Federal Spending Bill To Block D.C. Marijuana Legislation

UPDATED: Dec. 10, 2014 9:35 p.m.

WASHINGTON (WNEW/AP) — The $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by Congress Tuesday will fund federal government agencies through Sept. 30, 2015 but will also affect D.C.’s local marijuana laws.

Rather than trying to vote down the pot initiative — which Congress has the power to do — opponents placed language in an essential spending bill that would prevent the city from spending any money to enact it.

In its own words, the federal funding bill “prohibits both federal and local funds from being used to implement a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use in the District.”

Initiative 71, as it was passed by slightly more than 64 percent of District residents in November, allows for the personal possession of up to two ounces of pot and cultivation of three mature plants. It does not address taxation and regulation of legal sales in D.C.

However, the D.C. Council has been preparing to set up a local marijuana marketplace that would regulate and tax pot through the same body that regulates alcohol sales. By some estimates, the marketplace could create a $130 million per year industry in D.C.

If the spending bill is approved, all that would be on hold until at least next September, when it expires. But support for the bill among Democratic leaders was wavering Wednesday because of other provisions, raising the possibility that Congress could keep the government running on autopilot until Republicans seize full control of Congress next year. That outcome would likely delay action by Congress on the marijuana initiative rather than preclude it altogether.

D.C. Council member David Grosso, who introduced the regulation initiative in 2013, is disappointed in Congress for meddling in the District’s affairs.

“I’m baffled every time they try to engage in our issues like this, like they know what’s best for the people of D.C.,” he says. “We need to put a regulatory framework in place, similar to alcohol.”

Congress has final say over laws in the District, and this is not the first time marijuana-related legislation has been affected.

Medical marijuana was passed by D.C. voters via a 1998 ballot initiative. It took 11 years for it to make it past the Hill.

In a statement released Tuesday, Grosso asked D.C. voters not to let history repeat itself.

“The District’s medical marijuana program was delayed by Congress for over a decade and we will not stand by and allow this to happen again with Initiative 71,” he wrote.

“I urge the residents of this city to take a stand along with the Council in our continued fight for legislative and budget autonomy and call members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee to ask them to pass a clean CR and leave the District of Columbia out of their politics.”

Marijuana activists joined with members of DC Vote to hold a sit-in at Senator Harry Reid’s office on Capitol Hill. One member, Kim Perry, stayed at outside Reid’s office until she was escorted out by police late Wednesday evening.

Meanwhile, the District’s delegate to Congress isn’t so sure that the spending bill’s language about marijuana legalization in the District means what everyone thinks it means.

“When the initiative was passed it was already enacted,” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton says.

It’s her belief that Initiative 71 is still the law of the land but she is still trying to get the language removed from Congress’s spending bill and says D.C.’s attorney should take a close look at it, as well.

Democratic Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, who takes office in January, has said that she does not want unregulated legal pot in the city because of the implications for law enforcement, However, on Wednesday, she said she would “respect the will of the people of the District of Columbia” if Congress took taxation and regulation off the table.

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WNEW’s Chuck Carroll and D.C. Bureau Chief Matt DelSignore contributed to this report.

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