Congress poised to nix marijuana legalization, overruling D.C. voters

In November, the District of Columbia voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, but a new congressional budget deal has a provision barring implementation. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
Adam Eidinger, chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, works on posters encouraging people to vote yes on D.C. Initiative 71 to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use in Washington in this October file photo. The measure passed, but Congress blocked its implementation Tuesday.

When residents of the District of Columbia voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana last month, cannabis fans cheered. Then they quickly realized that Congress – which has oversight over D.C.’s affairs – could overrule the will of the voters.

Now, it appears, that fear will come true sooner than expected – not in the next Congress, when Republicans will control both chambers, but during the lame duck session currently under way.

Tuesday night, Senate Democrats and House Republicans reached a deal to fund the federal government through Sept. 30 of next year. The full House and Senate have yet to vote on it, but if they pass it, that means no government shutdown. Then there's the fine print, which includes a provision that bars implementation of Initiative 71, the marijuana legalization measure D.C. voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin on Nov. 4.

Specifically, a press summary of the spending bill posted online by the House Appropriations Committee says it “prohibits both federal and local funds from being used to implement a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use in the District.”

Advocates of voting rights for the District’s 646,000 residents are outraged.

“If reports are true, members of Congress from both parties bargained away the rights of the people of the District of Columbia and in doing so compromised the core democratic values of the United States,” Kimberly Perry, head of the group D.C. Vote, said in a statement to The Washington Post.  

Efforts to secure full voting representation in Congress for D.C. residents have a long history of frustration. The reality is that the federal enclave is not a state, and therefore its residents do not enjoy the same voting rights of states, as granted by the US Constitution. The Constitution also grants Congress jurisdiction over the District.

In 1973, Congress established “home rule” in D.C., allowing local officials to govern the District. But Congress maintains the right to overrule local decisions, including ballot measures.

Most of the time, Congress leaves D.C. alone, but on social policy, congressional Republicans have been known to jump in. On abortion policy, the District is not allowed to use its own tax revenues to fund the procedure for low-income residents. Republicans in Congress blocked sales of medical marijuana in D.C. for 11 years.

In the current Congress, Rep. Andy Harris (R) of Maryland is spearheading the effort to thwart legalized recreational marijuana in D.C. He claims “fairly broad-based support in Congress against legalization.”

But marijuana advocates aren’t taking this lying down.

“Tonight we march!” tweeted Adam Eidinger, chairman of the DC Cannabis Campaign, Wednesday morning.

The march Wednesday evening will begin at the Justice Department and end at Capitol Hill, with civil disobedience that could lead to arrests.

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