D.C. officials Wednesday said they would proceed cautiously if Congress lifts a federal roadblock to implementing a voter initiative approved more than a decade ago that called for legalizing medical marijuana.
Congress is poised to pass an omnibus spending bill that will not include a rider known as the Barr Amendment, which has blocked the District from legalizing medical marijuana.
The Barr Amendment has banned the city from funding legalization efforts since 1998, when 69 percent of voters cast ballots approving the use of medical marijuana in the District.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray called the removal of the ban a victory for home rule. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gray said the chairman would meet with members to discuss how to proceed.
“This just happened. It’s too early to say what will happen.” Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said.
Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said he, too, was unsure of how to treat the initiative after so much time.
“It’s been 11 years since anyone has looked at this,” he said. “I don’t know what the next steps should be.”
D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said only, “I’m studying it. It’s a complex issue.”
A spokeswoman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics said that voter initiatives such as the medical marijuana initiative are transmitted to the council after they are passed and the council then submits the measures to Congress, which has 30 sitting days to take action against the initiative.
Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the absence of the Barr Amendment, originally added by former Rep. Bob Barr, then a Republican from Georgia, paves the way for legalization of medical marijuana.
“The residents who need medical marijuana will have a cloud removed from over them,” Mr. Mirken said. “It’s time D.C. pulls this law out of the mothballs.”
Mr. Mirken said he does not expect the Democratic Congress to overturn the initiative. He said that if the measure passes, the city’s Department of Health would be responsible for developing plans for the safe distribution of medical marijuana.
D.C. Department of Health spokeswoman Dena Iverson agreed, saying the agency’s responsibility is to regulate health issues in the District. Those duties include licensing pharmacies.
Initiative 59 was primarily pushed by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power known as ACT UP. The group got a second chance in February 1998 to collect signatures to get the initiative on the ballot after falling short of the required number by 800 and having 4,000 disqualified.
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