D.C. Marijuana Law Blocked By Congress, But There May Be A Loophole

WASHINGTON -- The legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington, D.C., appears to be blocked in the spending bill Congress released late Tuesday.

A summary posted to the House Appropriations website says the spending bill Congress will consider this week "prohibits both federal and local funds from being used to implement a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use in the District."

However, some marijuana policy reformers said language in the bill may still allow marijuana legalization in the nation's capital to proceed. The text of the bill says no funds "may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated" with recreational use of drugs illegal under federal law.

"Some advocates I've spoken with aren't so sure" the bill blocks legalization, Marijuana Majority chairman Tom Angell told The Huffington Post. "It all hinges on the definition of the word 'enact.'"

Angell explained that the question is whether Initiative 71, which voters approved in November legalizing recreational marijuana, should be considered "enacted" on Election Day, or whether "enacting" means the District Council transmitting the initiative to Congress for review, which has not yet occurred.

"I've heard good arguments on either side," Angell said, "and I think it's up in the air now, especially since press reports from earlier on Tuesday quoted unnamed congressional staffers as saying the bill would allow D.C. to move forward with legalization. Ultimately, it may take a court case to decide what 'enact' means."

Mason Tvert, communications director for Marijuana Policy Project, said it was “disappointing that some members of Congress are actually fighting to ensure authorities have no control over marijuana."

Earlier Tuesday, multiple sources told The Huffington Post that congressional negotiators had struck a deal to interfere with D.C.'s marijuana legalization. Nearly 70 percent of voters approved Initiative 71, which would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use while still banning sales. The budget deal would allow the district to continue marijuana decriminalization enacted by the D.C. Council, but would ban the city from using funds to enact legalization.

One congressional source told HuffPost that the deal would actually allow the initiative to take effect, while preventing the D.C. Council from passing any new laws to set up a scheme for regulating retail sales of marijuana -- something D.C. Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser (D) has said she wanted the council to do before legalization takes effect. But ultimately, the source said, recreational marijuana legalization was banned in the final omnibus spending bill.

Under the Home Rule Act of 1973, D.C. can elect a local government, but Congress must review and approve any law passed by the local government. Moreover, Congress can scuttle district laws though its budgeting process.

This isn't the first time Congress has blocked a marijuana law in the nation's capital. 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.

The D.C. Council is considering a separate bill that would allow for the regulation and taxation of marijuana sales, similar to recreational marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington state. But if the House bill passes as it stands, the council's bill will not be allowed to move forward.

The ballot measure built on several recent moves to remove restrictions on marijuana in Washington. The District legalized medical marijuana in 2010, and its first medical marijuana dispensary opened last year. Earlier this year, the D.C. Council decriminalized the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.

Four states have legalized recreational marijuana and 23 states, as well as D.C., have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Two new government forecasts project that the two states that already have recreational marijuana laws in place, Washington and Colorado, could generate more than $800 million in revenue from marijuana sales in the next several years.

The plant remains illegal under federal law.

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