D.C. Moves Forward With Marijuana Legalization Initiative

A man holds up a sign for Ballot Initiative #71, the legalization of marijuana, on November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. Voters
A man holds up a sign for Ballot Initiative #71, the legalization of marijuana, on November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. Voters around the United States went to the polls to vote in the 2014 interim election. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) submitted the District of Columbia's new marijuana legalization initiative to Congress Tuesday, ignoring an effort by congressional Republicans to block the measure.

Alana Intrieri, legislative counsel to Mendelson, confirmed to The Huffington Post in an email Tuesday that Initiative 71 has been transmitted to Congress, beginning a mandatory 30-day congressional review process.

In November, 70 percent of D.C. voters approved the initiative, which would legalize up to two ounces of cannabis for personal use and up to six marijuana plants for home cultivation while still banning sales.

Though the city is mostly autonomous, the U.S. Constitution gives Congress final say over the District's laws. If Congress and President Barack Obama do not decide to block the measure, the new law could go into effect as early as March.

However, a $1.1 trillion federal spending bill that was signed by Obama in December was flooded with hundreds of additional provisions known as "riders." One of these, introduced by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) was an anti-pot measure forbidding D.C. from using any funding to enact an initiative relaxing penalties for drugs that are illegal under federal law.

Now, following Mendelson's move, there is disagreement over what will happen next to the pot referendum.

A spokesman for Harris told HuffPost in December that the 30-day review period is irrelevant, because Harris' rider says the city cannot "enact" its marijuana law.

But supporters of the law argue that the initiative has already been enacted. Mendelson has said that if Initiative 71 makes it through the congressional review process, the District would not be required to spend any money on legalization, which would make Harris' rider irrelevant.

“The District’s examination agrees with our analysis that the initiative was enacted when voters approved it and will take effect at the end of the 30-day congressional review period," the District's nonvoting representative in the House, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said to HuffPost on Tuesday.

Multiple congressional Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agree with Mendelson and Norton's interpretation and say the law should be allowed to move forward.

Congress has the length of the review period to overturn Initiative 71. However, if Congress does not interfere with the measure, it automatically becomes law.

If the law ends up getting blocked by Congress, it wouldn't be the first time the legislative branch has interfered with local marijuana laws in the District of Columbia. In 1998, 69 percent of D.C. voters approved a medical marijuana ballot measure, but the implementation of the law was blocked by Congress for more than a decade.

Dr. Malik Burnett, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance and vice chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, said that Congress now has the opportunity to stand by the will of D.C.'s voters who chose to end what he calls "the racially biased enforcement of marijuana laws."

"Let’s see if those members of Congress who are opposed to marijuana policy reform are willing to stand by the courage of their convictions and be forever recorded as being on the wrong side of history," Burnett said.



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