- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A House spending bill introduced Wednesday would block the District from using any money “to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties” for possession of marijuana — a move that would keep the drug quasi-legal in the city.

The congressional rider will continue to block city leaders from pursuing legislation to regulate the sale and taxation of marijuana. A similar provision was included in a congressional spending plan adopted in December.

Marijuana policy experts interpreted the fact the rider did not include more restrictive language as a sign Republican leaders were not interested in engaging in a larger fight over marijuana.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that the rider that they did include was not more restrictive,” said Dan Riffle, director of Federal Policies at the Marijuana Policy Project. “I fully expected them to include tougher language explicitly naming the law in the language of the rider.”

Voters approved a ballot initiative in 2014 that legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in the District, however without legislative action by local lawmakers it will remain illegal to buy or sell the drug.

The chief of staff for Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican who inserted similar provisions into previous budget bills, said the rider would prevent widespread marijuana use by blocking the creation of a commercial marijuana industry in the District.

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“This language was agreed to by Congress last year and is what the committee chose to keep in place this year,” said Chief of Staff Chris Meekins.

Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, said the rider could be removed from the budget.

“If there’s a floor vote on an amendment to strip this language from the bill I think we have a really good shot of assembling a bipartisan majority of lawmakers who will stand up for letting DC enact its own marijuana policies without interference,” Mr. Angell said.

The District’s budget has been subject to congressional approval in the past, a factor that has left it open to the insertion of budget riders by members of Congress seeking to prevent spending money to implement controversial programs having to do with things like abortion and needle exchanges.

But that may be subject to change. The D.C. Council took a historic step toward the implementation of local budget autonomy when it voted Wednesday to approve the spending of locally raised funds without congressional approval. A recent court ruling on the matter overturned a federal court decision that threw out the city’s 2012 budget autonomy referendum and remanded the case to a lower court.

While the D.C. Council moved forward with approval of the budget, it is also expected to submit the city budget to Congress for approval per its previous protocol to cover all basis in case there are unfavorable developments in the court case.

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Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, vowed to fight the inclusion of the marijuana rider, as well as others that as part of her goal to achieve home-rule for the city.

“I will say again, we will force a floor vote on each and every anti-home-rule rider,” she said. “No member will get a free pass for undermining democracy in D.C.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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