News & Politics

DC Marijuana Legalization Will Be Sacrificed to Keep Federal Government Running

President Obama will sign a government funding bill even though it blocks a widely popular District initiative.

The District is somewhere under there. Photograph via Shutterstock.

The White House’s signal that President Obama will sign a massive spending bill that keeps the government from shutting down—even though it contains several unpalatable amendments from House Republicans—effectively ends the District’s hopes for legalizing marijuana. The $1.1 trillion continuing resolution includes language prohibiting the District from using its own resources to enact Initiative 71, which more than 70 prercent of city voters approved last month.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during a Thursday afternoon press conference that while Obama does not believe Congress should overrule DC’s local laws, he’s not going to risk a government shutdown over one city’s cannabis reform.

“[T]he Administration objects to the inclusion of ideological and special interest riders in the House bill,” reads a statement of administration policy released today. The one-page document mentions several amendments, although it does not call out the anti-marijuana language placed in the bill by Representative Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican who has appointed himself DC’s iron-fisted drug czar.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who previously promised Initiative 71’s meddlers “the fight of their lives,” has said she believes there’s a loophole in the referendum, which was written with the intention of not affecting the District’s budget. Because the legalization of possession of up to two ounces of cannabis and home cultivation of up to six marijuana plants for adults 21 and over does not explicitly impact DC’s finances, Norton believes it could be “self-enacting.”

Even if Norton’s theory pans out, the reluctance of congressional Democrats or the White House to put up a fight is another kick in the teeth for DC. More sobering is that District officials and marijuana activists are resigned to a situation like this.

“I like the President, but you can never say he’s an activist President,” says Council member David Grosso, the lead sponsor of a DC Council bill that would have created a regulated and taxed retail mariijuana market similar to those established by Colorado and Washington state. “To protect the District of Columbia? I don’t see it happening regardless of the issue.”

Harris’s meddling with Initiative 71 has sparked several Capitol Hill demonstrations from its backers, but the protests appear to be in vain, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying the anti-marijuana language will be difficult to remove from the negotiated bill.

Obama’s reluctance to jump to the defense of Initiative 71 stings a bit more than Reid’s, though. Last summer, when Harris unsuccessfully attempted to block DC’s marijuana decriminalization law, the White House said the President would veto a spending bill if it contained such an amendment.

“[T]he administration strongly opposes the language in the bill preventing the District from using its own local funds to carry out locally-passed marijuana policies, which again undermines the principles of states’ rights and of District home rule,” an administration policy statement read then. Perhaps it should have specified that such opposition only applied when it was politically convenient.

“I’d love to be pleasantly surprised someday,” says Grosso.

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.