News & Politics

UPDATED: Congress Reportedly Will Block the District’s Marijuana Legalization Law

Activists say Democrats caved to Republican demands to block a ballot referendum approved by 70 percent of DC voters.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

UPDATE, 4:50 PM: The revised rumor about the fate of Initiative 71 is that the continuing resolution Congress needs to pass will not overturn the referendum, but that it will contain language preventing the District government from creating a taxed and regulated retail marijuana market similar to Colorado and Washington state.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference that the final form of the bill is still being shaped, but she is clearly concerned about what might be afoot.

“I am not here to speak about rumors that I hope are not true,” she said. “I continue to speak with House and Senate Democratic leaders and the White House about Republican efforts to interfere with DC’s local laws, although most of our leaders are not in the negotiations and have seen no language.”

But DC Council member David Grosso, the lead sponsor of city legislation that would establish a retail pot scheme, is ready for a fight.

“Once again, it’s Congress meddling in DC’s business where they have no business doing it,” says Grosso. “They don’t know what’s best for the people of the District of Columbia. I thought we had moved to a new place on the war on drugs and realized it’s a complete failure.”

Grosso says that if Hill Democrats wind up caving to Republican demands about DC marijuana sales, he’ll look to the White House to make good on its statements supporting local marijuana reforms, even if it means grinding the federal government to a halt over a conservative policy rider that only targets the District.

“I’d appreciate if it the President would for once stand up for the people of the District of Columbia and [say] ‘no,'” Grosso says. “I think a shutdown of the government is completely okay if it protects the District of Columbia.”

Original post follows.

The omnibus spending bill that needs to be passed by Thursday night in order to avoid a government shutdown is said to contain language blocking the ballot referendum District voters approved last month legalizing the possession and home cultivation of marijuana. Even though more than 70 percent of voters on November 4 said “yes” to Initiative 71, House Republicans have moved to block it from taking effect.

The bill’s language is not public yet, but marijuana reformers say Senate Democrats assented to including the House’s anti-marijuana language, which was first offered by Representative Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican who frequently pairs his anti-marijuana activism with his medical degree, according to the Washington Post.

Initiative 71’s backers are racing to determine whether the reported bill language is for real, and promising to raise hell if it is. Adam Eidinger, who led the DC Cannabis Campaign, says Democratic leaders are caving on marijuana legalization without actually testing whether it’s a dealbreaker for their Republican colleagues.

“If Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi think they would shut down the government to overturn our election, they would never do that,” Eidinger tells Washingtonian just after meeting with a Reid staffer. “What are they worried about? They can easily keep the government open, without threatening this issue, but they’re letting them threaten it.”

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton promised a swift defense of Initiative 71 moments after the election was called on November 4, promising that anyone who tried to block it would get the “fight of their lives.” As of now, her office is officially uncertain about whether the anti-pot language is in the spending bill, but say her staff is in “constant contact” with other members of Congress and with the White House. President Obama said in July he would veto attempts to overturn DC’s then-new marijuana decriminalization law. Harris attempted to block decriminalization in an appropriations bill over the summer, but the Senate did not match his language.

Eidinger hears it’s a done deal.

“Norton’s office confirmed the language is in,” he says.

Norton’s office will not confirm to Washingtonian if it told Eidinger that. But if Initiative 71 is getting the congressional kibosh, Eidinger suggests his response will be on a global scale.

“Every major international news network covered this,” he says. “What I’m saying is if you overturn an election in the nation’s capital, you can count on 1 billion people worldwide learning about this.”

And while the reported language taking down Initiative 71 originates with Republicans like Harris, Eidinger says he will not spare Democrats if it turns out they agreed to include it without putting up a fight, even though DC’s medical marijuana program and decriminalization law, which removed criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of pot, will remain intact. Cannabis reformers don’t find the status quo an acceptable compromise, with no obvious political benefit for anyone.

“It’s a lose-lose for the Democrats, because they will have sold out an election in DC and they will have demoralized their own base,” Eidinger says. “Because they are a party that doesn’t stand for shit.”

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.