The congressional architect of an amendment in a massive federal spending bill that rolled back new D.C. marijuana laws says the bill will block the city’s voter-approved referendum legalizing recreational use of the drug, despite assertions from local leaders that the initiative could stand.
The addition of the “rider” in the $1.1 trillion budget measure released Tuesday sent D.C. lawmakers and activists scrambling Wednesday to determine the extent of the damage the amendment could cause as well as to lobby to have it removed.
Activists were quick to gather on Capitol Hill, with several holding a sit-in at the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, until a policy adviser agreed to meet to discuss the issue. Protests were also planned near the Capitol on Wednesday night.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, unsuccessfully introduced her own amendment Wednesday to repeal the language that would prevent the District from using local funds to “enact or any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance.”
The rider was similar to the language of an amendment made to a previous spending bill by Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland Republican, who has publicly opposed loosening marijuana laws because of the effect it would have on children’s health.
Earlier in the day, Ms. Norton floated the theory that the legalization referendum could not be blocked by the amendment because it should have been considered enacted when 70 percent of voters supported it at the ballot box Nov. 4.
“Unlike the Harris rider, the omnibus rider does not block D.C. from ‘carrying out’ enacted marijuana policies,” Ms. Norton said. “D.C.’s Initiative 71, it can be argued, was enacted when it was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November and was self-executing — i.e., it did not require enactment of any rules for its implementation. Therefore, it can be argued that the legalization of small amounts of marijuana can proceed.”
But a spokesman for Mr. Harris said the amendment’s language would absolutely prevent the referendum from taking effect.
The District’s Office of the Attorney General is reviewing the matter, spokesman Ted Gest said.
The D.C. Council has yet to transmit the initiative to Congress for the mandatory legislative review that all new city laws must undergo.
Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser issued a statement Wednesday saying she would work to “ensure that our laws clear and enforceable.”
“I will continue to push hard to preserve the will of the people of the District of Columbia and its lawmakers,” she said.
The amendment does not appear to upend a law adopted by the D.C. Council earlier this year that removes the criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
“I am glad Congress is going to, in a bipartisan way, uphold federal law to protect our youth by preventing legalization in Washington, D.C.” Mr. Harris said in a statement.
Chris Meekins, Mr. Harris’ spokesman, said the “carrying out” phrase cited by Ms. Norton was removed from this version in order to avoid confusion around whether the amendment would strike the city’s current drug laws. Over the summer when the initial rider emerged, pro-pot activists countered that, if the city was blocked from carrying out its new marijuana decriminalization policies, marijuana would become legal as a result.