Did Congress Really Block D.C.’s Democratically Enacted Pot Legalization?

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Did Congress Really Block D.C.’s Democratically Enacted Pot Legalization?

By Brent McCluskey 12/15/14

While it looked last week as though they did, a closer look at the language in their bill has cast that in doubt.

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While Washington D.C. recently voted in favor of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in November, it appeared that last week Congress was working diligently to overturn the motion.

Because Congress has the legal right to veto any decision made on its behalf by the District, they appeared to use that ability by attaching a rider to the federal budget passed last week that reversed the overwhelming choice made by the District's voters.

The apparent move put elected leaders and advocates in shock. “I can’t believe they did this,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “We don’t need to be locking these people up.”

“It’s totally disturbing; it’s entirely undemocratic,” said Adam Eidinger, who led the efforts to collect over 57,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

But upon closer examination, however, it looks as though there is a saving grace buried in the rider's language. Introduced by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), the rider says 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."

According to the District's congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the language in the rider changed in the final bill. Originally it said "enact or carry out," which she said was a crucial distinction because "[the initiative] was enacted when it was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November."

Drug Policy Alliance's Bill Piper agreed with Norton's assessment. "While Initiative 71 won't take effect until after the Council transmits it to Congress in January and it goes through an administrative 30-day review period," he said, "it has very clearly already been enacted by the voters."

Whether or not Congress agrees remains to be seen, but for now, there is new life in what was called "uniformed paternalistic meddling,” by D.C. Council member David Gross, one of the authors of the marijuana bill.

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