Nation's Capital May Legalize Medical Marijuana
||Thursday, December 10, 2009
The nation's capital could join 13 states where the use of medical marijuana is legal, thanks to a vote Thursday in Congress that may have even wider implications for residents of the District of Columbia.
The House passed a 1,088-page, $1.1 trillion spending bill, which included provisions that strip away Republican-favored bans on medicinal marijuana as well as on the use of local tax dollars to fund abortion for poor women and AIDS prevention programs. The appropriations bill also limits the expansion of school vouchers for D.C. students and lifts a ban on the use of federal funds to implement a domestic partner benefit program for city employees.
Although the spending bill must still pass the Senate, "It's a monumental step. It's just huge," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, a group that advocates giving the District of Columbia a vote in Congress. "For the first time in at least 20 years, if not longer, D.C.'s budget will be unencumbered with congressional interference."
But Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, called the spending bill "bad government at its worst." He said the provisions would never have passed on their own had they not been buried in a must-pass spending bill.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's non-voting delegate in Congress, hailed the House vote as the beginning of a "new chapter in democracy in the District of Columbia."
Norton and other district leaders have long argued that the heavily Democratic capital is the nation's only surviving colony. Local license plates read: "Taxation Without Representation."
The city has an elected mayor and city council. But because the U.S. Constitution reserves federal representation to the states, their decisions have been routinely overruled by Republican-controlled Congresses. Now, with Democrats in charge, observers say the district -- though still lacking a vote in Congress -- may have more control over its destiny than at any other time in history.
"This is obviously the indicator of a new era," said WTOP radio political analyst Mark Plotkin. "Before, the graveyard (of D.C. rights) was the House appropriations committee."
The medical marijuana measure is a prime example.
In 1998, district residents voted by a more than 2-1 margin to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Before the law could go into effect, though, Republicans who controlled Congress blocked it by stripping the city of authority to set its own policies on drug use.
The move to overturn the ban is "a signal of the evolution of political attitudes toward medical marijuana," said Bruce Merkin of the Marijuana Policy Project.
The House vote came days before the D.C. City Council is expected to take a second vote legalizing same-sex marriage in the district. Mayor Adrian Fenty promised to sign the bill. Once he does, Congress has 30 days to review it. Longtime observers say it is unlikely the Democrat-controlled Congress will block the district from becoming the fifth jurisdiction where gays are allowed to marry.
Said former Republican congressman Tom Davis, a champion for district voting rights, "I don't think Congress will touch it."