Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Media Source: 
WAMU Radio (DC)
Martin Austermuhle

A draft congressional spending bill would again forbid the District from legalizing the sale of marijuana, likely frustrating local efforts to create a regulated system of pot sales for a second year in a row.

The bill published today by the House Appropriations Committee, which includes funding for the District, states that "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," like marijuana.

The provision is the latest in a long-running fight between congressional Republicans and the nation's capital over pot policy.

Last July, Republicans led by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) attempted to stop the city from decriminalizing the possession of marijuana. In December, they successfully inserted language into the "cromnibus" spending bill blocking any legalization efforts.

While Harris and other Republicans said the December language was meant to apply to the November ballot initiative approved by 69 percent of D.C. voters that legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, city officials argued the wording and timing of the budget rider spared the initiative. That legalization measure — which also allows home cultivation — took effect in February.

But those same city officials have conceded on any broader legalization attempts, notably a bill that would create a system to tax and regulate the sale of marijuana — a market estimated to be worth $130 million a year. In February, a hearing on the bill was downgraded to an informal roundtable discussion after D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said that the December rider prohibited the D.C. Council from doing anything to move the measure forward.

Should the language remain in the spending bills, D.C. will again be forbidden from considering further legalization measures through at least September 2017. Some activists say that there is a way around the ban, though — the Council could use leftover funds from past fiscal years to implement the bill legalizing the sale of marijuana.

The District's medical marijuana program would be unaffected by any budget rider, though it too was once the victim of a fight between Republicans and the city. In 1998, D.C. voters approved the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but Congress blocked the measure from taking effect for 11 years. The first legal sale of medical marijuana took place two years ago; there are now 3,500 registered patients in the city.

The spending bill also renews the longstanding prohibition on the use of local funds to pay for abortions for low-income women.