Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Media Source: 
WAMU Radio (DC)
Martin Austermuhle

It's been a year since D.C. residents overwhelmingly voted to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but Congress is again blocking any further efforts to permit retail sales of the drug in the nation's capital.

Tucked in a 2,000-page must-pass spending bill is a provision that would prohibit the city from spending any money 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," which includes marijuana.

The provision specifically targets a bill introduced in the D.C. Council in 2013 and again this year that would permit Colorado-style retail sales of marijuana and allow the city to tax and regulate them.

The prohibition was first inserted into a congressional spending bill last year, shortly after a vote on Initiative 71, which allows residents to possess small amounts of marijuana and grow up to six plants in their homes.

While D.C. officials were able to move ahead on implementing Initiative 71 — it took effect in March — they conceded that the congressional prohibition stalled future efforts to further legalize marijuana.

The prohibition is so broad that in February D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine advised the Council not to hold a formal hearing on the bill that would legalize pot sales. Instead, legislators held an informal roundtable discussion on the measure. City officials have estimated that legal marijuana sales could be worth up to $130 million per year.

This isn't the first time Congress has blocked a marijuana law in D.C.

After a 1998 D.C. vote to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, congressional Republicans blocked the law from taking effect for more than a decade. But in a demonstration of how much views of medical marijuana have changed — and how many states have programs — the spending bill actually prohibits the federal government from cracking down on state-based medical marijuana programs, including D.C.'s.

The spending bill also continues a longstanding ban on the use of local and federal funds to pay for abortions for low-income women in D.C.

It additionally allows sledding on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, responding to a controversy earlier this year when Capitol Police briefly prohibited children from sledding due to security concerns.

What the bill does not include is any prohibitions on the implementation of a D.C. law protecting employees from discrimination based on reproductive health choices. It came under fire from congressional Republicans earlier this year, but was defended by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

The House and Senate are expected to pass the spending bill this week.