ballot measure to legalize the drug that 70 percent of voters supported on Election Day.
President Barack Obama has already said that he would sign the bill into law, despite disagreeing on principle with Congress meddling with local D.C. affairs (and also strong objections from many Democrats to provisions that would let federally guaranteed banks conduct derivatives trades again and raise caps on contributions to political parties).
But at least some officials say there’s still hope for D.C.’s marijuana law, particularly in the favorable reading of the spending bill that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is championing. And as a result, by Thursday, they had quietly stopped fighting the legislation as aggressively as they were when it was first released.
The bill prohibits D.C. from using funds to “enact any law, rule or regulation” to legalize or reduce the penalties associated with possession of marijuana. Norton argues that Initiative 71 was enacted when voters approved it in November. Now, the District just needs to carry it out and implement it. And the provision does not prevent the District from “carrying out” the law. Typically provisions like this, which attempt to gut a law through the appropriations process, include language preventing use of funds to “enact or carry out,” not just enact, whatever they’re trying to block. Rep. Andy Harris‘ legislation to block D.C.’s marijuana decriminalization, for instance, contained the words “carry out.”
“Based on a plain reading of the bill and principles of statutory interpretation, the District may be able to carry out its marijuana legalization initiative,” Norton wrote in a press release.
Rep. Jose Serrano of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees D.C. spending, issued a release agreeing with Norton’s interpretation.
“This is a substantive difference that would be given weight in a statutory interpretation of the provision,” he said. “Since it can be argued that D.C.’s initiative 71 is self-executing and that it was enacted when an overwhelming majority of voters supported it in the November elections, this means that Section 809 should not apply to the ballot initiative.”
Even D.C.’s pot activist-in-chief Adam Eidinger, the chair of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign who was trying to get himself arrested in protest this week, was feeling better about it all Thursday afternoon. I asked him what he thought of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi‘s strong statement that day in which she said she wanted Democrats to use any muscle they had to remove two “offensive” provisions from the spending bill, neither of which had anything to do with D.C.’s ability to govern itself. (House Democrats were unsuccessful in removing those provisions.)
He said he read that as Pelosi telling D.C. to “chill” and that it would get marijuana legalization.
Many Democrats in the House supported this theory, and told the Post that the wording was intentional and represented a concession on both sides.
If the reading holds up, that doesn’t mean D.C. marijuana is in the clear—-in fact, that’s far from the case. Initiative 71 only legalizes the possession and growing of marijuana, not its sale. The city’s plans to create a regulatory framework for taxable, legal sales in the District will definitely be blocked by the spending bill.
Even just acting as if the initiative has already been enacted could draw ire from the Hill. Harris could not immediately be reached for comment, but he told the Baltimore Sun earlier in the week that he wishes the wording in the provision were stronger.
Ultimately, the whole matter could end up in court.
This morning, Norton’s spokesman tells City Desk that the D.C. delegate is still “fighting” the provision.
The Post has an interesting rundown that lays out other ways pot could still be deemed legal in the District.
Photo by Diliff via Wikimedia/CC BY 2.5